Who was the First Female Thru Hiker?
Perhaps you’ve seen this post shared on a hiking or camping Facebook page.
With an audience of 45,000 folks and 33,000 shares, it has been spread far and wide in internet land.
The popularity of Grandma Gatewood’s story is not surprising. In 1955 and at age 67, Grandma Gatewood successfully thru hiked the Appalachian Trail – alone. Grandma Gatewood’s story of success against all odds resonates with many – she is an unlikely but inspiring hero. Grandma Gatewood’s accomplishments are staggering and her story incorporates more than her thousands of miles.
Grandma Gatewood’s rough and tumble attitude and legendary quotes remain an integral part of the woman herself. She’s famous for standing atop Katahdin and declaring, “I said I’ll do it, and I’ve done it.” and the growling, “Most people today are Pantywaist.” when asked about her remarkably simple hiking gear.
She is a cultural figure for the ages. She is the Grandma who hiked by herself, with a canvas sack, Ked Sneakers, and a shower curtain for two thousand miles.
But behind her place in the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame, behind the documentaries, behind the New York Time’s best selling book , behind all the Facebook Pages and thousands of inspirational shares…
is the shadowy figure of the first woman to hike to thru hike the Appalachian Trail. Her name was Mildred Lisette Norman Ryder and she was known as Peace Pilgrim.
Grandma Gatewood was NOT the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail.
On April 26, 1952, three years before Grandma Gatewood’s name ever graced newspaper headlines, Mildred Ryder summited Mount Oglethorp, then the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. She began her long walk north. She walked until she met the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She then flip flopped north to Katahdin and walked south until the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail met the white blazes of the Long Trail. She continued north to Canada on that storied route. After the completion of the northern half of the Long Trail, she returned to central Vermont and again walked south. On the way, she completed the first flip flop hike of the Appalachian Trail. When she reached the Susquehanna in the fall of 1952 she made history for the second time and…
…became the first woman to thru hike the entire Appalachian Trail.1
The first thru hike of the Appalachian Trail was completed four years earlier. In 1948 World War II veteran Earl Schaffer sent a postcard to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy that read,
“The flowers bloom, the songbirds sing
And though it sun or rain
I walk the mountain tops with Spring
From Georgia north to Maine.” 4
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy doubted the validity of “The Crazy One’s” 2,000 mile hike. But the man that departed from Mount Oglethorpe in an effort to “Walk the army out of my system” had indeed become the first Appalachian Trail thru hiker.5
The first thru hike of the Appalachian Trail resulted in newspaper headlines for Earl Shaffer and a National Geographic feature that brought notoriety to the newly constructed trail.6 Shaffer’s hike and the corresponding press would directly inspire another solo hiker to embark on a journey from Georgia to Maine when Grandma Gatewood read that very National Geographic article while waiting at her doctor’s office.7
But Gatewood would not find coverage of Mildred Ryder’s hike. Her historic completion of the Appalachian Trail went largely unnoticed and uncelebrated. Like Schaffer, Mildred had contacted the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. She even corresponded with Schaffer during her thru hike.8 Perhaps the chief reason that Mildred Lisette Norman Ryder’s hike fell into obscurity was that she was memorable – for all the wrong reasons in 1952.
Mildred Norman was born and raised on a small poultry farm in rural New Jersey in 1908. She grew up poor, but her close knit upbringing was rich in non denominational ethics of morality and peace. She grew up precocious and excelled in schooling. When she graduated high school she took secretarial jobs and became, “…very much what they called a flapper in those days. She had to have the latest clothing….”9 She was very much a typical young woman. Following the typical path of a young woman in the early part of the 20th century, Mildred Norman soon became Mildred Norman Ryder. She eloped with businessman Stanley Ryder in 1933. But the marriage began to decline with the rise of World War II tensions. Stanley’s traditional ethics began to clash with Mildred’s growing dedication to her non-traditional upbringing. The marriage finally dissolved when Stanley was drafted in World War II, where Mildred could not support him due to her now vehement anti war stance. In 1946 their divorce was finalized.
A Journey Begins
In 1952 when reports of a couple hiking north from Mount Oglethorpe began to surface, the man hiking with Mildred Norman Ryder was certainly not her husband. Richard Lamb would accompany Mildred Ryder from Georgia to Maine. Along the way they introduced themselves as “Dick Lamb and Mil” to avoid any scandal in the conservative 1950’s domestic sphere. But perhaps this is the reason that a postcard reading,
“Dear Miss Stephenson,
As editor of “Appalachian Trailway News,” you may be interested in hearing a few more facts about the first couple (especially the first woman) to traverse on foot alone the entire 2,050 mile Appalachian Trail in one season of less than 5 months. On April 26 we started from Mt. Oglethorpe and went up to Harrisburg in 2 1/2 months, hiking about 15-20 miles a day and camping out each night. Then we went by car to Mt. Katahdin, Maine, and walked already 200 miles of the wild northern half of the Trail, back toward Penna., where we expect to be by October 1. This trip is a healthful experience in simple, natural living.
Adventurously, two more hikers of the ‘A.T.,’
Dick Lamb & Mildred
(p.s. – We have kept in touch with Earl Shaffer.)”
resulted in a small blub in Appalachian Trailway News in 1953. The newsletter did not announce Mildred Ryder as the first female thru hiker. They did not even include her full name. They simply wrote,
“At various times during the summer, persons on the Trail reported meeting “Dick and Mil”, as they introduced themselves, who were making a through trip…The mystery was solved early in November when a letter from Dick Lamb of Philadelphia reported that they left Mt. Oglethorpe on April 26, and walked north to the Susquehanna River…While not a continuous trip over the Trail, this was a traverse of the entire Trail route in one season”. 10
Thus Mildred Norman Ryder’s historic thru hike began to fade into obscurity, shadowed by the conservative expectations of mid 19th century personal politics.
Though the world at large did not celebrate her achievement, Mildred Norman’s Appalachian Trail thru hike changed her forever. Her dedication to ethics of peace had grown since her tumultuous marriage to Ryder. Her months in the woods confirmed her dedication to these ethics and gave her the tools with which to spread her message.
“The inspiration for the pilgrimage came at this time. I sat high upon a hill overlooking rural New England…. I saw, in my mind’s eye, myself walking along and wearing the garb of my mission… I saw a map of the United States with the large cities marked — and it was as though someone had taken a colored crayon and marked a zigzag line across, coast to coast and border to border, from Los Angeles to New York City. I knew what I was to do. And that was a vision of my first year’s pilgrimage route in 1953!”11
The woman known as Peace Pilgrim was born. Peace Pilgrim would depart on her first cross country walking tour to spread her message of peace in 1953. It was different than the hike Mildred Ryder had embarked on one year earlier. Mildred Ryder had carried food, shelter, and sleeping supplies, fending for herself in the wilds of Appalachia. Peace Pilgrim carried only a toothbrush, pen, and hairbrush, depending on the kindness of others for sustenance and shelter. Mildred Ryder walked to find peace. Peace Pilgrim walked to spread it.
Peace Pilgrim would walk for the cause of Peace for twenty three years and over 25,000 miles. Images of the woman dressed in a blue tunic with the words Peace Pilgrim emblazoned across the chest graced newspapers for almost a quarter century. She was a prolific speaker and writer. Her radio and television interviews can still be found in dusty corners of YouTube. A book of her compiled writings and pamphlets reveal the spiritual teachings of a woman tirelessly dedicated to her cause.
The story of the woman named Mildred Ryder ended somewhere on a footpath between Georgia and Maine in 1952. She found something in those 2000 miles that changed her very being and changed her identity forever.
She would later write, “I can see no reason to dwell upon my past, it is dead and should not be resurrected. Don’t inquire of me— ask about my message. It’s not important to remember the messenger, just remember the message”12 But since Peace Pilgrim wrote these words, the popularity of thru hiking has more than quadrupled.13 There is something about hiking in the woods that offers respite from a culture still plagued by fear and conflict. Walking brings peace with every footstep. Mildred Ryder walked until she found it. Peace Pilgrim dedicated her life to spreading the message of Peace to the world. Though Mildred Ryder’s story is largely unknown, misattributed, and overshadowed, her remarkable story is reincarnated in the footsteps of thousands of thru hikers every year. The footsteps of the first woman to thru hike the Appalachian Trail, Mildred Lisette Norman Ryder.
“If you do not yet know where you fit, I suggest that you try seeking it in receptive silence. I used to walk amid the beauties of nature, just receptive and silent, and wonderful insights would come to me.”14
1. Bruce Nichols, “Peace Pilgrim’s Appalachian Trail Journey,” Peace Pilgrim’s Appalachian Trail Journey, 27 Mar. 2016.
2. David Emblidge, “The South – West Virginia,” in The Appalachian Trail Reader (New York: Oxford UP, 1996), 221.
3. “Appalachian Trail 2,000 Miler Application.” Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Accessed March 26, 2016, https://www.appalachiantrail.org/docs/default-document-library/at_2000-miler_application.pdf.
4. Ben Montgomery. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail. (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014), 62.
5. Don Hopey and Glenn Scherer. “They Called Him Crazy” in Hikes in the Mid-Atlantic States: Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York. (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole,1998), 87.
6. Earl V. Schaffer, Walking with Spring: The First Thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, (Harpers Ferry, Appalachian Trail Conference, 1983).
7. Montgomery, 16.
8. Bruce Nichols, “Peace Pilgrim’s Appalachian Trail Journey,” Peace Pilgrim’s Appalachian Trail Journey, 27 Mar. 2016.
9. Zak Rozen, “Peace Pilgrim’s 28-Year Walk For ‘A Meaningful Way Of Life'” NPR, 27 Mar. 2016.
11. Peace Pilgrim, Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, (Santa Fe, Ocean Tree, 1983), 22.
12. Pilgrim, 144.
13. “Appalachian Trail Conservancy – 2000 Milers,” Appalachian Trail Conservancy – 2000 Milers, 26 Mar. 2016.
14. Pilgrim, 29.
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I have been hiking on the Appalachian Trail for over 40 years and I confess I had heard nothing about Peace Pilgrim (although I confess I think I had read something about her in this guise) or Mildred Norman Ryder. Thank you so much for rectifying that error. I pledge to learn more about this amazing woman and her groundbreaking achievements and Life Purpose.
I love this article! It’s so inspiring to read about women doing extraordinary things.
It is still inspiring what women today are doing. I thru hiked the AT in 2014 and met BlueJay, a retired lady from Tennessee. She was hiking and blogging as she went and she was going to finish the Trail if it killed her! She finally summited in late September 2014.
Last week, after feeling restless for so long, she set out on the Pacific Crest Trail. Again she is keeping a blog and a journal. She can be found at https://www.trailjournals.com/bluejaypct/
This is a woman to watch – A Triple Crown in the making.
Also don’t forget Dorothy Laker. Her story is told in the two volume set published by Rodale Press in 1977. Here’s some info from this website:
If Emma Gatewood made a spark, it was Dorothy Laker who stoked the flame. In 1957 – the same year Gatewood was attempting her second thru-hike – Laker put on her hiking shoes and hit the trail.
Laker was in her early twenties when she set off from Georgia, and recently unemployed. She did not inform anyone of her plans to hike the trail. She was also explicit in stating that her journey was not a publicity stunt; she was hiking the trail for her own enjoyment. Laker was quoted saying she wanted to take her time hiking, and that it was “a folly to race through paradise.”
Supposedly Gatewood and Laker met in Pennsylvania, passing each other a few times during one day in July. Gatewood claims they “never [said] a word to each other”; Laker doesn’t mention the encounter in her memoir at all.
After successfully completing her first NOBO hike, she went on to hike the trail twice more. She is the second person, after Gatewood, to have hiked the trail three times.
So glad to read this. I spoke with people at the Applachian Trail Museum last spring, and they’d never heard of Zpeacr Zpilgrim but looked her up and realized Grandma wasn’t the first!
Urban legends don’t die. Gatewood’s name will continue to be mentioned until the ATC sets the record straight. Do they want to?
This is the first I have heard of this remarkable woman. I’m looking forward to following this up with more research on her hike ….. and her message.