Having one’s expectations in the proper place at the outset of a long-distance hike can spare a hiker much misery and disillusionment. Then, once a hike has begun, maintaining a correct perspective of the journey becomes of chief concern. Any flowery notions one has coming in will surely be trampled on by a forceful reality. Although an abounding optimism can be one of the greatest virtues of a hiker, viewing the trail through rose-colored spectacles can distort reality. The result will be a misleading and false impression of the surrounding world. Overly optimistic eyes will see things not as they are but as how one would prefer they be.
Thumbing through an August 1949 edition of National Geographic magazine, Emma Gatewood (aka “Grandma Gatewood”) was drawn to an article featuring the Appalachian Trail. The magazine spread was eye-catching; Emma soon became transfixed on the idea that one could hike its entire length. The rosy description and cheery photographs gave her the misleading impression that thru-hiking the trail was a “walk in the park” or something out of Alice in Wonderland. The only requirement needed to thru-hike the trail, according to the article, was “normal good health.” Moreover, “no special skill or training” was needed to execute such an activity. Interestingly, even to this day, numerous aspiring thru-hikers show up at Springer Mountain to start their hike, without ever having spent a solitary night in the woods. Learning about the first man to hike the AT within a one year period (i.e., Earl Shaffer) perked Gatewood’s ears. Then, once she found out that no woman had ever soloed the AT, Emma became completely enamored with the notion of thru-hiking the trail herself, believing it was well within her abilities.
In July of 1954, 66-year-old Gatewood—the mother of eleven and grandmother of twenty-three—possessing no practical experience, started walking southbound from the trail’s northern terminus at Mount Katahdin in Maine. Her gear was reduced to its most basic contents, carrying some food, water, adhesive bandages, clothes, and a plastic shower curtain for a shelter. All of her belongings were packed into a hand-sewn denim bag of which she is now characteristically associated. At a time when boots would have been the recommended footwear for such rugged terrain, she shod her feet in Keds, canvas Converse-type sneakers. Only a few days into the hike, Gatewood became disoriented and completely lost. To add to her misfortune, she became depleted of food and broke her eyeglasses. Rangers eventually found Gatewood and urged her to get off trail for good. She returned home; the 1954 southbound attempt was viewed as an utter failure.
After the hike, Gatewood recalled thinking, based on National Geographic’s flowery portrayal, “it would be a nice lark. It wasn’t.” She added, “This is no trail. This is a nightmare. For some fool reason, they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find.” Needless to say, her exaggerated expectations had not been in line with reality.
Notwithstanding the setback, Gatewood was determined to succeed and tried again the following year in the spring of 1955. This time, however, she started earlier in the season and, instead of going southbound, went northbound beginning from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia. By commencing in the south, she would avoid encountering the rangers that sent her back home on her first attempt! This time, Gatewood made some modifications and improvements; a Swiss Army knife, flashlight, rain hat, poncho, straw hat, jar of Vicks, and Vienna sausages were added to her sack. She generally kept her “sack weight” down below 17 pounds—an ultralight setup for the time. The hike was successful on the second attempt, although difficulties did occur. Gatewood, while scrambling up the rugged rocks of Mount Katahdin near the trail’s end, fell hard. In the ordeal, she sprained her ankle, bruised her face, and broke her eyeglasses once more. Through it all, she managed to finish out the hike, summiting up to the top of Katahdin. Having reached the northern terminus, she signed the log book, writing the following words:
Just walking the trail for pleasure
For the love of out of doors,
For the lovely works of our Maker
Displays on forest floors.
Finally, Gatewood solemnly sang America the Beautiful to celebrate her monumental achievement.
Gatewood had a turbulent domestic life. Married at age nineteen, she suffered beatings from her abusive husband regularly for some thirty years from the time the two were first married. Gatewood was nearly beaten to death on several occasions. On one such account, her assaulting husband beat her with a broom so forcefully that the broomstick broke over her head. As a result of the years-long domestic violence, Gatewood developed a persevering mindset that would empower her to retreat into the wilderness and succeed in a long-distance trek.
In the end, Gatewood’s historic hike of the Appalachian Trail took 146 days to complete and her average was 14 miles per day. This was a tremendous feat considering her older age, unspecialized gear, lack of training, and unforgiving terrain. The 67-year-old Emma “Grandma” Gatewood became the first woman to continuously hike the entire trail alone in one hiking season. Remarkably, Gatewood achieved this without a tent or sleeping bag—two critical pieces of gear. She would go on to thru-hike the AT a second time in 1957 and section hike it in 1964, becoming the first person to hike the trail three times. With high-tops on her feet and a hand-sewn pack slung over her shoulder, containing a mere twelve pounds of gear, the old dame from southern Ohio made hiker history.
For Grandma Gatewood attitude was everything, which I found especially true with my thru-hike of the Eastern Continental Trail. Once I got back on trail after zeroing with Pitstop, there was much snow on trail from the storm that had hit a few days previously. For miles upon miles, I was slipping and sliding while going up and over the mountains. A positive and fearless attitude was crucial. Since I did not have my microspikes with me, traction soon became a concern. “Postholing” is common in snow conditions as a hiker steps into to the hard crystalline surface one step at a time. Despite the precariousness of the situation, the cottony white snow was so peaceful, especially up on Max Patch. A snowman with twigs for arms had been made by one of the thru-hikers. Near Max Match, I met my first southbounder. The young man had started last June but was injured and did not get back on trail until December. Typically NOBOS pass SOBOS like ships in the night but not until much farther up trail.
Not long thereafter, I came upon the hamlet of Hot Springs, a town that was used as an internment camp for Germans in World War I. Hikers, as soon as they come upon a town, search out for food like animals. Eating breakfast at Smoky Mountain Diner proved satisfying, especially considering their portion sizes.
Since the start of the AT, I have encountered multiple acts of “trail magic” from Fresh Ground, a well-known AT trail angel. First at Sam’s Gap then at Uncle Johnny’s Hostel, Fresh Ground gave away his time, energy, and food to serve the hiking community. I had a swell time there catching up with Goofy, Broccoli, and Swedy (from Sweden), all of whom I had met at various points on the trail. While at Uncle Johnny’s, Kim and her husband Bill picked me up to resupply near Erwin. Kim, whom I had met previously on the Pinhoti Trail at the Pinhoti Outdoor Center, had prearranged to meet me. She was about to start her thru-hike down at Springer Mountain in Georgia, so she and her husband left from their home in Pennsylvania and were passing through the area I was at that particular time. After a much-needed resupply, the three of us went to Primos Italian Restaurant where I ordered a large plate of tortellini. Italian food is becoming a theme of this hike! My “backup trail name” could very well be Giuseppe, Francesco, Georgio, or Lorenzo!
The Roan Highlands displayed unforgettable landscape. Just past Bradley Gap was Hump Mountain (5,559 ft), a spectacular scenery-soaked grassy bald. The wind, however, had whipped up something terrible when I went through; indeed, I could not walk in a straight line. Being blasted with fast-moving snow and pounded by powerful gusts of wind, my first objective was to not get blown off the side of the mountain! It took Herculean strength just to walk a mile in those conditions.
After the strenuous Roan section, I descended to a hostel called The Station at 19E. Although I did not stay overnight, I was ready for a break. The hostel had a bar and kitchen on the lower level and bunk rooms on the upper level. The restaurant, run by Dave the owner, featured a whopping 400 craft beers. There was even a sports bar sitting area with a pub-style pool table and mega screen to watch sporting events. The first beer was on the house so, to exercise good manners, I received the special offer! For food I ordered “Dave’s Special,” a meat-heavy sandwich popular among hikers. At the hostel, I met Click and Clack (yes they are hiking partners!) and also spent some time chatting with Kitchen Sink. His trail name relates to his thru-hike attempt that ended prematurely due to his excessive 60-pound pack weight. Kitchen Sink is a native Mainer who was keen on my ECT hiking plans. Throughout the course of the conversation, I asked him heaps of questions about Maine and the hiking opportunities there. He highly recommended that I visit Acadia National Park as a side trip.
Further down trail past The Station, I received trail magic out of the back of a car from a kindly woman. She was a Rhode Islander who moved to Tennessee and went by Marlene the Trail Angel. Marlene was a godsend; her trunk was spilling over with hiker food. She poured me a cup of hot coffee from her tall Thermos. The two of us sat and talked at length about life, the history of the trail, and our personal upbringings. From the time Marlene was a young girl, she worked with thoroughbred horses. Come to find out, she worked in horse stables for race events. Eventually, she got to walk and exercise race horses that would be used in the Triple Crown. Before leaving, she handed me a slip of paper as she does with all the passing hikers. It was something meant to be read at a later time—a piece of poetry she had written long ago. I stuck it in my pocket and pressed on. Walking down to a nearby cascading waterfall, I spotted an ergonomic boulder to sit on that overlooked the rushing water. Unraveling the folded slip of paper, I was so moved by the words Marlene expressed in her poem. She simply entitled her work The Calling and it’s about hiking in the Appalachian mountains:
Seabird sound heard round the bay
entice me with their cries to stay,
but Appalachian Mountains call,
say, Trace my mountains free to all,
and bind your heartstrings to my ways
of simpler life to fill your days.
Affection whispers in each breeze
and swirls sweet fragrance from my trees.
There’s panting breath for every climb,
where mounts endure, in spite of time,
and hiked ascents of summit trails
can capture views each mount unveils.
Your heart can know this blest embrace:
my mountain treasures grant such grace
where strength emits from every stone
for hearts in need, who feel alone;
and gurgling voices flow in creeks
with messages of calm they speak.
And campfire nights with woodland sound
can help a heart know settling down.
For those who dream to be made whole,
the trail holds balms to touch one’s soul:
true healing for the inner man
from God, amid each footfall’s span.
From the falls, I hiked with a fellow named Sticks to a place called Boots Off Hostel. Sticks is from South Florida so we naturally talked a great deal about the Florida Trail and my experiences while in those parts. After cooking a pizza in the hostel oven and hanging out with lots of other hikers including K-Bar and Early Riser, Sticks and I made camp along Watauga Lake.
A pre-dawn departure and a 26-mile day put me into Low Gap (Hwy 421), whereupon I met my good friend Dave (aka “Pitstop”) to take a double zero. Pitstop had reserved a campground outside of Bristol. The place was in the hills and hollers of Tennessee! A narrow windy road led us to Cherokee Trails Campground. It’s one of those settings few hikers get to see due to its distance from the trail. Dave had been visiting Pigeon Forge while I was hiking. While sightseeing there, he picked up several jars of authentic moonshine from Old Forge Distillery, each in a distinct flavor, for me to try. Although the coffee and cinnamon flavors were smooth- and bold-tasting, the clear winner was mixing half key lime with half original! Dave, as was standard practice by this point, cooked an Italian penne platter, this time using a delectable vodka sauce (don’t worry, it’s not what it sounds like!). The dish was garnished with fresh basil as is typical in Italian multi-course restaurants. Actually, I learned that basil grows like a weed in Italy and the thought of purchasing the plant in a supermarket there would be outrageous. Served on the side was a tomato-and-mozzarella salad. To maximize my gourmand experience, Pitstop—a connoisseur of fine food—paired the meal with a deep burgundy wine. The next morning, I chucked my dirt-covered hiker rament into the washing machine at the campground’s laundry shed. The EXTRA SPIN cycle was desperately needed since the NORMAL setting does little in the way of agitation.
Later in the afternoon, the two of us visited Bristol Motor Speedway. Dave is a huge race fanatic (hence the trail name “Pitstop”) and a visit to Bristol was mandatory. The complex was extraordinary and my urge to see a race was growing. Stopping off at the speedway’s merchandise store, I picked up a pennant to send home to pin on my wall. The gals at the sales counter pointed us to a gate that had been opened, and they granted us permission to take a peek at the track. The racetrack itself was magnificent; in fact, it is among the most popular tracks in the entire country. Bristol Motor Speedway is a NASCAR short track and was first constructed in 1960. The track is distinguished by its steep 30-plus degree banking. Although the track is short, cars run fast and there is a considerable amount of “car contact.” It’s one of the loudest racing venues and has been dubbed the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.” Racing legends including Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Darrel Waltrip, David Pearson, Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson have all raced here. Given the stadium-like seating, I was imagining the excitement of the packed crowds on race day. After a few picture-worthy poses in front of the track and reminiscing about the early days of racing, Dave and I were kindly escorted out by a sheriff. There was an apparent “miscommunication” between the old ladies at the store and the gatekeeping staff! At the end of this first zero day, I resupplied at Food Lion, ensuring a pint of Ben & Jerry’s was in the buggy. It was and the day was a success.
On my second zero day, we went into the trail town of Damascus where I would be walking directly through the next day. Damascus is a hiker-supporting community right near the TN-VA border on the Virginia side. In fact, it’s where the annual three-day Trail Days thru-hiker festival is held. Early the following morning, Pitstop drove me back to Low Gap to resume my hike. The time off was rejuvenating, but a guy wanting to get to Newfoundland has got to stay in motion. Within the matter of a few hours, I made it through Tennessee and was about to begin my sixth state—Virginia. Although I cherish every moment in towns and campgrounds, I’m always ready to return to the natural world. Grandma Gatewood, who lived a most tempestuous life and had enormous troubles of her own, wrote a poem speaking about the restorative power of nature. There is much to learn from Grandma Gatewood and I personally sense her fearlessness in my own hiking pursuit from Key West to Belle Isle. In her poem The Reward of Nature, she recalls the solace she felt when retreating into the woods, as if to say “it will all be okay so long as you trust God.”
If you will go with me to the mountains
And sleep on the leaf carpeted floors
And enjoy the bigness of nature
And the beauty of all out-of-doors.
You’ll find your troubles all fading,
And feel the Creator was not man
That made lovely mountains and forests
Which only a Supreme Power can.
When we trust in the power above
And with the realm of nature hold fast
We will have a jewel of great price
To brighten our lives till last.
For the love of nature is healing
If we will only give it a try
And the reward will be forthcoming
If we go deeper than what meets the eye.
—Emma “Grandma” Gatewood