Local teen and her horse make voyage through Trail of Tears

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Walking in footsteps of the past

By Shelley Spillman

What started out as a method to differentiate herself to gain entry to law school has become a journey of education and self discovery for 17-year-old Emma Swendsen who will take a more than two-month long horseback journey through the Trail of Tears.


Her only accompaniment across state lines, a 12-year-old Arabian Mustang horse, Flame, and 10-month-old German Sheppard mix, Rune. Swendsen’s yearlong preparations for this voyage will come to an end on Thursday when she will start her ride in Charleston, Tenn. and end at the Trail of Tears National Park in Jackson, Missouri.

“I’m utterly terrified but I hope the fact that I am scared will keep me more alert and safe,” Swendsen said. “Really I’m more excited than anything. This will be an amazing memory to share with my children and grand-children one day.”

Growing up, Swendsen had an atypical upbringing where she was home schooled until age 14 and grew up around horses.

“I’ve been riding on this land since I was two,” said Swendsen. “I had more freedom than most kids my age.”

She recalled the gentle mare Gailsee she used to fall asleep on as small child.

“We had a big western saddle with a horn. Mom put a pillow on the horn and I’d fall asleep on Gailsee’s neck.” Swendsen said.

It’s not a surprise that Swendsen has an affinity for animals, her mother Susan Swendsen Harris is an animal behaviorist who takes in traumatized working breed dogs on her 30-acres in Lawrenceburg for Tier Haven Rescue.

Swendsen is very close with her mother and said she is lucky to have such a strong and compassionate female role model.

“Mom taught me about what’s going on in the world. She would just tell me the truth and she didn’t sugar coat things,” she said.

She credits her mom for her strong sense of justice and interest in becoming a lawyer.

Swendsen worked hard throughout her time at Anderson County High School to keep up her grade point average and graduated in December to help her make time to become a more desirable law school candidate.

Through the Harlan Scholarship, Swendsen was chosen out of 700 applicants for guaranteed access into pre-law school at University of Louisville in the fall.

During college preparation, advisors told Swendsen she needed more experiences to make her more well rounded. Traveling abroad was suggested, but Swendsen said she wanted to do something more unique and personal that she could use to educate others.

Swendsen, who follows social inequality and environmental issues closely, has always been passionate about the Trail of Tears. She knows a great deal about the historical event and has lead discussions about it to students in 4H and the University of Kentucky.

“It’s amazing to see how many of my peers didn’t know about it,” Swendsen said.

According to the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail website, the Trail of Tears occurred in 1838 when the U.S. government forcibly relocated around 16,000 Native Americans from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia to Indian Territory which is the site of present-day Oklahoma. Hundreds died during the relocation process and thousands more died as a consequence of the Native Americans being removed from their homelands.

“This is a vital part of our history and if we don’t learn from this we are bound to repeat it,” Swendsen said.

She said the hardest part of her journey she calls “Trails and Tears Through Time” was convincing her mother that it is safe for her teenage daughter to make a more than two monthlong journey across the U.S. by herself. It wasn’t an easy sell she said.

“I’m in conflict,” Swendsen Harris said. “I’m so proud of her yet I’m speechless with terror.”

Swendsen Harris said she read several articles on raising an independent teenager that helped her with the difficult task of letting go.

“I have to let her live journey,” she said.

It’s been about a year of preparation to make the trip a reality and Swendsen Harris has been beside her daughter the whole time, advising her and helping her plan the safest route.

Through recycling, Swendsen was able to save the majority of the funds for the trip. Other money came from donations and around 15 people along the route who have agreed to provide food and lodging.

The journey required a great deal of preparation. Swendsen changed her diet to cut out caffeine and junk food to make it easier to survive for two months off of soup and meals-ready-to-eat. She trained Flame by walking five miles a day regularly and taught both Rune and Flame to carry backpacks containing a week’s worth of food.

Since Swendsen will be out in the elements and most likely bathing in a nearby stream, she had to create her own natural soaps, shampoos and laundry detergent to avoid polluting the land. She even created a concoction of vinegar and peppermint oil to ward of fleas and ticks.

Swendsen was so concerned about making sure her dog and horse had the proper amount of food that she forgot about making her own food until about two weeks ago. She dehydrated vegetables, ground them into a powder in a blender to create soup packets. A friend also gave her some meals-ready-to-eat to vary her meals.

Finally, Swendsen had to contact the state and county police where she will be passing through to alert them of her presence, and hopefully “avoid getting arrested.”

Swendsen starts her journey this week. She hopes to keep her “Trails and Tears Through Time” facebook updated when she can and journal about her travels. She said she hopes what she is doing will raise awareness about the Trails of Tears and social inequality.

“I hope by doing this that maybe someone will see that they don’t have to be ashamed of their Native American culture,” Swendsen said. “This is an experience of a lifetime. This is will be something significant I’ve done that I will remember for the rest of my life.”