the web site of Austin-based writer Eileen Mcginnis.


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Ramble On: Trailblazer Emma Gatewood, + An Ode to Walking

**PLEASE NOTE that this post contains references to domestic violence.**

“Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?

(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)

Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?”

            - From Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California” (1955)


1.     Solitary Streets

It is a strange moment to be writing an homage to walking.

What inspired me to do so anyway, to attempt this unlikely paean to human-powered transportation, was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Mainly, I am just looking for an excuse to gush about this book, how Solnit’s erudition and lively writing could make the most {ahem} pedestrian topic so thrilling.

Of course, I might just be the book’s Ideal Reader.* As a transplanted New Yorker, I have been striving for the past 14 years to make Austin into a walkable city. My adopted hometown manages to thwart me in countless ways: from sidewalks that disappear into front lawns after half a block (or don’t exist in the first place), to the urban sprawl outside the central part of town where I reside, to the summer swelter that often lasts from May until October.

Despite being an inveterate walker, I’d never paused before to think about the many cultural meanings ascribed to the act of walking. Solnit’s book catalogues the diverse forms a walk can take, from a pilgrimage to a protest. By extension, it considers the many meanings a walk can communicate—virtue, simplicity, faith, wisdom, anger, artistic feeling, non-conformity, among them.**

Stylistically, Wanderlust meanders; it reads like a good walk, with unexpected detours and encounters along the way. But Solnit has an agenda beyond indulging her curiosity. As she observes:

Walking is about being outside, in public space, and public space is also being abandoned and eroded in older cities, eclipsed by technologies and services that don’t require leaving home, and shadowed by fear in many places…. Meanwhile, in many new places, public space isn’t even in the design: what was once public space is designed to accommodate the privacy of automobiles; malls replace main streets; streets have no sidewalks; buildings are entered through their garages; city halls have no plazas; and everything has walls, bars, gates. Fear has created a whole new style of architecture and urban design….

To the extent that such a digressive, discursive book is making an argument, it is this: a plea for the value of walking, and for the public spaces in which to walk.

2.     The Odyssey

In 1955, the poet Allen Ginsberg composed “A Supermarket in California,” his dark hymn to the heteronormative suburbs that had been built by the automobile. That same year, Emma Gatewood scored a victory of sorts for the underdog pedestrians, strollers, tramps, and wanderers of America: she became the first woman to hike the entirety of the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail alone in one season.***

She was 67 years old.

The press would christen the Ohio native ‘Grandma Gatewood.’ I understand their temptation: her age, the alliteration. Gatewood was a mother of 11 children, grandmother to 23, a great-grandmother even, at the time of her epic journey.

But it’s a nickname that somehow diminishes, sanitizes her achievement. And that Disney-fies the dark, violence-laden path that had brought her to that point.

Admittedly, it wasn’t until five years ago, when journalist Ben Montgomery was researching a book on Gatewood, that reports of her domestic abuse emerged.

At age 19, Gatewood married a school-teacher-turned farmer who was eight years her senior. He struck her for the first time three months into their marriage, just after she had discovered she was pregnant with their first child. The many pregnancies that followed did not stop his physical and sexual assaults. Gatewood survived over 30 years of domestic abuse from a husband who had actually killed a man in 1924, and nearly killed her before she broke free of the relationship.

The Gatewoods with four of their children.

The Gatewoods with four of their children.

During her marriage, the woods functioned as a refuge, as did books. As if preparing subconsciously for her later journeys, Gatewood was especially drawn to Greek quest narratives like The Iliad and The Odyssey, which she read and reread in her very sparse free time. 

The natural world also became the site of her practice of motherhood. Her grown children recall “stomping through the woods with her when they were young, when she’d urge them to listen for birdsongs and teach them to watch for snakes around blackberry bushes and point out the medicinal properties of wild plants….”

In 1937, Gatewood attempted to escape her marriage by staying with relatives in California; she left her three youngest children, whom she knew their father would not harm, behind. Gatewood returned a few months later, unable to stay away from her kids. That year, her husband beat her ten times “beyond recognition.” It was the beginning of the end, though. After a beating in 1939 left her with broken teeth, a bloodied face, and a cracked rib, she left him for good. Gatewood secured a divorce two years later. She raised her remaining children on her own when he failed to make monthly alimony payments.

 The physical strength and mental resilience that served Gatewood on the Appalachian Trail came not just from the hard, outdoor labor of farm-work and the relentless demands of feeding and caring for 11 children. Gatewood had been a survivor of traumatic violence. As she put it in one interview, “After the hard life I have lived, this trail isn’t so bad.” Reporters of the day could not imagine what hidden biographical depths her words concealed.

When we go for a walk, we risk ugly or uncomfortable encounters. We might come face-to-face with poverty, mental illness, crime, harassment, abuse. Yet, as we move through the world on foot, unshielded by the protective armor of our private vehicles, we also risk being moved.


3.     Composing a Further Life 

On the one hand, telling Gatewood’s story takes us down a dark alleyway, forcing us to confront disturbing facets of human experience.

But it also guides us down brighter, if no less unexpected, avenues of inquiry. Including one of my favorite topics: how aging women, often discounted, can blossom into their creative prime after raising children.

Many stories about transformative journeys focus on the young, the unattached. Gatewood’s, in contrast, shines the spotlight on a different life stage. One in which, nonetheless, some of those ties to home and family, those earth-bound obligations to look after and provide for others, loosen a bit, and we might be freed once again, or perhaps for the very first time, to wander.

Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson refers to this stage as Adulthood II, or the age of active wisdom. In her book Composing a Further Life, Bateson insists that human longevity has created a new life stage, rather than merely appending decades to the end of a life. She refers to aging today as “an improvisational art form” that leads us “to discover unexpected possibilities, arranging life in new and satisfying patterns….”

Gatewood would offer a similar explanation for her drive to take on this new challenge in her later years: “I don’t want to sit and rock. I want to do something.” In another interview, she framed her newfound walking life as a choice she had earned:

After 20 years of hanging diapers and seeing my children grow up and go their own way, I decided to take a walk—one I had always wanted to take.

Gatewood first learned about the Appalachian Trail through an old National Geographic article she had come upon in a doctor’s office. The piece sang the trail’s praises and profiled Earl V. Shaffer, a 29-year-old World War Two veteran who was the first person to hike the trail in a single, uninterrupted trip. So, Gatewood saved up by working for a year at a nursing home, which enabled her to secure a social-security check. She built up her endurance by taking daily 10-mile walks.

The venture was not without setbacks. Her first attempt, in 1954, began and ended in Maine. She broke her only pair of glasses, got lost, and was finally rescued by a pack of male park rangers who condescendingly told her to “go home, grandma.” But a year later, she was back, this time tackling the trail form the opposite direction. Gatewood left Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia armed with only a pair of Keds and a home-sewn rucksack weighing a mere 17 pounds, an eschewal of fancy gear and heavy sleeping tents referred to as “ultra-light” hiking. As the weeks accrued, so did her fame (and the number of journalists badgering her for interviews along the trail). By the time Emma Gatewood completed her 146-day odyssey—shedding 24 pounds, wearing out six pairs of shoes, and breaking two pairs of glasses in the process—she had transformed into “America’s most celebrated pedestrian.”

Gatewood on the trail.

Gatewood on the trail.

Gatewood’s journey didn’t end on September 25, 1955, when she stood atop Mount Katahdin in Maine and sang “America the Beautiful.” Once she caught the bug, she kept walking. Gatewood returned to the Appalachian Trail two additional times, completing one more thru-hike and hiking it a third time in sections. In 1957, she became first person, male or female, to hike the trail twice in its entirety. Gatewood also ventured West, hiking the 2000-mile Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Portland, Oregon. She joined the National Campers and Hikers Association, and remained an avid hiker into her early 80s. She tallied more than 14,000 miles of walking before her death in 1973.

On her walks, Gatewood might have attained “an aloneness more complete than ever,” but she also found community, created a legacy.

“Walking,” writes Solnit, “returns the body to its original limits again, to something supple, sensitive, and vulnerable, but walking itself extends into the world….. The path is an extension of walking, the places set aside for walking are monuments to that pursuit, and walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it” (my italics).

Although Gatewood’s motives remain elusive, I wonder if her record-breaking hike was about shaping the world, reclaiming it, acting on it, after her world had for so long been constricted, held hostage, and violated. Her biographer Ben Montgomery arrives at a similar conclusion. Of all the glib reasons for hiking the trail that she offered teasingly, tiredly, to hounding reporters, Montgomery found this one to be the most revealing, even as it remains maddeningly vague: “Because I wanted to.” Through walking, Gatewood asserted her volition, agency.

Thanks to Gatewood’s ‘folk hero’ status, a new generation of hikers took to the Appalachian Trail. By 1963, distance walking had experienced a revival in the United States. Gatewood’s legend also contributed to a surge in the number of female thru-hikers.****

The car might have ultimately triumphed, with the interstate highway system underway just as the Appalachian Trail was being completed.***** But Gatewood offered a countercultural alternative. She modeled how the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other could become a form of quiet protest against the status quo (male aggression, ageist attitudes). Just as, in 1955 and the turbulent years that would follow, other walkers, other pilgrims, would show the nation how a march could become a movement.


4.     Alternative Transportation

In Wanderlust, Solnit traces the connections between walking and imagination. A body in motion can take us inward, jumpstarting the sometimes-sluggish process of cogitation. Walking can also benefit the mind by introducing new stimuli, new inputs, from our environment:

The random, the unscreened, allows you to find what you don’t know what you are looking for, and you don’t know a place until it surprises you. Walking is one way of maintaining a bulwark against this erosion of the mind, the body, the landscape, and the city, and every walker is a guard on patrol to protect the ineffable.

Those transcendent, transporting moments can occur in the most densely populated urban spaces or the most remote, desolate ones. Both contexts for walking are constructed, ‘unnatural,’ in a sense, and both have their ways of working on us. What they share is that element of heightened focus, as body and mind move together through the landscape or cityscape: 

Solnit again:

I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.

This comment made me think of parenting, a practice that often seems incompatible with deep attention, especially in today’s hyper-competitive, hyper-mediated environment. How hard it is to think for a minute, uninterrupted, let alone to cultivate thoughtfulness.

The absence of places to walk also seems connected to the lack of opportunities for a peripatetic mode of thinking. “It takes a village” but what we have instead of communities are convenience stores and strip malls (not to mention Amazon Prime and Favor). Our minds need time, and space, to wander; our broken social systems require it. We are increasingly bereft of the public spaces, as well as the language, for collective action. As Solnit argues, these losses are linked.

American mythology of the last three-quarters of a century has celebrated the freedom of the open road, a mobility only accessible by car. For parents, though, a car can seem more like a trap: moms-in-minivans-across-America stuck in school pick-up lines. Shuttling endlessly from elementary school to workplace to grocery store to extracurricular activities.

So, I cling obstinately, quixotically, to alternative means of transportation. Given the frenetic pace of working motherhood, a walk (or a run) can be liberating. A way of slowing down, quieting the clamorous to-do lists, and listening for a hard-earned moment to the soft, emerging rhythms of my own thoughts.



* Nonetheless, I am not alone in being captivated, seduced. One reviewer described the book as “voluptuous,” even!

**Particularly powerful was her chapter about walking-while-female, which deflates a lot of the lofty ideas around walking earlier in the book. Solnit reminds us that walking in public spaces has not been conceived of as being for everyone.

***Three years earlier, Mildred Norman (aka, the “Peace Pilgrim”) had become the first woman to walk the Appalachian Trail in one go, but she did so with a companion.

****A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail at a Free Library in my neighborhood (another benefit of walking = spotting free books). Although she doesn’t mention Gatewood, Strayed’s solitary hike as a young woman on the trail was very much indebted to Gatewood’s pioneering walk. Unlike many distance walkers, who remain unsatisfactorily cryptic about their motives, Strayed dives into the complex emotional terrain—the death of her mother, and the family dysfunction that followed—that she was working through on her hike.

*****Montgomery includes this interesting factoid: Benton MacKaye, the same person who had dreamt up the Appalachian Trail, also designed the Pennsylvania Turnpike a few years later.

Howl, Part One: The Collective Anger of Mothers, Unleashed

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