|Jackie Warfel in Choctaw dress, and Ron Cooper|
In the summer of 2009, he was working in concessions at Olympic National Park, eighty miles northwest of Seattle, and looking for a long-distance trail to hike. Up to then, he had done no more than two-day excursions.
“I wanted to hike a trail that had more meaning for my Native American heritage,” he told me. He is a member of the Comanche Nation.
Why he chose the Trail of Tears
He and his wife Kristal are RVers who travel to seasonal jobs throughout the United States.
“We researched places I would like to visit before walking a trail. I chose the Trail of Tears because it is a symbolic story that interconnects all Native American tribes. I wanted to understand what really happened on the Trail with the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. The tribes adopted many Anglo-European customs during the colonial period. They lived in log cabins and brick homes, and were plantation owners and business owners. Tragically, our government forcibly moved the tribes to Oklahoma during more than a decade following the Indian Removal Act of 1830.”
The Coopers’ seasonal work took them to Kentucky and then Georgia. They visited numerous Indian museums and sites in Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee. In mid-January 2011, Ron started his hike in Charleston, Tennessee, where the Cherokee agency was at the time of the removal and where General Winfield Scott set up his headquarters for the removal process. Ron chose the Northern Route, one of thirteen removal trails. He estimated it would take him three months to hike the Trail's 835 miles. He carried the usual camping gear: tent, sleeping bag, cooking and eating utensils. If he could not find a suitable camping site, he stayed in the RV driven by Kristal. They kept in touch by cell phones. Maps and a Global Positioning System helped him stay on the Trail, although in some areas the Trail was not marked.
Warm welcomes all along the way
“Without exception, people along the route were wonderful. They waved or honked as they drove by, stopped on the side of the road to ask questions, or invited me for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. A few let me stay in their homes.” Some walked with him, usually a few miles. A man in Kentucky, though, walked with him the entire ninety-five miles of the Kentucky Trail of Tears. In Missouri, members of the Greene County Historic Sites Board, including Jackie Warfel (in photo) and others, walked with him on portions of the 29.5-mile Trail across the county from northeast to southwest.
In the southwest corner of the county, at the Cherokee Trail of Tears Park in the town of Battlefield, ten days before the end of his journey, he and Kristal received a spiritual blessing from medicine healer Robert Tallbird whose heritage is Cheyenne and Cree. "Ron honored all of our nations with his journey," Robert told me. About a dozen persons participated in the ceremony, including news reporters and photographers. It made no difference whether anyone was Native or non-Native. "We were united as a group, because one guy had decided to walk the Trail of Tears," Ron wrote in his book.
It took him three months and three days to walk the entire Trail, ending in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, capital of the Cherokee Nation. Kristal arranged a reception at the Cherokee Heritage Center.
“She had some of the people I met along the Trail in Arkansas and southwest Missouri. My grandfather and my aunt came from Lawton, Oklahoma. The editor of my tribe’s newspaper came to interview me. I met a descendant of the principal chief of the removal at the time, John Ross. And I met a candidate for chief of the Cherokee Nation who later was elected chief.”
Adventurer becomes author
During Ron's hike, reporters for radio, television, and newspapers in small towns and big cities interviewed him. Kristal kept a scrapbook. Ron kept daily records of his journey in a notebook and a digital voice recorder and turned his journal into a book, It’s My Trail, Too: A Comanche Indian’s Journey on the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The book combines memoir, trail guide, history, and philosophy.
“I feel like I accomplished far more than I expected," he told me. "I learned about the Cherokee and details of the Trail. Even if no one else ever knew I walked, just the fact that I finished it was enough for me. The attention of news media and the physical, mental, and spiritual support of people along the way were all icing on the cake.”
Tell us about your journaling and plans to turn it into a memoir, or your memoir published from your journal. What did you learn? How did you grow and change?
Photo: Jackie Warfel and Ron Cooper at the annual re-dedication ceremony, Cherokee Trail of Tears Park, Battlefield, Missouri, May 18, 2013. Photo: Wayne E. Groner.
The thirteen routes of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail total 5,045 miles in nine states. The Trail is administered by the National Park Service in partnership with other federal, state, and local agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private landowners. More at www.nps.gov/trte/index.htm.