Friday, April 18, 2014

Journeys ("Grandma Gatewood's Walk" by Ben Montgomery)

A mile or so from my house is the Tuscobia, a 70-mile recreational trail that cuts through the western half of Northern Wisconsin. On its way, it passes through a half-dozen small towns, none more than a few hundred people in size, as well as the Chequamegon National Forest, a massive swathe of land that has largely been left to the animals, of which there are many. There is nothing spectacular about the trail besides the occasional railroad spike sticking out of the ground--no landmarks, no great natural landscapes, no fluctuations in terrain, its flatness bespeaking its former use--and yet, a few years ago, I began walking it. At first I covered only a few miles, making sure I turned back before it became too dark, or before my domesticated knees threatened to give out. As the summer progressed, however, the walks became longer, until I was covering 15 to 20 miles in a given day, all without water or food; my supplies consisted of a camera, which would go virtually unused, a baseball cap to block out the sun, and a few dollars in case I needed to stop at one of the few gas stations along the way. The entire experience, stretched out over one long summer, was nothing short of unpleasant, and at the last five miles I gave up:  the horse-flies were too vicious, the distance from home too far. To this day, I have no desire to go back and hike that final portion. The Tuscobia era of my life is, thankfully, closed.

And yet I persisted, forcing myself to cover one section after the next, for no reason other than to walk. I knew there would be nothing to see, no great scenes to photograph, no milestones to reach, but I kept on, driving out further and further, parking along narrow backroads and disappearing for hours at a time. (I never expected to walk the entire trail in one go, for the simple reason that there were no lodgings along the way.) The trail, used mainly for ATV riders in the summer and snowmobilers in the winter, isn't designed for hikers, and yet I found a strange comfort in those hours on the trail--a trail on which I could vanish without ever having to worry about being lost. In those long stretches of time away from people, phones, televisions, traffic, and other distractions, other refuges, I was able--forced--to not only push myself further but also think through my life as it was and could be. After all, when you're alone on a 70-mile trail that snakes its way through one of the least populated places in the country, you have a lot of time to think.

This paradox--of disappearing to find oneself--has made the simple act of walking a serious object of study and reflection, advocated by men and women for centuries. Henry David Thoreau wrote a heavily reprinted essay on the subject, philosophizing that walking fulfills man's inner need to reconnect with and rejoin nature--a need that modern society has done its best to suffocate away, to excise and devalue. Similarly, the world's greatest thinkers--Rousseau, Nietzsche, Kant, Rimbaud--all took to walking for their own individual purposes, though each would remark on how beneficial the experience was, not only to them personally but to mankind entirely. Others have transformed walking into a symbolic experience--an exercise in strength, protest, and reform. Gandhi walked to the waters for equality, just as civil rights activists walked to Montgomery for rights, the third time joined by Martin Luther King himself, and always under the threat of violence. Men and women have walked across countries, up the world's highest  mountain, across the planet's coldest and emptiest continent, into the hearts of forgotten empires, down caves that were refuges for our ancestors, and even across the surface of the moon. And with every walk, marked into dirt and soil and dust by the feet and shoes of average people, our world has become a better place--more knowledgeable, more aware, more connected.

Sometimes, however, a great walk occurs by accident, simply because the path is somewhere to be when there's nowhere else to go. In 1955, a grandmother from Ohio named Emma Gatewood made her way south to George where, with few provisions and no guide, she began to walk the Appalachian Trail, a 2,168-mile path that crossed through 14 states and had only ever been walked from start to finish--uninterrupted, in one season--by a half-dozen others before her, at most, and all of them men. At age 67, she was an unlikely candidate for such an adventure; wearing only Keds on her feet and with scant supplies--some raisins for food, a blanket, a raincoat, an extra pair of glasses, money and identification--she was also impossibly optimistic about her chances. At the time, the Appalachian Trail was in sorry disrepair. Virtually ignored by the federal government, not to mention state agencies, the trail was tended at intervals by local groups and volunteers, all of whom worked without recognition or pay to preserve what they viewed as a national treasure. Had it not been for their dedication, hikers like Emma Gatewood could never have made the months-long trek; and had it not been for hikers like Emma Gatewood--and especially Emma Gatewood--the trail itself may have faded into obscurity, reclaimed by the very wilderness the path was created to embrace.

What makes the story of Emma Gatewood--dubbed Grandma Gatewood by writers at the time--so enthralling, especially when written out by Ben Montgomery, is that the accounts of her Appalachian walk are interspersed with stories of the world Emma Gatewood left behind, if only temporarily. She had been a dutiful wife and mother, the kind of woman--a turn-of-the-century housewife--who labored 20 hours a day making sure her children were fed, her husband was taken care of, the house was clean, the pantry was well-stocked, and the farm ran smoothly while the men were out working the fields and tending to the cattle. She could butcher and fry a hog single-handedly, wrote poetry, never complained about the tribulations of farm life, and kept connected to her family through detailed letters, even when they spread across the country. But her husband was abusive, often beating her until she was no longer recognizable. At times she would want to leave, but her husband watched her obsessively, and she didn't want to leave without the children, whom he never struck but had no problems being violent in front of. Plus, this was an era when women were still expected to submit in certain parts of the country, and where a beaten wife's story didn't matter when the husband was friends with the law. It was a secret she carried with her, even after they separated and she was given control over the farm and custody of the children--an unheard-of judgment for a woman in the early twentieth century. Still, decades later, when the newspapers learned of her solitary walk and caught up with her to ask her questions--she was always available to journalists, even though they slowed her down--she would tell them she was a widow, that her husband was dead, and she'd say nothing more. She didn't like to talk about herself all that much, brushing off their condescending surprise that she would embark on something so difficult and at her advanced age, and she especially didn't want to tell them that her husband was still alive somewhere, though she didn't particularly care where.

As Montgomery's book approaches its close, the two halves of Gatewood's life--her past, her present, all written in honest, beautiful prose--converge into the story of a woman who did something on her own, even when all of the evidence and much of the popular opinion, as unspoken as it may have been, said she wouldn't or couldn't. In fact, she would return to the trail twice more, each time for no other reason than because it was there and because there was nothing stopping her, not anymore. Later, she would walk the Oregon Trail, a 2,000-mile trek from Missouri to Portland, though the treeless roadways meant the sun beat down on her for months, merciless. And yet she prevailed there, too. She would be given credit for pioneering the practice of "ultra-light hiking," in which a hiker carries as little as possible--though she did so out of expedience, practicality, and an overriding trust in her fellow people, most of whom did all they could to help out this old, soft-spoken women on her journey. They fed her, gave her a place to sleep--in one case, she eschewed a bed for a chair on the family's front porch--and returned her to the place where she'd been picked up, guaranteeing that she did not miss a single step of the trail. What these kind-hearted samaritans didn't realize--what they couldn't have realized at the time--was that her mission transcended the mountainous path she would eventually conquer. As is the case with most people, Emma Gatewood was on two journeys:  one she walked publicly, and one she walked privately, on her own and for only herself.

Emma Gatewood (c) Wikipedia