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Winner of the 2014 National Outdoor Book Awards for History/Biography Emma Gatewood told her family she was going on a walk and left her small Ohio hometown with a change of clothes and less than two hundred dollars.
The next anybody heard from her, this genteel, farm-reared, 67-year-old great-grandmother had walked 800 miles along the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail. And in September 1955, having survived a rattlesnake strike, two hurricanes, and a run-in with gangsters from Harlem, she stood atop Maine's Mount Katahdin. There she sang the first verse of "America, the Beautiful" and proclaimed, "I said I'll do it, and I've done it."
Grandma Gatewood, as the reporters called her, became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone, as well as the first person--man or woman--to walk it twice and three times. Gatewood became a hiking celebrity and appeared on TV and in the pages of Sports Illustrated. The public attention she brought to the little-known footpath was unprecedented. Her vocal criticism of the lousy, difficult stretches led to bolstered maintenance, and very likely saved the trail from extinction.
Author Ben Montgomery was given unprecedented access to Gatewood's own diaries, trail journals, and correspondence, and interviewed surviving family members and those she met along her hike, all to answer the question so many asked: Why did she do it? The story of Grandma Gatewood will inspire readers of all ages by illustrating the full power of human spirit and determination. Even those who know of Gatewood don't know the full story--a story of triumph from pain, rebellion from brutality, hope from suffering.
1. Author Ben Montgomery portrayed “Grandma” Emma Gatewood as a strong, resilient women throughout her many journeys in this book. How did these character traits serve her well during her many hikes?
2. What challenges did she face in her marriage to P.C. Gatewood? Do you feel that she showed strength and resiliency in her personal life? Can you give some examples?
3. What were some of the main obstacles that Emma faced during her first successful through-hike of the Appalachian Trail? Do you feel she was prepared for all of the challenges that were presented to her on this hike? Looking back, what could she have done differently?
4. Do you think Emma Gatewood anticipated all of the publicity that arose from being the first woman to hike the full length of the Appalachian Trail? How did she respond to this publicity and the many reporters that asked her for interviews? How did she benefit from meeting other people on the trail? What did she learn for herself? What did people learn from her?
5. Many reporters called Emma Gatewood the “Queen of the Appalachian Trail” and asked Emma questions along her journey; however some may feel that she never really conveyed a solid purpose for the walk. Why do you think Emma decided to walk the Appalachian Trail? Do you think she conducted her walks for fame, personal reasons, exercise, or something other? What passages in the book support your ideas?
6. In 1955, after she had been gone for nearly a month on her walk on the Appalachian Trail, Emma Gatewood’s “children hadn't heard from her, had no idea where she was or what she was doing, but not one of them was worried” (p. 45). Why do you think this was the case? Do you think that times have changed and her unexplained absence would be overlooked in today’s times?
7. This story depicts not only Emma Gatewood’s journey on the trail, but also the journey of America’s progression into modern times. What were some of the advancements discussed in this book at the time of her journey? What other types of advancements has our country incurred after Emma Gatewood’s time? What types of innovations that exist in our present time could have assisted her on her hikes?
8. In your opinion, did Emma adequately prepare for her first successful through hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1955? Were you surprised to find that she had a failed attempt of hiking the trail the prior year? What would you want to bring if you were to take a journey such as this one? Do you believe that you would have succeeded on such a venture?
9. What were some significant results, events, or movements that occurred in our country as a result of Emma Gatewood’s walks and the publicity that she brought to the Appalachian Trail?
10. What will you take away from this book in reading the stories about Grandma Emma Gatewood’s life, her inspirational hikes, and all of her achievements?
(Questions courtesy of Kathleen Loudon, Reference Librarian, Haverford Township Free Library, Havertown, PA.)
Ben Montgomery is a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and author of Grandma Gatewood's Walk. Ben grew up in Oklahoma and wanted to be a farmer before he got into journalism at Arkansas Tech University, where he played defensive back for the football team, the Wonder Boys.
He worked for the Courier in Russellville, Ark., the Standard-Times in San Angelo, Texas, the Times Herald-Record in New York's Hudson River Valley and the Tampa Tribune before joining the Tampa Bay Times, Florida's biggest and best newspaper, in 2006.
He is also founder of the popular narrative journalism site, gangrey.com, and co-founder of the Auburn Chautauqua, a writers’ collective.
His stories have appeared in national magazines, such as Parade and Seventeen Magazine, and he has contributed to NPR’s Radiolab. He also contributed to the 2008-09 edition of Best Newspaper Writing.
Montgomery has taught narrative journalism at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and at universities and workshops across the country, including the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, the National Writers Workshop and the University of North Texas’ Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.
He lives with his wife and three children in Tampa, Florida.