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.”
He looked for jobs that would take him outdoors, far from “the deep, dark, smoky casinos.” After a particularly bad day at work, Kristal decided to join in Ron's dream.
“I said, ‘Let's do it,'
The couple quit their lucrative but “morally bankrupt” jobs, bought a travel trailer and hit the road
The following years saw the couple move about the country with “the kids,” two cats named for cartoon characters, stopping wherever forests rose and sunsets glowed. In tourist destinations, Kristal said, there's always demand for seasonal workers. Along the way, the couple got married.
One day, Ron decided it was time to try a monumental hike, something like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. He chose the Trail of Tears route, he said, because “I just wanted to walk a trail that had a little more meaning to me.”
Much of the route is not well mapped, but local historians often guided Cooper to the actual route, which sometimes narrowed to single-track through woods. Many locals gave permission for Ron Cooper to cross their land to follow it, he said.
Cooper might someday try floating the river route some tribes traveled to Indian Territory. But he doubts anything will top his epic journey.
“I will definitely write a book,” he said.
AT A GLANCE
Ron Cooper's hike
Began: Jan. 17 in Charleston, Tenn.
Ends: Today in
Miles covered: 835.
States: Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma.
More information: www.ronhikestrail