‘Nimblewill Nomad’ Becomes the Oldest Person to Hike the Appalachian Trail

M.J. Eberhart, known by his trail name, hiked into Dalton, Mass., on Sunday and became the oldest known person to hike the more than 2,000 miles of trail from Georgia to Maine.

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M.J. Eberhart, 83, is the oldest known person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. “Eighty percent of it is mental grit,” he said. “And that is why so many people fail.”

“From here to you, Grey Beard, and that’s it?” “Well, Sunny, I want to be the first to welcome you to the finish line, right here. What’s that? This is the artificial finish line. You come up here and you will have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in less than one year, a thru-hike, and now are the oldest person to ever do that, joining only two others, myself and Earl Shaffer.” [clapping and cheering] “I want another hug.” [clapping]

M.J. Eberhart, 83, is the oldest known person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. “Eighty percent of it is mental grit,” he said. “And that is why so many people fail.”CreditCredit…Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Nov. 9, 2021, 5:30 a.m. ET

M.J. Eberhart, an 83-year-old retired eye doctor, had a strenuous weekend.

On Sunday, he pushed through the final few miles of a hike on the Appalachian Trail, becoming the oldest known person to complete the roughly 2,190-mile trail from Georgia to Maine.

It was an odyssey that started in January from his home in Flagg Mountain, Ala., with a series of day hikes that gradually took him to Georgia. From there, he started the journey along the Appalachian Trail. He carried a six-pound pack, with a tent, sleeping bag and other gear (not including food and water).

Known by his trail name “Nimblewill Nomad,” Mr. Eberhart hiked the distance in segments. Sometimes friends and supporters hiked with him or picked him up for overnight breaks of a warm bed and meal, driving him back the next morning to where he had dropped off the trail.

Mostly, he slept in the wild. He was stunned by the natural beauty around him. He saw bears. Mosquitoes divebombed and pecked at him. He dreaded the prospect of boulders and 50 mile-an-hour winds in the Presidential Range in New Hampshire.

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Mr. Eberhart on the Appalachian Trail in Gorham, N.H., in September.Credit…Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

And he came “face to face” with himself, he said in an interview. Every day, he said, he overcame the temptation to quit.

“I knew what was coming,” he said. “And day to day, the challenge.”

But he pushed on.

“Every foot of that trail,” he said.

At the end, Mr. Eberhart hiked the last leg of his trek on Sunday into Dalton, Mass., and into the record books.

On Depot Street, Mr. Eberhart was greeted by Tom Levardi, known by insiders as a trail “angel” who for decades has supported hikers.

There, a celebratory handover took place, where Dale Sanders, 86, known by his trail name “Grey Beard,” handed Mr. Eberhart an engraved hiking stick in a symbolic transfer of the record, and then toasted him with Champagne. Mr. Sanders had held the title since 2017, when he hiked the entire trail at age 82, and had driven from Tennessee to walk the final miles with Mr. Eberhart.

“An incredibly emotional time, as I again break down in tears,” Mr. Eberhart wrote about the hike in his online journal.

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Dale Sanders, left, known as “Grey Beard,” who had held the record for oldest hiker, walked the final miles of the trail with Mr. Eberhart on Sunday.Credit… Chris Whalen

“He stole my record from me,” Mr. Sanders, reached by telephone, said, laughing. “I am not at all disappointed that he took it. I actually promote older people to get out and break my record.”

On Monday, Mr. Eberhart was on the move again. He set off in good spirits, this time in a car with a driver, for home in Alabama.

The Appalachian Trail, nicknamed the A.T., stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, crossing 14 states over mountains, woods and roads. About three million people hike the trail, either for a few miles or in multiday segments, or persist along its entire length.

People who hike the Appalachian Trail have become a close-knit community online and on foot, referring to each other by their trail names and exchanging tips, warnings and other information.

Mr. Eberhart thanked some of them in his blog, including those he hiked with on his final day: Slim Jim, Kitchen Sink, Pooter Scooter, Mayor, Slider and Neighbor Dave.

Jordan Bowman, a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the organization that leads management of the trail, said on Monday that he was informed of Mr. Eberhart’s achievement by a reporter on Sunday.

The conservancy does not verify log books or hostel visits or other written documentation that someone has completed a thru-hike, he said. Instead, he said, there is a strict honor code.

“We are not monitoring to make sure you touched every white blaze,” he said, referring to the paint markers on trees that let hikers know they are on the right path.

It was the third time that “Nimblewill Nomad” had hiked the trail in a thru-hike, which is when someone goes the full distance within a 12-month period. The other two times were in 1998 and 2001-2, when the trail was part of longer hikes of thousands of miles, he said.

After adding hundreds of miles to his hike by starting in Alabama, Mr. Eberhart said, he put his pack on and set off on the Appalachian Trail itself on March 1. He averaged about 10 miles a day, he said.

By July, he was on the New York-Connecticut state line when a friend took him off the trail and drove him to Maine to avoid bad weather. From there, he hiked south.

“Once you get into it, it helps steel you,” he said. “The more you get into it, the more committed you have to be.”

The trek requires mental, as well as physical, resolve. “Eighty percent of it is mental grit,” Mr. Eberhart said. “And that is why so many people fail.”

In 2016, Mr. Eberhart was living mostly out of a pickup truck, using a relative’s home in Missouri as a mailing address.

“Put me in the great outdoors, preferably the mountains, and you’ve got a happy camper,” he told The Times in an article profiling adventurous retirees.

The trail was closed during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, but the numbers of hikers have come back to prepandemic levels this year, Mr. Bowman, of the conservancy, said. Mr. Bowman said that the registrations for attempts to hike the entire trail in one 12-month period were 3,107 in 2019, but that the system for registration, which is voluntary, was halted for much of 2020 when Covid-19 was surging. There were 3,763 registrations this year. “There were a lot of people who had postponed their hikes,” he said.

He said he had known about Mr. Eberhart’s hikes for months, but he had not spoken with him after he made the record.

“I hope he is doing well and soaking his feet,” he said.

Mr. Eberhart said he overcame pain every day, including foot pain that brought him to tears. But he often thought of Lance Armstrong, the cyclist, who once said that pain was temporary but that quitting lasted forever.

He lost 15 pounds, but said he would not cut his hair or shave. “The old man on the mountain has got to have a beard,” he said.

After a hike of thousands of miles, Mr. Eberhart did not hesitate when asked what he planned to do next.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I am 83 years old. I just hope I am here tomorrow.”

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