What a long, wonderful trip it's been

The Last 10 Miles of My Journey on the Trail of Tears

Ron Cooper
5/10/11

On the morning of April 20th, we measured off the last ten “make-up” miles and Kristal dropped me on Highway 62, five miles east of Tahlequah.  She took the truck and trailer on into town to get settled and find our families.  My relatives had come over from Lawton, Oklahoma, and Kristal’s mom flew in from Arizona.

Meanwhile, I was trying to make my way to the “End of the Trail” party they had arranged for me at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill.  I promised Kristal that I would give her a mile-by-mile countdown of the last five, but most roads weren’t marked so I had no idea where I was!   She kept calling, trying to guess-timate my time of arrival until I miraculously came upon an intersection she recognized by my description.  I was only half a mile from the finish line!

I rounded a corner and knew I was in the right place when I saw my new/old friends Ted Roller and Glenn Jones waiting for me out on the road.  I turned and walked down the tree-lined, sun-dappled driveway toward the Cherokee National Museum.  A few moments later, I saw a group of people along the path and a cheer went up.  I was surprised, excited, and moved to tears all at once!  I was expecting a few family and friends, but there were about 50 people there!  “Is this all for me?” I asked.  I ran a gauntlet of teenagers giving high-fives, broke a finish line of fluorescent pink safety tape that was held by my aunt and cousin, and I was officially done!

The Cherokee Heritage Center hosted a very nice reception for us.  After downing a few refreshments and shaking a lot of hands, I went outside and spoke to the teenagers about my hike.  I was happy to hear that they were history students from a local Christian school.  This was the kind of educational assembly I hoped to have all along my Walk, but we never got around to arranging them.  Well, better late than never!

When the crowd thinned out, my family and I were given a tour of the CHC by its Executive Director, Carey Tilley.  The grounds were the former home of the first Cherokee Female Seminary, a boarding school that was established in 1851.  In 1966, a living history village was created on the site to represent the Cherokee lifestyle before European contact.  The villagers of Tsa-La-Gi are dressed in handmade, period clothing to demonstrate arts, crafts, and skills like flint knapping, basketry, pottery and bow making.  They also teach visitors how to use blow guns and play stick ball!  Inside the CHC (and back in the modern world) are a genealogy center, gift shop, art gallery and museum.  The museum houses a permanent Trail of Tears exhibit that is extremely moving.

Next we all drove a few miles south to meet up with our new friend Gayle Ross at the grave of her great-great-great-grandfather, Chief John Ross.  This remarkable man was the leader of the Cherokees from 1828-1866, during the whole period of relocation and re-settlement.  He was not a signer on the Treaty of New Echota – in fact, he went to Washington D.C. and did everything he could to get it nullified.  When his efforts failed and his people were being forcibly removed from their homes, he asked the government if he (rather than a military escort) could lead them to the Indian Territory.  Because of this, he is known as the “Moses of his People”.  I truly admire men like John Ross who – like Massasoit before him and Black Kettle after him – “fought” for their people in a peaceable way, believing that the races should be able to co-exist.  My thanks to Gayle for her openness, insight and for the delicious lunch at her home a few days later!

The next afternoon, Kristal and I went to the Cherokee Nation complex to meet with Principal Chief Chad Smith and Group Leader Todd Enlow.  Todd organizes the annual “Remember the Removal” bike ride for teens which retraces the Northern Route in less than three weeks!  Both were anxious to hear about my experience and we all compared notes about our favorite and least favorite parts of the Trail.

On Friday we went to the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, OK.  Will was a famous actor, writer and vaudevillian in the early 1900s – and a proud Cherokee.  We are pleased that Pat Reeder invited us to tour the museum because we learned a LOT and left with a great appreciation of Will Rogers’ talents and philosophies!

On Saturday we drove up toward Bartlesville, OK to see the Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve.  The main draw for us was the famous 1942 painting “The Trail of Tears” by Robert Lindneux.  It was amazing to be standing in front of the original, looking at the individual brush-strokes that make up such a moving image in its entirety.  As for the rest of the museum, it was jaw-dropping.  If you’re interested in Western/Native American arts and artifacts, you won’t find a better collection ANYwhere, including the Smithsonian!

And with that, my Trail of Tears adventure really came to an end.  The only thing left to do is write a book about the experience, which I think I will actually do since everyone seems to want to read it.  Until then, I’ll give you the short version conclusion:

Is it possible to WALK the entire Northern Route of the Cherokee Trail of Tears?  I’m happy to say:  Yes!  I estimate that 98% of my walk was directly on – or within sight of – the original Trail of Tears roadbed.   (There were only a few places where a large piece of private or commercial property caused a wide detour away from the Trail.)  Logistically, though, it wasn’t easy!  There’s almost nowhere to camp, so if you want to do it without a support crew you’ll have to knock on a lot of doors or ask permissions at churches and city parks.  It wasn’t cheap either… but IT WAS WORTH IT!!  This was an experience I’ll have for the rest of my life – great memories, new forever friends and an example of how great a team my wife and I make.  When it comes down to it, I enjoyed every minute.  I’m eternally grateful to everyone who helped me along the way, people who gave emotional and financial support, dogs who kept me company and to YOU for being a part of it!  THANK YOU, ONE AND ALL!!

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