Oklahoma-born author Ben Montgomery’s biography on Emma Gatewood details her record-breaking hike along the Appalachian Trail as well as her efforts to help preserve it.
Early this year, journalist Ben Montgomery’s “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail” rolled off the printing presses and into history and nature lovers’ eager hands.
Montgomery, an Oklahoma-born author and writer, is a Pulitzer Prize finalist in journalism.
In this, his first book, Montgomery brings us the biography of a fascinating woman through his detailed and engaging account of Emma Gatewood, the first woman to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail alone.
Hiking such a distance is a feat in and of itself, but Gatewood was not only the first woman to hike this 2,168-mile trail solo. She did so at age 67.
A mere 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 150 pounds, Gatewood accomplished something that has eluded many young, sturdy hikers who’ve set out for this famed trail.
As if that were not impressive enough, she set about what would become her greatest achievement with $200 to her name and carrying only the necessities that would fit into a small shoulder bag — a style of hiking we now call “ultralight backpacking” that only the bravest attempt.
In 1955, Gatewood left her rural Ohio home, simply telling her family she was “going for a walk,” and set out to traverse a treacherous path “with a million heavenly things to see and a million spectacular ways to die,” Montgomery writes.
In fact, readers will discover the Appalachian Trail owes much of its fame and, in part, its existence to Gatewood’s walk.
“Grandma Gatewood,” as she grew to be known by reporters and fans following her journey, became a small celebrity in the 1950s and 1960s because of her amazing feat.
The story drew media. Gatewood eventually appeared on television with famous TV personalities such as Groucho Marx and Art Linkletter, and appeared on the “Today Show.” She graced the pages of Sports Illustrated in its infancy.
Rather than pat herself on the back for her accomplishments, Gatewood used the exposure and the opportunity to share with thousands of ears her dismay at the upkeep and state of the trail.
She spread word of the difficult stretches where the trail had largely disappeared, and highlighted the lack of commitment on behalf of the government to keeping up this national icon. Today’s Appalachian hikers in part owe their experiences to Gatewood’s outspoken criticism because it brought attention and likely saved the trail from eventual extinction.
History buffs will appreciate the historical accuracy of this biography, which stems from the unprecedented access author Montgomery was given to Gatewood’s trail journals, diaries and correspondence.
Nature lovers will appreciate the vivid images and scenes Montgomery paints.
Female readers will enjoy the story of a brave, determined woman with a larger identity than just farm-wife or mother of 11.
All readers should delight in the story of “a footpath through a misunderstood region stitched together on love and danger, hospitality and venom,” Montgomery says. “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” is a story for anyone with a dream that tugs on them, reminding us it is never too late to strive for our goals.
June book events
6/5 Matt Zoller Seitz, “The Wes Anderson Experience,” 7 p.m., Philbrook Museum of Art, 2727 S. Rockford Road, BookSmart Tulsa
6/16 Daniel H. Wilson, “Robogenesis,” 7 p.m., FabLab Tulsa, 710 S. Lewis Ave., BookSmart Tulsa