Lessons to be gleaned from thru-hiking master Nimblewill Nomad


WHEN YOU READ THIS, 78-year-old Sunny Eberhart will be somewhere along Route 66. On foot. With a 6-pound pack on his back. It’s where he’s been since July 27, when he left Chicago and headed west for Santa Monica, California, with plans to walk the 2,300-mile stretch over the span of 124 days.

Not that it should surprise anyone. After all, it’s the 25th such venture undertaken by the retired eye doctor, who spends the majority of his time thru-hiking our nation’s pre-eminent trails. He’s checked off the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide and the Pacific Crest Trail, becoming one of the few souls to complete what’s known as “The Triple Crown.” In recent years, he’s conquered the 1,900-mile Pony Express Trail, the 2,109-mile Oregon Trail and an unnamed whopper of a transcontinental trek that covered 3,524 miles and lasted the better part of six months. And in 2011, he became the first person to complete what’s now known as “The Triple O”: Missouri’s Ozark Trail combined with two of our state’s long-distance routes, the Ozark Highlands Trail and the Ouachita Trail.

It almost broke him, that odyssey. Actually, it literally broke him—he fell on his 31st day on the trail, in the Sylamore section of the OHT, breaking his leg and requiring an eight-week break back at home. But he came back. He couldn’t not come back, he says. And in his journals from that 1,100-mile trek from Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest to our Pinnacle Mountain, we can learn a little bit about the resilience of the man they call Nimblewill Nomad, and the trails he hopes will someday be joined together. Here’s an excerpt from his trail diary.

June 20, 2011

OHT: Matney Knob Trailhead

First stop this morning, the classic downtown mom-n-pop cafe in Mountain Home. They open at 7. These many years, for breakfast, I’ve come to settle for a short stack with a couple-three eggs, a surefire high-octane starter-upper. I head on south for the village of Norfork to get a few provisions before crossing the White River and trekking the road on up to Matney Knob Trailhead. Another neat little Ozark village, Norfork. And by golly, if the Hickory Pig ain’t open. Stopped in for a mouthwatering barbecue sandwich!

On my hike out of Norfork, a fellow pulls off and stops on the shoulder. It’s Russell—wants to know where I’m headed, where I’ve been. Comes a somewhat quizzical expression to Russell’s face as I tell him about my just completed thru o’er the Ozark Trail, and my beginning of a thru down the Ozark Highlands.

Late afternoon now, I reach Matney Trailhead, completing my connecting roadwalk of some 70 miles. Just a short hike, and I reach a fine overlook, a most-scenic vantage back down and across the White River. Waiting here patiently, in full hiker garb, pack up, sticks in hand—guess who? Oh yes, it’s Russell! He’s trekked the road up to the crossing to bring me two shiny red apples and to wish me well. “I’m gonna hike the Appalachian Trail when I retire. Can’t wait.” Ear-to-ear grin from Russell.

Near dusk, I take water from Twin Creek, then make the climb up and across Arkansas Highway 341 to the high ridge above. A leaf-covered flat spot under the oak, enough light to pitch. Tick patrol, and this day’s done.

June 21, 2011

OHT: Cole Fork Creek

A fretful night, what with my body near-covered with chigger (1) and tick welts. It’s slow-going breaking camp. Finally, I lift my pack and head out.

Late morning, and while negotiating a particularly gnarly off-camber uphill, it happens. Of the thousands of consciously, carefully placed steps, it takes only one misstep to spell potential disaster, and I take it here. Through the high weeds and briers, and unable to see the tread, I step in a hole, lose my balance and go over the side. Everything follows except my right foot. As I try righting myself, the pain descends—gut-wrenching pain. I struggle back to my feet. Hobbling along now, my trekking poles (2) functioning more as crutches, I agonize the reality of the situation: This trek is quickly coming to a halt.

Aw, folks, I don’t know about this one. My right lower leg and ankle are a pitiful sight: blackened, swollen and sore. Sure, I’m old. Sure, my reflexes aren’t what they used to be. They’re problems I deal with constantly. But my passion and resolve have never, ever become the least diminished. Trust me, dear friends, this old intrepid will be back. He’ll be back to finish his thru-hike across these beautiful Ozark highlands.

Aug. 13, 2011

OHT: Spring Creek Trailhead

At long last, I’m able to return to the trail. Last checkup, Doc Tim said my broken leg was completely healed. So Joyce has driven me back to Arkansas, to the Ozark Highlands National Recreation Trail, to Cripple Turkey Road in the Ozark National Forest, where my hike was interrupted nearly two months ago—pretty much back in the middle of nowhere.

A little after 11, I’m pack-shouldered and moving out. Oh, does it feel good to be back on the trail again. Leg feels strong. Ankle feels good—think I’m gonna do OK.

I’m in the Sylamore Section of the OHT. Plenty of rocks, some briers and a few ups and downs, but the trail is well marked, and I make good time. Pauses are for lunch, to circle around a very big timber rattler directly on the trail, and to photograph the many bluffs below that the trail follows. With recent rains, the smaller creeks and drainages are running, or at least contain numerous puddles, so finding adequate water proves no problem.

By a bit after 6, I’ve reached Spring Creek Trailhead. From here, I’ve a full-day’s roadwalk down through the villages of Big Flat and Harriet, then on up Arkansas Highway 14 to the eastern terminus of the Maumee Section of the Buffalo River Trail.

Spring Creek (3) is down the road from the trailhead where I stop for water for the night. Then it’s up the road to the ridge just far enough to get a cell signal, and that’s it for this first day back. Gonna do OK, looks of it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

OHT: Big Piney

My hike today takes me into and through the Hurricane Creek Wilderness (4). Spectacular scenery. More incredibly rugged trail, rocks, boulders, more rocks and climb, climb, climb. Slow-going for sure. This is the first time I’ve got to keep really tight with the trail. There’s been no recent blazing through the wilderness, where nailed up blazes aren’t permitted. So, I must follow old faded painted-up blazes from days gone by. I manage to get off-trail time-to-time, but do find my way again. As I struggle along, lots of turkey and deer to keep me company.

Hagarville Store is open till six. I’m in by 5:40. Mark and Alice both greet me with broad smiles. “Got to thinkin’ you weren’t going to make it,” says Mark.

What a day, what a day! Alice makes two of the finest roast beef sandwiches I can recall. I’m invited to pitch in their yard for the night. Hey, one bar on my cell (5), oh yes! Just before dark Alice comes to check on me with a cooler full of ice and watermelon. It’s been a most amazing day, and I am so grateful for such blessings.

Aug. 25, 2011

OHT: Lake Fort Smith State Park, then on down U.S. Highway 71 to Alma

The coolest of nights last night so far. Crawled into my sleeping bag early morning. With sunrise arriving later each morning, it’s harder to get out much before 7 anymore, but I do manage to break camp and hit the trail by 6:45.

A really fine morning for hiking as I head out on the final 10 miles of the OHT. I’m cruisin’ through the remaining rocks. No time, seems I can see Lake Fort Smith through the trees. Milepost 5, 4, 3, 2.

With just a little over a mile to go, I see the first hiker coming toward me. Haven’t met another soul on either of these trails the past 44 days. The backpacker greets me with, “Are you Nimblewill?” What a pleasure meeting Squeeze. He’s also an Ozark Hillbilly from near Lebanon. We share the most upbeat conversation.

I arrive at Lake Fort Smith State Park a little before noon. Such a lavish and impressive setting. Nothing’s been spared in making it first class. The Visitor Center is absolutely the finest. I tarry the longest time savoring the moment.

Out to, then down, Highway 71 now, it’s some 8 miles to Mountainburg BBQ. Just before heading in there for a burger and fries and most of the Coke in their fountain, I stop in the secondhand store next door. Need a new long-sleeve white shirt, and I’m in luck—100 percent cotton, and a monogrammed pocket no less.

Back on the highway, and a bit past the interstate exit, a vehicle slows in the lane across. Oh yes, it’s Squeeze. He’s tracked me down to wish me well. Just great energy, Squeeze. Thanks!

Sept. 1, 2011

OT: Eagle Gap, then on to Tan-a-Hill Spring

Queen Wilhelmina Lodge is a great place. Sure glad I decided to stay—right decision!

These Ouachita Mountains are tall and rock-rugged. Heading out this morning after crossing the scenic drive, the trail does a major bail-off, over a thousand feet in less than 4 miles—oh yes, rugged mountains!

Where the trail drops to cross Big Creek, then again at Clear Creek, both have no running water, just stagnant pools. Sure glad I cameled up at the restaurant this morning and am carrying double my usual water: two 20-ounce bottles.

At a tributary to Cedar Creek, I’m able to take water from a small pool there. Hopefully, I’ll find water at Tan-a-Hill Spring, some 24 miles from the lodge. Please, Lord, I’ll need water, lots of water to make the thousand-foot climb up and over Fourche Mountain tomorrow.

A bit more friendly tread today, but still plenty of climbing and boulder fields. I’m totally beat and out of water when I finally reach the spring just before sunset. Oh my, the spring is wet. Nothing to brag about, just a 2-foot round, 3-inch deep pool between some tree roots. But tell you what, here’s the coolest, clearest, sweetest spring water I can recall drinking, ever!

Sept. 5, 2011

OT: Arkansas Highway 27, then on to Blue Mountain Shelter

Today should be an easy day, comparatively. The boulder fields have all but disappeared, the Ouachitas flattened some, making for much less vertical trail. Of course, there’ll be the ever-worrisome water-shortage problem associated with hiking these mountains in late summer, but I’ll deal with that.

At Irons Fork, and for the next 5 miles, am I dealt the most unbelievable trail. Problem? The four “B’s”: blowdowns, briers, brambles and brush. It’s impossible to stay upright, what with the extent of greenbrier and brush tangle. I fall countless times. In the process, and relying on my trekking poles to keep me from doing even more headers, I manage to bend them both very badly. Five hours, five—that’s how long it takes me to put this trail from hell behind me.

The remainder of the day proves delightful. Finding just the right fork in a tree, I manage to pretty much straighten my mangled trekking poles. Ah, and glory be, there’s abundant water in the North Fork, Ouachita River, where I camel up, then fill my bottles for the remainder of the day.

Even with the slow-going midday and with a bunged-up right leg (from all the falls), I still manage to make it to Blue Mountain Shelter, just short of 25 for the day.

Sept. 9, 2011

OT: Pinnacle Mountain State Park, then on to Amtrak

I’m out at first light, with a light heart and a light pack, haulin’. Today’s trek turns to be a cruise—and I’m on cruise, from a wonderful feeling that’s welling up from deep within. I feel so privileged, so proud, to be the first to hike this Triple-O.

I knock out the remainder of the Ouachita before noon. Ranger Ron, Pinnacle Mountain State Park, enthusiastically greets me. Genuinely excited, Ron listens intently as I relate my story about this journey, and its ending right here at his park. On the deck by the Visitor Center, I linger—deep, emotional feelings, reliving these past 60 days on the trail. What a blessing, to have been granted the grit and determination to endure against such adversity, such demoralizing setbacks. But here I am, at Pinnacle Mountain.

And here, today, a bit of hiking history has been made, the first thru-hike linking all three O-Trails, the Ozark, the Ozark Highlands and the Ouachita. The catchy new title, “Triple-O,” as coined by my dear friend Gordon, will certainly become known far and wide. And it’s possible, just possible, that this Triple-O Trail could well become the premier trail of all trails throughout the Midwest.

And so, dear friends, this journey is finally over. Thank you, Lord, for your safe keeping these many days. Such a blessing to this old man, such a blessing.