Book Review: Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery

The reason I picked this book up is because I saw an interview with Ben Montgomery about how to encourage high school journalists to improve their interview skills, so I was curious to read a book-length piece by him regarding a woman he researched after her death.

The book follows Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, a woman who in her late 60s decided to hike the Appalachian Trail during the 1950s, when the trail was far less famous than it is now. After suffering years of abuse at the hands of her husband, raising 11 children of her own, Gatewood decided to make a handmade rucksack and hike the trail with a walking stick, tennis shoes, and a blanket.

The book follows her story as she takes the trail south to north, often relying on the kindness of strangers to take her in and feed her. Without a tent, if she can’t find a place to stay, she often sleeps on tables or porches or moss. I enjoyed how Montgomery interwove stories of Gatewood’s past, such as her relationship with her abusive husband, as well as details about the time periods, such as the tendency of the country to drive rather than walk (with the increase of cars and highways) as context for her motivation to walk. He relies on interviews with Gatewood’s children as well as quotes that Gatewood herself gave to journalists as she gained fame.

Not only did she hike the trail once, but she went back two more times, despite age and bad knees and a lack of fancy hiking gear. It was an inspiring story and a quick read. In fact, I read it in two days, and on the second day, I had planned to go for a walk with my son. It was rainy and cold for June, and at first I thought about putting off the walk, but when I remembered all the challenging conditions Gatewood faced, I figured I could do a mile walk through the rain, even 7 months pregnant. Montgomery traces those who were inspired by Gatewood, showing how her story helped raise awareness for the trail and begin the process of making the trail more manageable to hike (with more regular maintenance and labeling).

Even if you have no interest in hiking, it’s a great story about a woman with true grit, and just thinking about her and her life will really put other challenges into perspective.

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