600 Miles and Counting on the Trail of Tears

When I made that left turn in St. James, Missouri on the first day of spring I really started walking with some history!  For the next 120 miles, the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears heads southwest – roughly parallel to modern day Interstate 44.  I-44 itself was constructed along the route of the old St. Louis to Springfield Road, which had been in established in the early 1830s.

Starting in 1858 – twenty years after the Cherokee exiles walked by on the Trail of Tears – the old St. Louis to Springfield Road was used as part of the Butterfield Overland Mail Route. This was the first cross-country mail service to be authorized and contracted by the United States government.  It connected the St. Louis area to San Francisco by way of 2,800 long stagecoach miles.

The Butterfield Overland Mail Route was discontinued in 1861 due in part to robberies and Civil War unrest along the road.  Shortly thereafter, telegraph wires were strung down its length here in the Ozarks and it conveyed communications for both the Blue and the Gray.  The soldiers called it “The Wire Road”.

Honestly, both of these historical facts might have escaped us, if not for one of our hosts in SW Missouri, Mr. Ted Roller.  Ted has been involved with the Trail of Tears Association (TOTA) in the past and is now actively working to document and recognize Civil War sites in the area.  Ted and his wife Iva also own the copyright to a book about the Wire Road and its history.  We were so lucky to have met Ted – his knowledge and documentation about the Trail literally kept me on the right path many times!

What we couldn’t have missed, though, is the fact that today’s I-44 runs right along yesterday’s Route 66.  The famous 2400-plus mile “Mother Road” was established in 1926, connecting Chicago to the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica.  Wayside hotels and attractions – old and new – are strung like Christmas lights along the crumbling pavement of the “Main Street of America.”

This long leg of the hike will mostly be remembered for the great friends we met along the way.  It’s amazing how we can talk to someone on the phone or computer, spend just a few days with them in person, and walk away feeling like we’re old friends!

Phil Krueger had been writing and sending encouragement since before the hike even started.  He works as a forester in the Mark Twain National Forest.  Kristal and I stopped at his office in Rolla one morning to see him.  He showed us maps of the area and pointed out where his wife’s family history tells of a Cherokee ancestor dropping off the Trail.  Later that night, we got to meet his wife and daughter when they took us out for delicious pan-fried chicken at a local gas station!

Neva Schroder planned a meet-greet-&-eat gathering at a restaurant in Marshfield one evening.  She had a whole room reserved and it was a good thing!  Reporters from a local newspaper and TV station piled in with about 30 other people.  All came just because they were interested in the Trail of Tears route through their county and wanted to hear about my hike!  I spent 3-1/2 hours talking and answering questions!  There were two families with kids who just wanted to meet me, two couples with potential original Trail across their land, and the rest were members of various historical societies from up to 75 minutes away!  The best part was that all of these like-minded people got to meet each other and share information.  My hike now has a legacy and I couldn’t be more proud!

That night spun off into a bunch more social engagements for us.  Billy Joe and Pam McNeil invited a group of us out to their land to see their potential Trail segment.  It looks like it really could be original Trail and now they have the contacts to get it studied and certified if they’d like.  We also got to see the pioneer cemetery and Civil War-era bunkers on their property.  How lucky they are to be surrounded by such history!  Our last stop was the neighbor’s bison ranch where we waved at the residents before enjoying their ex-friend for a excellent chili dinner!

The rest of the events happened when we got to the city of Springfield, so I’ll save those for the next blog.  But I can’t end this one without mentioning another stupid dog that attacked me – but with love, this time!

I was walking out on a rural road when a couple of dogs ran out to greet me.  This happens all day long and sometimes they’ll walk with me for a hundred yards or so before going home.  This time, one of them stuck with me for over THREE MILES!  I kept hoping he would go home, but he never did and the farther away we got, the more I knew he wouldn’t be able to find his way back.  I finally got so worried that I called my wife to come pick me up early that day so we could drive the dog back to his house.  Just then, a car pulled up alongside.  “Do you know this dog?” I asked, hopefully.  Yes, that was his dog.  “Riley” had come up to him as a stray years ago.  Hmmm… go figure!  I wonder if he followed a hiker coming from the next town over!?!

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600 Miles and Counting on the Trail of Tears