Twenty-one cyclists embarked on a deeply personal journey to honor their Cherokee ancestors who were removed from their homelands 180 years ago. The event, called Remember the Removal bike ride, is sponsored by Cherokee Nation.
Participants retrace these steps on bicycles in remembrance of the hardships their ancestors endured while they traveled on foot. It is estimated that 4,000 Cherokees died during the relocation.
These cyclists made their way through Southeast Missouri on Tuesday during the 2019 Remember the Removal ride. They traveled from Trail of Tears State Park to Farmington after they enjoyed a much-needed day of rest in Cape Girardeau on Monday.
While in Cape Girardeau, the riders received assistance from Jose Alcala who set up a tent and completed maintenance and washed the bikes. He has done this for Remember the Removal riders since 2014.
During Tuesday’s ride, the cyclists clocked 71.9 miles on their bikes. Ashley Hunnicutt and Joshua Chavez were the day’s leaders of the group.
This annual ride takes the young participants through the northern route of the Trail of Tears on bicycles. Their journey spans almost 1,000 miles from Georgia to Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. This year is also the 35th anniversary of the inaugural Remember the Removal ride which took place in 1984.
The nine cyclists, ages 20-24, began training in December. The tribe also selected two Cherokee Nation citizens to be mentor riders: 55-year-old Marie Eubanks and 58-year-old Kevin Stretch.
“It is quite an honor to be one of the few chosen for this opportunity of a lifetime,” said Principal Chief Bill John Baker. “By the time these young men and women leave to begin their journey, they will have spent more than half a year training together and developing a bond that will last a lifetime. The lives of these Cherokees will be forever changed along this journey.”
The cyclists travel an average of 60 miles per day along the routes used by their Cherokee ancestors.
Cyclists were selected to participate in this experience based on essays, interviews and a physical to ensure they were up for the grueling challenge. As part of their training, the group spent weekends undergoing metabolic training and also cycling on a variety of routes in and around 14 counties of the Cherokee Nation. They also train on their own or in groups throughout the week in preparation for this challenging ride.
The Cherokee Nation cyclists are joined by 10 riders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. The two tribes did not know each other beforehand. A genealogist put together each rider’s family tree before the trip so they receive insights into their ancestral past and any family links the riders share are revealed.
The group began riding together in New Echota, Ga., on June 2.
The riders travel with a support team, including two vans with trailers, paramedic, and marshals to ensure safety and help control traffic issues. A few rest days are planned, and the group stops each evening to camp or stay at a hotel.
During this journey, some stops are unplanned. Flat tires or bike issues, traffic and other problems sometimes occur. The riders also make planned stops and visit several Cherokee gravesites and historic landmarks including Blythe’s Ferry in Tennessee, the westernmost edge of the old Cherokee Nation, and Mantle Rock in Kentucky where many Cherokees huddled together for warmth under a hanging rock, the only shelter they found during devastating winter weather.
Another planned stop was a special dinner in Farmington hosted by MaryLee Visnovske and her employees and family. She has hosted a dinner for the cyclists for the past three years.
Visnovske’s shaded courtyard patio located next to her Earth Mother Health Foods store was the perfect spot for dinner. She and her son Leroy, grandsons Zeb and Wyatt, and others prepared and served special foods to represent each state: wild hog from Georgia, salad from Tennessee, vegetable sticks from Kentucky, wheat from Illinois, chicken and rice from Missouri, watermelon from Arkansas and beans from Oklahoma.
“This is such a time when the cyclists come through the area to make us aware and make us think of what we have done to the Indians,” said Visnovske. “It makes my heart happy to be able to do this dinner for the riders.”
The next day, the ride from Farmington to Steelville was a little cool and a bit rainy.
This three-week journey continues through Missouri from Waynesville to Competition, Strafford, Republic and then to Cassville. The group arrives in Pea Ridge, Arkansas, on June 18. From there, they travel to Fayetteville to Stilwell, Oklahoma, and then finish on June 20 in Tahlequah.
Remember the Removal ends with an emotional welcome-home celebration from huge crowds in Tahlequah. The humbled riders will have endured physical and emotional challenges throughout their trek. They will have experienced a brief glimpse into the painful struggle of their ancestors that will reshape their views on their lives and heritage. With their ancestors’ difficult journey at the forefront of their minds, the cyclists have rode through heat and humidity, exhaustion, challenging hills, and the pains of being on a bicycle for hours every day. With each mile they have accomplished, they have been reminded of their purpose and persevered.
The cyclists include Destiny Matthews, Elizabeth Hummingbird, Joshua Chavez, Brooke Bailey, Kayli Gonzales, Ashley Hunnicut, Steven Shade, Sydnie Pierce, Shadow Hardbarger, Kevin Stretch and Marie Eubanks for Cherokee Nation. Participants from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians include Tonya Carroll, Zach Goings, Keyonna Owle, Micah Swimmer, Danielle Toineeta, Dre Crowe, Manual Hernandez, Skye Tafoya, Monica Wildcat and Blythe Winchester.
Follow the progress of the Remember the Removal Ride of 2019 on Facebook, Twitter at #RTR2019 or Instagram @TheCherokeeNation in honor of the inaugural ride’s 35th anniversary.