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M.J. “Nimblewill Nomad” Eberhart wasn’t a stranger to thru-hiking when he began the Appalachian Trail this year. Among other journeys, he had walked 4,400 miles from the Florida Keys to Northern Quebec and rambled from California to Chicago along the path of old Route 66. But he knew that this trek was different: If he could complete the whole 2,200-mile trail in a season, he’d become the oldest Appalachian Trail thru-hiker on record.
As an 83-year old, Eberhart knew that the trail’s slippery rocks and roots could pose a serious threat to him. But that didn’t mean he was going to make it easy on himself: By the time he began the Appalachian Trail, Eberhart had already hiked the Pinhoti Trail, and the Benton Mackaye Trail in order to link up with Springer Mountain where the official Appalachian Trail begins. Those additional 420 miles added nearly a quarter of the distance to his already challenging trek through the nation’s oldest mountains.
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Eberhart began hiking in the 1980s, stringing together about half of the Appalachian Trail and part of the Florida trail in “jerks and starts,” according to his website. He began hiking in earnest after he retired from his practice as an optometrist, and in 1998, he began his first uninterrupted thru-hike, a walk from Florida to Cap Gaspé, Quebec. In the years since, he’s continued tagging long trails, spurred in part, he says, by a painful divorce that drove him into the wilderness in search of peace. He’s chronicled some of his adventures in three books.
Even with that experience in hand, Eberhart knew that the Appalachian Trail would prevent a challenge in its own right. He faced inclement weather, grisly terrain, and the natural consequences of aging. Yet he pressed on.
In search of optimal conditions, Eberhart decided to hike the trail out of order, and on Sunday, November 7, he completed the final stretch in Dalton, Massachusetts. The former record holder Dale “Greybeard” Sanders crossed the finish line with Eberhart. Sanders said he was happy for his friend, telling the Associated Press that “records are made to be broken.”
While the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has complicated thru-hikes over the past two years, hikers have nevertheless notched a number of groundbreaking accomplishments on the Appalachian Trail. The youngest known thru-hiker, 4-year-old Juniper Netteberg, finished the trail last year as a family trip during her parents’ sabbatical from their work as physicians in rural Chad.