Take 5: Two decades on the Appalachian Trail with Summit local Tom Ruetenik
Five-year-old Tom Ruetenik looked at the old woman shivering by the wood stove. Curious about her, he wondered if she was his grandma. His child’s intuition wasn’t far off: known as Grandma Gatewood, the woman before him was Emma Gatewood, the first woman to complete the Appalachian Trail and a good friend of the Ruetenik family.
Throughout his life, Ruetenik would remember this courageous woman. His early memory of meeting Emma was put to print in 2014, when author Ben Montgomery published “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk,” telling the story of Emma Gatewood’s life, including her two Appalachian Trail treks. On page 139, Montgomery mentions the Ruetenik family for providing Emma with food and shelter.
In his 20s, Ruetenik graduated from the University of Denver and moved back east to launch a business. During these decades away from Colorado, he began chasing his dream of hiking all 2,180 miles of the Appalachian Trail (known as the AT), and in 1997 hiked his first portion of the AT in Kent, Connecticut.
A few years later, Ruetenik sold his business, and, like many seeking the serene lifestyle of the mountains, moved to Summit County. Before moving here in 2001, he completed about half of the trail and made a personal vow to complete the trek soon. This summer he reached his goal, and soon after talked with the Summit Daily about finally finishing a trek 20 years in the making.
Summit Daily News: Where are you from originally?
Tom Ruetenik: Ohio. Lived in Boston for some time and upstate New York, too.
SDN: How’d you end up back in Summit County?
TR: Well, I’m a skier. I had an insurance agency in New York, which I sold. I worked for Summit Stage for 12 years as a bus driver. I enjoyed that. It was the right job for that period of my life. I had run a business for over 20 years and wanted a job where I didn’t take it home with me in the evenings. I just wanted a job where you work, do your best and at the end of the day, you’re done.
SDN: What made you want to hike the AT?
TR: Truth is, a friend’s wife laughed when she heard that I was going to hike it. That was in 1997. My inspiration became to simply do the Appalachian Trail. I’ve never been less than 250 pounds with my pack on — that’s the truth. It becomes a bragging thing. And Grandma Gatewood, of course.
SDN: Who is Grandma Gatewood?
TR: Emma was her actual name. She was the first woman to hike through the trail, and both times she was over 65. During one of her hikes, we took a vacation to a family friend’s farmhouse and my father heard she was coming through. I remember riding in the car to pick her up and sitting in the kitchen around a wood stove. She was shivering and wearing a red top, maybe a poncho.
I thought she was actually my grandma, but my mother corrected me that Grandma was just Emma’s nickname. She was an inspiration to me, even as a young child. I think I was 5. Over the years I became more and more aware of the heritage of our family knowing her. My father kept in touch with her over the years.
SDN: What was your trail name?
TR: Rocky, a nickname that came before I got on the trail from my ex-wife. I used that name on the trail. You either earn a nickname or you use one.
SDN: You hiked the AT over the course of about 20 years. What changes did you see over the nearly two decades?
TR: It’s become a lot more of an athletic challenge. People are sharing their mileage each afternoon. It used to be more a social thing — hikers all were going to town to party some. It’s much more competitive now.
SDN: What else did you notice from so many years on the trail?
TR: There is a huge difference between section hiking and thru-hiking. Thru-hiking costs a lot less money. You get in shape and stay in shape. You don’t get to see much of the countryside, though. Section hiking costs more, and just when you’re getting in shape you are finished for that section. You do get to see the countryside more. With section hiking, there are more logistics when it comes to drop-off points and shuttling back to your car.
SDN: How many sections did it take to complete the AT?
TR: I didn’t count how many sections, but it was somewhere from 30 to 40 trips. It was a very personal act for me — I wasn’t keeping tally of the miles and hours. I picked sections of the trail based off of where I happened to be. I didn’t do it in order. I did chunks of 10 days to a month when I was in Colorado. Doing it from here (Colorado) was harder — they are bigger trips.
SDN: What were some of the greatest struggles of accomplishing the AT?
TR: Getting in shape and then leaving the trail — repeating this over and over again. Also carrying more water than I needed. Hot weather without water was tough. Pennsylvania was hard in terms of water. Hiking along the ridge there, the water runs off the sides.
SDN: What were some of the greatest triumphs of tackling the AT?
TR: Doing Katahdin (Mine) on my 60th birthday. It was 4,000 vertical feet in one day. I did it in one day with two family members. I never ran out of food the entire time on the AT either. I hiked 90 percent of the trail by myself.
SDN: What advice would you give to someone who was seriously considering hiking the trail?
TR: It is rigorous. People think it is a walk in the woods, but it can become a green tunnel day after day after. It’s a huge mental and physical challenge. It’s real.
SDN: What do you think sets the AT apart from other long-distance trails, like the Pacific Crest Trail?
TR: The AT has about 270 shelters, about 7 miles apart. They are wonderful social points and get you off the ground and out of the elements. And, they are free. Most trails don’t have such a thing. I don’t think many other trails have shelters.
SDN: What was your final section?
TR: The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Clingmans Dome was the only crowded place in the Smokies. I will probably go back and do other sections that I liked most.
SDN: How did you feel when you finished the trail?
TR: Very satisfied.
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