‘Remember the Removal’ cyclists share their training experiences
Kayli Gonzales, of Welling, gets back on the road after a break on May 19 during a training ride. She and 10 other cyclists from the Cherokee Nation will leave on May 28 for Cherokee, North Carolina, where they will meet and train with cyclists from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians before riding from New Echota, Georgia, on June 2 to begin the 950-mile “Remember the Removal” ride. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Sydnie Pierce, of Locust Grove, laughs with teammates during a water and snack break on May 5. The day before, the team completed 70 miles of cycling to qualify to go on the annual bicycle ride that retraces the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears and received their kits or uniforms that Pierce is wearing. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Mentor rider Kevin Stretch, of Fort Gibson, left, helps fellow mentor rider Marie Eubanks, center, and “Remember the Removal” trainer Sarah Holcomb install a tube into a tire to fix a flat during an April 27 training ride. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
“Remember the Removal” cyclist Steven Shade picks up speed after a break during a March 17 training ride in Cherokee County. The 11 “RTR” cyclists trained as a group every weekend beginning in December and were expected to train on their own on weekdays. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – “Remember the Removal” cyclists are only days away from taking the journey for which they have worked hard to prepare during the past six months.
This year’s team is made up of nine youth and two mentor riders who were chosen by a committee this past fall after they applied and submitted essays about why they wanted to participate in the three-week ride to retrace the Northern Route of the Trial of Tears. Most Cherokee people used this route to travel to Indian Territory in 1838-39 after they were forced from their lands in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina.
Steven Shade, 24, of Briggs, described the team’s weekend trainings as “fun and challenging.”
“I’m always looking forward to the weekends during weekdays. But of course, there have been a couple hard days, where I wake up sore in the morning not wanting to get up. But I’ve always pushed myself to get up because I know can’t just wake up one morning during the ride and quit,” he said.
Along with physical training in the gym and on their bicycles, the team attended Cherokee language and history classes every weekend.
“I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about the history of the removal,” Shade said. “I didn’t know that Cherokees took a civil approach against the (removal) treaty. Also, I personally feel like I’ve grown as a leader and obtained better confidence, to the point where I was able to step up temporarily (when asked) as a manager at work.”
Shade said he’s looking forward to seeing the historic sites that he’s learned about the past six months. “It’s one thing to hear and read about it, but to actually see and stand where it all happened, where we came from, will be a completely different experience.”
Kayli Gonzales, 22, of Welling, describes the experience so far as one “the biggest thing to happen in her life.”
“This has been, honestly, one of the hardest but also one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had. It’s also the biggest experience I’ve ever had in my life,” she said. “It’s the first thing I’ve ever decided to do on my own. When I decided to apply, I didn’t tell anybody I was going to, I just did it by myself.”
She admitted the training has been physically and mentally tough at times.
“I think I underestimated how much of a toll it would take on me mentally because I’m in school, and it’s hard to do your schoolwork when all you can think about is going riding with your friends on the weekend or just thinking about the ride in general,” she said. “It’s also been fun getting to know everybody and creating these relationships with them. We’re basically family now. Going from not knowing each other to having these close relationships with them has been awesome.”
She added that she hopes the annual bike ride gets a lot of attention this year “because of what it stands for.”
“I feel like of lot of people think of the Cherokee Nation and they think of the Trail of Tears, but I don’t think it’s something people should always associate with us. We should remember it, but we shouldn’t dwell on it because we are doing so many different things now,” she said.
Mentor cyclist Kevin Stretch, 58, lives in Tahlequah but calls Fort Gibson home. He thanked the fitness trainers at the tribe’s Cherokee Male Seminary Recreation Center in Tahlequah and the support staff at the tribe’s physical therapy department for helping the cyclists.
“It’s been quite amazing. It is on one level mentally taxing, and it’s obviously physically taxing, especially being 58 years old,” he said. “Everything was pretty much expected. I grew up playing sports, so the physical part and the training, I expected it. Every weekend is filled up, and it’s also great to have the language and history courses.”
Each year, a genealogist researches each cyclist’s family tree and gives him or her a booklet that lists his or her genealogy. Cyclists also learn who they are related to among the group.
“To get your genealogy and see everyone’s reaction to things they didn’t know. It was great to experience that with everyone else at the same time,” Stretch said.
Strong bonds are usually formed among the cyclists during training. Stretch said sharing the aches and pains from training and baloney sandwiches on the side of the road creates that bond.
“I expected it to be more about individual motivation and not team motivation. So what I didn’t expect was the closeness of the team members and how we bonded,” he said.
Sydnie Pierce, 23, of Locust Grove, said she knew she would spend a lot of time with her teammates, but didn’t expect to get so close to them and “open up to them” like she has since training began.
“We’ve been through a lot together, so it’s easy to relate to them and be like, ‘oh hey, we’ve been through this together.’ I think when you suffer with someone that’s a bond that ties you together like nothing else can,” she said. “Our ancestors suffered a lot together, also, and that’s a lot deeper than most relationships you come into, and it’s kind of hard to explain that.”
She said the past six months have been a learning experience.
“I think I’ve learned a lot about myself that I didn’t know. And, I’ve learned, obviously, a lot more about my culture, and I’m excited to be educated and able to tell other people about it,” Pierce said. “When I went to school we only got a paragraph in the history books about where our people come from. We went a lot more in depth. It’s cool to hear about the important people who are more like us. It kind of gives you hope that maybe one day you can do something that helps your culture and make a milestone for someone else, like my little sisters. I hope I can be an example to them and teach them things about our culture so they can also pass it down.”
Pierce also encourages anyone thinking about participating in the ride to apply.
“You definitely should because it’s an experience that changes you in ways you really wouldn’t think about. You find out things about yourself that you didn’t expect,” she said. “The group that I’m with has been amazing. They encourage me and bring happiness into my life, and I know I’m going to have them for the rest of my life. That’s something I never could have imagined.”