The Trojan War rebuilt the foundation of the world, but it would have been buried under the ashes of long-forgotten crusades if Homer hadn’t written an epic poem about it.
Julius Caesar changed the course of history, but he’d mostly be a lightly-read sentence in a tattered textbook if William Shakespeare hadn’t written a play that lionized Caesar’s assassination.
Great stories can live forever. But only if they have great writers to re-animate them and give them life. As a society, the people and events we remember most are the ones that have been written the best. Those are the ones that shape the narratives we play in our heads about the course of our own lives, and the course of society.
For a writer, nothing is more exciting than to find a great story that has been forgotten, overlooked, or faded into the dull roar of background noise. Bringing one of those stories back to life and making it relevant again is one of the most powerful and rewarding acts there is — if you’re in the story business.
I recently found a great example of this when I came across Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery. It’s not a story about an epic war or an irrepressible leader, but a 67 year-old great-grandmother who shocked America by walking the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail alone in 1955.
When I jumped into the sample chapter of Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, it hit me right in the gut. I had to know more about how and why Emma Gatewood did this. And as a writer, I loved the way Montgomery told the story. There wasn’t a single word out of place and there were brilliant sentences that I savored by reading them again and again. Sentences like this one:
There were a million heavenly things to see and a million spectacular ways to die.
And this one:
She’d never show those newspapermen and television cameras her broken teeth or busted ribs, or talk about the town that kept dark secrets, or the night she spent in a jail cell.
After reading those words early on a Saturday morning, I fired off a 7:30am email to my friend and colleague who’s my partner in long form on my team. It was one of those you’ve-gotta-read-this-story messages.
In that email I wrote, “This has moved me more than anything I’ve read in a while. Based on the first chapter, it’s threatening to become one of my favorite narrative nonfiction pieces ever.”
We both started reading the book and were captivated with the inspirational story of Gatewood and the gorgeous flourishes in Montgomery’s prose.
Here are a few more of the book’s most remarkable passages, just to give you a taste:
She zigzagged between North Carolina and Tennessee, thirsty, sore, tired, over roads of cut stone and up mountainsides steep and tall, sleeping outdoors more often than in, giving herself to the wilderness, planting a crop of memories, exploring the world and her own mind, writing in her little notebook of the challenges and rewards, the wild dogs that came in the night, the cozy fire that made a campsite more cheerful, the magic of campers who shared their sausage sandwiches across picnic tables.
These were the unknowns, but the human spirit has a way of answering questions.
She stood that night, all alone, just 280 miles from that little brown sign atop Mount Katahdin, her chest full of crisp air and inspiration, her feet firm atop a forgettable mountain where the stars make you feel insignificant and important all at once. And she sang.
To be here is to participate in an experience, her experience. To walk this path that she loved is to embrace her memory, to come as close to her as possible. To see what she saw and step where she stepped and feel some thin connection to a farm woman who decided one day to take a walk, and then kept going, getting faster until the end. I could be imagining all this, but I lost myself a little. In her footsteps, I forgot my troubles.
Before Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, I had been on a several-month streak where I started about 6-8 books and failed to finish any of them because I’m a notoriously impatient reader. If a book doesn’t grab me within the first couple chapters or the first 50 pages then I toss it aside and look for something else to read.
For me to keep reading, a book not only has to be well-written, it not only needs to tell a great story, it has to make me feel something.
This book reached up and snatched me like a bouncer grabbing the front of my shirt with two hands and pulling me up nose-to-nose, looking me straight in the eyes.
Because I was so into the book, I reached out to the author, Ben Montgomery, an award-winning journalist for the Tampa Bay Times. I said I was really impressed with Grandma Gatewood’s Walk and that I was writing an article about it. We set up a time to chat.
“I’m super proud of it,” Montgomery told me over the phone.
It was his first book and he told me that it came about after one of New York’s most respected literary agents, Jane Dystel, read one of his articles and liked his writing so much that she emailed him to say he should do a book. Montgomery pitched two ideas and he and Dystel zeroed in on the Gatewood story, which Montgomery had heard about from a family member since he’s distantly related to Gatewood.
“I had faith in the story,” Montgomery said. “When I got my arms around it, I was like, ‘I would read this, even if it’s about a little old lady. I would read this. I would pick this up.’ The faith in the story established, I was like, ‘I can do this right.’”
Montgomery and I talked a lot about the book’s two story arcs — Gatewood’s history-making hike up the AT and her earlier journey to break free from her abusive husband. We also talked about the two big ideas that he hoped readers would walk away with after reading the book.
The first was the value of walking itself. We talked about how so many of the philosophers and thinkers and writers throughout history have extolled the virtues of walking.
“They’re right!” Montgomery said, with a little chuckle.
In the course of doing this book, “I came to love walking,” he added, “and the real power in walking.”
The other thing Montgomery hoped would resonate with readers was the timeless power of perseverance.
“You can get beat down and there’s power in that,” said Montgomery. “There’s power in the awful, dark experiences and you find that some people, whether they realize it or not, can take that and use that darkness to do really great things — really interesting, cool things — whether it’s art, music, whatever, [or] walking. Something as simple as walking 2,000 miles.”
That epic walk was what Montgomery dusted off and brought back to life. The book weaves in the decline of walking in America with the rise of the car, and Grandma Gatewood’s Walk suggests that we should re-embrace the power of the walk. It’s difficult to imagine anyone reading this book and not being ready to walk more, whether it’s a hike in a wilderness or just putting in a mile over your lunch hour.
This is how writers shine a light on something that not only tells history, but changes its course — because the stories we focus on and the way we understand the past tells you a lot about what our priorities are going to be in the future, for both individuals and society.
The books I love are the ones where I’m a little bummed when I finish them because I miss going back to that story when it’s over. There are only a handful of books I’ve ever felt that way about. This was one of them.
I really dig Montgomery’s narrative nonfiction storytelling. And admittedly, the two story arcs resonated deeply with me on a personal level.
Walking was already one of my favorite things. I walk to think. I walk to unthink. It’s what I do when I’m happy. It’s what I do when I’m not so happy. This book made me fall in love with walking all over again. Since reading it, I’ve been walking more than ever, and this summer I plan to hike a local 14-mile trail.
The book’s other story arc about Gatewood’s abuse also hit me hard. As a six year-old kid I witnessed a husband hitting a wife and had to stand by watching, shocked, and powerless to stop it. He was drunk and out of control. And I did the only thing I had the power to do in that moment. I decided that I was NEVER going to be that kind of person. It’s why I’ve never taken a drink.
So, yes, this book made me feel something. It made me feel a lot, in fact. It changed the way I think about walking as part of my own story. It changed the way walking will be part of my life going forward. Maybe this bit of history will even change the way a lot of people value walking in the future. That’s what great stories do. That’s what great writers do.