So why am I, a Comanche, hiking the Trail of Tears? What do I hope to accomplish? What am I trying to say? All good questions. Let's start at the beginning, on how this whole idea came to pass.
I was born and raised in Lawton, Oklahoma – on the shores of Lake Lawtonka, in the shadow of Mt. Scott, at the doorstep of the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. It was home, but I didn’t really appreciate the natural beauty around me. Sadly, I was a couch potato. I didn’t enjoy school, except for history – but I always wondered what they weren’t telling me. Like many young adults of my kind, I worked in casinos and smoke shops that catered to out-of-towners. These few facts don’t define me, but they’re all part of my story.
Fast-forward to May of 2007. I’m now living in Tucson, Arizona; still working as a blackjack dealer though. I’ve been dating a co-worker named Kristal for the past three years. We decide to take her mother on a vacation to Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. We gaze at the Vermillion Cliffs, tour the slot canyons on the Navajo Reservation near Page and take a combined 700 photographs, and then volunteer at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary north of Kanab, Utah on Mother’s Day. Alone, Kristal and I continue to Zion National Park for a few unforgettable days of hiking and then fly home from Las Vegas.
Key word: “Unforgettable”. I couldn’t get the fresh air and grandeur of Zion out of my head. I never loved working in the casinos, but suddenly I couldn’t stand being in a dark, smoky room all day. In a moment of weakness, Kristal agreed with me and by the first of July we were working on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and living in our brand new travel trailer.
For many months, I had been reading books about long distance hikers and lightweight backpackers. I was anxious to try it myself and it didn’t take long for me to outfit us with all the gear. Kristal went with me the first night and enjoyed watching the sun rise and set over the Canyon but claimed: “It’s just not camping without s’mores and milk.” The enjoyment comes easier for me. In this crazy, hectic world, one of the neatest feelings is sleeping out under the stars and knowing you’re miles away from another soul.
Fast-forward a few more years. Kristal and I just got married and are happily living full-time in our RV. We’re now working in Olympic National Park, after doing 14 months at Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas. She’s only been on one more overnight hike with me, but I’ve been out backpacking – alone and with friends – as much as possible. I’m addicted and want more. I say I want to try one of the “big” trails: the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, or Continental Divide – but deep down I know that’s not a possibility. Most people take five months during the summer to do one of those trails and that’s exactly when the National Parks are busiest and need us most.
I’m disappointed until I realize that we could take a few months off in the winter, when tourism-related jobs are more scarce. That idea suits me better anyway because I can handle cold better than heat and humidity. Also, I may be strange but I like weather. Rain, wind, snow, sleet… it’s all part of the experience. Now, which trail to choose?
Reading about the Triple Crown trails, they all seem too crowded for me. I also wished I could do a hike that had meaning for me and that’s when I hit on the Trail of Tears. With a little research I discovered that the National Park Service recently recognized it as a National Historic Trail, so I contacted them for route information. I was surprised to find that there are two “official routes” but no actual trail I could walk. There has long been an Auto Tour route, but would walking that satisfy me?
For the past year and a half, I’ve been reading everything I can about the Trail. I used eyewitness accounts to plot a course on a topographic map for my walk. Meanwhile, I eagerly learned more about the history of the Trail. The first thing that really hit home was how many people were involved. The Cherokee are the tribe most commonly associated with the Trail of Tears, but it also affected the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Creek Nations from the same area of the deep-south. Of course, numerous other tribes were removed from their native lands and sent to Oklahoma in the decades that followed – my ancestors in the Comanche and Kiowa tribes included.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone who denies that the Indian Wars were a dark spot in American history. It’s been 120 years since the Wounded Knee Massacre – an event that many of us consider the symbolic end of Native life as we knew it. It’s not the end of our story though. I wonder if anyone else sees that we’ve bounced back and come into our own. We’re like the eagle in that respect. And, like the eagle, we’re more than just a symbol of America – we’re a vital part of this country and we should be proud of what we contribute. I wonder if anyone else feels this 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.
Thoughts like that made me want to walk the Trail of Tears even more. My goals include bringing attention to the National Historic Trail, 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.