The 2017 Remember the Removal Riders passed through Waynesville and Rolla Thursday, June 15, as part of the annual effort to teach young Cherokee members about their history and culture.

The Remember the Removal ride traces the Trail of Tears across 950 miles, through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. The ride is a physically and mentally challenging journey meant to bring out the best in the Cherokee nation’s emerging leaders while giving them a tangible tie to their history. The riders are joined by a mentor, who leads them along the way.

Will Chavez, the rider’s mentor, took part in the very first Remember the Removal ride in 1984. He now strives to connect the new generation of riders to what their ancestors experienced.

“It means a lot,” said Chavez about the trip. “We studied the history and language before we left, while we trained. For us to see these places ourselves is neat and I’m glad to be here with them to experience that.”

Each young rider signed up for the trip for their own reasons, some wanted the physical challenge and to push themselves beyond what they thought they could accomplish, others hoped to find out more about themselves somewhere along the trail.

For Trey Pritchett, it was the chance to experience the history of his people firsthand.

“I signed up because I’ve really matured a lot these past couple years, and I’ve begun to understand our culture and our history,” he said. “I really understand that if it’s not passed down, it’s going to die out. I’m here to learn more about the removal because it’s about our people.” Trey added that he wants to learn as much as he can about where they’ve come from so he can pass it down to future generations.

Will said when they started the training, he could barely ride ten miles, and the physical portion of the journey has been challenging, but the growth he’s seen along the way has been inspiring.

“We’re averaging 60 miles a day, and at the end of the day I’m still feeling good. It’s been amazing to see my body grow and see everyone else grow,” Will said.

Taylor Wilnoty saw her own growth on the trip, and said she signed up to finally do something for herself after a lifetime of focusing on others.

“I’ve had a hard past eight or nine years,” she explained. “My older brother passed away in 2009, and we were really close. He had epilepsy, so I spent most of my life taking care of him, giving him his medicine and getting through his seizures.”

Taylor said that when her brother passed away, it hit her and her family incredibly hard.

“My mom just stopped caring for herself,” she said. “And I had a younger brother I had to help get through high school. I spent the last eight years taking care of everyone but myself, so I did this ride for me. I did it to find myself and where I’m supposed to be.”

Taylor said this is the longest she has ever been away from her family, but was able to describe the moment when the journey became worth it for her.

“It was going into Mantle Rock,” she said. “There were a lot of hills and it got really hot, and I was really tired. It was really tough for me.”

Taylor described how when she was forcing herself up one of the hills, she felt a teammate come up behind her and start pushing her up the hill. Other teammates joined in to make sure Taylor made it to the top.

“They were passing me off from each rider to the next to get me up the hill. When we got there, all I could do was cry, all I could do was thank them for getting me up that hill,” Taylor said.

Taylor, Trey and the rest of the riders were greeted by Waynesville Mayor Luge Hardman, Deloris Gray Wood of the Missouri Chapter of the Trail of Tears Association, and Representative Steve Lynch offered his admiration and appreciation for their journey.

“You can read something in a book, but if you really get to experience something, it makes a world of difference,” he said. “One of these days you’re going to have a family, and one of these days you’re going to pass down what you’ve learned.”

The 2017 Remember the Removal riders will complete their journey in Oklahoma on June 22.