In November of 2021, M.J. "Sonny" Eberhart became the oldest person to hike the Appalachian Trail. Below is a transcript of our conversation with the long-distance hiking legend known as Nimblewill Nomad.
You were the second person to hike all 11 national scenic trails. For most people that's more than a lifetime's worth of accomplishments. What made you decide to hike the AT again at 83 years old?
The first one is the people. I'm drawn back again because of the beautiful community that surrounds me that I can be part of and take them into my heart. And just take the joy in, Corey, that's it. That's it. I mean that's the bottom line. The fact that I got a backpack on, and sticks, and I'm walking down a trail is secondary to that one thing. There's an entity, there's energy, there's something going on within this group of people that we gather around and gather them around us. I've probably done my last hike, but I certainly haven't done my last bit of time that I'm going to be spending with all my dear friends from the hiking community.
So the trail draws you. The trail pulls you back. The trail, it's in you. It's part of your whole being, it's part of your existence after a while. There's a number of reasons why you end up being like me. And I take pride in being "hiker trash". Okay, that's what I am, which basically means you're not good for anything in society anymore. But we're drawn to the beauty of nature, to be with god and to share in the silence and the wonder that exists all around us.
Tell us about December 14th, 2000 and how that day changed your life.
[fighting back tears] December 14th (2000) was a very special time in my life. It was the day I climbed Flagg Mountain and had completed the entire Appalachian Mountain range. So it was an emotional time. I cradled my head in my arms and I leaned against the stones that formed the tower called Flagg Mountain Observation Tower, and I wept for probably 10 minutes. And I said to myself then, I promised myself in a whisper - because there's some kind of energy emanating from that mountain and it was in me, and I could feel it so strong. You're not vibrating or shaking or anything, but there's something going on that our physical senses can't feel or comprehend - I said that I would come back here someday. I don't know when; I don't know for what reason, but someday I'm going to come back to Flagg Mountain. [smiling] I've been the caretaker there now, Corey, for going on 4 years. So forgive me for being emotional, but you asked a question. Now can you come up with something a little more cheerful?
Let's see. You were an optometrist in the same county we operate out of in Florida. How long did you have your practice?
Yes, not too far from here. 30 years. Stuck in little rooms with no windows. You've been in the cubicles in these doctor's offices. I just hate when they go off of regular standard time in the daylite. I'd go in the dark morning and come out in the dark evening, and I'm an outdoors person. 30 years stuck in little examination rooms with no windows.
What was your favorite part about your practice?
Just the beauty of being able to help people. That's what the healing arts are about is to help folks have a better life. I don't know, I guess if I ask you, wouldn't you think that vision was kind of important in your life? You might have a positive answer. So i took great joy in being able to help people. But then I managed to leave that environment. When I walked out the door to my office that last day I've never looked back and I've been out [pauses to take in surroundings]...
I tell folks, Corey, I tell them. Well I ask them first, "Do you go to church?" and folks say, "well sure I go to church". And I say "you know what the place looks like that you go to church?", and they say "well sure". And I say "Well, the church I go to doesn't have a roof, my church has no roof."
I just want to enjoy life, I want to have a laid back life, I want to enjoy nature. I just want to go when I want to go, and where I want to go. I don't want to be driven anymore like I was during my career. So, it was a wonderful time in my life. It was 30 years carved out of my life. Raising a family and children was important in my life, but once that was behind me and I had the opportunity to go... Well, I guess you're familiar with that, cuz I went [chuckles].
How does it feel to be a larger than life inspiration to the entire hiking community and beyond? And do you recognize yourself as that?
Well, I've gained an incredible amount of recognition for whatever reason that may be. I'm not going to stand on Walt Whitman's shoulders here and brag and shoot my mouth off about that. The way my life has been the last 25, 30 years, what has occured and come to me, to bring me here today to be sitting here for whatever reason that you think it's important for you to talk to me had nothing to do with me or who I am as a person. We describe circumstances in our life as coincidences, or we use the word happenstance. "Isn't it funny how this worked out" sort of a thing. It took me quite a while to come to the realization and the understanding that what was going on in my life was not something that I created or that I was doing out of my own initiative or my own efforts.
I'm sitting here today in front of you and talking to you because I've been blessed. I've had incredible blessings come to me in my life. If that's been of importance and has had a positive impact on your life and other people's' lives, that's a really wonderful thing. And that I can be the conduit for that or the physical entity through which that can come you and to other people... I recognize that, Corey, and I understand it I think.
What words of advice would you give to someone who wants to leave their long time profession to become a full-time adventurer.
Touch your stomach. [points to crew] Touch your stomach. There's a little fire burning, there's an ember down there. You can feel that in your gut. It's there. And what that is just the instinctive drive to be free. To go and to live your life in a way that you're not shackled or tied down by the daily constant grind that we have to deal with. So my advice would be [chuckles], and i can't lose on this because when we reach down and touch our tummy we can feel that fire in there; it's in all of us. It's that ember, it's that desire, it's that... the word I use to describe it is wanderlust. And if you don't suppress that... And at times in our lives, we have to. We have a responsibilities. We have a family to raise. We have people that are depending on us for one thing or another and we can't just drop everything and go. We can't do that, that's irresponsible. But if you come to a point in your life, now, where you're free and you've accomplished the things you need to do to fulfil your requirements in life to others that are dependant on you, and you have time for yourself and can go... For God's sakes, do it. If it's nothing more than just going out with a fishing pole during the afternoon some time to be free where it's quiet, where you can be at peace. The extreme of that is to put a pack on and walk for a year, would be the other extreme. But if there is, within you, that fire in your gut, I don't need to lead you into this because that's a natural instinctive that's in all of us. And you can suppress that, you can recognize it, or in my case, [blows in hand] you can take that ember and explode it into a fire that consumes you. That's what you see sitting in front of you here. You see a person that's been consumed. I guess I'm the epitome of whatever example you can come up with to represent what wanderlust might turn out to be.
So, yeah. Go! Get a pack, get your gear, and hit the trail.
Be Sure to follow all of Nimblewill Nomad's Odysseys: https://nimblewillnomad.com/