A few months ago I was approached to review the book, When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike by
Why do you hike?
I think there might be a host of different answers within the HLAW community as well as answers of a similar thread.
For me, I hike to get away from the distractions of modern life; to find solace in the rhythm of boots hitting the dirt; to disconnect; to reconnect with myself; to find quiet and room to breathe; to come to terms with the mistakes of the past and plan for the future; and if I am being honest, to get the sillies out of my preschool-aged boy.
Do you and I share any of the same reasons?
Do you think we share any of the same reasons with Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, the first woman to complete the Appalachian trail solo?
While she slept under her shower curtain, hiked mile after mile, alone, were her thoughts that different from mine or yours?
I am a textbook introvert, you know the one.
The one that prefers to hike alone.
The one that avoids social situations.
The one that would rather sit in a corner with a book and frolic about in a fictional world or grab nuggets of knowledge to tuck away for later from a science-themed nonfiction.
It remains to be seen if I passed my introverted awkwardness and love of boring reading material to my son, or if he will get my husband’s confidence and gift of gab.
One thing I do know, however, is D loves to turn the pages as much as I do; he will even sit still for those drab, science-centered nonfiction books.
When times are turbulent in our house, a few miles in the sunshine (there is one of our “whys”) or cuddles and a book help calm the sea, in him and in me.
We are always on the hunt for new trails and new reading material.
For our reading material, we especially love tales set in nature, ones that teach us new things, ones that make us ask questions.
Throw in an empowered woman and this mom is in heaven!
When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike, authored by Michelle Houts and illustrated by Erica Magnus, fell into our laps courtesy of HLAW, and knowing the subject matter would be right in our wheelhouse, I hopped on the chance to read it with D.
While we don’t learn why exactly Grandma Gatewood hiked, we do get a feel-good story that led to a whole host of questions.
Synopsis and Highlights
When I read When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike, we let our minds wander to an era unknown to us and to a trail of which we have only seen pictures.
With its beautiful watercolor-esque illustrations, the book does a fantastic job of putting the reader into the lush, green landscapes found in the Eastern U.S. It does such a fine job, in fact, that my son asked to learn more about the flowers and plants mentioned in the book, as well as Ohio and the Appalachian Trail.
While the book is nonfiction, it reads like fiction.
We begin with Grandma at home in Ohio; we learn of her enormous family and her penchant for walking everywhere she needs to go, only traveling as the crow flies.
She sets out with next to nothing to do something no woman has done before, to hike the entire Appalachian Trail solo.
We are with her as she gets lost.
We cheer her when she fails to get discouraged.
We witness her anguish as the Park Rangers find her and both of us felt her defeat (a great illustration here).
We see her return to Ohio to lick her wounds, regroup, all while doing the things she loved: spending time outdoors with her family, canning, and caring for the sick.
We see no falter in determination as she prepares for her next attempt.
We imagine ourselves running into her somewhere along the way, marveling at her tennis shoes and denim bag.
We marvel at her tenacity and ingenuity too.
We celebrate and sing with her as she summits Mt. Katahdin, becoming the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.
There are some things in the book my son especially likes.
Grandma Gatewood’s knowledge about the natural world is a prevalent topic throughout the story.
During her trips, she relies on the foods of the wilderness to sustain her.
This was fascinating for my son and to be honest, myself. We talked about how excited we are when we find raspberries and strawberries on the trail, which led us to looking up edible plants in our region.
On her second attempt at her thru-hike, Grandma Gatewood slept under a shower curtain. Of course we had to try that! It was a challenge and we both found ourselves impressed with Grandma’s handiness.
Also, during her second journey, Gatewood made a hat of sassafras leaves to keep the bugs away. Grandma’s green, leafy hat jettisoned us into a conversation about what other plants keep bugs away, and what ones we have here in Colorado. During her first failed attempt, biting flies cause trouble for Grandma, and it is illustrated with large, red welts all over her body. Each time D sees this picture, he cringes and we discuss what things make us uncomfortable while we hike.
We asked ourselves why we go hiking time after time when it is sometimes uncomfortable. He giggles and rolls around when Grandma Gatewood tells a bobcat she’ll crack him if he comes sniffing around her food again.
After countless readings, D sits and listens to Grandma’s story with rapt attention. This book has joined our family on hikes, flights, and everywhere in between. Even after all the time we have spent with Grandma Gatewood, we seem to find more to talk about each time we read it. D also shares the story with others, adults and children alike.
“If a man can do it, so can I”, declared Emma Rowena Caldwell Gatewood while reading an article about a man who had successfully completed the Appalachian Trail.
Does this bold statement give us some insight on her “why”?
Do you find yourself hiking to prove something to yourself or others?
For mom’s, have you asked your child his/her why?
One afternoon after we read the book, I asked mine, “Why do you like to hike?”
I assumed he would say because I make him.
Instead he said, “I like to hike because the waterfalls, the pretty mountains, the rocks I find, the food plants on the trail, the fish. The trees smell really good. It makes me happy. There are so many things I like. I don’t know which one is the best one.”
It was a rare moment when I felt I accomplished a parenting victory.
While the book doesn’t mention the rather unsavory part of Gatewood being an abused woman, or a divorcee in a time when that was taboo.
A bit of finger-walking on the keys helped me discover more about Grandma Gatewood.
She became more fascinating with each excerpt or article I read.
Once I learned a bit more about Gatewood, I didn’t shy away from the rough part of her history; rather, I shared it with my four-year-old, explaining to him that a man was mean to her, but despite the meanness, she, herself, kept being a wonderful, kind, eccentric, determined, and inspiring woman, mother, grandmother, and hero for women in the outdoors.
Thank you to Michelle Houts and Erica Magnus for bringing Grandma Gatewood’s story to a new generation.
During the tumultuous, harsh election season, When Grandma Gatewood Took A Hike provided me a way to share with my son a story of a determined, brave, kind, and unconventional woman. It appears the U.S. seems to still struggle with misogyny and the empowerment of women. Despite that, inspiring women continue to be in our midst, and in our past.
Gatewood resonated with our family because we do what she did, albeit not as far, or as primitive, or as alone, but maybe, just maybe, Grandma Gatewood hiked to get away from all the noise in her life, much as I do, and it seems, much as my son does.
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