TAHLEQUAH -- On June 4, 1984, 20 Cherokee youth rode out of Cherokee, North Carolina, into the Great Smoky Mountains on a four-week bicycle ride using the Northern and Benge routes of the Trail of Tears, the same routes thousands of Cherokees used to reach Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, in 1838-39.
Thirty-five years and 10 bike rides later, the Cherokee Nation's "Remember the Removal" program still sends riders annually to retrace the Northern Route to remember the removals and honor ancestors.
After a 25-year hiatus, the "RTR" ride restarted in 2009 as an annual ride, consisting of only CN citizens. Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians riders from North Carolina began taking part in 2011.
But it was the 1984 riders who paved the way for the program's cyclists now who want to learn about Cherokee history and visit landmarks where their ancestors walked in wintery conditions.
"It was exciting and it was a little scary. There were a quite a few riders that never even spent the night away from home before," CN citizen and 1984 cyclist Tress Yahola Lewis said.
Riders in 1984 also faced many differences than today's cyclists.
"It was just unbelievable some of the things we did, especially because we left straight from Cherokee and we went straight into the Smokey Mountains," CN citizen and 1984 cyclists Nancy Little said.
The 1984 riders left from North Carolina, whereas today's riders leave from New Echota, Georgia, and follow the Northern Route, which starts in Georgia and goes through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Other major differences are funding, riding gear and food. Today's riders have all aspects of the ride covered.
"We had to raise our own money. We had to get sponsors. I mean it wasn't easy," Little said. "I mean we had T-shirts. We had biker shorts that were supposed to help us on the bike seat. But we just had our own clothes to go on."
Little said she remembers having a yard sale to raise money and that on the riders' daily treks they only had Gatorade and granola bars until they ate supper. She said it was probably not the "proper diet" for riding.
The 1984 riders also carried their own gear on their bikes, which added 10 pounds to 40 pounds they had to contend with while riding up hills and down winding roads.
Lewis said the bikes had packs on each side of both wheels carrying clothes and toiletries and a small pack on the front to hold first aid kits and a map.
She said they also had less rest days. "We didn't have that many days off. We just rode and rode and rode."
Lewis added that some riders knew each other from a CN youth leadership program, while the rest were strangers until training began.
"It was just another way for us to identify ourselves, not just individually but as a group. It made us feel more like family once we realized how hostile it was to be forced out of your home and then trek across America in winter with whatever you could carry. It was just such a tragic story, but at the same time it made us realize how strong we were as a people," Lewis said.
CN citizen Geri Pierce also went on the inaugural trip, but not as a rider. Her parents, Bill and Jean Glass, were chaperones and joined two weeks into the ride.
"My parents were older and they kind of were the grandparents of the group. My dad would pray with the riders every morning. They'd get into a circle with the riders and they'd hold hands and my dad would lead prayer for them. They thoroughly enjoyed that trip, they loved every student," Pierce said.
She said her parents hauled supplies and equipment in their truck, helped buy groceries and prepare meals. She also took in the sites and history on the way.
"It was one of the most significant times in my lifetime, to see where our ancestors walked and to see the actual terrain and to see the rivers and the places that they went. It was amazing to be able to be there and actually just imagine them coming through when they had to walk," Pierce said.
The 1984 riders also said they learned more about their history and ancestry on the trip than they did in school.
"From what we were told was basically this would be a way for us to learn about Cherokee history, learn what we're not getting in our history books. So I was anxious to see what all we would find out. We were blown away," Lewis said. "It's so fitting that its called 'Remember the Removal' because that's what's important for anybody in any culture is to remember where your people came from and what's been accomplished since then. I think that's what makes us a strong tribe."
CN citizen and 1984 cyclist Eric Budder shares Lewis' sentiments about the history. He said along the way they talked with people who had grave markings on their properties or Cherokee relics.
"People took care of our ancestors without even being asked. That was an honor and respect to those that went before us. I was just glad to hear that people still care about humanity," he said.
After 35 years, friendships made during the first ride have remained strong.
"When you do that trip, you learn to lean on each other and you learn how to encourage other people too, not just encourage yourself. That's such a great lesson in life. That's something to take with you everywhere you go in every situation." Lewis said.
1984 "Remember the Removal" Cyclists and Support Staff
Eric (Bruce) Budder
Sherry Wincle Holcomb
Tressa Yahola Lewis
Nancy Gourd Little
Ed William Sevenstar
Geri Glass Pierce
Lora Birdtail Cortez*
Bill Glass Sr.
*Staff who also cycled at various times.