Review: "Grandma Gatewood’s Walk" by Ben Montgomery

  • Posted on: 7 November 2016
  • By: TedG

A small but enthusiastic group of members met on October 6th to discuss the book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk.

The book was essentially divided between two stories: that of Emma Gatewood’s historic and dramatic through-hikes on the Appalachian Trail (AT) and her tumultuous domestic life with her highly abusive husband and 11 children (and 23 grandchildren). At age 67 Emma left southern Ohio for Georgia and the south terminus of the AT. Arriving with a change of clothes, a plastic rain poncho, a worn pair of Keds shoes, and a laundry bag that she carried over her shoulder, she began her 2,050-mile trek. This segment of the book recounts her historic through-hike of the AT––she was the first woman to ever do so––as well as her second and third AT hikes and her hike of the Oregon trail. The book describes, from her notes and other secondary sources, details of her hikes, the people she met (typically helpful), the help she received, and her evolving visibility in the press. The last was instrumental in popularizing the AT and hiking generally.

Her domestic life as described in the book was a regular series of physical beatings, emotional abuse, and threats of divorce and taking her children away from her. Notably, one of her main coping mechanisms was to walk and forage in the southeastern Ohio hills. That was her way of finding relief from the rugged physical and emotional grind of her daily life.

Much of our discussion concerned her motivation for her amazing hikes with such rudimentary equipment and preparation. A key criticism of the book was that the author never really investigated or even speculated about what motivated her to take on such a physically grueling activity. To be fair, the author never interviewed or met Emma Gatewood, so direct questions addressing her motives were out of the question. But the group felt that more in-depth speculation would have been in order, given the extensive research he had done. Without a discussion of motives, the book was a detailed day-by-day description of her first hike that ultimately felt hollow.

With that said, we speculated on her motives at length. Was she seeking fame and fortune? Probably not, though she did gain fame once she concluded her first AT hike. Was she in some way mentally ill and/or seeking to escape her abusive and difficult life? She was a very tough and independent woman and holding her family together was a top priority, but walking was a relief, maybe her only relief, from the difficulties of her life. Of interest was the fact that a month into her historic hike, none of her children knew she had left. And when they found out, they didn’t seem concerned. Again, their view of her was that she was tough, self-reliant, and could manage almost anything by herself; she made things “work out.”

Many of us had done some hiking, some on the AT, and all but one of us had slept outside without tents at various times. (Chuck plans on trying this out when conditions permit.) But we noted that she averaged 15–17 miles per day for almost four months, had no organized support, minimal equipment, and started when she was 67 years old––a unique feat.

Overall, folks found the book an easy, interesting, but not a highly satisfying read. Partly the lack of discussion of motivation was problematic, and the transitions from hiking stories to domestic life/abuse stories were choppy at best and sometimes confusing.

Average scores (scale of 1–5) were 3.2 for interest and 3.3 for readability. Only one person gave the author a chance at redemption and said he might read something else; everyone else said they would not.