400 Miles and Counting on the Trail of Tears

400 Miles and Counting on the Trail of Tears

By: 
Ron Cooper
3/14/11

The Mississippi River was the last of three major river crossings on the Trail of Tears.  The Cherokees paid toll ferry operators to get themselves and their wagons across.  When I imagined this hike, I had a hope in the back of my mind that I would find someone with a boat to take me across.  No such luck.  In each case, I crossed by way of my wife, our pickup truck and a downstream bridge.

The Cherokees’ Mississippi River crossing ended at what is now the Trail of Tears State Park, so that was where I began my next leg.  And speaking of legs… my newly-braced knee felt fine and together we were ready to tackle Missouri – all 384 miles of it!  (For those of you keeping score: that’s equal to the first three states combined!)

As my wife dropped me off at the river, we noticed that we had the entire 3,400-acre park to ourselves.  It was a peaceful feeling we hadn’t experienced in a while – so nice to hear nothing but birdsong and a breeze!  I took off walking west while Kristal stayed in the park for a few hours.  She had a great time taking in the view from the scenic overlooks, learning about the local Lewis & Clark history, and bird-watching.  Her favorite part was spotting a Pileated Woodpecker (the big ones with the red crest, like Woody Woodpecker) because they don’t have those in her home state of Arizona!

The first few days of hiking in Missouri have been very relaxing.  The state is criss-crossed by lots of little county roads – many of them still gravel – so it’s easy for me to stay off the busy highways.  I did miss a turn just before Jackson and had to walk a few miles of Highway 61 to get back on track.  I assure you:  it’s best to be avoided when you’re on foot and without earplugs or football pads!

On the other side of Jackson, I walked my 400th mile! Not only is it a nice, round number, but it’s also very close to the mid-way point on my Walk.  Since the scenery was a continuous film of small farms on rolling hills and traffic was light, I let my mind reflect on the experience so far...

I’ve learned so much – even more than I anticipated!  I’ve been studying the Trail of Tears for over a year and it’s nice to finally see the places mentioned in the journals.  It’s the modern day people who’ve really made it come alive for me though, when they show me the Trail of Tears remnants and other historic sites in the area I’m walking through.  It’s great to see how many people are as enthusiastic about history as I am.

I’ve enjoyed talking to everyone I’ve met – whether we spent a few days together or a few minutes on the side of the road.  Is it just a coincidence that most people can trace their ancestry to a Native American tribe or two?  If they can’t, they know a good story about the Trail of Tears as it passed through, or of a legacy that it left behind.  Nobody is shy about saying that it’s a shame our government would do such a thing and we need to be vigilant and not let it happen again.

I am blown away by the kindness and generosity of strangers.  Almost every day, someone offers me a warm bed, some food or a prayer.  Can you believe that every single person I’ve encountered has been wonderful to me?  I honestly expected that someone would yell at me, or some kids would throw a can at me from a passing car for a laugh – but not even that has happened.

I get a lot of encouragement from the fans of my Facebook page (listed under the name: RonHikesTrailofTears).  It’s the fastest place to post my pictures and updates, so I’m on there several times a day.  It’s also the best way for people to interact with me – asking questions or giving encouragement.  There are people watching my hike from all over America and at least eight foreign countries, but I honestly get excited every time someone new “Like”s my page!

The media attention has also been surprising!  About half a dozen TV news crews have come out to film a little piece about my Walk, and a newspaper in almost every town or county I cross through does an article.  I’m grateful to all of them for showing interest in my journey!  I hope that my Walk is reminding people about the Trail of Tears tragedy and maybe even teaching them something they didn’t know about American history.

I’ve battled blisters and black toenails since my very first day on the Trail.  It didn’t take long after that for my old shin splints to act up.  And of course, there was the famous twisted knee around mile 300.  I’ve walked in pain every day, but it doesn’t get me down.  It’s easy to put things in perspective, knowing that I could never have it as rough as the Cherokees did that horrible winter of 1838-39.

So, thanks in large part to the great experiences I’ve had thus far, my spirit remains strong.  I’m enjoying being outdoors and challenging myself physically.  I’m happy to say that I’m still excited to get back on the Trail every morning!

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