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Trail Savior: How an Aging Grandma Changed The Fate of the Appalachian Trail

Jan 25, 2015 06:53 PM EST
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The Appalachian Trail: you've likely heard of it. After all, each year countless hikers set foot on its paths, while thousands opt to hike the whole thing - all 2,000 miles of it. However, back in 1955, few even knew that this historic trail existed, never mind that it was possible to make it from end to end. That all changed after Emma Gatewood, a 67-year-old grandmother from Ohio, slipped on a simple pair of sneakers, grabbed a modest bag of supplies, and set out on the longest walk of her life.

Grandma Gatewood, as the media would later call her, became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) alone, and the first person of any gender to do it not once, but three times. That's right, after her momentous accomplishment back in September 1955, she did it again, and then again one more time, at the ripe old age of 75.

And while those facts alone make Grandma Gatewood an awe-inspiring person, what makes her really special is that her "stroll" along the AT saved the trail from the disuse and abandonment it had been facing only decades before.

That's at least according to Ben Montgomery, a narrative journalist who had set out to discover just what made Emma take that walk. The resulting story practically told itself, evolving into the award-winning book and New York Times best seller, Grandma Gatewood's Walk.

Montgomery recently told Nature World News that his interest in Gatewood's story was actually piqued at a young age, when his mother regaled him with tales she had inherited from her mother, about a hardy old lady who had set out on an incredible adventure.

"My mother is a really good storyteller, and they were so vivid that the Emma that existed in my head was... well, if not a hero, something close," he said.

Montgomery isn't exactly alone in his admiration for Grandma Gatewood. After first grabbing the attention of local papers along the East Coast, and eventually making national headlines, she became something of a celebrity - an indomitable reminder of an age just-gone-by where people eschewed the automobile in favor of their own feet. She inspired people, first by the handful, and then by the busload, to try hiking the AT for themselves. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Asaf antman)

"In 1964, right as she's coming to the end of her third section hike, and still garnering a lot of press... that's the year when you start to see this sharp curve up in terms of thru-hikers," the author explained.

Montgomery details how 1964 only saw four hikers complete the whole of the AT. Eight more accomplished this between '65 and '67. Then in 1968, six hikers reported following Gatewood's footsteps. The following year, things slipped into double digits, with 10 completions. Ten more occurred in 1970, and in 1971, 21 more hikers marched the treacherous 2,000 miles across the spine of the eastern US.

Later in '71, the hiker Ed Garvey published a book that not only narrated his own 1970 hike along the trail, but also served as a guide for how and when other hikers should accomplish the feat.

Montgomery argues that while Garvey helped countless hikers see their dream of hiking the AT become a reality, it was likely Gatewood who put that dream there in the first place.

Trails and Dreams Are Born

The AT was the brain-child of architect and nature-lover Benton MacKaye - the same man who later conceptualized the Pennsylvania Freeway. He dreamed up the AT in 1921, hoping to reintroduce an urbanizing America to the "primeval environment" with a network of nature trails accessible even to city-dwellers. At the time of the AT's completion more than a decade later, 60 percent of the US population lived within an hour of the freshly blazed trail. Unfortunately, very few people knew this. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Yuefeng D)

"The people behind it had done a great job in securing land and passage through private property, but the vast majority of Americans had not really heard of the AT, never mind come in contact with it," Montgomery told Nature World News. "So when Earl Schaffer (the first person to hike the trail from end to end) came through in 1948, he came across some sections of the trail that were in awful condition."

By the time Gatewood hiked the AT, it was arguably in even worse shape.

"She was constantly being lost, and there were large sections that were just straight up not blazed, so she had no idea where to go," Montgomery said. "She found it in piss-poor condition, and complained about it openly."

However, he added that these complaints, which quickly found their way to the national press, not only informed everyday citizens of the trail's existence, but also promoted a renewed movement in participation in trail clubs and stewardships. Their aim was to ensure that the trail would be a bit more welcoming to your average hiker, if not a 67-year-old grandmother trying to hike the whole thing in tennis shoes.

Trends and Trail Angels

Montgomery added that today, the trail is a completely different experience than it was 60 years ago. The author, who is considering making the hike himself one day, described how he was awed by how many people are now involved in not only keeping the trail in tip-top shape, but ensuring that thru-hikers have a safe and enjoyable experience.

People who live near the AT's iconic white blaze can often be found leaving care packages at popular hiking-rest stops, or even meeting thru-hikers when they arrive at a new section, offering supplies in exchange for stories. These good Samaritans have even earned themselves a fitting name: "trail angels."

And while Emma Gatewood was often treated with suspicion and outright hostility at small towns and secreted homesteads along the trail, Montgomery said that "there's now a long linear community dedicated to helping [hikers]." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: G N Bassett) AT midway - Deep Gap Shelter

This, of course, isn't entirely out of the goodness of people's hearts. Since Grandma Gatewood's hike sparked a nation's curiosity, towns along the AT have started to see an ever-increasing number of 'trail tourists,' so to speak.

"Now the numbers are so high, that there's an economy," Montgomery explained. "There's bank to be made, so people have become way more welcoming to AT hikers than they were in the past."

Morgan Sommerville, a regional director with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) recently told Nature World News that the number of hikers trying to walk the whole trail in one trip has never abated, with spikes in interest occurring every time the AT happens to find its way back into magazines, books, or movies.

He points to A Walk in the Woods, a humorous book first published by travel writer Bill Bryson back in 1998. Like with Garvey's book and news of Emma's escapades before it, the increasing popularity of this AT story led to a spike in people on the trail. The ATC reported a 60 percent increase in thru-hikers by the turn of the century.

And with a movie adaptation of A Walk in the Woods having just hit theaters this month, Sommerville says that this upward swing is not likely to stop.

Just last year the ATC recorded nearly 2,500 thru-hikers starting their trip at Springer mountain, the southern terminus of the trail. Only a few more than 900 of those northbound hikers reportedly finished the trail at Katahdin Stream, while an additional 2,000 southbound hikers made their start there.

"At that same rate that means [2015] could see as many as 4,000 people trying to start the trail just in Georgia, and that is - well, we're pretty damn nervous about that," Sommerville said with a chuckle.

Terminus in Trouble

And as more and more hikers look to strike out next to the white blazes, managing the trail, especially its polar ends, has become something of a challenge.

Baxter State Park, for instance, which hosts the northernmost 15 miles of the AT, including Maine's Mount Katahdin, recently reached out to the ATC to report some worrisome findings.

Back in 1955, Katahdin's peak was empty of human life save for a haggard-looking grandmother, standing in a thinning pair of tennis shoes, with broken glasses and a nearly empty canvas sling-bag - one she had sewn herself.

"I said I'd do it, and I've done it," Emma Gatewood said aloud, with only the mountain as her witness.

Now, the peak is not only a popular spot for day hikers, but a finish line for a virtual marathon of thru-hikers. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Jeffrey Stylos)

Baxter reported that in 2014 alone, they regularly had groups of 20 to 45 northbound thru-hikers show in a single day, with the intention of climbing the peak together.

"We worry if there's a lot of people who are more concerned about hiking with one another, and are completely oblivious to the rarities around them... it could cause trouble," Jean Hoekwater, a naturalist at Baxter, explained to Nature World News.

A great deal of the park's concern centers around a section of the AT that tops out around Katahdin called the Table Lands.

"A particular portion of it contains what we call the 'alpine sedge meadow community,'" Hoekwater said. "It's less than one percent of our entire above-tree-line areas on Katahdin, but it contains the prime location for the Katahdin arctic butterfly, which is found no place else in the world."

"That particular butterfly depends on the sedges in that little area, and while those sedges - the bigelows sedge - can tolerate weather changes and rugged environments just fine, it doesn't exactly do so well with footsteps on it," she added.

More than that, Baxter State Park happens to be home to the "greatest collection and highest number of rare and endangered species in any one place in the state of Maine."

The park reported a number of logistic troubles as well, where more hikers would arrive than campgrounds available. The consequence was often that hikers would traipse off the trail, trampling potential rarities just to find a place to sleep.

Amazingly Baxter isn't the only place facing these troubles. Sommerville recounted how Amicalola Falls State Park, right by Springer Mountain, is reporting campgrounds reaching well past capacity with the often unannounced arrival of AT hikers.

"The AT is intended to provide a footpath to seek fellowship with the wilderness," the ATC director explained. However, he added that nowadays that philosophy is changing, with more hikers perhaps looking for a social experience. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Miguel Vieira)

"Were not trying to turn people away, but the main thing that were trying to do is suggest that people spread out their start dates," he added.

The hope is that with fewer people hitting the trail at once, threats to the experience and nature can be halted.

"It's great that more people are getting out in the woods, and I always love hearing how more and more people are learning to love the trail," he said. "But when you get big congregations of people on a small portion of the trail, it definitely causes some difficulties."

With the spring hike season starting soon, the ATC will even be implementing a voluntary sign-up sheet online. This way, Sommerville explained, hikers can see if campgrounds near a terminus or popular mid-way stop (for festivals, etc.) are already booked.

Groups then might have an easier time spreading out, causing less trouble for parks and stewards even as they follow the footsteps of the old woman who helped make the trail the remarkable attraction that it is today - and all just by going for a very long walk.

While we talked about a lot of "what" and "how," you can still learn the gripping "why" Emma Gatewood set out to hike the AT in Ben Montgomery's Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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