TAHLEQUAH — Imagine, if you can, the horror.
One winter day, federal forces order you to abandon your home and your community. Displaced and confused, you're herded into a stockade where you remain until the biting breath of deep winter is at its sharpest.
Then you and 16,000 others like you — your family, neighbors and friends — are expelled from the stockade and forced to march. You stagger across uneven terrain and through icy water; at night you huddle together for whatever warmth you can find.
Each day is a fight for survival — a fight those around you are losing at a staggering rate. Four thousand die before you reach your destination; those who remain have crossed an area equivalent in size to Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.
Can you imagine it?
In 1838-1839, the Cherokee Nation lived that experience.
Their journey came to be known as the Trail of Tears, and even now, 173 years later, it remains among the worst episodes in American history.
The Cherokee don't want to forget what their ancestors suffered. That's the motivation behind the Remember the Removal Ride, a more than 900-mile bicycle trip that retraces one of the routes of the Trail of Tears.
“Remember the Removal is a commemorative bike ride that involves Cherokee students,” said LeeAnn Dreadfulwater, editorial liaison for the Cherokee Nation, in a recent phone interview.
“It is a leadership event than not only teaches their history but connects them with their ancestry. It also teaches them about the hardships people can and do survive and reach beyond to find their inner strength.”
The ride has continued off and on since 1984. This year will mark the fourth consecutive event.
Not everyone who wants to ride is chosen. Acceptance comes after a competitive application process. Candidates are asked to explain why they want to participate and what they hope to learn. Beyond that, they must be in excellent riding shape and be willing to train vigorously in the months leading up to the ride.
“To go out and ride 900 miles in all types of weather conditions is not easy,” Dreadfulwater said. “Their average is probably 50 miles a day. Some days they'll do 75 miles, other days 35 or 40 depending on the weather and terrain. It'll take them about three weeks to complete the ride.”
The riders are driven to a part of Georgia that once was part of the Cherokees' homeland. The ride begins there. Some nights they will camp out under the stars; others will be spent in hotels or motels. Each day, no matter the weather, they will pedal their bikes, mile after mile, heading steadily toward Tahlequah.
Nonriders can keep track of their progress on Facebook. The riders will be posting updates throughout their trek. Their page is accessible by typing “Remember the Removal” in the Facebook search engine.
A send-off ceremony to honor the riders will be at 9 a.m. Friday at the Cherokee Nation W.W. Keeler Complex, 17675 S Muskogee Ave., Tahlequah.
A larger ceremony will be held when the riders return.
That event is tentatively scheduled for 10:30 a.m. June 22 at the downtown courthouse square in Tahlequah.
The 2012 riders are Eric Budder, 17; Echo King, 18; Clay Rudolph, 21, and Danielle Culp, 22, all of Claremore; Luke Phillips, 15; Seth Alsenay, 16, and Megan Alsenay, 20, all of Keys; Nathalie Tomasik, 17, of Tahlequah; Keaton Sheets, 17, of Stilwell; and Elizabeth Cook, 18, of Texarkana, Ark.
Four alumni of the ride will make the trip, as well, serving as mentors and chaperones. They are Sarah Holcomb, of Vian; Kurt Rogers, of Tahlequah; Jerrad Dry, of Fort Gibson; and C.J. Alsenay, of Keys.
They will be joined in Georgia by eight riders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
For more information, go online to www.remembertheremoval.org.