After Tens of Thousands of Miles, Has Hiking Legend “Nimblewill Nomad” Finally Retired?

At age 80, one of the most accomplished long-distance hikers in the world has settled atop a mountain in eastern Alabama. Has Nimblewill Nomad’s long odyssey finally come to an end?

Perpetual Hiker

“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.

alabama pinhoti trail nimblewill nomad

Nimblewill Nomad, left, and the author, at the southern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail on Oct. 28, 2018. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo

“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.

alabama pinhoti flagg mountain cabin

A renovated Civilian Conservation Corps cabin atop Flagg Mountain, southern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

“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

nimblewill nomad ice age trail

Nimblewill Nomad on the Ice Age Trail in 2012. Photo courtesy iceagetrail.org.

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.”

Photo: nimblewillnomad.com

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.

Nonstop Odyssey

ice age trail wisconsin

A bluff along the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin. freegoodphotos.com

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.”

Maximal Freedom

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

flagg mountain alabama halloween

A Halloween display created by local residents on top of Flagg Mountain, AL. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

“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 Nomad, left, and Luke “Strider” Jordan on the Ice Age Trail, 2012. Photo courtesy Luke Jordan.

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)

flagg mountain pinhoti trail alabama nimblewill nomad

M.J. “Sunny” Eberhart, aka Nimblewill Nomad, raises the flag atop Flagg Mountain on Oct. 28, 2018. Clay Bonnyman Evans photo.

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.”

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 8

  • Deja / Critter : Jan 2nd

    I met Nimblewill Nomad in ’98, on my first thru-hike and his ECT trip. One afternoon I set up camp early somewhere in Virginia, and he and a few others stopped by for a break. He took off his pack and chatted with us for a while. He just emanated kindness, humility and wisdom. This was before he became a legend, but it was clear to all of us that a legend was in the making. I feel so fortunate to have sat in the presence of this wonderful fellow hiker, if only for a brief time.

    Reply
  • Kerosene : Jan 4th

    I may have passed Nimblewill Nomad during a dayhike in 2003, although at the time I wasn’t aware of his reputation and we didn’t exchange trail names as he was descending Smarts Mountain heading NOBO while I was ascending. My trail journal for Monday, July 21, 2003 mentions that I encountered a thru-hiker with “a luxurious white beard [who] was lean yet strong from his months on the Trail.” I made the possible association years later after I read “Ten Million Steps”. I do recall that he was certainly friendly, but it was a brief interaction as we both were trying to make miles that day (him to Katahdin, me just to Darmouth SkiWay to close up a gap). Someday I’ll see if I can correlate his whereabouts with mine on that date.

    I find it amazing that he was/is able to hike tens of thousands of miles at his age. My knees are now shot (probably from soccer, basketball and backpacking), so my long-distance backpacking is a bit out-of-reach. What memories he must have!

    Reply
  • cece thompson : Jan 4th

    Ninth decade, not eighth.

    Reply
    • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Jan 4th

      Fixed. Thanks for the catch.

      Reply
  • Meredith J. Eberhart (oldest son) : Jan 5th

    This man is no legend at all to the family and friends he slowly abandoned over the course of 20 plus years ….. He is quite simply a hedonistic malcontent who spent most of his adult life being a semi-functional alcoholic. His true “triple crown” achievement to those of us that continue to live in the reality he walked away from and still honor our family responsibilities and worldly commitments is his complete and utter accomplishment of (1) abandon his wife of 45 plus years (2) abandon all professional partners to include both (Dr.s) and all other business associates and previous life long friendships and non-hiking persons (3) abandon all offspring to include ZERO acknowledgement of (both) his GRANDCHILDREN. Good job mountain man !

    Reply
    • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Jan 6th

      Mr. Eberhart, Jr.:

      Your father did not hide the fact that he had not treated his family right from me, but I confess I didn’t pursue the issue in any depth, as it was not the focus of the piece. It seems to me he also admitted his faults in Moor’s book “On Trails,” for which the author also interviewed members of the family.

      That said, I’m sorry that you’ve all had to go through that negative experience with your father. I make no defense of his choices. But I will note that all people make choices, good and bad, and those outside intimate relationships don’t always know the suffering that goes on within them.

      It’s also true that each person has his or her own relationship with another person, and that sometimes results in great contradiction: The kindly benefactor who is a tyrant at home; the generous public celebrity who stints his children; the giving volunteer who turns out to be a thief and a bully. I know your father only through the lens of our (brief) relationship, as do others quoted in the story.

      In closing, I offer this poem. Your father included some of the verses in his book, but I first encountered it decades ago, as a teenager. I’m not seeking to exonerate the wanderers of whom the author, Canada’s Robert W. Service, writes (nor is he, IMO). But I do think he makes some valid observations:

      The Race of Men That Don’t Fit In
      (In the spirit of contemporary egalitarianism, let’s assume that “men” includes people of all genders)

      There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
      A race that can’t stay still;
      So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
      And they roam the world at will.
      They range the field and they rove the flood,
      And they climb the mountain’s crest;
      Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
      And they don’t know how to rest.

      If they just went straight they might go far;
      They are strong and brave and true;
      But they’re always tired of the things that are,
      And they want the strange and new.
      They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
      What a deep mark I would make!”
      So they chop and change, and each fresh move
      Is only a fresh mistake.

      And each forgets, as he strips and runs
      With a brilliant, fitful pace,
      It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
      Who win in the lifelong race.
      And each forgets that his youth has fled,
      Forgets that his prime is past,
      Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
      In the glare of the truth at last.

      He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
      He has just done things by half.
      Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
      And now is the time to laugh.
      Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
      He was never meant to win;
      He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
      He’s a man who won’t fit in.

      Respectfully,
      Clay Bonnyman Evans

      Reply
      • Meredith J. Eberhart : Jan 6th

        Mr. Evans,

        Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

        We are all products of our “own” choices to some extent up until the point in time that those choices create and fix harm, malice, disappointment, pain, anguish, guilt, despair, loss and a multitude of other damaging issues among others in our immediate core circle of life.

        Our human legacy surely should not be the pinnacle of only the “self” as a paramount drive in our purpose here in this life.

        One’s defined and life altering choices somewhere it seems should reflect a glimmer of importance or pause in reflection in how these choices may impact, educate, guide, benefit or embrace others that are or will be either the benefactors or victims if you will of the potential good or bad (negatives) involved in the outcome in these decisions.

        Here is an excerpt from Sherlock Holmes in the Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as he contemplates out loud to Mr. Watson….

        “My dear Watson, most things in life are obvious, that which nobody by any chance ever observes or enjoys.”

        If one’s true and only legacy in this existence is the “self” , then that is a path I hope to never, ever take a step upon.

        I cannot imagine a world or life void of my wife, daughter and other loved family and friends….

        Thanks again for not deleting or editing these communications.

        The initial spur to enter into dialogue here was your use of the word “legend”.

        Health & Happiness to you & yours

        Reply
        • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Jan 6th

          And likewise to you, and yours, and all your family!

          “Pony”

          Reply

What Do You Think?