Credit: Courtesy of Lucy Gatewood Seeds
(WOMENSENEWS)–1959: The streets of Portland, Ore., were packed. Traffic was backed up in all directions. There was a maelstrom of cars, horses, dogs, bicycles, and people, some 5,000 of them, many with white hair, waiting in the August heat on the little old woman to walk down Sandy Boulevard, through the gold ribbon stretched across the intersection of 82nd Avenue.
A cheer went up when Emma Gatewood came into view. She was flanked by several hundred elderly citizens, some of them clad in pioneer-era clothing, who had hiked the last few miles with her.
The 71-year-old woman looked tired. Spent. Her skin was leathery and tanned to a deep bronze. The soles of her shoes were worn thin. She seemed ready to collapse.
The press had been speculating for days that she wouldn’t make it to her goal. A rumor spread that she had accepted a ride, and this became a sign that she might abandon her walk short of her destination.
“Grandma’s Trail-Weary,” proclaimed the Miami News. “Ride, Rest Hint Walk Might End,” read the headline in the Spokane Daily Chronicle. “Walking Grandma May Give Up Goal,” shouted the Toledo Blade.
Indeed, it had been a grueling trip. This wasn’t the Appalachian Trail, with its shade trees and beautiful vistas and cold-water springs. Those were scarce between Independence, Mo., and Portland, Ore. In 95 days she had walked at three miles per hour on scalding asphalt through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon carrying a blue umbrella she bought for $1.50 to protect her from the sun. It had survived the entire trip in spite of the passing trucks that tried to rip it from her hands, and it came to be a symbol for guts and determination.
She did her best to stick to the Old Oregon Trail, which was blazed by trappers and traders and pioneers in the early 1800s and served as the main route for a half million settlers seeking a better life in the West. In Vale, Ore., she even took time to visit the grave of John D. Henderson, an immigrant who died of thirst, or maybe the black measles, in 1852, in the desert between the Malheur River and Snake River.
Change of Scenery
The idea to walk the trail had come to her while reading about the Oregon Centennial Exposition. She had spent a chunk of 1958 hiking other pieces of the Appalachian Trail, intending to string together a third 2,000-mile hike in sections. She had walked from Duncannon, Penn., to North Adams, Mass. A hike west was indeed a change of scenery.
“I read a piece in the newspapers about that wagon train going to Oregon [in conjunction with the exposition], and I thought of all the women who walked behind the wagons when they went to settle the country,” she told a reporter in Junction City, Kan. “I was looking for something to do this summer and a walk to Oregon seemed like the best thing.”
She left Independence, Mo., on May 4, two weeks after former president Harry Truman waved goodbye to the seven-wagon train, and plodded through the plains. She sent a postcard home from Denver on June 3, saying that the snow on the mountains was beautiful and that the governor of Oregon had made her a goodwill ambassador at large and that she was staying with some folks who stopped her on the road. “I am fine,” she wrote. She passed the wagon train a month later, in Pocatello, Idaho, but the journey had been difficult. She slept outdoors in the Wyoming sagebrush on 14 nights.
The newspapers called her “America’s most celebrated pedestrian” and printed updates along the way, and again people across the country started pulling for the grandma who wouldn’t stop walking.
“My legs go mechanical-like,” she told one reporter. “When someone stops me, I have to make an effort to get them going again.”
Large groups in Oregon anticipating her arrival began to gather roadside and cheer her through. Even the trainman on a passing caboose waved and asked her if she wanted a ride.
Her patience was tested when she began to be badgered by people who wanted to take her picture and ask her the same set of questions. The attention had begun to grate, and by the end her emotions were ragged. She told one reporter that she felt like a “sideshow freak.” She began to approach crowds with her head bowed and a handkerchief covering part of her face.
Now, on Aug. 7, nearly 2,000 miles from where she started, she walked the last short stretch into Portland at a clip that had the Centennial greeters, news reporters and other well-wishers gasping for breath. The city was buzzing. Portland politicians had declared it Grandma Gatewood Day and boosters had greeted her with flowers at the city line. Police had blocked off a lane of traffic to allow Gatewood, and the hundreds now walking with her, safe passage. The traffic jam, according to a reporter for the Oregonian, was unprecedented.
When she reached the ribbon, she was overcome with tears. She brushed it apart and fell into the arms of a stranger and wept. She seemed shaken by it all, particularly the crowds. She climbed into a police car with Capt. John Pittenger to get away from the crush for a few minutes. When she had regained her composure, she returned to the intersection and got into the back of a red Oldsmobile convertible and, beaming, rode off in a motorcade toward the exposition grounds.
“Who do they think I am?” she asked the mayor of Portland. “Queen Elizabeth?”
She was everyone’s grandma now.
At the end of the year, when the United Press in Oregon put together its list of the biggest news of 1959, it included stories about the Portland newspaper strike, the collision of two jets over Mount Hood, the successful separation of Siamese twins, the discovery of two bodies in the Columbia River and the kidnapping of the Harrisburg police chief. At No. 2 on the list, just below a story about the combustion of a truck laden with six tons of explosives in downtown Roseburg that killed 13 citizens and caused 10 million dollars in damage, was the Oregon Centennial and the following line: “An Ohio grandmother, Mrs. Emma Gatewood, hiked on foot all the way to Portland.”
Ben Montgomery is a staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times and cofounder of the Auburn Chautauqua, a Southern writers’ collective. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 and has won many other national writing awards. He has worked at newspapers in Arkansas, Texas, New York and Florida. He currently lives in Tampa, Fla.
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“Little old woman”? And really, who cares how many grandchildren she had? Why does that make her feat more noteworthy?