WASHINGTON - If you were to follow in the footsteps of the Cherokees, you would be in for a very long walk.
You'd start with a trek into the Appalachian Mountains, perhaps not long before Europeans got there. Your trail would cut a well-worn path across a wedge of mountains that straddles a half-dozen states on today's map.
The journey would be long and arduous. You would settle in some of the most beautiful hills and valleys in America.
Then the Trail of Tears would happen.
''Footsteps of the Cherokees: A Guide to the Eastern Homelands of the Cherokee Nation'' revisits much of that journey. Vicki Rozema's book, now in its second edition, is a comprehensive travel guide to the homelands of the Ani-Yun-Wiya, a nation that never stopped walking - especially when the U.S. government had anything to say about it.
Rozema gives plenty of deep background on ''The Principal People,'' as the Cherokee call themselves. The first 50 pages are a useful summary of their tribal story, from prehistory to ancient Cherokee traditions, from European invasion and colonial struggle to souring relations with the young American republic.
We read about events leading to the Trail of Tears of 1838, in which anywhere from 1,000 to 8,000 Cherokees perished. They were forced from their homes by President Andrew Jackson, Rozema tells us, and yet some of the Cherokee had fought by his side at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend 25 years earlier. Loyalty didn't count for much in the land-hungry republic of ''Old Hickory.''
The rest of ''Footsteps'' is a guide to sites in eastern Cherokee country, taking a roughly clockwise tour through five states that begins in Chattanooga, Tenn., and ends in northwest Alabama.
Both Cherokee buffs and casual travelers should find ''Footsteps'' worth the price. Museums, parks, villages, burial mounds, natural formations and historic markers are among the 190 sites included. Entries give historical background, driving directions and hours of operation. Driving maps and a generous index make the edition reader-friendly.
A graduate student at the University of Tennessee, Rozema illustrates the text with dozens of her own black and white photos, from Looking Glass Rock to Tugaloo Town to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, N.C.
The book is a web of fact and legend drawn from nooks and crannies across the Southeast. You've probably never heard of Lydia Bean, a lucky lady whom a Cherokee saved from burning at the stake because she knew how to make butter and cheese! Or how about Granny Dollar? That would be Nancy Emmeline Callahan, who had Cherokee ancestry, who kept her family fed when they were hiding out from authorities during the 1838 Removal.
Callahan later married a man named Dollar and became a renowned tribal storyteller. She lived to be more than 100 and was buried in a graveyard outside Mentone, Ala. - and Rozema knows the row in the cemetery where you can find her stone.
If the place is part of Cherokee history, the author has been there. The Suck, a mysterious whirlpool that choked traffic on the Tennessee River, was thought by the Cherokee to be haunted. A dam upstream has since rendered it passable, but Rozema knows just the country road you can take to get a view of the spot.
Then there's Sam Houston, governor of Tennessee and Texas, who was raised by the Cherokee. Early in his career, he taught in a one-room schoolhouse, a building that still stands near Maryville, Tenn., rebuilt on its original site. Rozema has a nice photo of it.
It turns out, we also learn, that near the island where Houston lived with his adopted father, Cherokee Chief John Jolly, was Blythe Ferry, a site where Cherokees would be ferried across the Tennessee River 30 years later during the Trail of Tears.
''Footsteps'' moves from history to prehistory and back into the modern world. It has an archaeological feel, as if the reader were excavating layers of a story that gets richer and more complicated the deeper you dig.
Amply described in ''Footsteps'' are the Etowah Indian Mounds and New Echota, both in northern Georgia. Etowah is a complex of three large earthen mounds that predate Columbus, one of which looms more than 60 feet high and would have been the center of a town with several thousand residents. The mounds rank in size with many prominent ones along the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, and are among the largest examples of earthen architecture still extant north of Mexico.
New Echota is a monument to a later time and culture. Near Calhoun, the town was founded as the first Cherokee capital in 1825, and was the site of the treaty signing 10 years later that would doom the Cherokee to their westward exodus. Made up of reconstructions and original buildings, New Echota has the air of an important community, even if a ghostly one.
The story of the Cherokee was part of a larger pattern. Federal strategy with the Principal People, Rozema writes, was to divide and negotiate. Find a subchief or leader willing to sign away land for a bribe, the government reasoned, and such a ''treaty'' could be made applicable to the whole nation.
An 1816 treaty, says Rozema, actually returned land to the Cherokee after it had already been taken - something of an oddity in American history.
Three years later, allotments were handed out to dozens of Cherokee families. Those allottees, granted citizenship, anticipated the Dawes Act by some 70 years and the broader movement for Indian citizenship by a century. It was their special status that would help them regain a sliver of their eastern homelands, known today as the Qualla Boundary, after most of the tribe was moved west.
The Cherokees were the ''canary in the coal mine'' for 19th century Indian policy. As with all the Civilized Tribes, their removal and resettlement was a social experiment with staggering costs. But the people of Sequoyah were almost too adept at evolving. Whether writing a constitution, inventing a syllabary or taking up the plough, their success only made their neighbors more jealous and the government more impossible in its demands.
It all led to the longest walk in our history: the Trail of Tears, etched into our national memory in blood, a tragic mirror of the long migration accounts that begin so many Native creation stories.
As it is, Rozema reminds us, many Cherokee escaped the forced migration and hung on to claim some of their Appalachian homelands until the government recognized their right to stay put.
''Footsteps of the Cherokees,'' in one sense, is about a walk that some of the Principal People never made.