5.27.2007,11:32 PM
Ozark High: Trail of Tears, Roads of Joy
Trail of Tears

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Opting to bow out of the dinner gathering Friday night, I chose to catch up on some badly needed sleep. And I slept soundly Friday night. Waking early with anticipation of hitting the road for an adventure, I cleaned up and dressed.

I wandered down to the group camping site to find a few of the other riders stirring and barely awake. Bill was already firing up the camp stove and preparing breakfast: pour hot water in bag, seal and let it sit for 10 minutes. Easy and quick. Two others were eating oatmeal and Ramen noodles. Another was wandering around still shaking sleep from his head. I had my cup of French pressed coffee in me and was eager to go. Food can be had later.



Today was planned with a few intentions: to find good mojo and put it back into my bike road trips, and to search for something of my family history. I had already informed Bill of my intention to do a solo sojourn on Saturday, and because he’s a friend I trust with confidence, I told him why. Sometimes when you’ve lost a part of yourself, you have to go looking for it. Or be receptive to having it find you again. That was my primary goal for the ride on Saturday, and I had to do it alone.

Riding out of Eureka Springs, I headed east on Hwy 62 to Harrison. Already that old feeling of eagerness and anticipation began to infuse me with a smile. Searching for signs directing my to Byway 7, I readied myself to ride onto a rollercoaster road and I strapped my mental seat belt on wearing a grin in my helmet.

Let’s go!

Enjoying the road for what it was: concentrating on a brisk ride and safely navigating the changing angles and elevations. I pulled into two rest stops to view the valleys below and the rolling mountains across the vista.



As I turned from the view below at one stop, I watched a lone rider pull in and snapped a quick photo. Not far behind was another rider that pulled in alongside the him. Both rode BMWs. I walked over and chatted awhile, soon discovering that they were from the Dallas area. We talked bikes, roads and places to eat. And shared favorite sections of roads before we bid each other a safe and enjoyable ride.



And on I rode, now approaching the valley where the great river flowed: the Arkansas River.

Two destinations, two state parks, were in mind with the same interest: the Trail of Tears. My Cherokee heritage has always been a mysterious part of me because so little of my family history was passed down. My great-grandmother was a member of one of the several Cherokee tribes, and her blood, as well as her German husband, filtered down through my father's father.

When I lived on an Indian reservation in Maine while attending college, a medicine woman (and PhD in ethnobotany), who became a close friend and mentor, told me once I needed to find my great-grandmother; "She's been waiting for you. You will know." Several decades later and being presented with the opportunity, it occurred to me to find her, her people and a part of my history.

Lake Dardenelle State Park lies on the Arkansas River and a short distance from Russellville. It is one of two certified sites in Arkansas on the National Historic Trail of Tears. The park, a peninsula jutting out into the Arkansas River on the north shore, was Cherokee land. During the two years of forced relocation of the ‘civilized five tribes’, mostly Cherokee, this spot was where all five tribes passed through by water and land. This spot, and the surrounding area was home for a large number of Cherokee families; which eventually became a site of heartbreak and the beginning of a trail of fear, hopelessness, and death for thousands of Native American people. Including my great-grandmother’s family and friends.


When I entered the visitors’ center, I smiled and walked like a magnet to the three aquariums containing fish that inhabited the wide Arkansas River. Like a little kid, I pressed my face up against the glass and made fish lips at the huge catfish, eel and other fish swimming in their little fish tank. A few of them likewise pressed the front of their heads against the glass near my face. I’m not sure who was more curious; them or me.



Two large boards hung on one wall relating the history of the area and its significance. I noticed that most of one board focused more on the European ‘side of the story’ rather than offering the perspective from the Native Americans. I smirked at the irony, but realized it as typical.

The center houses a room full of resources to read, learn and research the history of the trek by the Indians across Tennessee, Arkansas and into Indian Territory, now called Oklahoma. Two computers are available for use to access information and data collected and stored in databases hosted by dedicated federal agencies, state and national associations.

A Native American woman dressed in neat slacks and a colorfully patterned jacket was using one of the computers to research information on her family members. I felt like a trespasser on her privacy and respectfully honored her silence and concentration. I sat for a while and glanced through a few federal documents containing statistics and reports from military personnel that lead the relocation parties, and a book on Cherokees in Texas. I was offered the first real glimpse and perspective of what happened back then, while present on land upon which they trod more than a hundred years ago.

I ventured outside on the deck that overlooks the river, gazing out across the water, up and down the river.



Trying to imagine what it all may have appeared as so many decades ago; striving to see what they saw, what they felt, smelled and heard. It was as if I was trying to find ghosts, part away the reality I saw before me and place what I knew on the landscape around me. But I couldn’t go back far enough; I didn’t have enough stories to construct a living scenario by which I could project an interactive empathy.

So I let what was left fill me and paint upon my memory what it all looked like now; while the past remained transparent and silent. Yet I still was transported away from the boats, bright T-shirts, running and laughing children, the nuclear plant chimney spewing white steam on the horizon, the cars and trucks, lights and signs; back into a space between what was now and what was then. And a dismay bordering on anger that a people were treated nearly genocidal by those whom they had trusted and tried to make peace with. A sad loss of thousands of people forced out of their homes, the life they knew and the land they loved. Simultaneously I could almost hear the echoes of their songs, which I have heard clearly at reservations I have visited, and their silence.

And asked as I have many times before: why? No answer seems adequate. Nor am I sure we will ever know. But we all should ask ourselves the question: why?


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posted by Macrobe
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