The most interesting question one can ever ask is: “Why?” It yields the most interesting answers. What, who, when, where, and how reveal facts, but why gets at motivations, relationships, and fundamental truths. So, why did Emma Gatewood, at 67, walk the entire 2,050 mile Appalachian Trail? Why did she go alone? Why did she tell no one she was going? Why did she persevere through hurricanes, lack of shelter, and injury? We’ll probably never know.
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk chronicles the what, who, when, where, and how of Emma’s journey through her journal entries, family interviews, and the accounts of those who met her along the way. She was 41 years dead when this book was written, so the author had no opportunity to ask her why she’d done it. In interviews during her walk (and second walk on the AT and subsequent long hikes), she always evaded the “why” question with a pat answer. “I’m a great lover of the outdoors.” “Just for the heck of it.” “I decided to take a walk - one I always wanted to take.” “I thought it would be fun.” None of the answers are satisfactory.
Maybe it was because, in her decades-long marriage to an abusive husband, the woods were the only place that made her feel safe. Maybe it was, after raising 11 children, she just wanted to do something for and by herself. Maybe it was an act of defiance against the inevitability of aging and physical decline.
Similarly, I don’t have a good answer for the “why” of my own wild summer. Maybe I’m revisiting the happy days of my youth. Maybe I’m rebelling against our overly complicated and industrialized lives. Maybe it’s my own way of saying “fuck you” to getting old.
As any six-year-old will tell you, if you keep asking “why,” you eventually get to an answer of “I don’t know.” And maybe that’s the real appeal of why. It’s the one question that eventually gets to the mysteries of the universe. It’s the one question that leaves us wondering and speculating and imagining. Spend a few days reading Grandma Gatewood’s Walk for the facts of her remarkable journey and then spend the rest of your life wondering . . . “why?”
Montgomery, B. (2014). Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated.