In September 1955, 67-year-old Grandma Gatewood became the first woman to hike the entire 2,050 mile Appalachian Trail alone (the total distance has since been extended and is subject to change due to maintenance and reroute). Ben Montgomery tells the story of Grandma Gatewood in his book, “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail.” The cover of the book reads, “The story of Grandma Gatewood will inspire readers of all ages by illustrating the full power of human spirit and determination.” I would too agree that Grandma Gatewood is inspiring. However, what exactly do people mean by that and how so? My question is, in a modern society that places so much emphasis on achievements and outcomes, what if she hadn’t succeeded?
Grandma Gatewood walked alone without a map and wore sneakers. That was the days before the popularisation of ergonomically designed backpacks, cook stoves and technology. By today’s standards, one could argue she was ill-prepared. Indeed, she tried to walk the trail the year before, it was a failed attempt which resulted in a search operation. The author wrote,
“In July 1954, she flew to Maine and started south from the summit of Mount Katahdin and got lost and very nearly couldn’t find her way out of the wilderness.
Go home, grandma, one of the rescuers had told her.
But she was back.” (bold my emphasis)
Imagine how it would have turned out the other way had she not succeeded? When Grandma Gatewood got lost when she first attempted the trail in 1954, she annoyed the park rangers called in to search for her who told her to go home instead. Was Grandma Gatewood inspiring because she finally succeeded in completing the trail or was she inspiring for her attempt to complete the trail again? Would she be any less inspiring if she had to give up for whatever reasons? Or if she had to call in for rescue operation again, how would the story unfold? I can imagine headlines with words like “reckless”, “inexperienced” and “incompetent.” For instance, in March 2016, a hiker was slammed as “unfit” after emergency services had to be called in to rescue him from the top of a mountain in New South Wales, Australia. People were quick to join in the criticisms when news of the rescue operation first surfaced. It later emerged that the rescued hiker was a war veteran who was suffering an episode of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the same vein, would the story of Cheryl Strayed who “with no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone” become a bestseller (and subsequently a major motion picture) if she had prepared and trained rigorously for the journey she was about to embark in “Wild“? I recently started reading Nick Hunt’s “Walking the Woods and the Water” who trekked some 2,500 miles across Europe from Holland to Turkey. This is what the author wrote in the Preface, “I stubbornly refused to train: walking, I decided, was an activity as natural as breathing, requiring no special preparation (this romantic optimism caused a lot of pain). It was important not to go as journalist, but journeyer; in an age of total information, I preferred to make my way in a spirit of wide-eyed discovery, to let the continent surprise me.” It would seem that the common thread that makes these journeys compelling, if not inspiring, (besides the personal life experience of each of these individuals) was that they were accomplished through sheer determination with little preparation for the trail conditions that laid ahead of them.
Personally, I find Grandma Gatewood inspiring not because she succeeded in becoming the first woman to complete the entire Appalachian trail alone but because she did not let her previous failure and discouragements dampen her spirits. Instead, she chose to defy the odds. Her relentless spirit was inspiring and she inspired from the moment she embarked on the trail for the second time in May 1955, not when she completed the trail for the first time in September 1955.
I don’t aim to become “the first person to …” and I abhor a society that is fixated on labels and a workforce that measures success by making people ‘brag’ about their achievements and outcomes. I am just trying to be “the person who failed but tried again.” Likewise, I respect anyone who tried regardless of the outcome and whether or not they achieved their target. They are no less inspiring even if they haven’t succeeded in what they plan to do. I therefore take this opportunity to give a shout out to those walking (or working) hard for their dreams.
“The Reward of Nature” by Grandma Gatewood
If you’ll go with me to the mountains
And sleep on the leaf carpeted floors
And enjoy the bigness of nature
And the beauty of all out-of-doors,
You’ll find your troubles all fading
And feel the Creator was not man
That made lovely mountains and forests
Which only a Supreme Power can.
When we trust in the Power above
And with the realm of nature hold fast,
We will have a jewel of great price
To brighten our lives till the last.
For the love of nature is healing,
If we will only give it a try
And our reward will be forthcoming,
If we go deeper than what meets the eye.