Cooper and his wife, Kristal, have been on the 835-mile walk from Tennessee to Oklahoma since Jan. 17. A native of Arizona who now lives in Lawton, Okla., Cooper said he has studied Native American heritage since he was young and was looking for some kind of personal experience where he could connect his interests with a backpacking trip. Walking the route, which was used to displace the Cherokee from North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee from 1838 to 1840, seemed like a manageable undertaking.
"It became a walk of unity for me," Cooper said. "The Comanche, as Plains Indians, fought on the battlefield. The Cherokee had plantations and were farmers. They went to the courts. There were 500 Creek on the trail too.
"Our ancestors became aliens in their own land," Cooper added. "They got us to where we are now. We need to celebrate that part of our history."
Cooper has been making the walk gradually. He has averaged around 15 miles a day and is presently two weeks behind schedule.
Cooper quickly learned that he would not be able to camp along the way because much of the original trail is on private property. In recent weeks he has been able to camp in the Mark Twain National Forest. Cooper recounted how families had provided or directed him to shelter when he had no other overnight alternative at several places along the trail.
Kristal said she planned initially to stay home and send supplies. As the undertaking proved more demanding, she joined the effort, picking him up in the RV at night.
Cooper has written about his walk in a blog at www.ronhikestrailoftears.com. He carries a digital recorder to save comments along the way. He followed roads as close to the original trail as possible and walked on public land where it was available.
"A lot of the trail is on back country roads," Cooper said. "When you're all by yourself, that's when you can really feel the trail and feel the Cherokee people walking with you. I'm trying to keep the sadness with the pride."
The Coopers started in Missouri on March 2. The physical strain of the daily walk has had an impact. Cooper said his ankles have always been bad and his feet have hurt since the first weeks. He has tried to massage them daily and found after running over a bridge during a break in the traffic that his feet hurt less, so he had added a little running each day.
"I'm trying to make the whole walk in one pair of boots to have a trophy," Cooper said. "I can't imagine walking it in moccasins. I'm sure they'd be worn out in a hundred miles. I can only imagine what it was like originally. That's always in the back of my mind."
Weather has not been too trying on the trip, though Cooper recalled walking into a snowstorm in Tennessee by the Kentucky border. Kristal said her husband had "big eyelash icicles" that day.
"More than anything, I like to talk about my awesome experiences," Cooper said. "There have been a lot of instances meeting great, supportive people. It's been good to see historical societies concentrating on the trail where it goes through their towns. I've been able to connect trail enthusiasts and landowners who want to put their land into the recognized trail."
At the time Cooper spoke in Monett, he had 125 miles to go, or nine hiking days from where he would end the walk at Tahlequah, Okla. He plans to write a book about his experience.
Cooper and his wife met while both were working as blackjack dealers in Tucson, Ariz. After spending a vacation at a national park, they decided to escape from their smoke-filled indoor environment. They work during the summer for the National Park Service and spend the last three months of the year wrapping packages at an Amazon.com warehouse. Living in an RV gives the couple mobility and a chance to take on other activities.
"Every bit of it has been absolutely amazing," Cooper said. "I can't wait to get back out there tomorrow. When I'm off this trail, I'm looking for my next adventure."