In 1955, when the Appalachian Trail (AT) was still in its infancy, Emma Gatewood walked its full length, 2050 miles from Mount Oglethorpe, Georgia to Mount Kathadin, Maine. She was 67 years old, a great grandmother, and did it solo. Her 11 adult children only found out after she was gone for several weeks and had already walked 800 miles.
What is most striking about her walk is not her age nor intrepidity, though her courage and fortitude were boundless, but rather how simple she made it all seem. She sewed her own knapsack and filled it with less than 20 pounds of stuff. She hiked in sneakers and dungarees and slept on the ground on piles of leaves when she couldn’t find a lean-to. Almost without exception, whenever she appeared on someone’s doorstep, strangers welcomed her and fed her. Everything about her hike seemed matter-of-fact, because that was Gatewood’s attitude: put one foot in front of the other, a useful philosophy for living.
It is hard to believe there was a time in America when hikers did not bear high-tech equipment or post selfies from every peak. It is just as hard to remember a time when a bedraggled stranger could arrive at someone’s door and expect to be offered a meal, a shower, and a bed.