In 1955, 67-year-old Emma Gatewood told her grown children she was going for a walk. She then proceeded to hike for 146 days straight, covering the entire 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail – alone.
She wasn’t well prepared for the trip. She carried very little: a handmade knapsack, a blanket, a raincoat, and a plastic shower curtain. She had no sleeping bag, tent, compass, or map – she instead relied on directions from strangers and her own ability to find her way. Even her shoes were ordinary Keds sneakers. Over the trip, she’d wear out six pairs of them.
The rationale she gave reporters for the hike was that she saw it mentioned in a magazine and thought it might be a fun lark – “it wasn’t,” she hastened to add.
However, her descendant Ben Montgomery has a much darker supposition for her reasoning: her abusive relationship with her husband. She was married at 19 to a man who would beat her almost daily, breaking her teeth, cracking her ribs, and on occasions almost killing her. On one of the few occasions where a sheriff’s deputy intervened, he arrested Emma instead of her husband. She was released after a night in jail, when the mayor saw her bruised face and intervened.
She remained married to him for 30 years until getting a divorce – utterly anathema at the time – and set about raising the youngest 3 of their 11 (by then mostly adult) children alone. Her now ex-husband regularly threatened to get her sent to an insane asylum, but never followed through on it.
Gatewood never let on any of this dark past to the many reporters that interviewed her over her three trips across the Appalachian Trail. As far as they knew, she was widowed, and they never looked into it.
The spotlight on her hikes led to money being allotted for upkeep, and, Montgomery argues, may have saved the trail for generation of hikers to come.