First published in The Trek.
“So, do you know much about the thru-hiking community?” Craig Thornton asked as he steered his pickup around the last bend before the summit of Flagg Mountain, southern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail in eastern Alabama. The sky to the west was streaked with the crimson light of a fading late-October sunset.
“A fair amount,” I said.
“You ever hear of Nimblewill Nomad?” said Craig, who helps his wife, Callie, operate Coosa’s Hiker Hostel and Shuttle Service just west of Rockford, AL.
Of course I had. Nimblewill Nomad is one of the most prodigious long-distance hikers of all time, called by some a perpetual hiker. He was first to hike the entire Appalachian Mountains range, from Newfoundland to Alabama, along with every National Scenic Trail and countless other “odysseys,” as he calls them. Having hiked virtually nonstop since 1998, he was 79 when he wrapped up his 2017 ramble along old Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles.
“Well,” Craig said as we approached a sturdy stone cabin, “you’re about to meet him.”
A short, slightly bent man, his long white hair spraying from beneath an American flag baseball cap, beckoned us farther up the hill, then stopped in front of another cabin.
“I’ve got a fire going for you,” he said as I tugged my pack from the truck, introducing himself as Sunny. “There’s wood around the corner. Privy is over there. When you’re settled in, come on down for a talk.”
I was nearly speechless, having expected I’d be tossing up my tent before starting up the Pinhoti the next morning. Now I had a rickety—and free—cot all to myself in front of a blazing fire, not to mention an audience with one of the most famous hikers in the world.
I dumped my pack, stoked the fire, grabbed two cans of beer I’d packed, and hurried down to the cabin where the man born Meredith J. Eberhart lived inside a hobbit-sized enclosure of cardboard and plastic sheeting, warmed by the blazing fireplace.
“They haven’t finished this cabin yet,” he said, referring to the efforts of local hiking and conservation groups to install new windows and patch roofs to make the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps buildings usable for a new generation of visitors.
M.J. Eberhart, aka Sunny
My host seemed shy at first, even a tad embarrassed, when I said I was honored to meet him. But all traces of awkwardness soon dissolved as we began sharing stories about Appalachian Trail denizens we’ve known: John Shores, aka Uncle Johnny, and Jack Tarlin, aka Baltimore Jack, both of whom had recently died too young, trail angel queen Miss Janet, and others.
Soon, Nimblewill was providing a virtual pack shakedown, advising me on ways to reduce weight: carry floss picks instead of a toothbrush; skip the stove and soak your ramen noodles in the sawed-off bottom of a plastic gallon milk jug (“Cold, but just as good,” he said); replace my sleeping back with a quilt.
“So, aren’t you Nimblewill any more?” I asked during a lull in the conversation. “Is Sunny your new trail name?”
He leaned back and smiled broadly. Actually, he said, it was older than his birth name, given to him by his mother moments after he was born in a small town in the Missouri Ozarks.
“She told me, ‘When you popped out, I said, Look at the smile on that boy’s face!’ ” So throughout my childhood, I was known as Sunny,” he said. “Now, you’ve heard that as we age, we resort back to our childhood. Well, that’s what I’m doing. I was Sunny up until I was 17 or 18, and now I’m 80 and I’m Sunny again.”
He’s had other names, as well. As Dr. M.J. Eberhart, married with two sons, he’d earned a six-figure salary at his three-doctor optometry practice in northern Florida. Upon retirement in 1993, he took up residence on Nimblewill Creek, just ten miles from the summit of Springer Mountain, Southern Terminus of the AT. He drifted from his family.
“Well,” he says soberly, “you can’t go back and change those things.”
Becoming Nimblewill Nomad
He didn’t become Nimblewill Nomad until January 1998, when he started north from the southern terminus of the Florida Trail. Over the next 11 months, he made his way north through 16 states and three Canadian provinces, completing a 4,400-mile walk all the way to Cap Gaspé, Quebec (including a southbound road walk of the Florida Keys, tacked on at the end). Though he was the second person to complete the route (John Brinda had done it a year earlier), he was the one who dubbed it the Eastern Continental Trail.
“Ah, (Mother Nature’s) boundless treasures—the magnificent mountains; mountains of all the ages, the spectacular Appalachians, and the rich and fertile lands that sprawl the eastern grand expanse of this continent, the mystifying and majestic horizons of Canada and these heaven-blessed United States of America,” Nimblewill wrote of the trail in “Ten Million Steps: Nimblewill Nomad’s Epic Ten-Month Trek from the Florida Keys to Quebec.”
In 2000 and 2001, he did the ECT in reverse, adding on another thousand miles to become the first known person to hike the entire Appalachian Range in North America, from Newfoundland to the Keys.
By then, he found he couldn’t stop—and didn’t want to.
“The long distance hiker, a breed set apart,/From the likes of the usual pack./He’ll shoulder his gear, be hittin’ the trail;/Long gone, long ‘fore he’ll be back,” he wrote in one of his countless poems.
Since then, he’s hiked at least one odyssey, as he calls them, a year through 2017, including more than 3,000 miles from Cape Hatteras, NC, to Point Loma in San Diego, the Lewis and Clark Trail from St. Louis to the Oregon coast, the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail to complete his Triple Crown in 2008, and a five-year sojourn around the “Great American Loop.”
His body has taken a beating in all those miles. He’s had all his toenails surgically removed, broken ribs, legs and ankles and been struck by lightning. For all that, he says, “The hike is not a physical event so much as it is mental and spiritual—it’s every bit of 80 percent mental and spiritual.”
Along the way, he’s winnowed down his worldly possessions to not much more than he can carry on his back, and given away his money, homes, and property to his family.
“Every year I’ve got less,” he said, as quoted in Robert Moor’s best-selling book, “On Trails,” “and every year I’m a happier man.”
Nimblewill says he doesn’t have an answer for the oft-asked question of why he took up his peripatetic life. But clearly one motivating force is the pursuit of freedom, even when it meant the loss of comfort, security, even family. Today he owns little, but considers himself rich; he has countless friends, but no obligatory relationships.
“Eberhart has opted for the path toward maximal freedom,” Moor writes, “which meant shunning comfort, companionship, and security.”
Now in his ninth decade, he seems to have all that and a healthy dose of freedom. The local community around Flagg Mountain checks in on him daily, delivering mail, gallon jugs of water, and food. He first ascended Flagg on Dec. 14, 2000, when the then-leaseholders unlocked the gate and let him climb the old stone fire tower (now closed to the public and hornet ridden).
“I told myself then that I’m going to come back here someday. This mountain just captured my heart,” he says.
When the former lease ran out at the end of 2018, members of the Alabama Hiking Trail Society petitioned the Alabama Forestry Commission, which owns and manages the mountain, to appoint Nimblewill the official caretaker. Now he keeps the cabins in shape and stocked with firewood, unlocks the gates every day, rain or shine, and greets visitors.
Old Man on the Mountain
“Locals call me the old man on the mountain,” he says. “Even when it’s raining or foggy, nasty, and windy, I prod myself to get out of my cave by the comfortable fire… and go down and open the gate.”
He may live on a mountaintop, but Nimblewill Nomad is no hermit. He seldom passes up an opportunity to engage in conversation and he’s easily prompted to share his thoughts about hiking, trails, and the meaning of life. A sampling:
“Any time I climb a mountain, I pray that by the time I get up to the top I’m going to be a better man.”
“Choose the things you really need, not what you want, and your pack will not be a great burden. It’s freedom from all those things that will inspire memories that will never fade.”
“Everyone needs to pack a pretty good degree of humility to start with,” he counsels, disturbed by reports from friends in the trail-angel and hostel communities that more and more hikers arrive on trail with a sense of entitlement. “Wearing that pack doesn’t mean anybody owes you anything.”
“You Can’t Get That on a Ridgetop”
Nimblewill is far from predictable in many of his beliefs. Looking askance at much conventional wisdom, he’s more than willing to call out those he believes are not honoring the ideals and ethics of the trail.
He worries that too many 21st-century hikers are so tethered to technological tools that they simply march through the miles without bothering to become acquainted with, or even curious about, the land they are traversing, its history, or the names of places, plants, and animals.
He’s also distressed that well-meaning trail organizations have continually rerouted trails away from civilization—towns, roads, farms—making them more homogeneous. People are just as important as landscapes to the trail experience, he says, perhaps even more so.
“What joy I had meeting people as I walked the little villages along (Route) 2 (on the International Appalachian Trail). Well, now they’ve put the trail up on a ridge,” he says. “It was one of the most exciting parts of the whole journey, meeting those wonderful people. You can’t get that on a ridgetop.”
Luke “Strider” Jordan, a thru-hiker known for seeking out trails less traveled, chose the 4,600-mile North Country Trail for his first thru-hike after seeing Nimblewill’s videos on YouTube. In 2012, while on a hike of the Ice Age Trail to test his NCT gear, Jordan ran into the legend and they became friends.
“It’s clear when you talk to him that he’s there for more than just the journey; he also cares about the land and the people that depend on it,” says Jordan, the only person to have thru-hiked the nascent Great Plains Trail. “He sees the value of our public lands, and perhaps more specifically, the long-distance trails that connect those areas to local communities.”
Jordan notes that Nimblewill kept up with him throughout his hike, emailing him several times “and offering words of encouragement along the way, and always at that moment I seemed to need it most.”
Planted on Flagg (Mountain)
Nimblewill has taken the same attitude toward Flagg Mountain, his first real home after more than two decades on the move. He shares the dream of other Alabamians that the mountain will someday be considered the Southern Terminus of the AT.
“It may seem arbitrary, but it’s less arbitrary than Springer Mountain in Georgia. Flagg is the first (Appalachian) mountain of more than 1,000 feet coming up out of the Gulf,” he says. “My purpose in life now … is to promote this remarkable geographic and historic landmark—that it might ultimately become the hub of all to do with hiking and backpacking in the South. If what I’m about is successful, then those who dream of one day hiking the Appalachians, those folks, all, will think first of Flagg Mountain.”
He’s announced his retirement several times in recent years before surging off on yet another odyssey. Having reclaimed his childhood name and settled on Flagg Mountain, is he finally, truly come to rest?
“I can still put a pack on, still do the miles. I honestly can. I just can’t lug a 30-pound pack all day anymore,” he says. “But I’m not ruling anything out.”