DAYTON, Tenn. - When Oklahoma native and Comanche Indian descendant Ron Cooper began his journey along the Trail of Tears on Monday, he did not expect the warm reception he received.
Cooper, who recently was a blackjack dealer in Arizona, decided to relinquish the luxuries of home for recreational vehicle living and said he wants to "work outdoors" in some capacity when he finishes his walk. He said he chose to embark on his quest as a way to inform others that all tribes had a similar story to tell.
Many American Indians died on the Trail of Tears, a forced removal of a number of tribes from their homelands to what is now Oklahoma.
Cooper's wife, Kristal, laughed when he stumbled while explaining the reasons he wants to share his experience, saying he usually is "shy and modest" except when someone asks him why he chose to walk the nearly 850 miles of the trail's northern route.
He said people already have stopped him to ask about his well-being, offer him shelter and assistance and offer him rides, which he politely declined.
She is following him in their red pickup truck while pulling their camper, which she parks ahead of where he is walking. She then returns in the truck to check on his progress until he arrives at the camper.
On Tuesday, they stopped to visit the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and the Cherokee Removal Park in Birchwood, Tenn., before he crossed the bridge over the Tennessee River into Rhea County.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Log onto www.ronhikes trailoftears.com or call Kristal Cooper at 360-477-7056.
Cooper had hoped to cross the river by boat as the Cherokees had done, but the weather created an obstacle. He said he hopes to try again when he reaches the Mississippi River.
Tuesday's rain and chilly temperatures were "similar to what [the Cherokee] endured," said Peggy Hall with the Tennessee Trail of Tears Association, who came to welcome the Coopers at the park.
Ron Cooper said all tribes fought for their land decades ago.
"It's my story, too," he said, "but we all came out of it."
Unfortunately, he said, "we don't have a symbol like Martin Luther King Jr." for Indians' culture.
He plans to write a book about his journey and tell of the people he encountered when he finishes his trip.
Rhea County Executive George Thacker plans to give Cooper a tour of the county courthouse in Dayton, where the Scopes trial was held, today.
Kimberly McMillian is based in Rhea County. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org