Emma Gatewood’s life would be a testament of strength and endurance even if she had never set foot on a hiking trail. The daughter of a Civil War veteran, she was born on a southeast Ohio farm in 1887. She married young and raised 11 children, enduring 33 years in a marriage so abusive that eventually the mayor of her town helped her obtain a divorce—an incredibly rare and difficult feat in those days.
After seeing an article in National Geographic about the Appalachian Trail, she told her children, now grown, that she was going for a walk. She left home in May 1955 with a couple hundred dollars, a pair of Keds sneakers, a homemade knapsack, a blanket, and a plastic shower curtain. She was 67 years old.
Six months and six pairs of Keds later, she become the sixth person, and the first solo woman, to hike the 2,050 miles of the Appalachian Trail straight through. She celebrated her achievement by singing “America the Beautiful” at the trail’s end atop Mount Katahdin in Maine.
It’s a great story—and one that can strengthen your leadership, even if the most outdoorsy thing you do is eating out on the deck. Here are some lessons we can all take away from Grandma Gatewood’s determination and individualism:
If you’re committed, if you’re sure of your mission, don’t give others a chance to talk you off your path. Don’t listen to anyone who wants to define or limit you. Lace up your shoes and get started.
Make things better for those who come later.
After finishing her first hike, Gatewood found herself something of a celebrity. She used that exposure to talk about the need for better development and maintenance of the Appalachian Trail—an effort that is credited with a large role in making the trail the resource it is today.
Don’t let failure stop you.
The year before, an earlier attempt at the trail ended when Gatewood broke her glasses. Undaunted, she learned from that first effort and came back better prepared.
Don’t let success stop you.
Not content with her impressive achievement, in 1959 Gatewood hiked the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon. In 1960, she hiked the Appalachian Trail again, and then hiked it a third time, in sections, at the age of 75. Between 1955 and 1969 she logged an estimated ten thousand miles.
“I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was, but I couldn’t and I wouldn’t quit,” Gatewood told Sports Illustrated after her initial hike.
Even in contemporary times, when much of leadership is collaborative and team-oriented, sometimes it comes down to one person’s determination. When it does, we would all do well to emulate Grandma Gatewood by staying true to our vision, having faith in our vision, and putting one foot in front of the other until we reach our goal.