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823 Miles Done on my Trail of Tears Journey (10 to go!)

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Having been on the trail for nearly three months and 700 plus miles, I gave myself a few days to rest in southwest Missouri. Our hosts Ted and Iva Roller planned two evening gatherings for us during my R&R. The first was in Monett, where we enjoyed a buffet and talking with friends old and new. A high school classmate of Kristal’s came with her family – lots of fun because they hadn’t seen each other in almost 22 years. Jackie and Tallbird also showed up, bearing gifts AGAIN – he gave me an antler-handled knife of Navajo craftsmanship and gave Kristal a pair of silver and coral bear’s paw earrings that he made himself. We’re so thankful and we treasure both of them.

The second gathering was on a Saturday afternoon in the Cassville public library. Much to my surprise, the mayor of Cassville stopped by to hear me talk. At the end, she proclaimed that the day would now be in recognition of the Trail of Tears’ place in the town’s history and my Walk. What an unexpected honor!

After a few days off for rest and socializing, I suddenly realized I had only seven hiking days left! I hit the road again, full of excitement. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel! Apart from a few windy days and some evening chances of tornadoes, southwest Missouri was a dream. I continued to enjoy very small, nearly deserted roads through towns that barely deserved mention on a map. Often times, I was still on the Old Wire Road or Butterfield Stage Route, so that added another angle of interest for me. I was stopped by more people every day – some who had seen me in the news, some who were just curious. A local Cherokee descendent named Roger Smith walked with me for about five miles near his home. He told me of some roadside graves that he assumed were from the Trail of Tears, but he was unable to show me the location because someone has since taken all of the covering stones and used them to make a water well!

After SIX WEEKS of walking in Missouri, I entered my fifth state on April 12th! I was met at the Arkansas border by Glenn Jones, the vice president of the Arkansas Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association. We were just a few miles from the Pea Ridge National Military Park and he called ahead to gain permission for us to enter through a back gate. This would keep me on the original Trail, cutting several miles off my planned route that skirted the park boundary. Since that was going to save us some time too, we all went to lunch at nearby Cannonball BBQ. Wow, what a great lunch… Darla cooks up the best ribs and sides EVER!

Full to bursting, we waddled up a hill and in the back door to Pea Ridge. The park preserves a section of original roadbed and the Elkhorn Tavern, which was a re-supply point during the Trail of Tears. A volunteer in Confederate uniform showed us the tavern, which also served as a field hospital during the Civil War. By sheer coincidence, we were there on the 150th anniversary of the start of the war and Glenn gave us commemorative t-shirts. My mind kept drifting to the Cherokees though – how tired they must have been by this point, mentally and physically. I can relate in some ways, but many of them were on the road for almost FIVE months at this point and I’m not even up to three months.

The next morning, I met a few more mayors and a bunch of reporters from the Springdale/Fayetteville area. We had lunch at Cannonball BBQ again and this time the owner picked up the tab! She also gave me six gallons of ionized water that she said would give me energy to finish the hike. She was absolutely right. Thank you for everything, Darla!

That was pretty much the last moment of peace on my Walk. The route then enters the city and traffic increases while the width of the road’s shoulders decrease. After Fayetteville, the Trail takes a sharp right turn and becomes Highway 62 all the way into Oklahoma. In that last week I walked about four days of busy, basically uninteresting road to get to the border. It probably didn’t help that – for the first time on the Walk – I had my mind on the distant end point rather than the next town around the corner. I was ready for the hike to be over.

My wife Kristal went to see Sam Walton’s first store in Bentonville, Arkansas one day. It’s now a museum to the Walmart dynasty, but she was sad to find it under renovation. Otherwise, she spent most of her time planning the Grande Finale. She and Glenn spoke to the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, OK (just south of Tahlequah) and the center offered to host a reception at the end of my hike. The remaining mileage and weather predictions lined up and together we all picked April 20th for the date.

On April 18th, I crossed the border into Oklahoma! To say “I felt very happy” is an understatement. I had been having moments of sadness that the adventure was coming to an end, but when I saw the “Welcome to Oklahoma” sign I felt nothing but elation. I actually did it!

Three short miles up the road, I came to Westville, OK – former site of Woodhall’s Depot, a farm where most of the Cherokee detachments dispersed after their long walk. Nothing remains of the farm and historians are actually still trying to pinpoint its location. But in many people’s minds, this town is the official end of the Northern Route of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The National Park Service measures all of the National Historic Trail’s mileage to this point as well, so it was also the planned end of my Walk. The Trail of Tears Association has yet to put up any historical markers, so I made do with a city limits sign. A few photos and I was “done”. Kristal and I celebrated with our first shaved ice of the summer.

“Done” is in quotation marks because I still had ten make-up miles to go. Way back in Tennessee, friends and family convinced me not to walk through downtown Nashville. The gap has bugged me since, so I became determined to cover those miles by walking into Tahlequah, the new home of the Cherokee government. It turned out to be a good choice for many reasons, as we soon found out…

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