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Through the Trail of Tears and beyond

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Teen reflects on summerlong, life-changing journey

By Shelley Spillman

After a journey of 826 miles, 52 days, enduring memories and the loss of a longtime friend and travel companion, Emma Swendsen returns with a changed prospective.

Swendsen, a recent Anderson County High School graduate, spent her summer traveling through the Trail of Tears to gain an understanding of what some 16,000 Native Americans went through in 1838 when they were forcibly removed from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia to Oklahoma.

Accompanying Swendsen through her voyage starting in Charleston, Tennessee and ending in Tahlequah, Oklahoma was a 12-year-old Arabian Mustang horse, Flame, and 10-month-old German Shepherd mix, Rune.

Though Swendsen prepared for nearly a year, outlining her trail on a map, listing the necessary items to pack and attempted to prepare for any hiccups along the way, she said there is no way to prepare for the difficulty of more than 50 days of constant moving.

“I felt homeless without the safety net of home,” said Swendsen.

The reactions she received from people she encountered ranged from admiration for her independence to parents asking her to stay away from their children to avoid implanting crazy thoughts to also take a horseback ride across the U.S.

Early on in the trip, near Charleston, Tennessee in 38-degree weather, Swendsen realized this journey would not be any easy one.

“It was freezing,” she said.

She wrapped her large blanket around her body three times and slept closely to Rune to keep warm.

Though not everyone greeted Swendsen’s trip with enthusiasm, she said she was surprised how many people reached out to supply her with a place to sleep a night, food, water and other resources.

She said the dehydrated soup packets she made to feed herself were seldom touched because people were constantly supplying her, Flame and Rune with food.

“That’s the number one thing people wanted to do was feed me,” she laughed. “I actually lost weight, but I’m surprised because I ate so much.”

Part of Swendsen’s preparations was to notify local law enforcement to give them a heads up that she would be in town. The decision helped when she came across two girls in Princeton, Kentucky who attempted to take Flame while she was sleeping. She said Rune woke her up and she found the girls walking away with Flame and stopped them. She let them know that the police was checking on her and demanded that Flame be returned to her.

“Thank goodness Rune woke me up,” she said.

Throughout the journey, Swendsen kept people abreast of her progress and her needs on her facebook page “Trails and Tears Through Time,” which has more than 700 followers.

She later learned that the facebook page was also dangerous because it allowed people to track her whereabouts.

On one occasion in Illinois, she stayed at someone’s house. She attempted to tie Flame up outside, but he was jumping up and under clear distress. At 10 p.m. she decided to leave since Flame was uncomfortable and restless.

The trio rode until 2 a.m. to get to a nearby equine farm. She notified only her mother and boyfriend that she was on the move so late at night. Along the way she received a cryptic message on her facebook group page asking, “Why did you move?”

Swendsen said she was immediately shaken because only two people knew she moved and this person had to have been watching her to know.

“She had no clue it was unsafe, but Flame knew,” said her mother, Susan Swendsen Harris. “He got her to safety, that was his job.”

Swendsen Harris said that was the point that she really didn’t worry as much about her daughter. She knew exercised good judgment and would be okay.

Towards the end of the trip, Swendsen started to doubt herself. She was exhausted. Flame and Rune were also tired and she was afraid to push them. She was conflicted and called her mother asking what she should do.

Swendsen Harris told her she couldn’t tell her what to do. She had to examine herself and figure out what was the best course of action.

Shortly after, an 84-year-old Native American woman named Jackie came to Swendsen at 6 a.m. in Missouri. Jackie told her she wasn’t going to hurt her, and she heard she needed help.

Jackie then took her animals one by one into a nearby field and talked to them. She came back and told Swendsen that her animals were fine and wanted to complete the journey. Lastly, she spoke with Swendsen and helped examine why she suddenly doubted herself.

Jackie vowed not to leave her side until they reached the final destination in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and Jackie did just that never leaving Swendsen’s side for the last 126 miles.

“I think Emma found her angel in Jackie,” said Swendsen Harris. “Jackie is an amazing person.”

At one point they slept head to head in church pew. Often times, they stayed up late talking. Swendsen heard stories about Jackie’s life and developed a deep appreciation for the inner strength of Native American women.

Swendsen admitted that there where “a million and one” times along the Trail of Tears that she just wanted to break, but Native Americans went through great adversity and continued to move forward, building a life for themselves.

“How many cultures do you know that could do that?” said Swendsen.

When she arrived at her destination in Tahlequah, Swendsen Harris came with a trailer to pick the trio up.

Shortly after the trip, Flame lost more than 50 pounds. On June 30, he was rushed to Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, where they found out that Flame had a birth defect that caused him to have a constricted stomach.

“He knew he couldn’t eat a lot, but after the trip he stopped regulating his food intake to save his gut,” said Swendsen.

Looking back, she said Flame was always underweight, but they had no idea it was because of a birth defect that he shouldn’t have survived early on.

Rune clung to Swendsen and was at the hospital while Flame was recovering after surgery. Swendsen Harris said there was an unspoken conversation between Rune and Flame, where Rune understood that he was going to have to take on the responsibility to look after Swendsen.

“It was like Rune was saying to him ‘I got it from here Bud,’” said Swendsen Harris.

On July 21 Flame died. Swendsen Harris said Swendsen was beside herself with guilt, thinking she caused Flame’s death by pushing him too hard.

“The vet told her, ‘no, you realize this ride wasn’t for you, it was for this horse. He was an amazing horse in more ways than we’ll ever know,’” said Swendsen Harris.

Swendsen told stories of a gentle horse who loved children and often participated in parades in Lawrenceburg and the Waddy parade annually since he was 4 years old.

She said he had a lot of personality. During the winter she said her family kept the horses in a barn about a half-mile down the road, but somehow Flame always managed to get out and be standing in the pasture near the house in the morning. She said they never did figure out how he kept getting out.

“He just loved being around people. He would meet the school bus when it pulled up everyday,” said Swendsen.

Though she was devastated at the loss of Flame she said she was glad they got to go on one last adventure together.

Swendsen Harris said she has noticed that her daughter seems more confident and sure of herself now.

Rune has taken his responsibility to heart and is always with Swendsen who is training him to be a service dog.

Of all she learned from her journey, Swendsen said she was most surprised in the kindness of strangers including logging truck drivers who alerted other drivers via radio to provide food, supplies and kept an eye out for her.

“It’s funny where you find the good in the world when you learn to look,” said Swendsen.

Currently, Swendsen and Rune have embarked on another venture together, college. Swendsen is enrolled in the University of Lousiville where she is taking pre-law classes.

She hopes to eventually become a lawyer where she can put her interest in social issues to good use to help impact positive changes in the world.