“Well sonuvagun!”——I remember uttering under my tongue in a moment of collapsible exhaustion, “the Alabama Roadwalk is over.” Well, the highway part of it concluded anyway. Tank and I had walked a whopping 37.6 miles that day to Coosa County to the Coosa trailhead, whereupon we made camp with headlamps mounted on our foreheads. The Coosa Trail would link to the Pinhoti Trail within the matter of a day’s walk. Staying warm had been a challenge, so the morning after coming off the roadway I made my usual morning caffeinated concoction, combining in water two packets of Swiss Miss, two packets of Folgers, and a shot of you-know-what in my cook pot.
Hiking the Coosa was barrels of fun and can be thought of as a hiker playground and precursor to the Pinhoti with hilly drop-offs and leafy switchbacks. The trail was noticeably absent of other hikers, only the trees and creeks for company. Tilting my chin for a throat-warming sip of Wild Irish Rose—the budget Concorde grape wine popular among thru-hikers—I knew the nature of my hike was about to abruptly change.
Kimm from the Pinhoti Outdoor Center agreed to pick up Tank and me, rendezvousing at a nearby country church. The POC, founded by Kimm and her husband Nathan, was a rural parcel that had been converted to a hiker and kayaker hostel complete with three bunk beds, kitchen, shower, and resupply shop. The hostel has plans to expand in the future and offers services such as food drops and water caching. Kimm stopped at the Dollar General so we could get a few trail-related supplies. When I was at the hostel, there were a number of friendly hikers that came through, all of which supported one another. There is much pleasure to staying up late talking with these remarkable people and hearing their stories. One avid hiker I met was hiking the Pinhoti for his fifth time! Another was a kindhearted retired police officer that had a keen interest in trail life and sectioning the Pinhoti. One woman I met was even prepping for her upcoming AT thru-hike. In the morning, Kimm shuttled me to the closest town of Sylacauga to replace my iPhone, which was pronounced deceased by this point. After using free Wifi at Chick-fil-A to download a few hiker apps to my new budget-friendly iPhone CE, Kimm took me back to POC, whereupon Tank and I packed up. We were dropped back off at the point of getting off trail and then immediately began walking towards Flagg Mountain, the southern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail.
Closing in on Flagg Mountain, darkness fell. Crunchy leaves and slippery pine needles carpeted the trail. Knocking on the cabin door of the now restored structure once built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) commissioned by FDR, the door opened almost immediately. There he was, ol’ Nimblewill Nomad, whom friends simply call “Sunny.” Sunny is a legendary thru-hiker who has completed all eleven National Scenic Trails and, in 2021, became the oldest man ever to complete the Appalachian Trail at age 83. He has been the host of the cabin for four years now, and locals speak of him as “the man on the mountain.” Sunny promptly invited us inside.
Now Sunny’s appearance is a subject all of its own. One first notices his kindly face and long-flowing white hair and beard. He resembles a beard-stroking wizard, much like Gandalf in J. R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings. Maybe a second-Moses or perhaps an ancient scribe or medieval monk? Emily Post would insist that it is a breach of etiquette to stare, but I could not redirect my curious eyes from this man. With an imagination as fertile as the Shenandoah Valley, my mind kept conjuring up historical lookalikes, such as Walt Whitman. I recalled James Murray, the Scottish lexicographer who lived as a hermit as he painstakingly compiled the exhaustive Oxford English Dictionary, using slips of paper and a unique pigeonhole filing system. Nimblewill’s folklorish beard is a pogonological wonder (pogonology being the study of beards!). In a Gillette razor blade advertisement, Sunny would surely be the “before” guy. Of course, the sage-like chin hair is here to stay and is one of the reasons for his much-loved appeal.
Sunny showed me around and led me to the guest quarters. The room was strewn with trail artifacts, newspaper article clippings, and old photographs of founding movers and shakers. Included were orange-washed colorized prints and black-and-white pictures of trail pioneers. Among them was Benton MacKaye, the forester and conservationist who first proposed the Appalachian Trail (AT) in a 1921 publication.
Tank and I nuked some weenie dogs and ripped open a bag of chips to grace and complement our fine evening entrée. Talking late into the night, we and Sunny discussed numerous subjects, including the history of the cabin and property and Sunny’s past hikes over the years. He humorously told about a misadventure, back when GPS was a primitive technology, when he walked seventeen miles in the wrong direction! Filling us in on his most recent odyssey, the ‘Bama to Baxter, Sunny talked candidly about some of the difficulties in hiking the AT at his age. He was able to hike only around ten miles per day and, with much frustration, took regular spills. Of course we also conversed at length about the Eastern Continental Trail, the subject of which he was the author of two substantial books including Ten Million Steps and Where Less the Path is Worn.
Sunny was sporting a simple wool flannel shirt and a pair of blue denim jeans. His real name is M.J. Eberhart while Nimblewill Nomad is his trail name. In a former life, he was an eye doctor. He had a way about him that was characteristic of a rehearsed poet. There was a delay in his responses as if to say the right thing at the appointed time. Sunny spoke with great command of the Westward Expansion Trails, including the Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail. There was also much discussion of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. With my ears perked, I learned about how the first westward emigrants had to pass at a place called South Gap in Wyoming, risking their lives in the wagon-rutted mud to get over the almost-impassable mountains. The Lewis and Clark Trail also became a topic of conversation, of which Sunny seemed to have a deep personal connection. William Clark and his expedition partner Captain Meriwether Lewis had been commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to map out the uncharted Louisiana Territory in the American interior. Sunny shared how to this day, one can still find original hatchet marks once used to blaze the trail during the expedition assigned to the Corps of Discovery. Marred and distraught with personal tragedy Meriwether Lewis, at age thirty-five, allegedly committed suicide. His co-commander Clark accepted the report of Lewis’ death. Lewis, the confidante and protégé governor of Jefferson, died of a mysterious bullet wound to the head at Grinder’s Stand along the Natchez Trace.
As part of his apparent routine, Sunny stoked the fire, glowing and popping a brilliant orange, in the main fireplace. Two bulbous glass kerosene lanterns had been lit in the darkened room and carefully placed at ether side of the sturdy mantle. Sunny, in a tone of thankfulness, spoke about the good many people he had met over the years and how things just came together for him. “People use the words ‘coincidence’ and ‘happenstance,’” Sunny remarked, “but no, it’s divine.” It reminded me of Ezra, the first Jewish rabbi, about whom it was said, “for the good hand of his God was on him” (Ezra 7:9 ESV). He reiterated from his book a striking illustration about the Three Wise Men of long distance hiking, namely the 1) physical, 2) mental, and 3) spiritual, all of which is amalgamated in one great journey. Gently swinging from his wooden rocker, cushioned with a multi-colored crocheted blanket, Sunny proceeded to recite verbatim a poem entitled Land of the Free, one of many he has written. Having the shadowy movements of flame from the fireplace reflecting upon his face in this dimly lit cabin, the words flowed forth in a most grandfatherly fashion:
Here’s to the hearts of that cold, lonesome track,
To the life of the wanderlust… Free.
To all who have gone and have never come back,
Here’s a tribute to you and me.
With our feet in the dirt, we’re the grit of the Earth,
Heads a-ridin’ the heavens o’erhead.
And they won’t find a nickel of value or worth,
When our fortunes are tallied and read.
But no richer clan has there ever been known,
Since the times of all ruin and wrack;
Than those of us lost to the dust outward blown,
Who have gone and never come back.
After hearing Sunny’s recitation, it got still in the room—an almost necessary silence. Time was suspended. This was one of those few moments in life I’d cherish forever.
The following morning, after a cup of coffee and a breakfast roll, Tank and I were entrusted with a key to peek inside the newly refurbished lookout tower of Flagg Mountain. The retrofit engineering and architectural detailing was true to character of the original Depression-era edifice and had eagle nest views of the surrounding town and hills.
Before departing the cabin, Sunny handed me a miniature American flag to mount to my backpack and take with me into Canada. Sunny, one senses, is thoroughly American and a deeply patriotic person. This was not a black- and grey-striped or grey- and blue-striped flag; this was Old Glory, good ol’ red, white, and blue—the colors of which I unabashedly display!
The mountains of Alabama were calling and, just before walking off, Sunny gave me a big hug. Only this was an embrace unlike any other. I’ll never forget it. He tightened his calloused hands around me so snug it almost hurt. This was the kind of bear hug administered from someone who knows it’s the last time, you know? Here I was with a legend of a man I had just met yet felt I always knew.
Sunny, dewy-eyed, saw the two of us off outside. As Tank and I trailed off in the distance, I looked back and remembered thinking how remarkable it was that someone could be so tough and gentle at the same time. The corners of my lips turned up as I flashed a quick smile in amazement, and then I disappeared into the woods.
If…no when, I make it to Crow Head at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, Nimblewill Nomad will be among the first to know, for this was the man who helped inspire my journey on the 5,700-mile Eastern Continental Trail. He was a figure who had, with the guidance of Providence, lived a remarkable life and had gone to such extraordinary lengths—the man who went on a walk and never stopped. His outdoor and literary accomplishments will surely go down in history!