“The Wanderlust has got me ... by the bellyaching fire!”
In an extraordinary and inspiring talk at a small meeting of the Nantahala Hiking Club last Friday, hiker-poet Nimblewill Nomad proclaimed his own “wanderlust” by quoting the above lines from a poem of the same name by the late naturalist poet, Robert Service.
Having backpacked over 40,000 miles of the nation's scenic trails, Nomad, a.k.a Ed Eberhart (Nimblewill Nomad is his “trail name”), is somewhat the authority on wanderlust. Passing through Franklin while on yet another section hike of the Appalachian Trail, Nomad's talk at the Macon County Library was a wild journey in itself – from the downright practical (hiking shoes and camp stoves) to the philosophical and metaphysical (the meaning of life!).
The 72-year-old, retired eye-doctor from Missouri has thru-hiked (whole trail, one season, non-stop) the Eastern Continental Trail (twice), the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, the Lewis and Clark Trail (twice), the Natchez Trail, and the Pacific Northwest Trail. Nomad has hiked 9 of the 11 National Scenic Trails and intends to hike them all – a record claimed by only one other hiker.
In 1998, when Nomad was 60, he set out on a walking odyssey of the Eastern Continental Trail that carried him 4,400 miles, from the Florida Keys to Quebec, a journey that included (and doubled) the Appalachian Trail. He recounted the epic 10- month trek in the book, “Ten Million Steps,” one of several books which Nomad has authored, including a volume of poetry.
“I am free!” declared Nomad to the modest crowd that gather to hear him speak and ask him questions about life on the foot path. Few who saw the rail-thin man with long, white locks and fire in his eyes would have doubted the claim.
Dressed in his most civilized hiking duds, Nomad set his pack and walking sticks down before he addressed his audience. One member of the crowed asked if he wouldn't care to sit down after all his walking, but Nomad quickly replied, “I can't talk sitting down.” In the passionate remarks which followed, one could understand why.
What is wanderlust? “It's that burning, urgent desire to be free,” Nomad explained.
In his years on the trail, Nomads says he has found that life boils down to two things: freedom and peace. Freedom for Nomad is much more than a politically embattled catch-phrase – it is an instinct which he says he feels “in his gut,” an instinct which only his life on the trail has been able to fulfill. Peace, he said, is what he feels in his heart when he follows his desire to be in nature and with “nature's God.”
“In the quiet times, in the tens of thousands of miles, and the months and months of hiking that I have behind me and under my feet, I came to know my maker. And that's where I found my peace.”
Quoting the essays of John Muir, citing the poems of Service and Robert Frost as well as his own, the poet Nomad tried to communicate to the small hiking club exactly what it means to be got “by the belly-aching fire,” but when it was time for questions-and-answers, the hiker Nomad appeared to talk shop, strategy and technique, and quickly admitted that he is a “gearhead.”
Nomad packs light (less than seven pounds not counting food), moves solo, and generally paces himself at 25 miles a day, he says. He wears trainers, not hiking boots. After losing 13 toenails to rot on a particularly soggy hike in Florida one year, he had his nails surgically removed. Problem solved.
Nomad said his home is on the trail, but he also claims a residence in Dahlonega, Ga., near Nimblewill Gap (his namesake) and the southern gateway of the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain. He admitted that he probably won't be doing many more 4,000 or 5,000 mile years, but he is determined to do two more scenic trail thru-hikes – the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin and the New England Trail – which will put all 11 National Scenic Trails under his belt.
“Believe me, that pot of gold is at the end of the rainbow,” Nomad said. “I've seen it from the top of a mountain.”
April Fools Trail Days Festival
The Third Annual April Fools Trail Days Festival, hosted by the Franklin Main Street Program on April 1 and 2, will celebrate the beginning of the “thru-hiking” season on the Appalachian Trail. The festival, held every year in conjunction with Ron Haven’s Hiker Bash at the Sapphire Inn, is moving downtown this year as organizers feel the event has outgrown Big Bear Park where it was held in the past.
In addition to food and gear vendors, organization booths, and a line up of noted speakers, this year will see more entertainment, including the bluegrass outfit Buncombe Turnpike. Speakers at the event will include Dr. Warren Doyle who has hiked more than 34,000 miles on the trail, completing the full length a record 16 times. Jennifer Phar Davis, who holds the women’s record for the fastest thru-hike, is also scheduled to speak.