Emma Gatewood through-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1955, at the age of 67. She was a robust woman who trained by walking ten miles a day for months leading up to the hike, and who knew how to survive on the bare minimums after decades of hard living. As she went along the trail, she gained notoriety, and eventually became known as the Queen of the AT. Much of what she said and did during that walk influenced policies going forward about the AT, and helped to turn it into the trail that it is today. This book is a mini-biography, focusing primarily on Emma’s hike, but also going back through her life and into history in general.
TW: domestic violence
I’m in two minds about this one. On the one hand, I admire Gatewood and the things she accomplished, not just on that hike but throughout her life. She was a very fascinating person that could run rings around most of us. I’m also enthralled by the Appalachian Trail, and have been for many years. I doubt I’ll ever be able to hike it, especially not thru-hiking, but it calls to me. (Likely because I spent time in nearby mountains as a child, in North Carolina, and remember those times very fondly.) So reading about all that was great.
Less great was the deviations that the author kept taking. It was like there wasn’t enough information to write a full book about Gatewood’s hike across the AT, so there were tangents about her earlier life, the history of the AT, the liquor laws that affected much of the Appalachian areas, the controversies of other people’s hikes, extensive information about hurricanes over many years, etc. If I’d been reading a physical book, I would have skipped those sections. With the audiobook, I just wanted to scream get on with it!
Toward the end of the book, the author suddenly inserted himself, apparently going along Gatewood’s hike as accurately as possible (a difficulty, as the Trail itself has been reshaped and moved in places). There’s a possibility that he mentions this at the beginning of the book, but by the time I’d gotten to the end, I’d completely forgotten, and it really pulled me out of the book to have the sudden insertion. Especially as the author decided to refer to himself with words like “pantywaist,” which have such sexist connotations that I literally winced.
So I found the content – when it was on point – to be interesting, and the writing to be pretty cringeworthy. Also cringeworthy: the narration. The audiobook is read by Patrick Lawlor. It’s my first experience with him, and his style isn’t one I enjoyed. I actually encountered a similar narrator a few years back when I read Real Food Fake Food, and described it in my review as a cross between a game show and a shocker news program. That’s a spot-on description for this one, too. But while it was just annoying in RFFF, it was kinda horrific in this one. You know how, in fiction, a big action scene is often narrated in higher tones, faster pace, and with enthusiastic vocalizations? It helps get the reader into the story, and ramps up the tension. Well…this book did the same…only the “action” parts…well, they were when Emma’s husband was beating her. The narrator sounded excited and frankly almost turned on while reading these sections, and it was utterly horrifying. Add in all the really exaggerated southern drawls, and it’s safe to say that I downright hated the audio narration. (Why didn’t I return it to Audible and read the print version? Because frickin’ Audible is making it 1000x more difficult to return books these days, and so I just dealt with it. But this is beside the point.)
In the end, I half-recommend this book. Skip the audio, and read the book if you don’t mind the sort of biography that goes off on tangents and skips around in time. But skip the book if that sort of thing bothers you. Just make sure to go read something about Emma Gatewood, because she’s downright incredible.