I’m a backpacker. I’ve hiked several small sections of the Appalachian Trail — in North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maine — and definitely had heard of Grandma Gatewood, the first woman to through-hike the AT. So, unsurprisingly, I loved learning more about her in this newly released biography. But of all the AT thru-hiker accounts I’ve read, this one was probably the most relatable by non-hikers.
Here’s why: it’s really the story of a woman finding meaning, fulfillment, and independence later in life. Although Grandma completed her first thru-hike at the age of 67, that was neither the beginning nor the end of her self-actualizing story. That story is told by alternating the physical experience of her thru-hike (mountains, valleys) with the emotional trauma she faced in her earlier years living with an abusive husband. I especially appreciated how the author avoided making any hard pronouncements about unknowable things in Grandma’s life: she herself never gave a deeper reason why she hiked (often saying things like “It sounded like a lark”) and the author avoids that, too. Still, we readers have enough info to draw our own conclusions.
The book fell short in just a few places for me. Sometimes the switch between Grandma’s hiking years and younger years was abrupt; once, the story switched to a modern day meeting between the author and one of Grandma’s daughters, which completely yanked me out of the book.
Overall, though, it was wonderful to read about an older woman who is strong, confident, and still learning and enjoying her life. I could recommend this book for almost anyone.