Tales from the Appalachian Trail

Earlier this week, I saw a facebook post from Ben Montgomery. He’s the author of “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk”, a book about a 67 year old woman who walked the whole Appalacian trail back in the 1970s in Ked’s sneakers and a pillowcase of supplies slung over her back. This post was a link to an article about a fellow who is in the process of walking the AT from Maine to Georgia. He started his hike in December. So that’s really cold.


I got to reading the article, and realized that in just a few days, he’d be walking the section of the AT that’s about 1/2 mile from my house. Tom Gathman is cataloging his journey on his facebook page: The Real Hiking Viking. I messaged him an invitation to come to our house for food and a warm place to stay. For good measure, I posted a big sign on the AT at the point where he’d need to deviate from the trail to trek to our house.


Wednesday, at around dusk when the temps were in the single digits, Tom was knocking on the door. He was in great spirits and grateful for warmth. I know so much more now about how a person would go about keeping warm in frigid temperatures. A lot has to do with high tech clothing, but you also need to really use your head. You’re not likely to run into other people who can get you out of a jam in January and February on the Appalacian Trail. It’s all you.


Tom was an enjoyable guest. It’s a lot of fun feeding a really hungry person. For dinner, he drank a pitcher of orange juice, a couple of beers, and ate a big pile of hash browns, about 8 eggs and a stack of pancakes. For dessert, he ate a small fruit pie. You burn a lot of calories hiking in the cold. It’s was a treat to hear stories about his hike. Here’s one of them: He was hiking in New Hampshire and landed in the evening at the three-sided shelter that’s perched on a cliff over Gentian Pond. He hiked to the pond and had to break the ice to fill his jugs with drinking water. It was so cold that parts of his shirt were frozen stiff. He’s used to crawling into his sleeping bag wet; it keeps him warm enough and usually he’s dry by the morning. But sleeping in frozen solid clothes was out of the question. He put on his emergency shirt for sleeping, but he’d need to put his hiking shirt back on in the morning. So he put the shirt in a bag and into the sleeping bag, where it thawed out enough to be supple; still wet though, so when he took it out in the morning, the steam coming off of it was as thick as a sauna. He had to put it back on, wet, within a minute or it would freeze solid again. Dang. This is hard core stuff.

Tom slept next to our wood stove, ate a hearty breakfast, and was on his way. His goal was to hike 23 miles that day, some of them after dark. I don’t know if he reached that goal… he had a backup plan that was 17 miles from us. He’s always thinking about how to monitor the weather, his physical condition, and the stopping points ahead of him.


All of this trail hiker business is not new in our house. The owner of our house from the 1930s to the 1970s regularly invited hikers in for food and a soft bed. Her name was Genevieve Hutchinson, and she was known as the Grand Madam of the Appalachian Trail; at that time, the trail went right by our house. She was a remarkable woman, and she hosted thousands of hikers throughout her time here.

1971 two hikers one

Grandma Gatewood was one of the hikers who stayed in our house on her way from Georgia to Maine. Here’s a story from the trail that Emma Gatewood told Genevieve, as recounted by Genevieve in writing: “Well”, she had said, “I was coming up over a rocky Trail in the Smokies, when I saw a big tree blown across the path. I could not get around it, and started breaking off branches so as to try to climb over it. One branch came off in my hand and I fell backwards, with the big branch on top of me. I lay there, and my head felt funny and I started to get up, and… nothing saved me…”, she exclaimed triumphantly, “nothing saved me buy my twist!” She meant her back hair, which she wore twisted a knot at her neck [which provided a cushion]. The relief of that moment when she realized she was not cut by jagged rock or paralyzed by her fall, was in her ringing voice as she made this statement of credit for her safety to her hair-do.

There are many “Trail Angels” now and throughout the history of the Appalachian Trail. I’m glad to be a small part of that tradition.





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