Last Sunday morning, 83-year-old E.J. Eberhard became the oldest person ever to hike the Appalachian Trail. Eberhard, who goes by the trail name Nimblewood Nomad, started in February from his home in Flagg Mountain, Alabama, walking 409 miles just to get to the AT’s southernmost point in Springer Mountain, Georgia.
He finished 261 days later, sharing champagne in Dixie cups with a handful of friends as the former record holder, Dale “Grey Beard” Sanders passed the mantle in an improvised ceremony.
“I want to be the first to welcome you to the finish line,” Sanders said, pointing to the cracked stoop of a friend’s home in Dalton, Mass. Eberhard had flip-flopped his route at the end of July, starting southbound from the trail’s northern terminus in Maine in order to tag the top of Katahdin before the park closed for the winter.
“Ten miles a day don’t amount to nothing,” the Nomad told Adventure Journal on Tuesday. “It’s sure not something you’d brag about, but I was trying to maintain one mile an hour.” He said the hike was the hardest of his long career. It was far from his longest.
Twenty-three years ago, at the tender age of 60, he hiked nonstop from Key West Florida to Cap Gaspé, Quebec, a 4,400-mile route now known as the Eastern Continental Trail. Eberhard wrote Ten Million Steps (Menasha Ridge Press) about the journey, and the book became a classic of the through-hiking canon. He then repeated the route from north to south (Newfoundland to Alabama). He hiked the U.S. from coast to coast (twice) and over the next two decades ticked off an astounding list of long hikes: Continental Divide, Pacific Crest, Lewis and Clark National Scenic Trail, the Natchez Trace, and others. At 75, he tied them together with a 1,555-mile road ramble across the southern sates, completing a Great American Loop touching all four corners of the continental U.S. He’s been around.
Nothing, however, could prepare the retired ophthalmologist for the emotion of finishing his toughest hike to date, or the splash of publicity that followed. Soon after Gray Beard gave him a warm hug and a commemorative walking stick carved by thru-hiking artist John “Bodacious” Beaudet, a story about the Nomad and his groundbreaking hike moved on the AP wire. Within hours, the Nomad’s bearded mug appeared in hundreds of news outlets around the world.
“There’s an old guy, 83 years old, that’s out there hammerin’ and getting things done, and they think, ‘By God, maybe I’ve got some time left in my life that I can go and enjoy and find satisfaction in doing some of the things I’ve always wanted to do,'” he said when AJ caught up with him Tuesday, just before he took cover from the media storm in the cellular-free shadow of Flagg Mountain.
“I love that the word folks use when they describe their feelings about knowing me or having read some of my writings is ‘inspiration.’
Adventure Journal: What are you going to do to top this?
Nimblewill Nomad: The name I chose for this was the ‘Last, Last Hike,’ so I don’t know if I’m going to be doing any more or not. I’m 83 years old. Gracious. This thing took it out of me. I’ve got to have some time to recover and think about whatever little bit of future I have left, the good Lord willing.
You’ve talked to hikers before that are trying to decompress and come back to what we call the ‘real world.’ So I’m going to go through that turmoil again.
Do you feel that re-entry more now because you’ve received so much notoriety as the oldest AT thru-hiker?
There’s that factor, of course. The New York Times interviewed me yesterday, and the Wall Street Journal. The Canada Radio Network wants to talk to me, and it just goes on and on. Where I’m going today is back out in the woods, down below the mountain. There’s no cellular signal there, so I won’t have to deal with any of that kind of stuff.
I was under an incredible amount of pressure to continue and to get through the thing, and I was pushing myself to do that. Ten miles a day don’t amount to nothing. It’s sure not something you’d brag about, but I was trying to maintain one mile an hour. And if I can be on the trail no more than eight hours a day, I can usually concentrate and I can keep my balance a little and keep my wits about me. Anything over eight hours I start to suffer with the inability to concentrate and focus.
The trail has just been beat to death. It’s just rocks and roots now. So you’ve got to watch every dang foot placement. One slip up and . . . you know, I fell down a lot. I just was fortunate not to get injured badly, but I got skid marks all over me from this hike. So it’s been a difficult thing. And I guess that’s maybe one of the things that people seem to latch onto and have some sort of a connection with. There’s 261 days, 2,616.9 miles, which is kind of crazy at age 83, isn’t it?
It is. And I think that’s why so many people can relate. Your trip really captured people’s imaginations, and I wonder whether they inspired you to keep going, or whether you did it for your own reasons?
Well, in the past it had been that. And I’m dear friends with Gray Beard, the fella whose record no longer stands. He encouraged me to do this and that was a factor.
I wanted to see if I still had another hike in me, and I kind of didn’t. [laughs]
I love the woods, I love the solitude. I enjoy the physical challenge. It’s a huge mental thing that you have to deal with. If you put a pack on and you’re gone for days and weeks and months at a time, it can get to be an ordeal. In the past, I was able to deal with that better.
Was it one of those things that when you’re out there, some of the time you love it and some of the time you hate it?
It sure is. It’s a bittersweet thing. It’s a love-hate at the end of the day. You know, I’ve fallen down. I’m tired. I’m sore. The trail beat the hell out of me and I’m saying, ‘Well, just quit Old Man, and go home.’
You get in that sort of a mental state which is not real healthy sometimes. You deal with that, and then in the morning, I become energized again. Even at my age, I’ve got my energy back and I’ve got my disposition and my mental attitude straightened out. So it’s a roller coaster, man. It’s not only the physical thing, but you’re bouncing up and down mentally all the time, too.
That reminds me of an essay on your website about what you call the Three Wise Men that every thru-hiker meets on the trail, representing the mental, the physical and, if you’re open to it, the spiritual aspect of the journey.
Those three planes, they intertwine. They’re interwoven one with the other. It’s your mind and your body, the physical and the mental aspects of doing a day-to-day grind, and if you can open up to the extent necessary to accept what nature has to offer, which is a contact; an opening and a light shining through to what God really is and what that sort of a relationship might become if you can get past the physical and the mental aspects.
We can’t feel it, touch it, hear it, smell it, see it. Those senses aren’t tuned in, but there’s something going on there. And I’ve learned over the years to just relax and let it be part of my daily activities when I’m out with nature, where it’s quiet, where it’s peaceful. It’s kind of like returning to the womb. We all went through that at some time, but none of us can much remember what it was like.
We talk about Mother Earth. I’ve never made the connection until now, but in wild nature you really do get the feeling that the Earth is looking after you.
I’ve got to the point in my journeys now where the physical and the mental demands are not overwhelming. They have on certain days on this hike been grueling, but I’ve been able to get past that and enjoy the solitude and what nature has to offer. Fall up there was just glorious this year.
There’s a lot of focus on this particular hike, even though it’s barely an asterisk on your overall list. What is it about this age record on the Appalachian Trail that stirs people’s imaginations?
I think they look within themselves. They see that that in their good days, the productive times, they’re saddled with responsibility to raise my family. They’ve got debt that they probably will never be able to get past and they’re looking down this tunnel. And at the end of it, there’s a little bit of a light. There’s an old guy, 83 years old, that’s out there hammerin’ and getting things done, and they think, ‘By God, maybe I’ve got some time left in my life that I can go and enjoy and find satisfaction in doing some of the things I’ve always wanted to do.’
I love that the word folks use when they describe their feelings about knowing me or having read some of my writings is inspiration.
Is that your motivation–the thing that gets you out of your sleeping bag in the morning and back on the trail?
It’s gotten beyond being a motivation to becoming an obligation. I can’t let all these people down. I have folks that have read every word of every journal entry that I’ve written—261 of these things, can you imagine? It’s crazy that folks have stuck with me, and I can’t forsake them. So it’s a self-imposed obligation.
Have you thought about what’s next? Is this really the last-last hike? There’s got to be another one, right?
This is my third through-hike [of the AT]. The first one was fairly easy, and the second one I don’t recall being much more challenging. But this one has been a bear.
I don’t like going out to the city park and hiking around the pond. That’s not my sort of thing. Even a short weekend hike, you know, ‘Let’s go out and spend the night in the woods and we’ll come back tomorrow,’ that’s not my way. A short hike for me is three months. I can’t see putting that sort of a challenge in front of me again.
Speaking of new beginnings, you met a fellow on the trail named Little Man, Harvey Sutton, a five-year-old boy who thru-hiked with his family.
Isn’t that a deal? You know at first I thought, what a terrible thing for a parent as far as forcing a child to do something. That’s what I thought was going on, but my God, it wasn’t. The little kid was just excited, just consumed with this. It wasn’t a matter of dad saying, ‘Let’s go, let’s go. You can do another mile.’ If anybody was driving anyone, it was the kid.
It’s neat to think of the youngest and the oldest through-hikers, meeting out there on the trail.
In one hiking year! 2021 looks like it’s going to be kind of a memorable year in the annals of AT history.
When your paths cross with other hikers, what do they want to know?
First they want to get their picture taken. And they’ll have questions for me, and good questions sometimes. Especially the folks that have been out there a little while and are struggling or suffering will want to know how in the hell can you keep doing this when it’s so difficult? So I’m able to inspire people.
But I tell folks, look, I can’t go through your pack and tell you what you need and what you don’t. That’s an evolving process that everyone has to go through. I can’t tell folks what to do or what not to do, or what to carry or what not to carry. If folks are persistent, I’ll just say, you dump everything out of your pack over there so we can see it, and I’ll dump my stuff out over here.
Now you take a look at what I don’t have that you do have, and see if you can figure out how the hell I’m getting by without it. If you go to Odyssey 2021 you’ll see a gear list of what I carried this year, and it’s weighed to the tenth of an ounce.