July 3, 2017


The man who went on a hike - and never stopped walking (Robert Moor, 3 July 2017, The Guardian)

In his 61st year on this earth, the man who calls himself Nimblewill Nomad left home and walked a very long way through the mountains - about 10 million steps, he estimates, or 4,400 miles. Then, he took another, even longer walk. And then another one. And then another. Soon, he had given away almost all of his money and taken to walking almost year-round, roaming the post-industrial wilderness of North America in what he called "a desperate search for peace".

His fellow long-distance hikers speak of him in mythical terms. They told me that, in order to avoid foot infections, he had chosen to have all 10 of his toenails surgically removed. He was said to never carry more than 10lbs on his back, and to have invented a tiny stove that ran on twigs and grass, so he wouldn't have to carry fuel.

Over 15 years, he had hiked 34,000 miles. First he completed the so-called Triple Crown of long-distance trails: the Appalachian trail (2,200 miles), the Pacific Crest trail (2,650 miles), and the Continental Divide trail (3,100 miles). Then he went on to complete all 11 national scenic trails in 2013. Triumphant, fulfilled, and nearing his 75th birthday, he vowed to hang up his hiking boots.

Then, the next spring, he was back. He announced he would complete a grueling road-walk from New Mexico to Florida, in order to complete a route he had named the Great American Loop, which connected the four farthest corners of the continental US. This, he claimed, would be his last long hike.  [...]

In west Texas, the highway stretched in a straight line to a vanishing point on the horizon. Space and time started to play tricks on him. He walked for hours each day and never seemed to progress, the distant mountains retreating faster than he could catch them. The highway was lined with mileage markers, and he checked each one to convince himself that the numbers were changing.

His plan was to walk from gas station to gas station, but buildings of any kind were sometimes dozens of miles apart. If people hadn't stopped to give him water, he may well have died. When he emerged from the desert, vultures were circling ominously over his head.

Other than the vultures, almost all of the wildlife he had seen was dead (most of it roadkill), including a crushed coral snake, two mule deer, a raccoon, an armadillo, numerous birds, and a group of dead coyotes wired, inexplicably, to a fence. [...]

He retired in 1993 and began spending more time living alone on a plot of land he was developing beside Nimblewill creek in Georgia. He and his wife started to drift apart. There followed a dark period of about five years, about which he said he didn't remember much. When I later called up his sons - neither of whom had spoken with him in years - they recalled him as a caring father and a dutiful provider, but also someone who was easily frustrated, prone to bouts of drunken brooding, and, occasionally, loud (but never violent) outbursts of rage.

His new house sat near the base of Springer Mountain, which he would regularly climb. His hikes gradually grew longer; he began systematically hiking the Appalachian trail section by section, eventually reaching as far as Pennsylvania. Then, in 1998, at the age of 60, he decided to set out on his first "odyssey", a 4,400 walk from Florida to Cap Gaspé in Quebec, along a sketchy agglomeration of trails, roads, and a few pathless wilderness areas.

Not long before, he had been diagnosed with a heart block, but he declined the doctor's admonitions to have a pacemaker installed. His sons assumed he would not make it home alive.

On the trail, Eberhart renamed himself after his adopted home, Nimblewill creek. He began in the swamps of Florida and hiked north on flooded trails, where the dark, reptilian waters sometimes reached to his waist. When he emerged from the swamps, all 10 of his toenails fell off. By the time he reached Quebec, it was already late October.

Over the past nine months, he had experienced a slow religious awakening, but his faith was shaken as he passed through those grim, freezing mountains. "Dear Lord, why have you forsaken me?" he asked, upon seeing the weather darken one day at the base of Mont Jacques Cartier. However, a lucky break in the storm allowed him to reach the snowy mountaintop, where he sat in the sun, feeling "the warm presence of a forgiving God". After reaching the trail's end, he returned to the south (on the back of a friend's motorcycle) and, in a blissful denouement, walked another 178 miles from a town near Miami down to the Florida Keys, where he settled into "a mood of total and absolute, perfect contentment, most near nirvana".

He returned home a different man. He stopped showering. He kept his hair long. He began ruthlessly shedding his possessions; over the course of three days, he burned most of the books he had collected over his lifetime, one by one, in a barrel in his front yard.

In 2003, he and his wife divorced. He ceded the house and most of his assets to his ex-wife, and signed over his other real estate holdings, including the land at Nimblewill creek, to his two sons in an irrevocable trust. Since then, he has lived solely off his social security checks. If those funds ran out by the end of the month, he went hungry. But what he had gained was the freedom to walk full time, which felt to him like freedom itself. "As if with each step," he wrote, "these burdens were slowly but surely being drained from my body, down to the treadway beneath my feet and onto the path behind me."

Three days I walked with Eberhart, through swampland and farmland and urban wasteland. To pass the hours, we talked; sometimes we argued. I discovered he held a fierce belief in an almighty God, and could not bring himself to believe in the science of Darwinian evolution or anthropogenic climate change. He also held a dogged belief in personal freedom, including the freedom to pollute the atmosphere with fossil fuels. "If I want to buy an airplane and fill it full of a thousand gallons of fifty-dollar-a-gallon fuel, and I got the money to do it, goddamn it, leave me alone!" he exclaimed at one point, in exasperation.

Posted by at July 3, 2017 7:33 PM