Many wonder if they are on the right path. Others mindlessly follow those ahead of them. Still others go where critics never thought possible. Where does your path lead?
In this post I’ll share a story of a woman who defied the critics to find her breakthrough.
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Life hadn’t been easy for Emma Gatewood. She was born to a family of 15 children and a father who suffered war injuries. Having lost his leg and no longer able to farm, he compensated with drinking and gambling. Life was difficult as she slept four to a bed, worked hard, and managed to complete eighth grade.
Along the way she developed a love for reading encyclopedias and strangely enough, the Greek classics. Living in the woods, she taught herself about wildlife and the plants nearby that could be used for medicine and food. It seems appropriate that she took up the hobby of writing poetry.
She must have thought, at age 19, she had broken through the difficult life when she met a primary school teacher, eight years older. Imagine how her love of learning led to fascinating discussions. They were soon married.
Her Next Normal must have been very promising. Life had to get better, right?
Unfortunately, that’s where the story turned ugly. He husband left teaching and began farming tobacco. He worked her as hard as her father had. In addition to her household chores, she was required to burn tobacco beds, build fences, and mix cement. But that wasn’t the worst part.
Her dreams were shattered when shortly after the marriage began, his mean streak emerged, and he started beating her. But it wasn’t just her. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison and restitution. Fortunately for him, the court showed mercy but only because he had nine children. He served no prison time. Back at home, he resumed the beatings of Emma, almost killing her several times. Her only sanctuary was running into the woods. After one brutal beating, he had her arrested and jailed. Yes, you read that correctly. He had her arrested. Finally, after she was given assistance by the mayor, she filed for divorce.
Why didn’t she file divorce him earlier? Why didn’t she seek refuse in a shelter? The answer is that it was 1940 and there were no shelters. Women rarely filed for divorce and if they did, they rarely won.
“I’m going for a hike.”
But Emma did. She had another chance and again pivoted to enter her Next Normal.
Fourteen years later, her love of learning revived, she happened onto an old copy of the August 1949 edition of National Geographic magazine. She was enthralled and intrigued with the article about the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). After everything she had been through, she had the crazy idea that she could hike the 2168 miles from Maine to Georgia. Never mind that she was 66 and this was 1954.
Like her marriage, the idea was enticing but didn’t pan out. Even though the article promised that she needed “no special skill or training” she got lost, broke her glasses, and ran out of food just a few days into the venture. Rangers, as you can imagine in 1954, suggested this poor woman go home. She did.
But she didn’t stay there, and she didn’t give up her crazy dream. The following year, in 1955 and at the age of 67, she told her 9 children and 23 grandchildren that she was going out for a hike. She had no sleeping bag or tent, just a homemade denim bag with a shower curtain (to keep the rain off), a Swiss Army knife, a few other items. She wore her trusty Keds sneakers.
Along the way the press heard of her story and she became a bit of a celebrity, which brought some hospitality from locals. She not only slept along the trail, but also was offered a guest bed in private homes or a place on the porch to sleep. She even slept under a picnic table.
But the hike was no picnic. She found the trail challenging but wouldn’t give up. After wearing out 7 pairs of Ked sneakers, she arrived at the south terminus of the trail in Georgia. In the process, she became the first woman to hike the A.T. in one season.
She repeated the unthinkable feat just two years later. Then, in 1959, at the age of 71, she hiked 2000 miles of the Oregon Trail, taking three months to travel on foot from St. Louis to Portland. In 1964, she became the first person to hike the A.T. when, at age 76, she hiked it in segments. By the end of her life, she had hiked more than 14,000 miles, equivalent to halfway around the world.
Even though her critics told her to stay at home and doubted she could hike the trail by herself, she said, “If men can do it, I can do it.”
Notice Emma “Grandma” Gatewood broke through. She did it. Had she quit when her critics told her to go home in 1954, that’s where the story would have ended. She could have quit dreaming when she was worked hard as a child. Why wasn’t she a statistic after her dad turned to alcohol and gambling? Surely, she could have given up after almost dying at the hands of her husband. How embarrassed must she have been when her husband was convicted of manslaughter?
She didn’t give up. She kept dreaming and pivoting into her Next Normal. She pushed through when life was extremely difficult. That is a strong message for all of us.
THINK BIGGER: Know where you want to go. Determine the right path.
REACH HIGHER! Change directions or paths if necessary.
DO THE IMPOSSIBLE: Follow the path to your breakthrough. Don’t give up. Remember Grandma Gatewood and how she did what others thought impossible.
Loren Murfield, PhD
Total Career Growth works with leaders and entrepreneurs in small business, sales, and Real Estate to think bigger and reach higher to find their breakthrough success. Contact me to begin thinking bigger.
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