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Oklahoma ‘couch potato' completes hike along Trail of Tears

A Lawton man who gave up casino work for nomadic life has completed an epic hike on the Trail of Tears route.
BY DAVID ZIZZO Published: April 20, 2011

Athletic? Not Ron Cooper.

“I've been an overweight couch potato all my life,” he said.

But most days during the past three months, the 43-year-old former blackjack dealer from Lawton strapped on a backpack and hiked about 15 miles. Today, he expects to complete his goal of walking — as close as possible — the route the Cherokees took during their 1838 forced relocation on the Trail of Tears, a distance of 835 miles.

“Nearly every day has been just a really fun, educational, informative experience,” Cooper said. A member of the Comanche Nation, he will end his hike at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, south of Tahlequah.

Cooper began his trek Jan. 17 in Charleston, Tenn., site of the largest Cherokee internment camp. Since there are few places for a hiker to camp along the route, Ron's wife, Kristal, was his support crew, covering the same ground, often multiple times, in their pickup.

“He couldn't have done it without me,” she said.

Each day, she would drive him from the end of his walk to a campground where she parked their 29-foot travel trailer. The next morning, she would drive Ron back to where he had stopped walking the previous day, and he'd set off on foot again. Every few days, Kristal ferried the trailer to another campground down the road.

Wandering fits the Coopers. They are “work-campers” who travel the country with their RV, stopping for seasonal work wherever it suits them.

“We've worked in four national parks,” Kristal Cooper said.

It wasn't always that way. While in Lawton, Ron learned to deal blackjack and worked in Indian casinos. In 2002, after losing that job as casino owners battled state authorities over legality of table games, Ron headed to Arizona to continue card dealing.

There, he met Kristal, also a dealer. The couple, especially Ron, enjoyed vacationing in beautiful parks.

On a visit to Zion National Park, Ron tried backpacking and “loved every bit of it,” he recalled. Already a nomad of sorts, Ron decided “I needed to do something to change my lifestyle.”

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Ron Cooper's hike

Began: Jan. 17 in Charleston, Tenn.

Ends: Today in Tahlequah.

Miles covered: 835.

States: Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma.

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