I planned to start my Trail of Tears walk at the city park in Charleston, Tennessee at 10 a.m. on Monday, January 17th. I was met there by a few Friends of Red Clay and the president of the Charleston Historical Society. We had such a good time talking that it was 10:30 before I knew it. I threw on my pack, waved at the cameras and started out – just to stop 100 feet later because it was starting to rain. It was only then that I realized I forgot to kiss my wife good-bye! She came over to take care of that formality while I put on my rain gear and then I was officially off!
Despite the rain, the first day on the Trail was a pleasure. Many of the roads were so small I thought they might be someone’s driveway. At one point, I stood at a split in the road trying to decide which way to go and a couple came out of their house and invited me in! They said they knew who I was, which was a surprise to me even though I had been featured on the front page of two local newspapers by that time. They eventually got me back on the Trail and I made a few more miles before bedding down for the night in a cemetery. It would have been perfectly peaceful if I didn’t feel like I was trespassing.
I made it to Blythe Ferry crossing at noon the next day. Kristal met me there because she wanted to see the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park and take pictures of me at the Tennessee River. She also brought three members of the Tennessee chapter of the Trail of Tears Association (TOTA) and a reporter from the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The TOTA members told me that they planned to grab me for the day and show me some local roadbeds and historical sites I might not know about – and they also offered me a warm bed for the night! The reporter knew almost nothing about the Trail of Tears, so it was a bit of a long (but very interesting!) interview. She told me that she tried and tried to get local businessmen to come out and ferry me across, but they all had their boats put up for the winter. That would have been awesome, but it honestly might have been too overwhelming. I don’t cry easily, but it’s hard not to feel emotional at Blythe’s Ferry. Ten thousand of our people stood there, waiting for a boat that would take them away from the land they loved. How sad they must have been!
The next day I got another late start because the reporter had arranged for me to get a tour of the Scope’s “Monkey Trial” Museum in the Rhea County Courthouse. Although I was anxious to get back on the Trail, it was an easy choice to say “yes” to this detour. I’m a big fan of unsolved mysteries and odd bits of trivia, so one of the interesting parts of this walk for me is learning historical tidbits about each town I’m passing through.
After noon, one of the TOTA members drove me back to the west side of the Blythe’s Ferry crossing to continue my walk (this was the place where, in 1838, thousands of Cherokee gathered here and awaited the ferry trip as they were moved west to Oklahoma.) I watched sandhill cranes, bald eagles and a kingfisher as I ate lunch on the riverbank. I then walked less than a mile before a news crew from CBS Channel 12 in Chattanooga caught up with me. They put a microphone on me and filmed me walking and talking from a dozen different angles. What a surreal experience! When I thought up this adventure it was for purely selfish reasons: I wanted to do a big hike that had some meaning to me. It wasn’t long, though, before I realized that if it meant something to me, it might to other Natives. After talking to a few Native organizations, they made me think that my pilgrimage might be newsworthy. I guess the media agree because in the first weeks of my walk I was interviewed by every local newspaper from Charleston to Nashville and was on the local TV news in Chattanooga, Nashville and Tulsa! My friends and family wouldn’t recognize me – I’m normally a quiet, private person but suddenly I’m out there “making friends and influencing people!” I told my wife not to get used to it, that this is all part of the job of publicizing the Trail and I’ll be back to my rocking chair and TV remote soon.
So I made it from the river back to Dayton by sunset for a grand total of 27 miles in three days. Wow. Really? My initial plan was to do twenty miles a day. Granted, I had never hiked more than three consecutive days in a row before – but that was in desert wilderness. This is road walking – it should be easy, right? I knew I would be slowed by a thousand foot climb up the Cumberland Plateau, but what I never would have imagined was all of the attention I was getting. Meeting new people and hearing their stories, I quickly decided, was also going to be a vital part of my experience so I needed to embrace that and forget the mileage goals for a while.