When Ron Cooper and his wife Kristal contacted us about Ron’s mission, and asked if we’d be interested in following their journey, we couldn’t have been more excited.

Ron’s in the midst of hiking the northern route of the Trail of Tears (833 miles worth of it!), a journey he’s been preparing for since 2009. He did a ton of research, worked with the National Park Service, and plotted his course. On January 17th, Ron took his first step. Now, we’re going to be there with him for all the rest of his steps, until he completes his journey and has told his story. Ron’s message is one of remembering the past while looking forward to the future, and one of pride in the resiliency of his fellow Native American brothers and sisters. He told us that what has dawned on him recently and what has compelled him to take on this journey is a deep, abiding sense of Native American pride. “A pride not based on solidarity for what our relations collectively survived in the past, but based on what we have accomplished since then and where we are now.”

So Ron’s out there now, dealing with where to set up camp every night, sections of the trail that seemed passable on his map but turned out to be private roads in reality with big No Trespassing signs, jury-rigging his tent (he had forgot the poles for his larger tent!), not to mention the fact that because he couldn’t take off work during the summer because that’s when he’s busiest (he and Kristal work at Olympic National Park in Washington), Ron’s doing all of this in the midst of a pretty spectacularly wild, cold, and snowy winter.

Right now, Ron’s in Tennessee, hiking along Highway 8, heading towards McMinville. From this day forward, we’re going to be there with Ron (well, in spirit) and let him tell us, and you, how it’s going out there on the Trail, who he’s meeting, and where he, and perhaps the rest of Indian Country, is headed.

“My goals include bringing attention to the Trail of Tears, maybe teaching some history to people I meet along the way, but mostly, I want to start a conversation with my fellow Native Americans about moving forward even as we keep our past in our hearts. I invite them all to join me as I do the same, one step at a time.”

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Update: Feb.17...250 miles

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!

I 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!
Update: Feb.18...300 miles
I started the morning of February 11th in Guthrie, Kentucky – a small town on the Tennessee border. I was met there by Kentucky Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association (TOTA) member Ellis Rouse and chapter president, Alice Murphree. Ellis is a construction contractor in the Hopkinsville area and, since business is slower in the winter, he graciously offered to escort me along the entire 95-mile Kentucky segment of the Trail!

The weather was nice and my feet were rested, so we took off – only to stop a few minutes later. On the northern edge of town is Gray’s Inn, the first of seven Registered Historic Sites on the Trail of Tears in this state. Gray’s Inn is also known as the Stagecoach Inn because it was a stagecoach stop in the 1830s. The detachments kept mostly to roads that were used by stagecoach lines so they passed many stagecoach stops, but this one holds a special place in the hearts of Cherokees.

Chief Whitepath was in the 2nd detachment that left the Rattlesnake Springs Stockade at Fort Cass, Tennessee (where I also started my Walk) on October 4, 1838. He began feeling ill as they passed through Nashville. When the group rested at Gray’s Inn, they drew water for Whitepath to drink and he felt better.

Of course, Ellis and I had to stop and look at the Inn and its “Well of Sweet Water”. We were surprised to see that the Inn is up for sale! It’s kind of amazing that you can buy a piece of history just like that. (The house also played several roles in the Civil War a few decades later.) If I could, I would love to re-open it as a Bed & Breakfast and extend some hospitality to other history buffs out there!

By the end of the day, we made it to Radford Farm – also a Registered Historic Site on the Trail. The old farmhouse was built in 1799 and has been modified, but it still stands guard over at least a mile of original Trail of Tears roadbed. As we walked up, we saw horse and buggy tracks from the traveler before us – a local Mennonite farmer. It just gave the whole scene a feeling of being completely untouched in 170 years!

Mid-afternoon the next day, we arrived at the Trail of Tears Commemorative Park in Hopkinsville. Certified in 1996, this is not just the first Registered Historic Site on the Trail in Kentucky, but also the first on the entire National Historic Trail of Tears. It was well-documented that each detachment of exiles rested on this land for several days. Chief Whitepath and clan leader Fly Smith were in the first group to arrive in Hopkinsville and they died there while waiting for food and supplies that never came.

Today, the area is a 12-acre park with a small but comprehensive Heritage Center that’s housed in a period log cabin. A very knowledgeable staffer named Ethel gave me, my wife, and a local TV reporter a guided tour of the museum. Afterward, we went out to pay our respects to Whitepath and Fly Smith. They are buried behind their larger-than-life bronze statues, in a private cemetery once owned by a kind-hearted white family named Latham. I’ve read so much about these great men that I felt like I knew them. I couldn’t help crying at their graveside, thinking of all the strong leaders like them who have fought and died for the rights of our people.

You know, February is Black History Month and I just heard a few appropriate quotes from one of their great leaders. The Doctor Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once said:

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
He also said: “A man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.”

This is one of the main messages I want to share on my Walk. The great chiefs of the past stood up and fought for us, and it wasn’t easy. Some may say they lost the battles, but they didn’t. It’s because of their struggles that WE – you and I – are here NOW, that we weren’t wiped out as a race.

We’re right to remember their sacrifices, but we bring more honor to them by standing tall and proud here in the 21st century. The Native people are one of the best parts of America’s history, and we can and should be a big presence in her future too.

Update:By Ron Cooper February 24, 2011
As my hiking escort, Ellis, and I pushed northward out of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, my wife got a guided tour of the area. We like to learn about the history of the towns that the Trail of Tears passed through, so Kentucky Trail of Tears Association (TOTA) chapter president Alice Murphree offered to show Kristal around.

Hopkinsville has something of interest for everyone. Jefferson Davis – the man who would be the Confederate States of America’s only President – was born in the county. A museum and a 361-foot tall obelisk mark the spot. The famous psychic Edward Cayce was also born and buried in Hopkinsville. A few miles north is the farm that hosted one of the greatest unexplained alien encounters, locally known as the Kelly Green Men. These days, Hopkinsville is known for its manufacturing and distribution warehouses. A company called Ebonite International makes 98% of the world’s bowling balls right in Hopkinsville, KY!

I celebrated completing of the first third of my journey by drinking from the Big Spring near downtown Princeton, KY. The spring gushes a river of water that once supplied the whole town, so it was surely where the Trail of Tears procession paused to rest and refresh themselves and their livestock. The spring is a Certified Site on the Trail and is the centerpiece of a nice little park.

Getting ready to leave Princeton the next morning, we were met by two locals at the park. Linda experienced the Trail of Tears by foot and wagon train in 1988 and she asked if she could walk a few miles with us. The answer is always “Of course!” Anyone and everyone is welcome to walk with me for as long as they’d like!

The other local was Donny, a history buff from up the road. He offered us a place to stay and a tour of his county at the end of the day – both of which we accepted and enjoyed! Among other fascinating remnants of the past, he showed us foundation impressions where the town of Centerville once was. Centerville was referenced in several journals from the Trail of Tears, but just a few decades later it had completely vanished. Alice said she had been trying to find it, without success. I’m so happy that my walk brought these people together! Every day it becomes more obvious that it’s the local historians, volunteers and hobbyists who are keeping our history alive. They work tirelessly, researching and documenting these events and locations – a critical step that allows them to eventually become Certified Historical Sites. What would the future be like without these snapshots of the past?

Near Salem, Kentucky, I walked my 300th mile… and then I stepped off the shoulder-less road for a passing car and twisted my good knee! It’s pretty sad when the only part of your two legs thatdoesn’t hurt is the bad knee that you had surgically repaired four years ago!

Even though I was in pain, we pressed on because I was looking forward to seeing the most recently dedicated Certified Historic Site on the Trail. At 188 feet long and 30 feet high, Mantle Rock is the largest freestanding arch east of the Mississippi. It was also perfectly located to give shelter to some of the Cherokees who were waiting to cross the river into Illinois. There are stories that some of their dead are buried under the span, but the graves haven’t been found.

The Mantle Rock site also contains a long section of well-preserved Trail of Tears roadbed. It makes for a very peaceful and thought-provoking hike. I highly recommend that everyone visit there.

Past the park boundary, the Trail roadbed follows a cascading creek as it descends from the ridge. There are several places where you can see it clearly on the left as you travel just three more miles to the next Certified TOT site.

The Ohio River crossing was serviced by Berry’s Ferry, a steam-engine powered flatboat that held only two or three wagons at a time. Each round-trip lasted an hour, so you can imagine how long it took for 11, 000 people to get across! The procession backed up along the road for miles and just got worse when ice on the river prevented the ferry from operating for weeks at a time. To add insult to injury, the operator of the ferry charged the Cherokees $1 each for the service, while charging everyone else the going rate of 12 cents. He also gave everyone else boarding priority, further showing his prejudice for the exiles.

My original idea was to burn a dollar on the riverbank, but Native American tradition says that smoke takes your thoughts and prayers to those who will hear them in Heaven. Since I don’t think that’s where Mr. Berry is, I decided to bury my dollar so it would be closer to where he is now.

For me, the shore of the Ohio River marked the end of the Kentucky segment and the completion of my second state. Wow. Amazing! It also meant I was losing my faithful escort, so I got a little choked up. Overall though, I was happy for the week Ellis and I spent together, making great memories for life – and I’m thankful that modern technology will keep us in touch.
This is very interesting...thanks for sharing his journey.
He still has more than 500 miles to go?
Wonderful! Thank you for sharing. I have had dreams of walking along the trail and I am not NA. I think of such hardships endured by a people who had their homes ripped from them with no consideration whatsoever. It angers me so much!

I have such a respect and am honored in knowing many whom are NA. Makes me so very sad the treatment NA have endured over time.

May he be blessed with success along his journey, and good health too. And may peace love and harmony prevail for all in the days ahead and future for all of mankind.

Just some rambling thoughts as I read this...

We may have different beliefs
We may have different religions
and spiritual ways of being

We may have different skin colors
and hair and eyes color too
We may come from different race
and our culture and our customs may differ too

We have different educational levels
Perhaps we all have different financial standing
We all live in different parts of the world
but we all bleed the same color
and we all have the same needs

Food, clothing and shelter
the need for love and acceptance
these things we all have the same

I hope one day
all of humanity
can be in harmony
the way I feel creator
meant for us to be
in spite of our different ways of being
Like a family, they learn to get along
in spite of the differences
So too can a neighborhood
a community and a whole city
and I feel the whole world can as well
At least I hope and pray each day
for love and harmony to prevail for us all
and for future generations
to have a world of mutual respect
peace, love and harmony
400 Miles and Counting on Trail of Tears Journey
By Ron Cooper March 14, 2011

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!
Update March 22, 201
Nearing Mile 500, Dogs Attack on the Trail of Tears
The visitor center at Missouri’s Trail of Tears State Park has shortened hours during the winter. When bad thunderstorms knocked me off the Trail for a few days, I was happy to use that excuse to go back to the Park. The trip was well-worth our time! The visitor center is half dedicated to the story of the Trail of Tears and half to the flora/fauna in the park. Both sides were very informative, but the best part was meeting Denise – one of the Missouri TOTA members that helped me map my route. She showed me receipts she found at the National Archives that helped to prove when and where supplies were purchased along the Trail of Tears route. Again, I found it fascinating how much one dedicated person can do to preserve history for all of posterity.

My wife and I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Bollinger Mill State Historic Site near Burfordville. The original dam and mill were constructed in 1800, but the mill was burned by Union soldiers during the Civil War. The current four-story stone and brick mill was rebuilt in 1867 and operated until 1950. The covered bridge on the property dates from 1858, making it the oldest of the four covered bridges remaining in Missouri. Both are impressive structures and a photographer’s dream!

Back on the Trail, the many county roads that I enjoyed walking across rural Missouri became a problem when Kristal got lost trying to find me at the end of the day. It was complicated by the fact that I was in an area where three counties converged and where all of the roads changed names and numbers. Just before dusk, she stopped and knocked on a door that was answered by Carol Werner – a Cherokee descendant! Carol went at least ten miles out of her way to meet me and re-unite me and Kristal. We were all thankful for the small-world co-incidence.

Although that was a long day, it was a good one. I was happy to discover that I had just walked my first pain-free day! Since Day 1 of the Walk, I’ve been constantly tweaking my gear and supplies, trying to find relative comfort. My knee was rested, braced and apparently healing – but the feet were a persistent problem. Tweak #14 was the purchase of some gel insoles… and they worked! The fact that I solved this problem fully half-way into the hike doesn’t say much for my learning curve, does it?

The next day didn’t go quite as planned either. My topographic map showed a foot path through the forest that would take me exactly where I wanted to do. It started out promisingly enough, but soon branched into too many ATV trails to keep track of. I ended up back-tracking and walking about four extra miles on roads instead.

The two days of walking around Farmington weren’t very noteworthy. The roads were busy with little-to-no shoulder. I had to stop often and take a few steps off the road to let each car go by. The scenery was back to small farms again, punctuated with a community church once in a while.

Passing through the old part of Farmington, I did see and photograph a few buildings that were built in 1832, so were possibly “witness houses.” I also found the Cherokee Trail Roadside Park near downtown. The monument plaque says it’s to commemorate “the overland movement of more than 300 Cherokees from Georgia and Tennessee into Oklahoma Territory… in 1837.” This initially hit me as really, really wrong. I’m retracing the Northern Route because it was the most commonly used: thirteen detachments with a total of about 10,000 exiles passed through Farmington during 1838 and 1839. When I had a chance later on, I picked up one of my reference books and found that the first detachment, lead by B. B. Cannon in 1837, included only 365 Cherokees. So I stand corrected!

Our stay in Farmington was fun anyway because Kristal kept the RV at St. Joe State Park. This park is a big one, specially geared toward equestrian and ATV activities. The park boundaries also include the Missouri Mines State Historical Site – the remnants of a lead and zinc ore mining operation that dates from 1906. The ex-St. Joseph Lead Co. powerhouse is now an interpretive center and museum of mining equipment. It’s open daily for self- or docent-guided tours.

Back on the Trail and just south of Bismarck… I got bit by a dog! I’ve had plenty of canine company on my Walk – not all of them totally friendly – but this was a first. Two of them came charging up to me and I put my hand out for them to sniff, as I always do. The big hound dog snapped at me, so I turned to go and that’s when he gave me a good bite on the back of my thigh! He had his tags so I guess I don’t have to worry about rabies – but he did leave a mark and a multi-color bruise to remember him by.
Very nice looking forward to his story's of his trek on the trail of tears adventure "Go Ron and Kristal keep our history alive be safe and go in peace"


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