Authors spin out many thousands of books each year, and a few thousand find their way to publication. Many turn out to be mundane. Some are good. A few prove great reads.
A very few more reach us as extraordinary, tales we can never forget, written in a way that makes the characters stick in our minds like briars, with story lines that hum like high-tension wires in a stiff wind.
In these few lucky cases, we get characters like Emma Gatewood:
She stood five foot two and weighed 150 pounds and the only survival training she had were lessons learned earning calluses on her farm. She had a mouth full of false teeth and bunions the size of prize marbles. She had no map, no sleeping bag, no tent. She was blind without her glasses, and she was utterly unprepared if she faced the wrath of a snowstorm, not all that rare on the trail. Five years before, a freezing Thanksgiving downpour killed 353 in Appalachia, and most of them had houses. Their bones were buried on these hillsides.
When you stumble across Grandma Gatewood’s Walk in your neighborhood bookstore, don’t make the mistake of glancing away from the photo of a frumpy old woman in sensible shoes. You’ll pass over one of the best books you’ve ever read.
In 1955, Gatewood left her Ohio home. She told her large family she was going for a walk.
She didn’t lie. She set out to trek the entire length of the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail. She had traversed more than a third of the route before her family discovered what she was really up to. At age 67, she’d set out alone on the trail, her supplies in a sack, tennis shoes on her feet and less than $200 in her pocket.
In the masterful hands of Ben Montgomery, a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, Grandma enthralls … and always against tall odds.
Before her stood mountains, more than three hundred of them topping five thousand feet, the ancient remnants of a range that hundreds of millions of years before pierced the clouds and rivaled the Himalayas in their majesty. The Unakas, the Smokies, Cheoahs, Nantahalas. The long, sloping Blue Ridge; the Kittatinny Mountains; the Hudson Highlands. The Taconic Ridge and the Berkshires, the Green Mountains, the White Mountains, the Mahoosuc Range. Saddleback, Bigelow, and finally—five million steps away—Katahdin.
And between here and there: a bouquet of ways to die.
Between here and there lurked wild boars, black bears, wolves, bobcats, coyotes, backwater outlaws, and lawless hillbillies. Poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac. Anthills and black flies and deer ticks and rabid skunks, squirrels, and raccoons. And snakes. Black snakes, water moccasins, and copperheads. And rattlers; the young man who hiked the trial four years before told the newspapers he’d killed at least fifteen.
There were a million heavenly things to see and a million spectacular ways to die.
Montgomery brings insatiable curiosity and an extraordinary ability to gather and sift voluminous information, weaving a rich tapestry that reveals the motivation and titanium will of a woman who defied logic—and, some would say, common sense—to satisfy a need that nagged her for years. Her walk brought attention to the Appalachian Trail. It spurred efforts to preserve and enshrine the trek as an American treasure.
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk reaches book stores as Montgomery’s debut, but you’re sure to hear from him again. A rising-star journalist, he burrows himself into stories of interest, and, with deft reportage and a gifted pen, plunges a reader into the viscera of stories. In the meantime, he himself disappears, a hallmark of masterful writing.
In a perfect world, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk will hit the shelves with high praise and great acclaim. Readers deserve to have gems like this presented with fanfare.
Bill Perkins works as Editorial Page Editor of The Dothan Eagle.