Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery

18527222Emma Gatewood told her family she was going on a walk and left her small Ohio hometown with a change of clothes and less than two hundred dollars. The next anybody heard from her, this genteel, farm-reared, 67-year-old great-grandmother had walked 800 miles along the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail.

Grandma Gatewood, as the reporters called her, became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone, as well as the first person—man or woman—to walk it twice and three times. Gatewood became a hiking celebrity and appeared on TV and in the pages of Sports Illustrated. The public attention she brought to the little-known footpath was unprecedented. The story of Grandma Gatewood will inspire readers of all ages by illustrating the full power of human spirit and determination. Even those who know of Gatewood don’t know the full story—a story of triumph from pain, rebellion from brutality, hope from suffering.

Review:

Trigger warning for domestic violence. (I wasn’t expecting it, either.)

Complicated thoughts about this one.  I’ve had to sit with it rolling around my head for several days before I was ready to write a review.

I have to start by saying that Emma Gatewood was an amazing woman.  When people hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) nowadays they are kit out to the nines – high-tech lightweight camping gear and freeze dried provisions, smart phones and head lamps.  Gatewood didn’t even have a backpack, just a sack she sewed herself slung over her shoulder.  She slept on the side of the trail in piles of leaves or on rocks she warmed by the fire, or didn’t sleep at all if the howling of the wild dogs was a bit too close.  In this manner, at the age of 67, she walked over 2,000 miles up and down mountains.  And after being the first woman to do it once, she became the first person to do it twice.  Then three times.

So in my book Gatewood gets all the stars.  I don’t think Montgomery did the best job telling her story, though.

Part of it, I’m guessing, has to do with the problem of time.  Gatewood first completed the trail in 1955 and I’m sure that many of the people that met her along the way, along with some of her children, weren’t around to tell their stories. (Gatewood herself died in 1973.)  Montgomery relied on her notebooks, news articles, conversations with family members, and those who remember meeting her on the trail.

Grandma GatewoodMontgomery takes these sources and puts them together into a plodding, paint-by-numbers account of her first AT thru-hike.  On this day she hiked from here to here, and slept beneath a picnic bench.  On the next day she got as far as there, ate some berries along the trail, and stayed the night with Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so.  No emotions, no themes, no heart.

Every now and then there’s asides that are meant to connect us to the time.  A couple make sense – the rise of the automobile leads to a decline in people walking after all – but some are out of left field.  He goes on and on about a hurricane that passes well south and doesn’t affect her progress much.  And notes about McCarthyism in the middle of a book about a hiker? Really?

We flash back and forth between Gatewood’s hiking and her early life in Ohio around the turn of the century, which was jarring at first but didn’t bother me too much.  What did bother me, and what I’m having the hardest time articulating, is the way the domestic violence in her marriage is handled.  It’s back to the rote statements of fact – he hit her at this time, these were her injuries, etc.  Near the end Montgomery writes,

To suggest she was trying to be the first woman means believing that she was walking toward something. I’m not sure that’s wholly true. I’m not sure she was walking toward something so much as walking away.

This sits wrong with me.  Like, if her husband didn’t beat her badly enough to crack her ribs she never would have attempted the AT?  Women, especially in that era, are defined by their roles as mothers and caretakers. Heck, she was quickly dubbed Grandma Gatewood by the newspapers.  When she was finally old enough – no children at home to take care of, no husband to hold her back – she set out on her walk.  Why don’t you discuss that societal obligation as an insight to the times instead of another aside about the H-bomb?

On Goodreads Kay points out that Montgomery unnecessarily inserted himself into the story, recreating Gatewood’s climb of Katahdin at the end of the AT and giving that more space than her own summit.  Men usurping women’s experiences by inserting themselves into the story is a new thought for me, and I’m going to keep an eye out for it in the future.  I have a feeling it’s one of those things that’s always been there but I haven’t thought to notice it.

In sum: yea Emma Gatewood, meh this book.

4 thoughts on “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery

  1. Fantastic review! What an incredible lady. That’s always so disappointing when a deserving subject doesn’t get justice done from the storytelling.

    What you mention about men inserting themselves into women’s stories is so intriguing, I’m curious about that now too. It usually annoys me when journalists/authors insert themselves into a book unnecessarily (is it just me or is that seeming like a more prevalent theme lately?) but I hadn’t considered a man actually usurping a woman’s experience.

    1. Thank you! All credit goes to Kay about the men inserting themselves into women’s stories thing. I’m tempted to say that it’s a trend but a lot of the nonfiction I’ve read lately has been memoir so I’m not really in the right mindset to say. I know I’ll be thinking about it going into Nonfiction November, though!

  2. Haha, I love your summary. It’s definitely the takeaway I was getting from your review.

    I am curious if this insertion of the author into the story is something that happens more often when a male author is writing about a female subject. Most recently, I’ve actually felt this way about a female author in To the Bridge, which I thought was far too centered on her experience of events.

    1. Ooo, that’s interesting and makes me wonder. I feel silly because I can’t think of examples in previous reading… almost as if I didn’t see it at the time it was lost. Let’s keep our eyes open and report back!

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