During a pandemic, an 83-year-old man is attempting to become the oldest person to complete the over 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail. BPR spoke with him as he made his way through Western North Carolina:
It's spring in Franklin. That means that the town is full of hikers making their way up the Appalachian Trail.
After hours at a downtown bakery, a group of locals and hikers are wolfing down spaghetti and meatballs. Among them is a well-known bearded figure in the hiking community.
“I’m Sunny Eberhart. My trail name is Nimblewill Nomad.”
Franklin is at mile 110 of the Appalachian Trail but Eberhart started his hike in Alabama at the first over 1,000-foot peak of the Appalachian Mountains. He’s a little over 500 miles into his hike.
“I started in Alabama. I’m at Day 51 now. I left a place called Flag Mountain in Alabama,” said Eberhart. Flagg Mountain is now where he lives in an old CCC cabin. He opes that starting in Alabama will bring attention to its unique mountains and trails. He used to advocate for the AT to extend to Alabama along the Pinhoti Trail but now Eberhart says he’s at peace with it.
“The Pinhoti has its own identity and we would like to keep it that way,” said Eberhart.
After years as an optometrist, he retired at age 60 and has been hiking ever since. He says he’s hiked thousands of miles: 11 national scenic trails, six trails of westward expansion, done two transcontinental hikes. He’s even walked Route 66.
Many of these hikes are chronicled in his three books. He’s retired a few times before but…
“Well this is my last last last hike,” laughed Eberhart.
And what a year for a last hike. Last year, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommended that hikers not try to traverse the AT during the pandemic. Jordan Bowman, spokesperson for the conservancy, explained:
“I mean particularly at the beginning of the pandemic and something we still understand now is that crowds are bad,” said Bowman.
It’s estimated that about 4 million people hike on the Appalachian Trail every year. But on average only about 4,000 people register for the over 2,000-mile thru hike from Georgia to Maine, said Bowman. He explained that there are hundreds of access points on the AT so it’s impossible to get a true count of hikers.
Thru-hikers usually start their trek in early spring so they can finish before winter. That means that the trail can get crowded. This is called the hiker “bubble.” Plus, there’s been a pandemic boom of recreational hikers doing portions of the trail, explained Bowman.
“What we do know is that parking areas and trail heads have been significantly more full than they have in previous years. And that speaks to people just wanting to get outside and enjoy the great outdoors,” said Bowman.
For these reasons at the start of the 2021 season, most shelters along the trails were officially closed to discourage hikers from congregating. Hikers were recommended to camp in personal tents.
“Pandemic or no, I will remind people that it’s always important to be prepared of any length of hike,” said Bowman. Here’s the ATC’s recommendations for AT hikers specifically for 2021.
Now as vaccination rates rise and COVID numbers fall, the U.S. Forest Service has opened shelters in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. However, The Appalachian Trail Conservancy not officially certifying hikes this year.
This lack of certification doesn’t bother Eberhart. He is excited to be out on the trail with his hiking family.
“I’m hiker trash. I just love the trail and I enjoy the community, the people that I associate with and the people that are all around me.” It’s a blessing in my life,” said Eberhart. His friend, a well-known hiker who goes by “Graybeard,” holds the previous record for oldest hiker to complete the AT. He finished when he was 82 years old.
This year, the ATC says the number of hikers is on track to be higher than in 2020. The ATC says there were only about 2,000 registered thru-hikers last year.
From Franklin, Nimblewill Nomad can enjoy the AT hiking community for about 2,000 more miles through 14 total states.