Grandma Gatewood at the Barter Theatre

Emma "Grandma" Gatewood
Emma “Grandma” Gatewood

In 1972, I hiked the Appalachian Trail for the first time. Inspired by the stories of Grandma Gatewood and encouraged by books like The Man Who Walked Through Time, I left my job and took to the trail. Over the years, I’ve hiked sections with my wife and each of our two sons.

Last week, my wife and I attended a performance of the new play by Catherine Bush titled “Grandma Gatewood Took a Walk” at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA. I was completely drawn in—the writing was fantastic, the acting mesmerizing, and the production top-notch. I highly recommend it. As I watched, I was reminded of my experiences: the places, circumstances, and people I met as I trudged through the Appalachian hills and hollers of Vermont, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Who Was Grandma Gatewood?

In 1955, at the age of 67, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood embarked on a journey that would secure her place in hiking history. Born in 1887, Emma Gatewood lived a life of hardship and resilience in rural Ohio. Her father, who had been a proud farmer, lost his leg during the Civil War. After that, he turned to drinking and gambling, leaving Emma and her mom to raise fifteen kids in a tiny, crowded cabin. Four to a bed, they lived a life of grinding poverty, where every day was a struggle for survival.

Emma’s struggles became worse when she married Perry Clayton (P.C.) Gatewood in 1907. The marriage became a crucible of suffering. P.C. beat and abused Emma for over 30 years, casting a fearsome shadow over her life. It wasn’t until 1939, after a brutal beating, that she found the courage to leave him for good.

After reading a National Geographic article about the Appalachian Trail, Gatewood tackled the 2,168-mile trek from Georgia to Maine. She didn’t tell her family about her plans and set out alone with just the basics. She wore canvas Keds brand sneakers, carried a homemade denim sack, and relied on her resourcefulness to navigate the trail. Her supplies were basic: a blanket, a plastic shower curtain for shelter, a raincoat, a first-aid kit, and a few food items.

She often slept under the stars, used trail shelters when available, and relied on the kindness of strangers for food and lodging. Her simple diet consisted of what she could find or purchase along the way, such as nuts, berries, and canned goods.

Emma Gatewood completed her thru-hike in 146 days, becoming the first woman to solo hike the entire Appalachian Trail. What she did was amazing—not just because of her age, but because back then, there was no high-tech hiking gear or support networks like today. Gatewood later hiked the trail twice, once in sections and again as a thru-hike; she also completed the Oregon Trail.

grandma gatewood took a walk

The Play

“Grandma Gatewood Took a Walk” by Catherine Bush debuted at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, as part of the Barter Theatre’s 2024 season. The play’s unique narrative features monologues by actor Mary Lucy Bivens (Gatewood) and dialogues with actor John Hardy, who portrays about ten other characters. Hardy’s impressive range extends through kindness, humor, and rage. The play is a beautiful theatrical depiction of Gatewood’s journey and challenges.

The Barter Theatre

The Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA, is storied in American theater history. Founded in 1933 by Robert Porterfield during the Great Depression, the theater began with a unique proposition: patrons could pay for admission with produce and livestock, hence the name “Barter” Theatre. This innovative approach entertained a cash-strapped public and supported struggling local farmers. Over the decades, the Barter Theatre has become a prestigious institution, nurturing countless actors and playwrights, including notable alums like Gregory Peck and Patricia Neal. Today, it stands as a cultural cornerstone of Southwest Virginia, preserving its rich heritage while continuing to offer a vibrant repertoire of performances.

Reflecting on the Legacy of Grandma Gatewood

As I sat in the Barter Theatre, captivated by the portrayal of Grandma Gatewood’s incredible journey, I was struck by her profound legacy. Grandma Gatewood’s journey reminds me that a trail is more than a physical path; it is a journey of self-discovery and connection with nature. Her indomitable spirit, coupled with the historical richness of the Barter Theatre, created an unforgettable evening that resonated deeply with my love for the trail and live theatre.

If you cannot see “Grandma Gatewood Took a Walk” in your area but want to know her story, I suggest the book “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” by Ben Montgomery. Also, many videos on YouTube tell this story of a remarkable woman who defied the odds and carved her name into the annals of hiking history.

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