250 Miles And Counting on the Trail of Tears

Ron Cooper
2/5/11

By the time you read this, I'll be past the 250 mile mark and 1/3rd of the way through my journey.  I couldn't have done it without the support of many people.

All long-distance hikers have stories of “Trail Angels” – strangers who show up out of nowhere to offer assistance.  I had a dozen of them in Tennessee!  Four different Angels in the Dayton area took me in for two nights, fed me several times a day, and showed me the sites.  I thought that might be unusual, but it happened again in McMinnville and Woodbury!  Sometimes it was a local who had ties to Trail of Tears and offered to show me old roadbeds.  Other times it was just someone who saw me on TV and wanted to say “hi” and give me a banana.  Angel Tom arranged for me to walk Lloyd Gap road – an old section of the Trail through someone’s private property – and I’m forever in his debt.  It is nearly untouched by time, forested and quiet.  The solitude allowed me to feel the history there and it will surely be one of the highlights of my trip.

I marked my 100th mile on top of the Cumberland Plateau, just east of McMinnville.  It was a beautiful stretch of road, often flanked by little tree and shrub nurseries.  Throughout the trip, I’ve been actively hunting out "Witness Houses".  These are original buildings that pre-date 1830 and would have been standing there as the Trail procession passed by.  Some great examples are along this stretch in central Tennessee including the Black House in McMinnville and the Readyville Mill.

In Murfreesboro, the Trail passed through land that later became the Stones River Battlefield, site of the most deadly three days of the Civil War.  After a quick auto tour, Kristal took a few pictures of me walking past signs that say “Trail of Tears Original Route” as I resumed my hike.  The next day, a follower of my Facebook page said she saw me on that road and she wondered if the city put up those signs in my honor because they were installed just days before.  I told her that although it would have been cool, I’m sure it didn’t have anything to do with me.  More likely, the plan just got through 170 years of governmental red tape!

By the time I made it to Nashville, I had a tough decision to make.  Several TOTA members suggested that I skip the downtown area because of the bad traffic.  I didn’t even want to consider that possibility, planning instead to walk every step of the 835 miles, but approaching the city’s southeast side changed my mind.  The constant noise of the cars on Highway 41 and the lack of shoulder to walk on were nerve-wracking.  It just wasn’t the Trail experience I had hoped for.

Instead, I settled for a drive to President Andrew Jackson’s home, known as the Hermitage.  Jackson is an infamous figure in the story of the Trail of Tears because the Indian Removal Act was passed through Congress during his administration.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, the Cherokee leaders fought the law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Cherokee won the appeal, but Jackson ignored the ruling and ordered the army to begin forced removals to the new Indian Territory of Oklahoma.  I had mixed feelings, but wanted to visit his home to see if they made any acknowledgement of his part in the tragedy.  They do, but their video downplays the number of fatalities along the Trail by about half.  On the positive side, my wife and I enjoyed the tour of the mansion and were impressed by how well-preserved the rooms and furnishings are after almost 200 years.  Also, we met the education director and he told me that they are launching a new teacher’s guide to the Trail of Tears on their website – so we’ll all want to look for that in the future.

While in the Nashville area we also attended two gatherings of interest.  My hosts for the night in Woodbury (Trail Angels Charlie and Dell) invited us to a meeting of the Cannon County Historical Society where we enjoyed a presentation by an arrowhead and artifact collector.  Then a few nights later I was the guest of honor at a potluck put on by the Native American Indian Association of Tennessee.  In both cases, it was fun to talk about my hike but even better to hear the life stories of my fellow Natives.  At the potluck, I met Seminoles and Creeks – both new to me.  I also met several members of the Navajo Nation and we talked about their ancestors’ experience called The Long Walk.  Much like the Trail of Tears, the Navajo were marched to an internment camp near Fort Sumner, New Mexico, from as far away as the Canyon de Chelly area of Arizona.  I told them that I went to the Bosque Redondo Memorial last year and the Park Rangers there told me of their desire to get designation as a National Historic Trail.  I told them that I would like to bring attention and maybe funding to their cause by walking that route as well.  That is, if I survive this one!

am getting there!  On the morning of February 9th, I made it to the Kentucky border.  It took me a little over three weeks to go 250 miles, which is much slower than I originally planned, but it’s still progress!  Besides all of the socializing, a whole colony of blisters on my right foot and the snowy weather kept the average daily miles low.  I’m still in great spirits though and am excited for what lies ahead.  I hope you’re enjoying my journey half as much as I am!

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