The Rev. Randy Sweet and his wife Jayne were planning a highway-bound trip to Oklahoma in late May to visit his family when Mrs. Sweet suggested they drive via the Trail of Tears instead.
It is a 2,200-mile trek that the Cherokees and other Indian tribes were sent across after being forcibly removed from their ancestral homes in several southeastern states by the U.S. government in 1837.
Of the 16,000 Cherokee men, women and children made to relocate to the Oklahoma territory, about one-fourth died from exposure, starvation and disease along the way.
''It is really the American holocaust,'' said Mrs. Sweet, 58, a South Allegheny middle and high school art teacher.
Rev. Sweet, 57, agreed to the route change, not only for its historical and ancestral value — he is of Cherokee descent —- but as preparation for his November service on the 175th anniversary of the Act of Union that preserved the Cherokee Nation.
The Act was signed on July 12, 1839, by the relocated Cherokees and the Cherokees already residing in the territory, thereby creating a unified political body.
At 1:30 p.m. Nov. 22, Rev. Sweet will conduct the 'Trail of Tears Remembrance Service in honor of the Act of Union at Camp Kon-O-Kwee, 126 Nagel Road, Fombell.
He is senior pastor at Hilltop United Methodist Church in Madison.
Besides photographs and reflections from the couple's trip, Rev. Sweet, who is also chairman of the Committee on Native American Ministries for Western Pennsylvania for the United Methodist Church, is hoping for Cherokee Nation representatives as speakers.
November is also Native American Heritage Month.
''As a teacher, I'm ashamed of our ignorance. We all know that February is Black History Month, and March is Women's History Month, but no one knows about November,'' Mrs. Sweet said.
Starting at the trail's original departure point in Chattannoga, Tenn., the Madison couple traveled largely on remote secondary and dirt roads, with their only highway stretch a 10-mile span of U.S. Route 66 in Missouri.
They stopped at all National Historic Trail markers, museums, and cemeteries, and hiked the original trails, like the half-mile Mantle Rock in Kentucky in 90-degree temperatures.
The 40-foot natural sandstone arch was used for shelter on the Trail of Tears.
''Since the icy Ohio River had no ferry traffic, the Indians sought cover beneath the arch. Many died there,'' reads the site placard.
''It sometimes got real dark real fast,'' Rev. Sweet said.
''I could get in the car, and put on the air-conditioning to escape the heat. When we were tired at night we went to a Holiday Inn,‘’ he said. “My ancestors did not have luxuries. It was sobering.‘’
The trip ended where the Trail of Tears ended in Tahlequah, Okla., and features a Cherokee Heritage Center with a 1710-era village with weaving, pottery and more by traditionally clad Native Americans.
The Sweets also attended a remembrance ceremony of the Act of Union at Cherokee Nation Capitol Square in Tahlequah.
Despite the history of oppression, there was a resounding lack of bitterness among the Cherokees, the Sweets said.
''That [forced relocation] was the past. 'Now we're moving forward' was the attitude,'' Rev. Sweet said.
The couple, who met as students at Oral Roberts University and have three grown children, are open to other excursions.
''We believe every day should be an adventure, and is a gift from God,‘’ Rev. Sweet said. ”Live it to the fullest.‘’
Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.