Retiree pauses here on 4,800-mile walk
Self-proclaimed professional hiker and poet Dr. M. J. Eberhart, 64, a retired optometrist who calls Dahlonega, Ga., home, recently spent a couple of restful days in Corydon on his 4,800-mile, cross-country walk from Cape Hatteras Island in North Carolina to San Diego in Southern California. Eberhart said he appreciated how well the townspeople treated him in Corydon.
Looking rather like Rip Van Winkle after his 20-year sleep, with flowing gray hair and a bushy gray beard, Eberhart walked into town late Thursday evening, June 13, looking for a place to sleep and his favorite meal, pizza and beer.
“When I walked into the Kintner House Inn, I was welcomed warmly and given a room even though I hadn’t had a bath for several days and was smelling pretty bad after having hiked Indiana’s Knob Stone Trail.” He said he had pushed hard and walked about 30 miles that day to make it to Corydon that night.
Friday found a refreshed Eberhart walking around Corydon and stopping at the post office’s general delivery window to claim his cardboard “bounce box” that’s filled with items he needs along his hike but doesn’t want to carry. He continuously mails the small brown box ahead of him to towns he will soon visit.
“If you carry a lot of weight, you have to eat more calories, and at some point that becomes a negative situation,” Eberhart said. “I estimate I burn about 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day where someone carrying a heavier pack might burn 5,000.”
Wanting to check updates on his Web site, Eberhart stopped at the Harrison County Public Library to use the computers there. On the trail, Eberhart uses a small pocket-sized computer device, which can be used with any phone, to send and check e-mail and to keep his Web site journal up to date.
“I travel light,” he emphasized. “I don’t carry anything I don’t have to. My pack is custom-made without a frame, and my tent is a very light design that uses my hiking sticks as tent poles. Most of my gear is given to me by various sponsors.”
Eberhart, who doesn’t like to say what the M. J. stands for, said he is trying to simplify his life.
“I used to be a type A personality, but I’ve mellowed. Each year I own a little less, and I am a little more happy,” he said. “What I call home is the attic of a friend’s construction company building in north Georgia, when I’m there. He lets me use the attic and keeps an eye on my computer and a few personal belongings for me.
“I’m an outdoor person, but I spent 30 years in a small room with no windows when I was an optometrist. Now I’m free to go where I want, and I can set my own agenda day by day.”
Eberhart began hiking in the 1980s whenever he could get away from his Titusville, Fla., practice for a week or two. He said he is estranged from his wife — June 14 would have been their 44th wedding anniversary — and neither of his two grown sons follow in his footsteps.
Why does he spend his life hiking? Eberhart answers with an original, 38-word poem entitled “Why Go.”
It’s the people, the places,
The pain and the trials.
It’s the joy and the blessings,
That come with the miles.
It’s a calling gone out,
To a fortunate few,
To wander the fringes,
Of God’s hazy blue.
When Eberhart reached Corydon, 1,200 miles into his journey, he had been walking for 61 or 62 days, he wasn’t sure.
He started April 10 in North Carolina but had taken off four days to give a speech to the American Hiking Society at the First Southeastern Foot Trail Conference at Unicoi State Park near Helen, Ga.
He addressed the conference about the creation of an Eastern Continental Trail, which will combine eight existing trails beginning at the southernmost point of the United States in Key West, Fla., and travel northward 4,800 miles through 14 states to the Cliffs of Forillon, Cap Gaspe, in Quebec. When it is finished, it will be the longest continuous foot trail in the world.
Eberhart walked that trail in 1998 and claims to be the only hiker to have completed it.
“I began my present hike in North Carolina and walked into Ronald Reagan airport in the Washington, D.C., area and then flew to Atlanta to address this conference. When I made the speech at Unicoi, I was only a half-hour drive from my home. After the conference, I flew back to Washington and resumed my hike,” Eberhart said.
Hiking hasn’t been all fun for the rugged individualist. When Eberhart finished the 4,800-mile trek on what will become the Eastern Continental Trail, his feet were 1/2-inch wider than they were when he started. He lost 14 toenails along the way. After foot surgery and a winter of recuperation, he was on the road again.
Eberhart worries about his legs and knees giving out; he admits to taking as much as 4,000 milligrams of aspirin a day.
“Walking as much as I do gives me a good cardiovascular workout and helps to keep my blood pressure low. Experts say it is great exercise,” he said.
Eberhart is a self-published poet and has written a book about his 1998 hike called “Ten Million Steps.” It has sold about 2,000 copies and can be ordered from his Web site.
Reared in Missouri, Eberhart said he will pick up and follow the old Santa Fe Trail in New Franklin, Mo., and follow its southerly route. He estimates he will arrive in San Diego by Thanksgiving.
“I’m excited about following the Santa Fe Trail because as a kid I heard about the wagon trains that took that trail to California.” Eberhart said. “I’ll be following right in their tracks.”
Eberhart invites people to keep up with his progress by visiting his Web site at www.NimblewillNomad.com.