A different kind of hero

I woke up to a nagging ache in my arm. I rolled over to the other side and let out a sigh when I felt a pinch in that shoulder too. I tried to think if I had done anything to bring on the pain and then I remembered that I was just dealing with the minor aches and pains we all collect as we get older. 

If I wasn’t going to go back to sleep, I figured that I would skim through the day’s news. I had lots of free time, it was a Saturday and I didn’t have to get up and going for another two hours. I stopped scrolling as soon as I started. I came to a story on Emma “Grandma” Gatewood and immediately felt like I had lost all reason to complain. 

A long walk in the woods

For those who may not know her, Gatewood, at the age of 67, became the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail alone in 1955. She subsequently became the first person — male or female — to hike the A.T. three times, after completing a second thru-hike two years later, followed by a section-hike in 1964. Gatewood wore converse high tops and carried a 15- to 17-pound sack that held a small notebook, clothes, food, a homemade poncho and a straw hat. 

Gatewood got the idea for the hike in 1950 after coming across an old National Geographic article that had mentioned the trail. Up to that point, Gatewood had led a rather tough life, raising 11 children, running the family farm, and surviving an abusive husband. When she took off on the hike, she simply told her grown children that she was going for a long walk. 

Making it work

The Appalachian Trail is no easy feat. The trail runs more than 2,200 miles, cutting through 14 states from Mount Katahdin, Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia. Hikers generally take 5 to 7 months to complete the hike. They often hike 10 to 20 miles a day and sleep in shelters or in whatever protective or sleeping gear they carry with them. 

In Gatewood’s time, the trail was even more rugged than it is today. When she couldn’t find shelter, she slept on piles of leaves. On cold nights, she heated large flat stones to use as a warm bed. When she ran out of food, she ate berries and other edible forest plants that she picked along the trail.

My new hero

Gatewood died in 1973 at the age of 85. When I read about her, my arm didn’t ache quite so much. If I could’ve talked with Gatewood when she was alive, I would have had so many questions: 

–What did she think about on the trail? How did she pass the time?

–What was the toughest part of walking the trail?

–What was the best part of walking the trail? What did she think when she walked the final few steps up to the top of Mount Katahdin?

I’ve written about wanting to one day hike the Appalachian Trail. I still have years to figure out if it’s a pipe dream or something that really belongs on my bucket list. Whether I walk it or decide to tackle some other dream, Gatewood will always be my hero!

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