700 Miles Along the Trail of Tears

Ron Cooper
4/23/11

The days surrounding my walk through Springfield, Missouri were filled with socializing and surprises.

At the Marshfield gathering, we finally met a few e-mail friends in person.  Bob Ranney is on the Parks Board for the city of Battlefield, and Jackie Warfel is a Cherokee elder on the Greene County Historical Sites Board.  Both asked if they could walk with me for a few days and, as always, I said “of course!”  It’s always nice to get more time to talk to people who are interested in the Trail of Tears, especially when they can identify and point out the exact route along the way.

They started walking with me in a rural area near Strafford.  As usual, Kristal dropped me off at the cross-roads where I had finished up the day before.  I forgot my safety vest and hiking pole though, so she went back to the RV to get them.  When she returned, I was surprised when she jumped out of the truck and said, “I’m coming with you!”  She realized that Bob and Jackie had a shuttle system set up and she could take advantage of that to walk with me for the first time!

The four of us set off through beautiful country with even better weather.  We talked about everything you can imagine, but especially the history of the Trail.  Kristal asked lots of questions about the animals, birds and other things she saw along the road, and our escorts were happy to provide the answers.  At one point, Kristal and I were walking along, hand-in-hand and she said, “So THIS is what you do all day?”  It sure is!  (I think she’s jealous!)

We did about five miles together before stopping at the Danforth Farm (a witness house) where everyone left me for the day.  Jackie presented us with copies of three amazing Talmadge Davispaintings to remember her by.  Not that we could possibly forget – she had just turned 80 that week and we were impressed with her abundant energy and gracious spirit.

I returned to that nice section of road the next morning with Bryan Petty, a local photographer.  Bryan saw a TV news segment about me and offered to do a photo shoot for free, just to give me a nice memento and to thank me for doing the walk!  He took about 100 pictures and they’re all awesome!  I put some of our favorites an album on my Facebook page, if you’d like to see them.

The rest of Monday, April 4th was a tough trudge through the city of Springfield.  Bob and Jackie joined me again as I marched into a stiff headwind for 18 miles.  And let’s not forget that it was 86 degrees out – smashing the day’s previous record high by 6 degrees!

Tuesday was a special day in many ways.  It started with a sunrise ceremony at a gazebo in the Battlefield City Park, right on the original Trail of Tears.  When it was mentioned at the Marshfield gathering that I hadn’t received any Native American blessings on the trip so far, Mr. Robert “Tallbird” Ryan, a Cheyenne/Cree medicine man, offered to do one for me.  A dozen people, including the mayor, came out to watch and be blessed also.  Tallbird spoke in Cheyenne as he fanned sage/cedar/tobacco smoke around me and my wife.  It was very moving and Kristal cried, as she does frequently.  Jackie presented her with a ceremonial shawl and Tallbird gave me an eagle feather wrapped in a rabbit hide—both great honors that we will treasure forever!

We adjourned to Bob’s house where we all enjoyed a big breakfast spread that featured the house specialty:  pancakes with hand-picked blueberries!  It was GREAT but I was eager to get back on the Trail because Mile 700 was less than an hour down the road...

Kristal met me there for pictures and then met me again at noon to give me a quiet place in the truck cab for a radio interview.  I was scheduled to be a guest for ten minutes on Native America Calling, a nationally syndicated program!  I was really excited to tell my fellow Natives about my Walk and that I’m doing it for all of them.  I want everyone to be proud of how far we’ve come since the forced relocation days.  Most of all, I’m hoping we can start to focus on what all tribes have in common, rather than the differences.  Unfortunately, I just couldn’t put a coherent sentence together that day and I’m afraid I blew my best chance to talk to my target audience.

Since I had just walked six of the seven previous days, I decided to take two days off.  After re-positioning the trailer for the next leg, we had some time for sight-seeing.  We followed Ted and Iva up toward Springfield, stopping in Marionville to see their claim to fame: one of the few wild populations of white squirrels in America!

The highlight of the day was Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in the city of Republic, MO.  Ted Hillmer Jr., the Park Superintendant, has been following my progress online.  He went to school at Oklahoma University and I’m a die-hard fan of their football team, so we were immediate friends.  He gave Kristal a bag of goodies from the gift shop won her over too.  We all hopped in a car and Ted took us on a personally guided tour of the battlefield.  What a treat!  Wilson’s Creek was the third battle of the Civil War and the first west of the Mississippi River.  They’re gearing up for the 150th anniversary this summer.  Sure wish we could come back for the re-enactment because it’s going to be some show!

Our whole group was joined by Neal Lopinot, a Professor of Archaeology Research at the local university, and we all went to an adjacent piece of private property.  The owner guided us to his segment of original Trail of Tears roadbed, cemetery where a Cherokee named Dreadful Water is buried, and the site of a tavern they rested at.  All of this is documented in journals from the removal, so his property could easily become one of the next certified sites on the National Historic Trail.

I am still constantly amazed at how many people out there are excited about history and their place in preserving it.  Even more, I can’t believe the time, information, and access they’re giving to ME – a guy who’s just out for a Walk!

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