Twenty cyclists returned home to Tahlequah on Thursday to see their families and friends for the first time in three weeks as the Cherokee Nation Remember the Removal Bike Ride came to a close.
Will Chavez was 17 years old when he rode in the Remember the Removal bike ride for the first time in 1984.
"I was riding in Tennessee and I had my head down just pedaling up this hill and I could see sweat dripping off my face onto the pavement," Chavez said. " I heard some people speaking Cherokee around me. It was one person asking a group, what are they doing in Cherokee and someone responded, "they are doing this for us."
The bike ride is an annual event for citizens of the Cherokee Nation, trekking 950 miles through seven states, retracing the northern route of the Trail of Tears.
"It still affects us today. It really does. I mean, some of the traumas that we still suffer, the things that hold us back," he said.
Now, 33 years later, he just finished the ride for the second time at 50 years old as the oldest cyclist on this year's crew.
"I wouldn't have been able to finish some of these days without them and they weren't quitting so I wasn't going to quit either," Chavez said.
But, the 17-day journey was about more than teamwork. Chavez was searching for stories.
"I still haven't found all of my family that were removed. I found a few but I want to find more and I wanna know where they originated from," he said. "If they lost children. If they lost elders along the way and where they were buried."
Chief Bill John Baker said Cherokees are fortunate.
"You have to know your ancestors to even be considered a member of the Cherokee Nation. I think we have got something that many, many, many people envy," Baker said. "Because too many times they don't even know who their great grandparents were, let alone, who their 7th great grandmother was."
Chavez said it's all about the people you surround yourself with.
"You can accomplish a lot when you have good people around you," he said. "I had forgotten that. I learned that 33 years ago when I did the first ride."
Planning for next year's Remember the Removal ride starts in the next few weeks.