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Know Ohio: Grandma Gatewood

Here in Ohio, we commemorate April 27th as Grandma Gatewood Day. She was the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, and helped create the Buckeye Trail Association.

Grandma Gatewood's achievements as a hiker and adventurer were remarkable for a woman of her time and challenged the prevailing stereotypes and expectations of women's abilities.

Her legacy continues to inspire hikers and adventurers around the world, and she is remembered as a pioneer in the outdoor and women's rights movements.

Anna Huntsman tells us her story in this Know Ohio.

Class Discussion Questions:

1) Study a map of hiking trails in Ohio. Are there any near your school?

2) Plan a short hike on Ohio’s Buckeye Trail. What supplies will you bring?

Read the Script:

There’s a first for everything, and this determined grandma made history by being the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Her name is Emma Gatewood but is most famously known as Grandma Gatewood.

Grandma Gatewood was born October 25th, 18-87 in Gallia County in southeastern Ohio. She grew up working on her family’s farm, She was married, divorced, had 11 children and 23 grandchildren. But one morning in 1953 when she was 65 years-old, she read an article on National Geographic, and she decided she felt like going on a hike.

She was going on a 2,190 mile long hike on the Appalachian Trail.

The National Geographic article she read talked about the first man to Thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, which stretches Georgia to Maine. But Grandma Gatewood saw this as a challenge. She said “if a man can do it, so can I.”

Hikers who travel through the entire trail in one season are known as Thru-Hikers. Because of the rough terrain, changing weather, possible injuries, and the months it takes to complete, most people who attempt it don’t finish.

Grandma Gatewood’s first attempt to complete the trail in 1953 ended because she broke her glasses and had to be rescued after getting lost. The park rangers who helped her gave her some discouraging feedback, telling her to go home. But that didn’t stop her, just two years later in 1955, she tried again.

On September 25, 1955 she became the first woman ever to complete the trail on her own. She was known as a pioneer in long-distance hiking.

On neither trip did she tell her children where she was going, she simply told them she was going on a hike. She didn’t want them to worry about her or try to stop her. They later found out when they saw her being interviewed on the Today Show.

What did Grandma Gatewood bring with her on the trail? Since she was a lightweight backpacker, she kept her inventory to a minimum, only bringing a homemade denim bag with a blanket, a shower curtain, a cup, a canteen and bottle for water, a small pot, a spoon, a Swiss Army knife, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, 2 coats, a change of clothes, and her trusty sneakers. In fact she wore out 7 pairs of sneakers by the completion of her hike!

For the items she did not carry, like a sleeping bag or tent, she relied on the hospitality of strangers who lived along the trail to provide her with food and shelter.

She was averaging 14 miles per day, so it took her 146 days to finish.

Two years later she returned to hike the trail again, making her the first person to hike the full Appalachian Trail twice!

Once back in Ohio, Grandma Gatewood helped found the Buckeye Trail Association because she wanted to build a long-distance hiking trail in her own backyard. The Buckeye Trail is nearly 1444 miles long, and loops around the entire state of Ohio.

The Buckeye Trail Association is a non-profit which maintains and promotes the trail. All 26 sections of the Buckeye Trail are open to the public year-round. And since it is all marked with a blue blaze, you can start at any trailhead and hike for as long as you’d like.

Grandma Gatewood was a trailblazer. She inspired so many people to go outdoors.

In interviews, whenever she was asked why she wanted to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, she would always just answer “because I wanted to.”