Emma Rowena Gatewood, better known as Grandma Gatewood (October 25, 1887–June 4, 1973), was the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail from Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, solo, and all in one season. Grandma, who hiked the AT for the first time in 1955, is one of the most colorful hikers in the history of the trail. Ben Montgomery’s book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, is a great read and provides readers with interesting insights into this powerful woman’s trek through the Appalachian Mountains.
Although this claim attributed to Granma Gatewood is technically true, there was a woman who thru-hiked the trail before Emma. This woman did not hike solo but hiked the journey with another adventurer, Richard “Dick” Lamb. As a team, they hiked a flip-flop journey, beginning on April 26 (the same day I began my thru-hike) and traveling north from Mount Oglethrope (the southern terminus of the AT in the 50’s) to the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They then traveled to Mt. Katahdin in Maine and walked south to the point at which they had left the trail in Pennsylvania. On the way back to PA, they made a significant 165-mile detour to the Canadian border along the Long Trail in Vermont.
For many years there was some confusion about Mildred’s true identity. She was sometimes listed as Mildred Lamb under the assumption that she and Dick Lamb were a married couple. In 1952 the idea of an unmarried man and woman hiking alone in the woods for months on end would have been viewed as inappropriate and morally suspicious. So to avoid any problems, the pair would introduce themselves simply as “Dick Lamb and Mil.”
Mildred Norman was born in 1908 and lived on a chicken farm in the aptly named country town of Egg Harbor City, New Jersey. She became the oldest of three children. In 1933 she eloped with Stanley Ryder and moved to Philadelphia in 1939. They divorced in 1946.
Mildred’s hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1952 began a life-long walk for peace. Her pilgrimage spanned almost three decades. Shortly after her thru-hike of the AT, she began a trans-American pilgrimage. Beginning in January 1, 1953, in Pasadena, California, she continued walking for 28 years crossing the United States some seven times. Changing her name to Peace Pilgrim, Mildred’s only possessions were the clothes on her back and the few items (a pen, a comb, a toothbrush and a map) she carried in her blue tunic. Her blue shirt read “Peace Pilgrim” on the front and “25,000 Miles on Foot for World Peace” on the back. Peace Pilgrim stopped counting the miles at 25,000 in 1964, but continued to walk the remainder of her days spreading her simple message of peace. On July 7, 1981, while being driven from the Chicago area to a speaking engagement near Knox, Indiana, Peace Pilgrim and her driver were killed in a head-on automobile accident.
According to her book, Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Works in Her Own Words, “I lived out-of-doors completely, supplied with only one pair of slacks and shorts, one blouse and sweater, a lightweight blanket, and two double plastic sheets, into which I sometimes stuffed leaves. I was not always completely dry and warm, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. My menu, morning and evening, was two cups of uncooked oatmeal soaked in water and flavored with brown sugar; at noon two cups of double strength dried milk, plus any berries, nuts or greens found in the woods.” (p.54)
Peace Pilgrim had no corporate sponsors, carried no money, and would not even ask for food or shelter. According to her own words recorded on a video, she began her pilgrimage with a vow “to walk until given shelter and to fast until given food.” Over the years, Peace Pilgrim became a popular speaker at churches, universities. She appeared numerous times on local and national radio and television programs. She is stilled featured on several YouTube videos today including an hour documentary on her extraordinary life.
Pilgrim, P. (1989). Peace pilgrim: Her life and works in her own words. Santa Fe, NM: Ocean Tree Books.
Photo Grandma Gatewood: https://www.appalachiantrail.org/2000-milers