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Nervous Moments on the Trail of Tears

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Standing on the south side of the Ohio River, I thought my Trail of Tears experience in Kentucky was over – but my wife had a surprise for me. Fans of my Facebook pagehad invited us to dinner and, since they only lived 15 minutes away from our RV park in Paducah, it was easy to say “Yes”!

Patti had been following my hike for weeks and just wanted to meet Kristal and me in person. She really out-did herself, cooking the BEST spaghetti dinner we’ve ever had! Three members of her family were also there and we enjoyed getting to know all of them. In a fun twist, they got to play supporting roles in the latest TV news report about my Wwlk because the reporter and cameraman from Paducah NBC 6 were invited to dinner too!

I started the Illinois portion of the hike in Golconda on February 22nd. We were met on the Ohio River bank by Joe Crabb – a longtime resident, president of the county’s historical society and vice president of the Illinois chapter of the Trail of Tears Association (TOTA). He gave us quick tours of a heritage museum and a few witness houses in town. After being joined by Benjy from Carbondale ABC 3, we went on a driving tour of pieces of private property that were crossed by the Trail of Tears in what is now Pope County. With just a little bit of practice, it’s easy to recognize the indentations in the land that indicate the Trail’s route. Kristal was very proud of herself when she saw some all on her own!

I planned four days for the Illinois portion of the Trail and it should have been a breeze. Joe and his friends in the IL-TOTA have done an OUTSTANDING job of documenting their 65-mile segment of the Northern Route. They’ve published a glossy pamphlet that includes history, maps and a driving tour. They can even provide you with GPS waypoints for all of the original roadbed! They also offered up three different places along the original Trail where I could camp for the night.

Day One was a great time from start to finish. The Trail route is very well-signed and much of it is public access. I enjoyed one stretch of about eight miles that was only occasionally paved. I shared the road with few cars, but lots of deer and squirrels. I met up with Joe again at the end of the day and we ate pizza with his family. He took me out to his pond where I pitched my tent and we shared a campfire. He left me to enjoy the clear, cool night (only my THIRD outside so far on this hike!) and distant coyotes sang me to sleep.

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The next day, I awoke to a light frost and couldn’t get the fire re-started. Luckily, Joe spontaneously brought me coffee! He showed me nearly two miles of Trail where it crossed his farm/orchard and allowed me to walk them before I headed east out of his county. I had 16 miles to cover before my next pre-arranged stop at the Campground Church and Cemetery (a certified TOT site) near I-24.

Unfortunately, my bum knee had different plans. For each of the next three days I struggled to cover only 10 miles, which totally threw off my camping arrangements. The lone highlight of those days was meeting John Lasley, a cattle rancher in Union County. He showed me where the Trail made an impressive furrow across his field, and several other points of interest that I would have certainly missed. The neatest was 50 feet above our heads – a bald eagle nest! (A pair have been returning and adding on to this nest during the winter and spring of the past four years and they were in residence now!) John walked the next three miles with me, across public and private land, to a Trail of Tears monument at the McGinnis Cemetery where Kristal picked me up for the day.

After the third short day, I was forced to admit that my knee was officially injured. For the first time, I let it enter my mind that I might not be able to finish this hike. Or, I should say: finish this hike all at once. I’m too emotionally involved in the journey not to see it all the way through, but I might have to wait until next year to do it. The heart and mind are willing, but if the knee is weak there’s nothing I can do about it.

We decided to try and let it heal before making a final decision. Kristal fairly tortured me with RICE (Rest-Ice-Compression-Elevation) therapy and regular doses of Advil for the next three days. I also bought a knee brace and we brainstormed other ways to stabilize my stride including using both trekking poles (instead of one), wearing three socks (instead of two) and switching to a different pair of boots.

I started the last leg of Illinois on March 2nd in Anna. Kristal stayed close, loitering at the library, in case I needed her to pick me up. I’m happy to say, she didn’t get a call from me until mid-afternoon – and then only to say she’d better start driving if she wanted to see me arrive at the Mississippi River!

When we told Joe Crabb that it took forever but we finally made it out of Illinois, he pointed out that the Cherokees had the same problem. It took them 3-10 times longer to get out of Illinois than they expected, due to ice on the Mississippi. I’ll take a couple days’ delay because of knee pain over a several week delay because of the deep and persistent cold that they experienced!