Women Firsts: Emma (Grandma) Gatewood; the first woman to solo hike the Appalachian Trail

If you’ve read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, you probably enjoyed his escapades with his buddy, Katz, while the unlikely pair attempted to complete the Appalachian Trail. It’s a good story, but recently I stumbled on an article about the first woman to solo hike the Appalachian Trail in May of 1955, at the age of 67—six months before I was born.

Emma (Grandma) Gatewood didn’t have any fancy hiking equipment. No sleeping bag, tent, backpack, hiking boots, raincoat, trail mix, or special hiking clothes for her. She is quoted to have said, “Most people today are pantywaists.”

Well this woman was certainly no pantywaist. Emma carried her supplies in a denim draw-string bag. Her simple gear consisted of a woolen Army blanket, and a shower curtain for a raincoat. She owned no fancy hiking boots—Keds worked just fine—although they needed regular replacement. Peanuts were her energy bars. Canned Vienna sausages were one of her staples. What else did she eat? Whatever she could find: wild strawberries, sorrel, and wild onions. Kind strangers sometimes shared food with her, what she referred to as “trail magic.”

I love stories about women “firsts.” It goes to show women were tough back then, and certainly have the ability to be tough now. I don’t know if anyone gave her a hard time about hiking that 2050 mile trail alone, but it doesn’t matter. She wanted to, and she did. 

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