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St. James Plaindealer - St. James, MN
  • Book Notes: The grandma who saved the Appalachian Trail

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  • Emma Gatewood popularized, among other things, minimalist extreme hiking. To hike all 2,050 miles of the rough and immature Appalachian Trail in 1955, she hand-sewed a yard of denim to form a drawstring sack and filled it with Band-Aids, bouillon cubes, raisins and peanuts, Vienna Sausage, powdered milk, bobby pins, iodine, a Swiss Army knife, flashlight, mints and a pen and small notebook. She knew what she needed because she spent nights in the woods ahead of time as part of her preparation. A trend in hiking today is the adoption of a minimalist tact, more reliant on ingenuity, fitness and will than technical equipment and dehydrated soups.
    “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” by Ben Montgomery is a feat of reporting, storytelling and fine writing. It’s a first-rate summer read that will be hard to forget because Gatewood is not likely to be easily forgotten.
    Gatewood told no one, including her 11 grown children, of the plan she worked on for more than two years. In fact, she had to abort her first attempt after getting lost in Maine. The following spring, girded by resolved, she set off again. Her 17-pound sack, $200, a love of walking and sheer determination enabled the five-month solo trek from Georgia to the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine. At the time, she was a hale 67 years old and finally rid of a violent and physically abusive husband. She slung the sack over her shoulder, tied on her first of seven pairs of canvas Keds and set forth. She ignored naysayers, ageists and calamity.
    What Grandma Gatewood, as she came to be known, didn’t bring with her is another marvel. No tent. No sleeping bag. No heavy coat, gloves or bug dope, no cleats for the icy rock slopes and hardly any food at all. She lost 30 pounds, injured a knee and broke her glasses, finishing the hike nearly blind. Friendly and hopeful, she knocked on doors or made her bed where she could using rocks she heated in the fire to keep her warm, leaves and planks of wood. She was one of the very first thru-hikers. The trail was poorly marked, causing her to walk miles out of her way. And it was barely cleared despite claims to the contrary. Because of her, the Appalachian Trail was transformed into a traversable throughway that now draws hundreds of hikers from around the world every year.
    Journalist Ben Montgomery’s account of this 5-foot-2 inspiration is remarkably thorough. The rich and abundant detail that demonstrates the pathos, irony and joys in Gatewood’s life makes this a classic page-turner. Montgomery interviewed Gatewood’s four surviving children, read her journals, spoke with other hikers and walked in her footsteps. And, like “Wild,” Cheryl Strayed’s account of her fraught Pacific Crest Trail solo hike, he uses Gatewood’s own words to help tell the dramatic story.
    Page 2 of 2 - Gatewood became a national celebrity, hounded by reporters and interviewed numerous times for newspapers, magazines and on television. Groucho Marx even had her on his show. She was always game, pleasant and accommodating.
    Despite the attention and her celebrity, Gatewood retained her secrets. And she was good at it. Part of Montgomery’s hardest work was to attempt to get into her head and figure out why she put herself through the ordeals she endured. She had a slew of answers for reporters, but none of them quite says it all. One of the reasons the book stays with you long after you read the last few delicious pages is that you, too, spend time thinking about this remarkable, determined woman who was as much like Thoreau as she was the Old Woman in the Shoe.
    Montgomery has secrets, too. This book takes an amazing turn in the final 50 or 60 pages. As much as I’d like to let readers in on the secret, I want to honor Montgomery’s tactics and decisions. If you know what I know, you would go to your nearest bookstore and demand the book now. Gatewood is an environmental hero for the ages. Her love of walking, of nature and solitude joins with Thoreau, John Muir, Wordsworth and Dickens, among others, to extol the essentials of a good and true humanity.
    “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail” By Ben Montgomery. Chicago Review Press, 2014. 277 pages. $26.95.
    ——
    Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at rae.francoeur@verizon.net. Read her blog at /www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.

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