“The stars awaken a certain reverence, because always present, they are inaccessible.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
At 58 years of age, he sat dead in the cross hairs of a midlife crossroads, precariously perched on a cliff of mental despair. He was unhappy but not sure why, so he said the hell with it all, casting away a six figure a year Florida optometry practice and started to hike the Appalachian Trail, releasing his burdens and personal demons one step at a time.
His given name is Meredith, “a boy’s name back when I was born in 1938,” he assures me. His surname is Eberhard. However, within the world of long distance hiking he is known by his chosen moniker of Nimblewill Nomad and he is a legendary and revered figure, the Michael Jordan of long distance trekking. At 79 years of age, he is a walking machine.
We crossed paths outside of Shamrock, TX on a hazy September, 2017 late afternoon. Mr. Nomad was within one day of reaching the halfway point of his latest odyssey, hiking the path of America’s “Mother Road” – Route 66. He began his sojourn on July 26 amidst the toxic urban sprawl of South Chicago and should reach the trail’s end in the land of Milk and Honey, just past Thanksgiving. Upon completion of the 2300 mile journey he will symbolically dip his swollen feet into the Pacific Ocean, just off the Santa Monica, CA pier. Along the way he will use his Apple 7’s smart phone’s photo app to recreate and archive the best he can of what is left of the Depression era Grapes of Wrath migration trail, a movement that has come to represent the Great American Dream. “Route 66 is a highway we simply cannot forget. It cuts right across the heart of America, the very soul of this great nation. It is our Main Street,” Nomad says. “This road tells stories of hope and heartbreak, of starting over, new dreams found beyond the hazy blue. Route 66 represents what makes us a great nation.”
He is a man impossible to pigeonhole, but if I must - a mixture of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Johnny Appleseed, would seem apt. In a radio broadcast in October, 1939 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as a potential ally of questionable intent: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” A fitting evaluation of Mr. Nomad’s personality, I would conclude. He is a man who disdains personal wealth and has a strong reverence for the power of nature, but in a written article this past July defended the right of big industry to pollute the atmosphere with fossil burning fuels. He is outgoing to a fault, never considering personal security as he warmly greets every “On the Road” traveler he encounters. Yet, he told me, he has not been in contact with either of his two sons or his ex-wife in, “at least 15 years.” For a recent acquaintance, it is hard to understand the intent and purpose as he wanders. Yes; a man whose life is, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
His long distance hiking resume is unchallenged. Nomad has hiked the "Triple Crown" of American Trails: the Pacific Crest, the Appalachian and the Continental Divide. He has hiked all 11 National Scenic Trails (only one other hiker has accomplished this feat) and he was one of the first to completely hike the Appalachian Trail from the Florida Keys to Maine, a trek he later named the Eastern Continental. He chronicled his adventure in a book titled Ten Million Steps. Later, he repeated the trip with a southbound course, originating in Canada; etching for time his walk with a second book titled Where Less the Path is Worn.
In 2011, I had written a book on US Highway 83, the last non-interstate highway in the US system to run border to border, in this case, from West Hope, North Dakota to Laredo, TX. I had searched for and recorded the past, present and future in three small hamlets located on this isolated path. I nicknamed the road, “America’s 50 Yard Line.” I try each fall to revisit Highway 83; to follow up on earlier stories and to indulge in a sort of personal catharsis. Old Route 66, much today under Interstate Highway 40, intersects Highway 83 in Shamrock, TX. This is where I first laid eyes on Meredith Eberhard, AKA Nimblewill Nomad. I found it symbolic. He and I share a common interest in the “off the beaten path” history of the back roads of America.
My wife Shawna and I first spotted Nimblewill on an east bound service road, hiking west, into the oncoming traffic. He was a striking figure, slightly hunched while rhythmically striding along with his custom made walking poles clicking in cadence. From a distance, one could not tell his age; only that he was thin with unbound and unkempt beard and hair. (He stopped cutting his hair and beard years ago.) Upon greeting, he smelled of a man who had spent the last two days in the heat of the Texas Panhandle hiking over 45 miles, with an in between a night’s stay in a long ago abandoned gas station. As we greeted each other, he immediately apologized for his hygiene. “I must be some sight and an even worse smell for someone you have just met,” he offered. His handshake was remarkably strong for a man whose wind burnt face gave a strong hint of his age. He was attired in long acrylic shorts and a long sleeve white dress shirt. When he removed his sunglasses, his pale eyes were deep set giving off a vague sense of weariness and wisdom. He wore a trendy racing hat while supporting himself on two Cressida Antishock trekking poles. He had distinct tan lines on both his wrists and ankles. His appearance was disheveled but his clothing was high tech. His greeting was genuine and without pretense. My immediate reaction was to like this man.
We offered to pay for a night’s stay in a nearby motel and a good evening meal in return for an after dinner interview. “Your generosity is most kind,” he said in acceptance.
I started the post meal interview while seated in my adjoining motel room with the obvious question: So why is a 79 year old man vagabonding across the nation? “After all is said and done,” Nomad explains, “the question boils down to this; and it’s really quite simple: How many of us can honestly say we’ve ever dealt straight up with who we truly are as a person — as a kind, loving, caring, and forgiving person? Here’s the problem. When we start this thought process, when we begin probing, we become very uncomfortable, very fast! But with all the diversions and distractions around us — distractions that we create, along with all those that simply occur day-to-day here in the “real world,” we’re able to block out and avoid these painful thought processes. On the trail, however, where one is alone mile after mile, day after day, month after month, where these diversions don’t exist and can’t be created, eventually all the masks, all the facades, all the little games played and replayed get stripped away. It is then you come face-to-face with yourself!”
His commitment to his toil is total. A quick Google search told of a rumor he had surgically removed all ten of his toe nails in an attempt to avoid infections. True he confirmed, removing his shoes and socks to show me the proof. “Took a long time to find a doctor who would do it,” he said with a twinge of pride in his voice. “He used a pair of surgical pliers to pull them out one at a time. Hurt like hell and I couldn’t walk for a couple of weeks, but don’t have to worry anymore about infections or in-grown toe nails. It was a good investment.”
Nomad prides himself of traveling light. “I have learned over the years,” he says, “to haul only what I need and not just what I want. At my age, I have to travel light. I can still do up to 30 miles a day but I can’t pack 20 to 30 pounds with me like I use to when I was younger. Not counting any food or water I might haul, my pack goes about 11 pounds.”
“It speaks to our life’s priority, how much ‘stuff’ we collect and haul around with us,” Nomad says. “Our life’s pack, its size, gives a strong indication of our own insecurity. Many fear the dreaded unknown. The greater our fears, the more stuff we haul around through life. To find inner peace, we must face this reality, we must lighten our load. Here is a quote for you, my new friends, ‘Feed your faith and your fears will starve to death.’ Every year I intentionally lessen my possessions, and every year my happiness increases, makes me richer, not poorer.”
He allowed for a peek inside of his nylon pack. Listed below are the contents, total weight is 10.9 pounds:
1. Gossamer Gear® Murmur™ Hyperlight Backpack
2. Nimblewill Tent (Cuben fiber body 0-8.1 – Silnylon Fly 0-6.9 -stakes 0-00.7)
3. Mountain Hardware® Phantom™ 45 sleeping bag (converted to quilt)
4. Therm-A-Rest® NeoAir™ short sleeping pad
5. Dollar General® emergency poncho
6. GoLite® Ether Jacket
7. ZPacks™ Challenger Rain Paints
8. Aquamira® water purification tablets (6)
9. Gatorade® 32oz bottle (email@example.com)
10. Photon® Micro Light II® w/cap-bill clip
11. Silnylon ditty bag
12. First Aid in Ziploc® (iodine/alcohol preps, Neosporin®, bandages, powder, floss, razor blade)
13. Garmin® eTrex™ GPS w/2AA batteries
14. Apple® iPhone 5S™ w/case/charger
15. 14-days OTC (Osteo Bi-Flex®, GNC® sports meds, Ecotrin®, regular aspirin)
16. 2.1 Maps and data in Ziploc®
No toothbrush, no soap, no extra clothes, no toilet paper.
He will admit to a few worldly possessions, like an old pickup truck with a camper shell, housed now back with a friend in Alabama. He winters in his truck, often times parked in either a Walmart parking lot of a state park, spending hours in public libraries preparing meticulously for his next hike. Nomad survives off the funds from a merger social security check. If the money runs out before the month does, he simply does not eat. He has a few keepsakes stored at a sister’s house in his native state of Missouri; but most of what he has to show in terms of personal possessions collected over nearly eight decades lies now in a small backpack dropped by a leaking window air conditioner in a budget motel room in Shamrock, TX.
I tackle the age issue, an inquiry as to the toll that his grueling day after day efforts take on an aging body. “I have had made share of hurts, aches and pains, for sure,” he admits. “The worst was on my Continental Divide hike. I had to shut down at Silverthorne in Colorado, had made it about half way when I came down with the shingles. It took me a good six months to recover from it. I went back the next year to finish the hike, on down to the Mexican border. I simply ask the Lord each morning to lay it on me, challenge me, testing my faith. I don’t always have the luxury of having a fine steak dinner like you provided tonight. A lot of times I survive on what I would call crap food, lots of gas station hot dogs and the like. I depend on the Lord to provide and it seems each day he takes pity on this old man by allowing generous people like you two to cross my path.”
His list of hiking injuries are worthy of an overworked MASH unit. Once,” he confided, “I was struck by lightning. It was up in Canada.” He has broken both his ankle and his shinbone, obvious calamities in the middle of a hike. He has fallen and broken ribs. Even sans toe nails, his feet are a constant source of torture and torment. He pops Ibuprofen pain tablets as if they were M&Ms. “I use to use straight aspirin,” he says. “Doctor was really on me about how hard it is on my liver. Now I go to the Vitamin I,” he adds with a chuckle. “I always know when I have taken too much and need to cut back, when my ears start ringing.” Yet, with the exception of the bout with shingles, he has finished every odyssey he has begun.
Nomad travels with very little money. When a Good Samaritan does not materialize to provide a night’s lodging, he will erect his pup tent in what he calls a “stealth camp.” It could be a roadway ditch or it could be behind an urban dumpster. “I find beauty wherever God leads me,” he says. Earlier, on his Route 66 Odyssey, he had found refuge on a stormy Oklahoma night within an abandoned side-of-the-road warehouse. When he told the waitress at a local diner the next morning where he had stayed the previous night, he was informed, “it’s full of rattlesnakes.” He has no fear of the trail’s unknown; with faith he will somehow procure whatever his needs may be. “I put my faith in the Lord to protect me. I say the same prayer each morning as I shoulder my pack. I ask the two angels assigned to me, one on each shoulder to watch out for this old lost soul.” Providence, he says, has always found him.
He readily admits he is hiking away from his past, the decadent and reprehensible life of a man named Meredith Eberhard. Today, he tells me, that person no longer exists. “I am ashamed how I lived the first 58 years of my life,” he states. I notice his eyes are misting. “I was a classic Type A personality. Not a likeable person. I didn’t like myself, even. My walks have changed that.”
Along the Appalachian Trail, over 20 years ago, the Nomad found God. He today is a deeply religious man, an antithesis of his odious pre-hiking self. He says walking alone, mile after mile, gives a man time to think, time to ratiocinate with increasing clarity the meaning of one’s life. Surprising, to me, his faith has no “New-Wave” feel to it. It is not mystic or humanist based. It is; he leaves no doubt, a down-home-rock-solid-old-time conservative religion. “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior,” he proclaims, his voice full of emotion. “I believe in the Bible as the true word of God.” His hearing is almost gone, he tells me, but his is not deaf tone to the melodious sounds of nature. “You cannot experience nature in the sense I have - just listen - and not believe in a higher being. The world is too complex for a mind of our human limitations to have conceived or created, or to logically explain. That is where faith comes in.”
His spiritual transition has taken time. It has been often painful. Enlightenment did not come cheap. “I sold my optometry practice in 1993 and started spending more and more time alone developing a piece of land I had bought in Northern Georgia, next to a little stream named Nimblewill. I took the name as my own.” Over the next five years, a time he says today he recalls little of; Nomad gave away most of what he owned, eventually divorcing his wife and reinventing himself as a perpetual long distance hiker with no permanent address and few worldly possessions. By the year 2000 and the completion of his eastern seaboard 4,000 mile marathon, the excoriation of Meredith Eberhard was complete.
“Now, I wear my heart on my sleeve,” he says. “Finding the Lord Jesus Christ was an emotional experience for me, the most humbling in my life. I have learned the virtues of love, patience, compassion, and understanding. Today, I live purely by faith and trust. I rely on a higher power. Today, I see life from a whole new vantage, a wide and endless horizon and how is the view from here? Well, it’s called wisdom. Wisdom comes through faith and trust and that trust is administered by God.”
We live in a world fraught with inconsistencies, unpredictability’s and galloping variables. But that is not the world of Nimblewill Nomad. His is a refreshing story. At an age well past when most men have taken up the rocking chair, Nimblewill hikes on, day after day, mile after mile. Along the way he lives a life of freedom most can only dream of. But Nomad is not a dreamer, he is a doer. Possessing a kind soul that warms the spirit of all he encounters on America’s “Open Road,” this little old man accepts each new day’s challenges with a smile and a nod to a God he knows will provide. He models an inter-contentment I find envious; knowing his task for today will be the same as yesterday’s and identical to tomorrow’s: keep moving west at a never varying pace of three miles per hour, straight into the setting sun on a direct course to the Land of Milk and Honey.