PORTLAND, Maine — When he retired more than a quarter century ago, M.J. “Sunny” Eberhart, an 83-year-old Alabama man known as the “Nimblewill Nomad,” started walking. He never stopped.
Now, Eberhart has walked into the record books as the oldest hiker to hike the entire 2,193-mile Appalachian Trail.
“I’ve a got a couple of skid marks on me,” he said, allowing that, despite the tens of thousands of miles under his belt, the trail was tough going at his age, with quite a few spills on slippery rocks. “But I’m OK. You’ve got to have an incredible resolve to do this.”
He hiked the trail out of order, in sections, to take advantage of optimal weather, and already had completed northern sections including Maine’s Mount Katahdin before completing his final section in the town of Dalton in western Massachusetts.
His feat comes in the same year that a 5-year-old hiked the entire trail, becoming one of the youngest to manage the feat.
Joining Eberhart for the finish was the former record-holder for the oldest to complete the trail., Dale “Greybeard” Sanders, who lives outside Memphis, Tennessee, finished the hike at 82 in 2017.
“My dear friend Nimblewill is taking my record away from me, and I’m happy for him,” Sanders said. “Records are made to be broken.”
Jordan Bowman of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, confirmed that Eberhart is the oldest to finish the trail, surpassing Sanders.
Eberhart began his wanderlust in earnest after retiring as an optometrist in Florida in 1993.
The man with flowing locks and impressive beard actually hiked farther than most who traverse the trail, which runs between Georgia’s Springer Mountain and Maine’s Katahdin. He started his hike in February at his home in Flagg Mountain, Alabama, adding hundreds of miles to the route.
The journey represented a modest distance, relatively speaking, for a guy who has trekked 4,400 miles from the Florida Keys to northern Quebec, an adventure he chronicled in a book titled “Ten Million Steps.” He later hiked from Newfoundland to Florida, an even greater distance. He also walked from Chicago to California along old Route 66.
On this hike, his body not being what it once was, he tried to limit himself to eight hours of hiking a day.
But he still got banged up. On a recent day in New Hampshire, he took a tumble and bloodied an elbow. A hiking companion asked whether he wanted to take a break.
Eberhart’s answer: “Do you think, if I complain about it, it will go away?” Then, he picked himself and pressing onward, said Odie Norman, of Huntsville, Alabama, who hiked 100 miles with him.
Eberhart’s age puts him at the opposite extreme from a pair of young hikers who completed the trail during the pandemic. Juniper Netteburg, 4, finished her journey with her missionary parents last year, and Harvey Sutton, 5, from Lynchburg, Virginia, completed the trail with his parents in August.
Eberhart, who met young Harvey, known as Little Man, along the trail, said he “impressed the dickens out of me.”
Eberhart hasn’t lost his desire to keep moving or to seek the sense of calm he finds on the trail in the company of the tight-knit and diverse hiking community.
He said he did his first major hike after trying to deal with the emotional and mental baggage that involved a divorce and losing the respect of his children, and he eventually found peace and forgiveness.
“You can seek peace,” he said during a recent break along his Appalachian Trail odyssey. “That doesn’t mean that you’re going to find it. I persevered to the point that the good Lord looked down on me and said you’re forgiven, you can be at peace.
“It’s a profound blessing. It’s as simple as that.”
With the hike over, Eberhart plans to return to his home at Flagg Mountain, the southernmost mountain topping 1,000 feet in the Appalachians, where he’s caretaker of a fire tower and cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Norman, who publishes “The Hiker Yearbook,” said Eberhart probably won’t hang up his boots for good anytime soon.
“He said, ‘You know they’re calling this my final hike,’ ” Norman said. “hen, he laughed. I don’t think it’s going to be his last hike. I just don’t think he knows what’s he’s going to hike next.”