Editor’s Note: On November 7, 2021, M.J. “Nimblewill Nomad” Eberhart completed the Appalachian Trail at age 83, breaking the record set by Dale “Greybeard” Sanders to become the path’s oldest thru-hiker ever. We got the chance to ask him about his boundary-breaking trip, the challenges of hiking a long trail in his ninth decade, and why he believes that this is his final thru-hike.
Backpacker: How did this thru-hike compare to the others that you’ve done?
Nimblewill Nomad: This was my third thru-hike of the AT. I had anticipated the joys and excitement, and challenges, and the ability to overcome the day-to-day problems and the effort it would take to accomplish it. But this one worked on me real hard.
I wasn’t prepared for having to deal with the limitations that I have now at my age. And the other thing, honestly, is that trail has been beaten down by what I call the “Vibram army”: Those soles keep hammering the dirt down. A good portion of the trail now is like walking in a rut. All it is is incredible erosion. So, the enjoyable soft tread through the pine forest isn’t there anymore. The trail had deteriorated considerably since I hiked it the last time.
A couple of months into this, it kind of dawned on me that there’s a reason why 83-year-olds don’t do this.
What kind of emotions were you feeling while you were thru-hiking?
It’s just a jumble of emotions with something like this. I could have quit any day, especially as the trail started wearing on me. It took a great amount of effort. So, I was dealing with that for the last two or three months. When you’re hiking about 10 miles a day and you’re trying to hike 2,400 miles, you realize that it just doesn’t crunch. So I was dealing with the reality that I was going to be out there for a long time. Finally, I realized I was going to pull this off: How are you going to quit something like that when you have all the prayers, and people, and energy behind you?
Did this thru-hike change you?
Yep. I thought maybe I would just glide through this thing and enjoy a renewal of all my previous experiences, and it didn’t turn out that way. The challenge I was faced with I wasn’t prepared for. So I had to reach down for a deeper level of commitment and energy and dedication.
“You say ‘oh my, this is it. I’m done.’ … Every possible conceivable emotion that you could experience is all wrapped up in that. I just gave up on making sense out of it.”
What were you hoping to get out of this thru-hike?
I think what I wanted out of this journey was to try to make myself a better person. There was a much deeper level of tolerance, a deeper understanding for what people experience in their lives. I can be tolerant and forgiving. I think all of those kinds of things come together to fit in and fill in and become an asset to someone who is seeking them. Hopefully, I’ve reached a point at age 83 where I can appreciate a little better what’s going on in me and what’s going on around me.
Did you struggle with any minor or major injuries?
I fell every day, sometimes multiple times a day, because my balance and reflexes are shot. I did a header off of Kinsman. And I landed on my pack on a fairly flat log. That could’ve been the end of my hike. But on most of my falls I got what I call “skid marks”. Those kinds of injuries are annoying, and they need to be tended to, but they’re not hike stoppers. So, I was blessed in that regard.
Why did you choose to start from your home in Alabama?
I wanted to bring awareness to the southern Appalachians. I wanted to be able to—with the fresh knowledge and experience of just having hiked the Pinhoti and the Benton Mckaye Trails—bring attention and focus to the southern Appalachians and the beautiful mountains we have.
There’s a trail that starts at Springer Mountain called the Appalachian Trail. But the mountains don’t start there. The mountains start in a place in central Alabama called Flag Mountain. I began my journey on the southernmost mountain on the Appalachians. We have a beautiful trail that’s professionally done and blazed—I’ve done trails, so I know what good trails are. I started my hike there, and it was 417 miles to Springer Mountain.
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How did it feel to take the record?
After 261 days, [I was] finally reaching the point where this thing is done. You’re ending something and you’re beginning that emotional period of a week to two weeks coming down off of your hike. It strikes you right there. You get a blow right off the bat. You say “oh my, this is it. I’m done.” You have to digest that emotion. Every possible conceivable emotion that you could experience is all wrapped up in that. I just gave up on making sense out of it. You go with the moment. You don’t fight it.
It was a very emotional moment. Greybeard had a personal hiking stick made for me. It’s engraved with my name on it. It says I’m the oldest person to have hiked the Appalachian Trail. And he’s standing there on Tom Levardi’s steps, and he passes it on as a token to me. My goodness, can you imagine and get a sense for that moment? It ran the gamut of emotions.
Everyone keeps saying that you’re retiring, but I’m not sure that I believe it. Do you think this was your last long trail?
Yeah. I’m an old man. I get emotional and tearful. In my case, reaching the steps there at Tom’s, and all of the emotions that went along with the transfer or being the oldest person to hike the AT, I was immediately struck with the reality that it’s more than likely that all good things come to an end. This is probably my last hike.
I think whatever number of days the good Lord has for me, I’m going to be happy and satisfied. I don’t have a home, I don’t have any real estate. I guess you could say I’m homeless. But my home is Flag Mountain, and I’ll probably be there for the remainder of my life.
What might you say to other hikers who might be interested in going after your record?
Go for it. I was on the phone for over a half hour the day before yesterday with a very dear friend that is incredibly well known all across the spectrum of hiking. He has hiked the PCT 11 times now. He’s a Triple Crowner. He knows what he’d be getting into. You may have heard of him: Billy Goat. I’m two months older than Billy Goat. If he waits until the first of 2022, and if he’s successful, he’ll become the oldest person to hike the Appalachian Trail. Whether he’s going to do it or not, I don’t know. I’d encourage you. If you’re not old enough, you’re going to have to wait a while. But if that’s your goal, then take care of yourself and when you get old enough, do it.
Do you have any advice for the rest of us?
If you have something in your life that you are passionate about, that’s the secret to aging. I’m an old man, but I’m a young man in spirit and mind because I have a passion for living in the joys that come on a day-to-day basis. And if you’re going to have those things that occupy and consume you, you’re going to take care of yourself. I’ve hiked tens of thousands of miles since I turned 60. I would not be here if I had not had the passion.To read about some of Nimblewill’s past long hikes, read his books, or visit his website.