Wednesday

This is the ninth consecutive year Cherokee Nation members have participated in the ride. (The tribe founded the event back in 1984, and revived it in 2009.) The Eastern Band joined their western counterparts in 2011.

Since then, it has become an integral part of historical, cultural, and physical education for the Cherokee people.

“When you experience adversity as a young person, you learn what you’re capable of,” Eastern Band Chief Richard Sneed, himself an alumnus of the ride, told Bicycling. “Everyone has a transformative moment out there.”

Like Wildcat, many participants come into the ride with little to no cycling experience. After applying to make the team, each rider follows a six-month training program with both physical and educational components. “I grew up around the language and history, but the lessons have made it all the more real to me,” Wildcat said. “It’s at the core of what we do.”

The route follows the northern removal path—one of several making up the Trail of Tears, which affected at least five different tribes. It stops at important historical landmarks, such as Mantle Rock and Blythe Ferry, as well as the gravesites of those who died on the march.

“We bring in a genealogist so the riders can find a real, personal connection along the way,” said Sheena Kanott Lambert, program director of the public health initiative Cherokee Choices and a participant in the 2011 ride. “It’s one thing to read a book about our history, and another to experience it in person.”


Team members wear matching kits, provided by the tribes, that sport meaningful designs. They might show the faded signatures, for instance, of the Cherokee National Council that originally signed a petition in protest of the removal. The jerseys are red, black, yellow, and white—traditional Cherokee colors often found in mound artifacts. One copper-colored side panel features seven stars to represent the seven removed clans. Another panel shows only a single star, to represent those lost along the trail.


The ride in 1984 looked much different than it does today. Cyclists back then primarily supported themselves—toting gear, handling mechanicals, and cooking all on their own. “Today we have a marshal with flashing lights to stop traffic for us,” Sneed said. “It’s nice to have a cool hotel room at the end of the day. That original team had it much harder than we do.”

Despite the creature comforts, riders today face tough physical challenges that help bring perspective to the Trail of Tears experience. “I try to fathom what it was like for our ancestors,” Lambert said. “The beauty of it is that they persevered. It’s truly humbling.”


Daily rides vary in distance from 35-70 miles. Organizers built rest days into the schedule and have two support vans with trailers following along. On some days the team will camp, but riders will more often stay in hotels. All told, the ride generally takes about three weeks.

As the 20 or so cyclists make their way into Tahlequah on their final day, emotions run high and tears flow freely. “When we return to our community, it’s with confidence, and many alumni go on to become leaders,” Lambert said. “It’s hard to explain, but we are all more willing to strive for cultural preservation and to volunteer our time with the project in years to come. It’s life-changing.”
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