Trail of Tears Update Three: Together We WalkFrom The Field
Words: Ian Finch // Photography: Ian Finch & Jamie Barnes
May 20th 2019
Two weeks ago, we’d left Memphis on foot. In that time, we’d walked 200 miles through Arkansas, following the plateau farmland roads of McCrory and Augusta and up into the Ozark Mountains. Our chosen route handrailed, as close as we could, the one the Cherokee took in 1838 during the Indian removals enforced by then-president Andrew Jackson.
What we thought would be a simple process of walking a pre-planned daily mileage soon changed after 50lb packs and 85˚ heat ground our progress to a painful shuffle. The expedition had a time window based on visa requirements and weather patterns, with a few days’ leeway but nothing more. We knew it was going to be hot, but after 42 days paddling, our feet arrived unannounced and vastly unprepared. Long days in the canoe with wet feet had softened the skin. We’d hardly walked in a month and a half; now our posture and gait had changed to a hunch and shuffle as we put in eight-hour days on tarmac and gravel, dodging lorries with drivers more concerned about their Facebook likes than the road ahead. We wouldn’t last much longer. Each morning we’d pull socks over seeping blisters. At the end of each day we’d re-dress the places where the skin had ripped and formed another sensitive area the size of a bullet hole. Something had to change.
One evening an Arkansan man and his wife took us in after thunderstorms halted our progress. Barry was a local electrician working on state electricity lines. He was a burly man, 6ft tall, with wide shoulders and a strong accent. He’d seen us on the roads, on the way to work and eventually on his return. As the storm rolled in, he’d pulled over in his white truck and offered us shelter in an empty house he was due to renovate that summer.
The following morning, as the rain eased, we contemplated the painful day ahead. There was a sound – an enviable sound – of vehicle tyres crunching the gravel outside. As we opened the front door, Barry walked up with what looked like a foldable blue cart. We peered at it with curiosity, as if pondering how to reverse-engineer a spacecraft. Could we actually use this? This moment, we soon realised, would change the outcome of the expedition.
Jamie had suffered the most. I hated to watch him wince as he dressed and re-dressed the gaping holes in his feet. Although I was struggling with my own threshold, we decided to put Jamie’s belongings in the cart and I would carry on as normal. Jamie would strap a belt to the handle and re-tie it to his waist, using the cart’s steering system as a pulley. Much like the pulks used in polar journeys, we’d pull the cart from the front. As Jamie made his way out onto the wet tarmac of the main road it was clear that this was going to change the game altogether. Weight no longer pushed down but was pulled from the rear. And the volume of our sturdy Lowe Alpine rucksacks wouldn’t limit what we could carry any more; the cart could hold far more. We could pull more food, carry more water, and coax back the morale we had lost 100 miles behind us. Pushing forward became a joy, rather than a painful task, even if we did appear homeless. It was then, as the sun began to set on another day, that an example of southern hospitality developed in front of us – without our knowledge, at first.
A vehicle came to a stop directly in front of me. I looked 100m back to where Jamie marched. We knew by long experience that this meant one of two things: someone was stopping to ask if we were homeless, or they were generously bringing us food. The doors took some time to open. I swung my rucksack off my shoulder and tried to make out the silhouette of the driver through the reflection in the windscreen. A lady stepped out with a smile and a distant greeting. We later found out that Lauren had seen us limping the day before and had suggested the cart to Barry. Now she had brought a second cart for me to adapt and use. Stunned, we weren’t sure what to say. These moments go far beyond normal responses; a thank you never seems enough. On the side of the road I devised my own strapping and pulling system, attaching individual kit straps (which once held a sleeping mat to the rucksack) to each belt loop sitting on the hip of my trousers. We were both mobile and on four wheels.
Carts, new inner soles, Brooks running shoes and foot care saw us double our speed. The only thing now was to tiptoe through the infamous Arkansas storm and tornado season and up into Tornado Alley in Oklahoma. We had been lucky so far. Tornadoes had ripped through counties only a few miles from where we walked. People had died. In some cases, we had to divert as trees lay displaced and shattered across roads. When bad weather rolled in our plan was to hunker down wherever we could – shop doorways, treelines, or in the comfort of a local church. Some days it worked beautifully, some days in didn’t. Yet during these times locals would appear as if by magic, offering us a place to stay, water, and a bed with pillows. It was in these places, day after day, that we would form friendships and tell stories that seemed to last forever.
June 3rd 2019
Six miles left; yet these were no ordinary six miles. As we pulled in off the main road, we both looked endearingly at our carts. Here we would separate for the final time. I thought that leaving behind Sequoyah, our canoe, had been hard. The carts’ wheels were at breaking point, rubber stripped from the inner cores, tarmac fragments wedged in. The frames were visibly cracking under the weight of all the water and mini Snickers bars we had to carry. They had come nearly 300 miles and had become a deeply sentimental piece of the journey. I doubted they would make another 20.
As we waited, a white truck turned from the highway in to the parking lot. Two young Cherokee men jumped out and walked over to us. We shook hands. ‘I’m Parker Weavel’ one said, while the other added, ‘I’m Wrighter Weavel.’ I noticed that Parker was tall, quintessentially Cherokee, while Wrighter was smaller, more athletic, with a ponytail. They were on time; we had been expecting them.
Jamie and I had decided that we wanted to make the final push alongside two Cherokee youth and an elder. Before the expedition had begun, I’d contacted the Cherokee Nation and asked permission for us to walk this sacred journey. During those meaningful exchanges I had also asked if we could finish the journey by honouring the people the best way we knew how, by walking together.
John Ross, a Cherokee elder who specialised in preservation of language, arrived in a red truck from the Cherokee Heritage Centre. Immediately I was struck by his proud, stoic demeanour. He was tall, with a white moustache and white hair, and he wore a brown polo shirt with ‘Cherokee Nation’ emblazoned on the left chest. His family were directly linked to the Trail of Tears. As we left remaining kit in the red support truck that would slowly follow behind, the five of us took a small back road leading from the main highway into a valley between two rolling ranges of green hills.
This was a moment in time that Jamie and I had long thought about. We’d travelled 1,294 miles to get here. And now we were on the cusp of finishing, to no fanfare or jubilant celebrations – just how we wanted it to be. This final section was all about connecting to the past with John Ross, and to the future with Parker and Wrighter, nothing more.
After a mile or so John Ross left in the support vehicle. We had walked and talked about the history of the language, efforts made in Cherokee schools to empower the youth, and what is being done today to sustain culture. He spoke with a proud reverence about immersion schools paid for by the Nation to encourage children to learn all aspects of Cherokee culture, and about how he personally translates books and government documents into Cherokee. I didn’t want him to go, yet the humid weather, approaching thunderstorms and burgeoning hills were too much. We all shook hands and smiled. I hoped to see him again one day soon.
The road turned to dirt track and the skies turned black. Then the heavens opened. Until that point Jamie and I had managed to dodge the worst of this volatile southern weather, but now the four of us would be in the thick of it without an exit strategy. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that our conversation with Parker and Wrighter was respectful, inquisitive, and fruitful. From the outset it had been agreed that we could ask questions freely and without fear. We would also be open to answering any questions they were inquisitive enough to ask. In no time we were friends, discussing topics ranging from how Cherokee youth view the culture to growing up native in the US. We discussed how the Cherokee Nation settled after the removals and how the two brothers had ridden 1,000 miles on bikes from North Carolina to Oklahoma.
Their journey, called ‘Remember the Removal’, was to pay homage to the immense journey their ancestors made in 1838. Even today, the removal simmers deeply within the Cherokee psyche. Wrighter spoke honourably about his efforts to encourage and inspire the youth and to perpetuate traditions of his great nation. At the same time, we spoke of the internal struggles they face as native men growing up in present-day Oklahoma. Throughout the final six miles it rained like never before. Floods and streams appeared on the road, and clouds obscured the forested horizon with deep grey mist. Throughout the whole three months of this journey the intricate and powerful patterns of weather played crucial roles in our progress. But the importance of our time with Parker and Wrighter made it feel like, on that day, I didn’t even notice a raindrop.
Our journey came to a close at the doorstep of the Cherokee Heritage Centre, located on the site of the first known female Cherokee school. We smiled and ate watermelon from a silver pot. I shivered from the rain and cold air conditioning in the lobby. Jamie and I hugged in the way men do when they can’t show their true feelings. In the physical sense our journey was over. Now we had one week to sit, listen, and learn from the people we had come so far to meet before our flights took us back to our own interpretation of normality.
I was proud not only of myself but of Jamie too. We’d done something nobody had done before. Most of all we’d followed a story that still needs to be heard, remembered and shared, its lesson vitally important even in the modern world. It is a story of injustice, resistance, and survival. Of a people moved from their home and forced to relocate to foreign lands with only the belongings they could carry. The fact that the Cherokee are one of the most successful tribal nations in America is a testament to their strength and tenacity to survive – and not just in the present day, but for the youth, the custodians of their culture’s future.
I’d walk another 1,000 miles again for them alone.