It has been almost 176 years since the Cherokee people began to be removed from their land and forced to travel the more than 2,200 miles that make up the various routes on the Trail of Tears.
Traveling along the Trail of Tears has become a way for many to pay respects to their ancestors’ struggles.
For the nomadic Noqah Elisi, there was no better way to honor her Cherokee lineage than by following the same route all these years later.
“It came to me that I needed to walk the Trail of Tears, because I am Cherokee and my people walked that trail,” Elisi stated.
The trip along the Trail of Tears has been 15 years in the making for Elisi, who first felt inspired while on a vision quest in the hills of South Dakota.
“Fifteen years ago, I was doing a vision quest and was fasting and praying in the mountains of South Dakota for four days. A vision of a man came to me there and told me that I was going to go on a journey. ... He said that I needed to follow in the footsteps of my grandmothers. All of our ancestors’ way of thinking has no distinguishing between generations, because we are a composite of them. Some of my grandmothers walked on the Trail of Tears and here I am 15 years later,” following the vision’s guidance, Elisi explained.
While she has traveled and lived in many parts of the country, Elisi’s roots stem from Clinton, near Knoxville, and North Carolina.
Elisi and her husband, famed long rider Gene Glasscock, chose to travel the historic route by covered wagon, accompanied only by their dog, Bell, and two blonde Belgian mules, Kate and Kitty.
“We both have ancestors who walked the Trail of Tears. We are grateful for their determination to survive ... and are thankful to be here today,” Elisi commented. “This trip is our expression of love, gratitude and respect for them.”
The journey along the Trail of Tears is also a way for Elisi to honor the memory of her son, John Patrick Bunce, who died in September 2012 in Alaska.
“My son and I had planned on doing this trip on horseback because the vision had told me that I was to travel with horses. Both my son and I had done some long-distance rides, but he died Sept. 1, 2012. It’s taken me all this time to get through all that grief. I’m just starting to feel that my feet are touching the ground again,” the mourning mother stated.
At the time of her son’s death, Elisi had been living in Alaska for 31 years. It was after Bunce’s passing that Elisi was first encouraged by her nephew to contact Glasscock.
Phone conversations led to a relationship, and the two have been married for a year now.
“We’ve been getting ready for this (journey) all of our lives, basically. My husband rode from the Arctic Circle to the Equator on horseback and rode to the capital of all 48 states. Gene had wanted to do the Cherokee Trail of Tears himself, because his ancestors are Cherokee as well. He’s already driven this wagon and team of mules from coast to coast and back again,” Elisi commented.
“He’s an incredible man and I’m very honored to be a part of his life. I was in transition and he was in transition. Now we’ve come together and are doing this journey together. It’s definitely a God thing.”
Their trek began in Black Mountain, N.C., on May 8, and for the past couple weeks the duo had made their camp at Red Clay State Park.
Earlier in the week, Elisi and Glasscock made their way through Cleveland and headed to Charleston, where they set up camp at the home of Harold and Jean Shell.
“We’ve met some incredible people so far,” Elisi said.
They have estimated that their trip to Tahlequah, Okla., will take approximately 20 weeks, but according to Glasscock, there is no rush.
“We’re taking our time and enjoying ourselves,” Gene commented.
The team travels roughly 10 to 12 miles a day, and is taking a leisurely pace to make things easier on their mules.
The weather has impeded the trek a bit, with rain and high humidity being unconducive to travel.
“We travel 10 to 12 miles a day because we are taking it easy on our girls, but we do have specific places where we need to stop. The girls are 11 and 12. Kate, our big girl, is 11 and Kitty is our athlete. She’s smaller and faster, and is 12. That’s middle aged for them and they’ve already been coast to coast before,” Elisi explained.
“We’re like a family and take care of each other. We take good care of them because the Bible says that a righteous man takes care of his animals. We take good care of them and in return they take care of us.”
The plan is for the team to travel the northern route to Oklahoma and then tentatively take the southern route back, which would bring them back to East Tennessee around mid-December.
The duo’s progress can be followed thanks to periodic updates on Facebook by liking Gene Glasscock’s page.
“We pray with every step, thanking the Creator for the gift of love and for the courage to let go of our need for the past to be different than what it was so that we can be here in the moment,” Elisi stated. “We share with others the power of our Father’s love and the freedom of forgiveness.”