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The Search for Water, Dog Attacks and Death: My 100 Miles on The Long Walk

Though not able to complete the full 535-mile journey due to injuries, Comanche author Ron Cooper did 100 miles and gained some memories.
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The Long Walk was the 1860s forced removal of the Navajo people from their ancient homelands in what is now the area of northeastern Arizona to the Bosque Redondo Reservation in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Many Navajo died in the internment camps, on the Long Walk itself, and the squalid land designated as the first Native American reservation west of the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. They joined the Mescalero Apache, who were already struggling to survive at the place the Navajo would forever call Hweeldi—“A Place of Suffering.”

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first of the at least 53 groups who traveled various routes of The Long Walk.

Injuries have forced the suspension of my 535-mile hike on the Long Walk of the Navajo. However, I managed to complete the first 100 miles, and every step was eventful, thought-provoking, and spiritual.

RELATED: Long Walk: Author to Hike the Steps of the Navajo

The first day’s early theme was how many ways I could get lost. It was maddening how closely the wrong path resembled the route I was supposed to be traveling. It looked like the same direction, the same curves in the road, the same group of houses at the turn-off, the same ridge.

My original idea of traversing cross-country on sections of Long Walk that are no longer used today was quickly dashed when I couldn’t find the correct arroyo to cross, or hill to climb. When I finally did, a 30-feet deep wash kept me from my destination. I decided to stick to the modern roads the rest of the way.

Ron Cooper/Facebook

It was a pleasure hiking through the beautiful scenery in this part of the country.

Dogs were a factor early on—just 100 yards from the start of my journey, I had to pull my pepper spray on a loose neighborhood mutt. I didn’t spray him after he got the hint that something bad was about to happen to him, and he returned home. I did have to spray a dog that burst out of the bushes to charge me a few days later. After the dog attack I had suffered on the Trail of Tears, I felt it was better to be safe than sorry. I’m sure he’ll think twice the next time he confronts a hiker in his territory.

RELATED: The Last 10 Miles of My Journey on the Trail of Tears

The weather was warm and extremely dry. The wind and breathing heavily out of my mouth sucked the moisture off my palette so much that I found it hard to swallow. The temperatures were in the mid-80s—what I initially believed to be a moderate temperature—but I found myself ducking under a tree’s shade for relief a good portion of every day.

The search for water was constant. Standing water in washes or ponds were non-existent in this area, but I managed to find public buildings to fill my bottles just as they ran out. I often carried as much as seven liters of water, and yet persistently ran out. I estimated that I drank as much as 11 liters of water on the hottest days. Toward the end of my hike, I think I was actually getting used to being thirsty all the time.

The injuries developed early and often. Blisters developed on the toes of my left foot, which are almost impossible to prevent and relieve. It’s difficult to get tape or moleskin to stick and stay on them while walking. The heel spur on my right foot, which had plagued me so much on the Trail of Tears, wasn’t a factor at all during the first few days on The Long Walk—that is, until I walked on a soft, sandy section of dirt road. I literally felt the flesh of my foot rip from the heel bone.

The major reason for my departure from The Long Walk was the right knee injury I developed on the first day. This knee, the one I had surgically repaired seven years ago, had given me no problems at all on my 2011 walk on the Trail of Tears. I managed to walk another 90-plus miles on it on this hike, despite it ballooning to twice its normal size.

So, did anything good happen on my trek on The Long Walk? Absolutely!

Navajo country is spectacular—stunning golden ochre mesas and azure skies spread far and wide over the horizon. Majestic pine trees dotted the higher elevations. Cedar trees pierced through the rocky hillsides of the lower landscape, their twisted and gnarled trunks seemingly sculpted by the hand of an unseen artist. My last view on The Long Walk was of a double rainbow as it reflected off the monsoon rains that had avoided me until the final day. I was able to end my hike in the expansive, ancient ebony lava flows that had once emanated from Mount Taylor, an extinct volcano sacred to the Navajo and other area tribes.

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Ron Cooper/Facebook

Church Rock.

RELATED: Tribes Fight to Regain Traditional Cultural Property Designation for Mount Taylor

The Navajo people were welcoming and encouraging when they had learned of my journey. A lady brought tears to my eyes with her encouragement, which came at a time when my injuries had me quite demoralized. I was supported by several Navajo “trail angels”—strangers who go out of their way to assist long-distance hikers. Help ranged from cold sodas after a hot day, rides—which I of course had to turn down—to a few dollars and pocket change.

Of all the events and observations that I experienced on The Long Walk, there are two things in particular that I will never forget.

One was a sobering realization. As I made the hard choice to leave the trail, I became very aware that I wasn’t just quitting.

I was dead.

When you set out to walk the entire Trail of Tears, or completely traverse The Long Walk—and you fail—you have, in effect, died. When a Native American “quit” these trails at the time these removals occurred, it was because they had died. I pictured myself in an unmarked grave along The Long Walk with the Navajo who also did not get to Bosque Redondo. I was saddened and emotionally moved at the thought.

Ron Cooper/Facebook

Here I am heading out of Gallup after resting my knee for an extra day.

The other experience occurred on the eventful first day. I kept glimpsing what seemed to be people watching me. Out of the corner of my eye, silhouettes of human forms would make me look twice. It would turn out to be a rock, a tree, or a just a shape in the darkness of the forest. I’ve hiked in many places throughout the country, and other than the occasional large tree stump that resembled a bear, I had never had this phenomena happen to me with such frequency. I saw the forms so many times that I dubbed them “Shadow Navajo.”

As I set up my first camp at the end of the day, I saw a Shadow Navajo up on the ridge of a nearby mesa that was silhouetted by the setting sun, along with the other familiar shapes of trees, brush, and boulders. I silently acknowledged his presence, and as I went back to the task of completing my chores, I wondered why my eyes continued to play tricks on me. A couple of minutes later, I looked back to where the Shadow Navajo had been.

It was gone. There was a gap where it had been.

And I never saw another Shadow Navajo on the rest of the trip.

Having previously experienced the otherworldly mysteriousness that is ancient Native American spirituality within my own tribe’s ceremonies, I could only identify my guardian Shadow Navajo as spirits of this land, the souls of those Navajo from the dark times of The Long Walk. I felt as if they were acknowledging my presence, and my reasons for walking this journey of remembrance.

Despite the pain and frustration of my hike, and ultimately the failure to complete my adventure, I will carry in my heart what I have learned and experienced on my 100 miles on The Long Walk of the Navajo for the rest of my life.