It started 33 years ago, and it serves as a way to pay respect to and spread awareness for the Trail of Tears, said one official.

This year's Remember the Removal Bike Ride will feature 10 regional Cherokee bicyclists who were selected to participate, based on their essays, interviews and physicals. Sponsored by the Cherokee Nation, the unique, 950-mile journey will begin June 4 in New Echota, Ga., and have the cyclists follow the northern route of the Trail of Tears through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, said Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr.

"The Remember the Removal Bike Ride effort is one of the most powerful youth leadership experiences in America," he said. "There is simply nothing else like it, and each summer for the past decade, this program has left a profound and lasting impact on the Cherokee youth participants."

Set to conclude June 22 in Tahlequah, Okla., the ride will feature cyclists ages 16-24. The cyclists are Raven Girty of Gore; Trey Pritchett and Susie Worley, both of Stilwell, Okla.; KenLea Henson of Proctor, Okla.; Brian Barlow, Ellic Miller and Macie Sullateskee, all of Tahlequah, Okla.; Hunter Scott of Bunch, Okla.; Skylar Vann of Locust Grove, Okla.; Shelby Deal of Porum, Okla.; and Breanna Anderson of Sand Springs, Okla.  

Will Chavez, a Tahlequah resident, will attend as a mentor rider; Chavez participated in the inaugural ride back in 1984.

"I was hesitant to do the ride now; I'm 50 now, but I was 17 on the first ride," he said with a laugh. "I had to think about it, but it's been good. I've been in training since January.

"We didn't get our bikes until March, so before that, we went to the Cherokee Nation gym and did spin bikes and all kinds of strength workouts," added Chavez. "When the bikes came in — they are nice, lightweight, specialized bikes — we started riding those every weekend together, getting ready."

This year's cyclists will see firsthand the same water crossings, terrain and caves used as shelter by Cherokee ancestors nearly 200 years ago, "when they were forced from our homelands in the east and relocated by foot to Oklahoma," Hoskin said. 

The ride calls for participants to ride an average of 60 miles a day, which will mirror part of the hardships endured by the 16,000 Cherokees who were forced to make the journey from their homes to the former Indian Territory via the Trail of Tears, he said.

Cyclists also will have the chance to visit Cherokee Nation landmarks and grave sites, such as Blythe's Ferry in Tennessee, the westernmost edge of the old Cherokee Nation, and Mantle Rock in Kentucky, where Cherokees huddled closely together for warmth under what has been described as a hanging rock; this area under the rock was the only shelter they could find during an intense winter, according to www.cherokee.org/remembertheremoval.

"Retracing the Trail of Tears is a trip that teaches Cherokee history and genealogy, and it cannot be replicated from the classroom textbook," Hoskin said. 

A genealogist will map out the family tree of each rider, providing them with insight into their ancestral past, Chavez said. Often, the Remember the Removal Bike Ride participants learn that they are related to each other, with some even being descendants of Sequoyah, the creator of the Cherokee syllabary, and other "important" historical figures, he said.  

"They've told me that I'm related to one of the riders this year, so I'll find out who on the ride," Chavez said. 

For Chavez, the 1984 ride was a memorable experience for numerous reasons. In his words, "no one" had done anything like that before.

"We were experimenting," Chavez said. "We didn't have GPS back then, so we had to use paper maps and try to keep from getting lost. We tried to follow the trail as much as possible back then, and it took us a month to pull it off.

"And it can be a little scary," he added. "Traffic can be kind of unforgiving and impatient with you at times, but we stuck together as a group. We got through it."

Chavez was surprised when he encountered a few strangers during the 1984 event.

"It's amazing that a lot of people from Georgia and Tennessee didn't even believe that Cherokees still exist; they thought we all had been wiped out," he said. "For us to go and educate people, that was a big part of the trip — that and getting the Trail of Tears marked. The trail is pretty well marked now with signs." 

Girty, a 21-year-old participant who will be a senior at Northeastern State University in the fall, is excited and a little apprehensive about the upcoming ride. She's most excited about meeting members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.

"The alumni riders talk about how life-changing the experience is, but I know it will be tough on us, mentally and physically," Girty said. "It's very emotional the whole time riders ride, so I have a lot of preconceived things going on in my mind."

Girty laughs when she thinks about how she had to get used to her feet being "clipped" into the bike's pedals during training.

"Yeah, it took me a good two days to get used to that, but we're good," she said with a laugh. 

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker agreed with Hoskin that the ride is an ideal way to help spread awareness for the Cherokee Nation. He called the ride "an opportunity of a lifetime" for young Cherokees wishing to gain insight into their heritage.

"The ride is a living classroom and leadership skills workshop, all rolled into one three-week event," Baker said in a written statement. "Year in and year out, we see our young people blossom upon their return. They have a fuller understanding of our Cherokee Nation history and heritage, and they have made lifelong bonds with one another."

The Remember the Removal Bike Ride started as a youth leadership program, Hoskin said. In 2009, the ride became an annual event to help participants gain a positive experience and help spread the word about the Trail of Tears and its importance in history, he said.

"In 2011, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians joined the ride," Hoskin said.

For this year's ride, the North Carolina-based Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will join the regional cyclists in New Echota, Ga., he said. Having Eastern Band members participate will enhance an already positive experience, Hoskin said.

"The bonds and friendships made over this shared experience last a lifetime," Hoskin said.

Chavez also thinks riders feel a connection while riding and visiting with each other in hotels and campsites. 

"I'm filling a role like a chaperone," he said. "I'll get to speak to the kids and help them learn about the ride and the meaning of the ride, and I'll also encourage them along the way. Some of these kids have never been on a bike before, and some days we ride for seven or eight hours. It can get tough out there, so I'll be helping them."