In the spring of 1955, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, 67, left her house in Gallia County, Ohio, and told her family she “was going for a walk.”
The mother of 11 and grandmother of 23 then flew to Georgia and proceeded to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, across 14 states, six national parks, and eight national forests over the course of five months, entirely on her own. She survived hurricanes dumping torrential rains, ate wild huckleberries when she ran out of food, and slept under leaves to keep from freezing.
When she finally arrived at Mount Katahdin in Maine in late September, she sang “America the Beautiful” to commemorate her accomplishment.
When a Sports Illustrated writer asked why she attempted the huge solo hike, Gatewood simply replied: “Because I wanted to.”
Even though the Appalachian Trail had been completed in 1937, only five people had hiked all 2,190 miles in a single journey at the time, and every one of them had been young and male. Earl Shaffer, a rugged and romantic World War II vet, was the first to traverse the “AT” in 1948 and became a hiking legend, epitomizing those who dared to tread its treacherous, winding path.
Not only was Gatewood not an experienced hiker — she wore an old pair of Keds tennis shoes and packed just a shower curtain for shelter — she was also 30 years older than Shaffer. Though she was celebrated for her feat, she was scorned, too. Shaffer in particular was not pleased, preferring to think of the Appalachian Trail as “a place where backpacking skill and know-how provided entree to a separate, higher realm of nature,” writes Philip D’Anieri in his new book, “The Appalachian Trail: A Biography” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), out now.
Approximately 3 million visitors hike a portion of the trail each year, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, but just 21,553 people (as of this writing) have completed its entire length since 1936. Now that the trail officially reopened to long-distance hikers in mid-May after a year-long pause due to COVID-19, scores of adventurers are now following in Shaffer’s and Gatewood’s footsteps, aiming to complete the AT in full.
Some, like Shaffer, are likely attracted to “the prospect of a transformative, immersive experience,” writes D’Anieri.
And others will do it, as Gatewood once told another journalist, “Just for the heck of it.”
‘Thru-hiking,” the term for those who walking every mile of the trail in one journey, has resulted in a subculture with its own customs and traditions, from confessing their sins to “the Priest,” a nearly 4,000-foot mountain in Virginia, to the Half-Gallon Challenge, where thru-hikers eat an entire tub of ice cream at the Pine Grove Furnace General Store, at the official halfway point of the trail. Devoted thru-hikers don’t even use their real names, instead choosing trail names like “Red Fox,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Banana Split,” “Slumber Cat” and “Chili Willy.”
Of the thousands of hikers who attempt a thru-hike every year, only one in four actually make it all the way to the end. Dangers like bears, lightning storms, and diseases like giardia and Lyme’s can frighten off even the most committed hikers. Gatewood fought off copperheads and rattlesnakes with her walking stick.
And there are steep climbs. The tallest peak in the Appalachians, North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell, with an elevation of 6,684 feet, was named for a scientist who died in 1857 “when he fell into a waterfall on the mountain during an expedition to measure its elevation,” writes D’Anieri.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy doesn’t keep a record of deaths or injuries, but officials have ballparked it at no more than two or three fatalities per year, mostly from hypothermia or lightning.
There’s also the occasional murder. The most recent homicide happened in May of 2019, when a deranged man who went by the trail nickname “Sovereign” killed a fellow hiker with a machete in southwest Virginia. (He was recently found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a psychiatric hospital.)
Overall, however, the AT is a safer destination than just about anywhere else in the country. There’s been just one murder on the trail every four years since 1974. The chance of getting killed there is 1,000 times less than in America as a whole.
The Appalachian Trail was first envisioned by Horace Kephart, a librarian and East Coast scholar during the late 19th century who felt that a rugged outdoor experience was the only cure for the banality of the workaday world. He was also the father of six children under the age of 10, and “showed steadily less interest in family life,” writes D’Anieri.
A raging alcoholic known to shoot at imagined enemies during hunting trips, Kephart traveled to the mountains of western North Carolina during 1905 and wrote meticulous notes about what would eventually become the Appalachian Trail, describing not just its natural beauty, but how visitors should prepare.
“Drawers must fit snugly in the crotch, and be not too thick, or they will chafe the wearer,” he wrote. “Safety-pins can be used to hold up the socks (garters impede circulation).”
The blueprint for the hiking path came from Benton MacKaye, a planner, forester and social reformer who first proposed the trail in a 1921 article for the Journal of the American Institute of Architects.
He pitched it as “a new approach to the problem of living.” The idea for the Appalachian Trail — a term he allegedly coined while sitting in a tree somewhere on Vermont’s Stratton Mountain — was that it would be a place for East Coast urbanites to commune with nature, a sanctuary for them “to walk, to see, and to see what you see.”
But the trail didn’t actually become a practical idea until Myron Avery, a maritime lawyer and avid Washington, DC, hiker, started organizing volunteers to build it during the early 1930s.
“He insisted that every section be well marked and precisely documented,” D’Anieri writes. “In his mind, to know the mountains was to catalog them.”
The Appalachian Trail isn’t the longest in the world; it isn’t even the longest in North America, paling in comparison to the 14,996-mile Trans Canada Trail — but it is a favorite among newbies. Only 3.2 percent of AT hikers have previous month-long backpacking trip experience, compared to about half on most other famous trails.
In 1948, WWII vet Earl Shaffer — known as “The Crazy One” — was the first hiker to really put the AT on the map, saying he wanted to “walk the war out of my system.” Scaling its full length in 124 days, averaging 17 miles per day, he proved it was possible to traverse the AT in a single trip. His story became the stuff of lore, “the young loner, seeking his own redemption, chart[ing] a course and set[ting] a standard for others to follow,” writes D’Anieri.
Gatewood decided to hike the trail after reading about Shaffer in an issue of National Geographic. She had many reasons to make the journey — escaping her abusive ex-husband, for one — but it was mostly because it offered her “the freedom to do as she pleased,” writes D’Anieri.
Though mostly considered a curiosity when she first finished the hike, Gatewood became an Appalachian Trail legend toward the end of her life, with several books, plays, and documentaries written or produced about her.
She also paved the way for women. While less than 15 percent of thru-hikers were female during most of the last century, by 2018 nearly a third were women.
After Gatewood, the number of people attempting to thru-hike the AT steadily increased. By the mid-’90s, exactly 3,346 people had walked all 2,000-plus miles. But in 1998, after travel writer Bill Bryson published his bestselling book “A Walk in the Woods,” which recounted the middle-aged author’s often hilarious attempts to hike the AT with a childhood buddy, others flocked to the trail to do the same.
Immediately after the book’s release, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy reported a 45 percent increase in thru-hikers. By 2000, there were more hike completions in a single year than in the trail’s first 40 years combined.
For many within the AT community, the book “was a massive shock to the system, the uninvited guest who turns the music up to eleven and invites all his friends over,” writes D’Anieri.
Many devotees wrote angry letters to the Appalachian Trailway News, the ATC’s newsletter, complaining of Bryson’s “apparent disinterest in the Trail’s larger ideals,” turning it into “slickly-produced fodder for the pop culture.”
But there was no denying the Appalachian Trail had become a democratic triumph — proof that the National Trails System Act, a 1968 law that called for nature trails to be accessible to all ages and abilities, had succeeded.
For example, one of the trail’s most photographed and iconic locations, McAfee Knob, a rock protrusion resembling a diving board in southwestern Virginia, is just a 4-mile walk from a large parking lot off the state highway. It can be strenuous but doesn’t require any special hiking skill to get there.
And the list of AT thru-hikers has only broadened in recent decades. The oldest completed the trail in 2004 at the age of 81, while the youngest was a 6-year-old girl named Sabina Malone, who walked the entire footpath with her parents and three sisters in 2019, as a tribute to her brother who died from a brain injury.
Bill Irwin became the first blind person to hike the trail in 1990, and he estimates that he fell at least 5,000 times before making it to the end. In 1978, Donna Satterlie discovered that she was seven and a half months pregnant while hiking the entire trail, and she and her husband decided to keep hiking anyway. When their baby girl was born (back in civilization), they named her Georgia Maine.
Even now, the trail continues to attract a diverse crowd. Shannon, 25, an electrical energy systems engineer from Minnesota known as “Potential Roadkill,” is currently documenting her first AT thru-hike for 19,400 followers on TikTok. (As of this writing, she’s about halfway through.)
Meanwhile, an 83-year-old retired optometrist from Alabama named Sunny Eberhart, who prefers to go by his trail name “Nimblewill Nomad,” is currently attempting to break the record for the oldest person to hike the entire journey. His goal is to reach Mount Katahdin in Maine by the second week of September. “This is my last last last hike,” he told North Carolina Public Radio last month.
And that, D’Anieri says, is the real magic of the Appalachian Trail.
It’s a trail that an old lady just looking for an escape like Greenwood and a young barrel-chested hero like Shaffer can both claim as their own. It belongs to no one and everyone, the truest definition of democracy in action, free to all who want to participate.
“We live in an era seemingly bereft of places where folks from different walks of life can experience their shared humanity,” D’Anieri writes. “If the AT provides a way for us to meet as equals before a nature that recognizes none of our social markers, I would argue that is a good thing.”