M.J. Eberhart is a seasoned hiker. Okay, he’s far more than seasoned: Better known by his hiking moniker, "Nimblewill Nomad", the veteran outdoorsman has conquered the most challenging hikes in the country.
Eberhart, now 78, is one of only a handful of people who have successfully hiked the "Triple Crown" of trails: the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide; he’s only one of two to hike all 11 National Scenic Trails; and he was one of the first to completely hike the Appalachians from Key West to Maine, a trek he later named the Eastern Continental Trail and one that he wrote about in his book Ten Million Steps. Soon after that he did the trip again, this time southbound from Canada and wrote about it in his second book, Where Less the Path is Worn. (He’s also written a book of poetry, Ditties, which is currently out of print, though excerpts are available on his website.)
Now this former New Yorker is on to a new adventure in Alabama as temporary caretaker of Flagg Mountain, the last mountain over 1,000 feet tall in the southern Appalachians, and its historic cabins. Eberhart spoke with RootsRated about his adventures on the trail, what motivates him to keep hiking, and what’s on the horizon.
RootsRated: Let’s start at the beginning. You were a senior practitioner in a Florida doctor’s office and in the early 1980s you got the bug to start backpacking. One of your first big adventures was in 1998 when you hiked from Key West to Maine. What made you want to do a long-distance thru-hike?
Eberhart: Being an outdoors person and after being cooped up in little exam cubicles with no windows for nearly 30 years, I finally decided to retire. During my years in practice I managed to get away on the Florida National Scenic Trail (FT) from time to time for a week here, a week there. During that time I had managed to piece together a section hike of half the Appalachian Trail. Problem was, these short jaunts more often produced frustration rather than satisfaction. I found that a week on the trail was not enough, nor were two. I knew then I would put my pack on and go, not for a week or two, or a hundred miles or two, but for months and months, and thousands of miles.
RootsRated: You know this question is coming: What was your favorite hike and why?
Eberhart: My favorite hike? I used to fear the desert. Its forbidding, stark expanse scared and intimidated me. That was before I shouldered my pack to trek the Arizona National Scenic Trail. That hike opened my eyes to the uniquely singular beauty of the desert and yes, the desert can prove an incredible expanse, but it is not stark, nor need it be intimidating. As Earl Schafer did on his historic AT thru-hike in 1948, I had the pleasure and joy of experiencing the same infatuation as I journeyed north across Arizona. I dearly love nature’s magnificent spectrum of color, especially those subtle shades, the pastels. During spring, the desert literally comes alive. Every conceivable plant, all with thorns, becomes adorned with flowers, many displaying the astounding dusty pastel shades—just profoundly beautiful, all! And I had the entire 800-plus miles of the Arizona Trail almost entirely to myself, again, as did Earl on his AT trek. Ah, and the grand finale, the Grand Canyon (rim-to-rim), along my favorite trail, the Arizona National Scenic Trail.
RootsRated: And the most difficult hike?
Eberhart: Again, the magnificent desert, a segment of the Pony Express Trail known as the Central Overland Trail, that southwest 550-mile, high plains desert no-man’s land that stretches from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Carson City, Nevada. Bart Smith and I took it on early last spring.
The Central Overland is a desolate, far-distant fading rut that crosses some 11 mountain ranges, roughly following US-50, [also known as] The Loneliest Road in America, generally 50-100 miles distant. Food, but especially water, they were the problem. In my old four-wheel-drive pickup, I bounced around Utah and Nevada for over a month and 1,000 miles prior to beginning our trek, during which time I managed to beat my way to the trail at intervals of 20-30 miles and bury food and water. We then made the crossing successfully from east to west in 29 days.
RootsRated: You’re now 78 years old and still going strong. When you first got started what did you do to prepare yourself?
Eberhart: I’ve always kept myself physically fit. During my years in practice I ran, surfed, and raced motorcycles cross country. So, when time came to shoulder a pack and go, I was ready. No additional training needed.
RootsRated: With that many miles of trail you must have become a lightweight backpacker, or are you an "ultra-light" packer?
Eberhart: I’m what’s known in backpacking circles as a "gearhead." My fully loaded pack, less food and water, weighs a tad over six pounds. That’s ultra-lightweight.
RootsRated: So what’s your secret to packing light?
Eberhart: Packing only what I need as opposed to what I want. Interestingly, over time my wants and needs have become the same. That makes loading my pack easy and ultra-lightweight! At age 78, and what a blessing, I’m still able to do the long 20- to 30-mile days back to back with joy, but I’m no longer able to lug the weight.
RootsRated: You have battled some health issues in your life, in particular when doctors wanted to give you a pacemaker which, as you’ve said, you have "very well managed to do without". Can you tell us more about this?
Eberhart: Fifty years ago pacemakers were about the size and shape of a donut. No way was I going to have something that bulky embedded in my chest. What were the consequences of that decision? Well, that was 50 years ago now, and I’m still going strong—without a pacemaker!
RootsRated: Now that you’re retired, you’ve become a fulltime hiker and now the caretaker of Flagg Mountain in Weogufka, Alabama, the last mountain over 1,000 feet tall in the southern Appalachians. You have always had a passion for Flagg Mountain. Why?
Eberhart: Hiking up and over Flagg during Odyssey 2000-2001 [my second ECT thru-hike], the mountain’s grandeur, its natural beauty and charm immediately came to occupy a very special place in my heart and to this day does it there remain, as I remain captive to its spell. An excerpt from my journal entry for Thursday, December 4, 2000, Day 203, Mile 3,257 reads, "At the summit now, I make my way, taking my last steps, to falter and collapse, trembling uncontrollably against the wall that forms the beautiful Flagg Mountain fire tower. Dear Lord, to you do I give thanks. Once again you have remained my constant and faithful companion, for more than 200 days, over 3,250 miles. Together we have completed this incredible journey, the first thru-hike o’er the entire Appalachian range."
RootsRated: With the historic stone CCC fire tower and cabins that were built atop the mountain in 1935, one can imagine this isn’t like being a camp host in a state park.
Eberhart: Flagg Mountain had been under private lease for the past 20 years, the gates locked, no public access. That lease ran out the end of 2015 and the Alabama Hiking Trail Society has since accepted responsibility for restoration and care of the old historic CCC structures. A caretaker was needed. I was available early on, so I moved up here.
RootsRated: What does being a caretaker entail?
Eberhart: My time is spent as a volunteer. I’ve been living on the mountain 24/7 since mid-November  watching over and keeping an eye on the place. I keep the gates open to the public, greet folks coming to the mountain, talk with them, and answer questions. We offer free camping, and the three cabins now open are available to the public for overnight use (donations accepted). My time is otherwise spent renovating the old fire warden’s cabin, making it livable again. Once that project is complete and a permanent resident caretaker is found, I’ll be moving on.
RootsRated: Last year there has been vandalism on the mountain with broken windows in the historic cabins, dining hall, etc. How do you handle that situation?
Eberhart: There had been a serious problem with vandalism the past number of years, and I feared arson would be next. That's the reason I moved up here at the first opportunity. Fortunately, the word quickly got out that someone was now living on Flagg and there has been no further problem.
RootsRated: You mentioned renovating the old fire warden’s cabin. How are the renovations coming along?
Eberhart: Neglect, the ravages of time, and vandalism had taken their toll. Work is progressing quite well. We’ve received much volunteer help, plus generous donations. Warms my heart!
RootsRated: With all of this work, what is the ultimate goal for the cabins and Flagg Mountain’s fire tower? What about bringing the southern terminus of Alabama’s long path, the Pinhoti, to the mountain?
Eberhart: The current arrangement between the Alabama Forestry Commission and AHTS is very informal. If a more permanent arrangement can be made, AHTS envisions managing the Flagg Mountain complex much as it was originally intended, as a state park open to the public, with camping and cabins available—and of course, hiking and backpacking, the prime reason AHTS is up here. This being the symbolic beginning of the Appalachian Mountain Range, Flagg Mountain is no doubt destined to become the terminus of the venerable Appalachian Trail, although, likely unofficial. There is increasing pressure on Springer Mountain caused by the sheer number of people climbing all over it. Folks in the know realize something needs to be done, and soon, to stem the degradation. It is my hope that [the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and National Park Service] realize promoting Flagg Mountain as an alternate terminus for the trail makes sense.
As to the beginning/terminus of the Pinhoti National Recreation Trail—it’s already here! There’s a brand new pavilion, plus ample parking on the old CCC Road just below the summit of Flagg. With minimal road walking, it’s now possible to begin a northbound trek o’er the Pinhoti and the ancient Appalachians—the "Trail of the Ancients"—following the Pinhoti Trail through Alabama and Georgia to the Benton MacKaye Trail then on to Springer and the AT.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.