Jerry Ellis has done a lot of walking - and not just for his health.
As he walked, he took a good long look at his fellow human beings and their history, both good and bad. Eventually, he decided to share his experiences for the edification of readers everywhere. He decided to write what he learned so that others don't necessarily have to do all that hoofing.
Ellis was born in 1947 in what he proudly calls "the little Indian town of Ft. Payne, Alabama," on the brow of Lookout Mountain, where he still lives most of the time. He proudly states that it was the home of Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee alphabet and created the tribe's written language. Like so many in the state, Ellis does have Cherokee heritage. He was raised in rural Alabama, far from the streets of our major cities, not poor but a long, long way from wealthy. His family—mom, dad and two sisters—had no indoor plumbing for most of his childhood. He does not remember having a television set until he was six or seven years old, and even then, it only pulled in two or three distant fuzzy stations. That meant he mostly entertained himself by roaming among the mountains, woods, creeks and valleys of the scenic area he called home.
Ellis first got the idea of exploring a bigger world when he was in middle school. He decided to skip the school bus and find his own way to and from class. He began to thumb a ride some days, at times with a total stranger. He would then engage that stranger in a conversation and find out more about him or her. Even at that young age, and without knowingly doing it, Ellis says he was practicing the first requirement for becoming a good writer: listening.
One day, one of the kind folks who gave him a lift to school planted a seed that would grow mightily. The man reminded Ellis that the narrow blacktop road they were driving on connected to a much bigger network of highways, and those led to many interesting places and experiences. Ellis was immediately intrigued. When he was seventeen, he decided he could no longer suppress the yearning to see more of the world, though he had no intentions of ever permanently leaving behind his home in Alabama. He simply walked away from there one summer day, stuck his thumb out alongside US 11 and eventually ended up in New York City, where his older sister, Sandra, had taken her own impulsive journey to pursue a career as an actress. (She eventually found success and has had roles in such films as "The Hunger Games," "A Walk in the Woods" and "Walk the Line.")
His first impression of The Big Apple? Stereotypes have little basis in reality.
"I found those cold, rude Yankees to mostly be friendly and welcoming," he maintains. He also was enthralled by the accents, smiles, tastes, smells, sounds, diversity and activity that swirled all about him. He was so impressed by all he was experiencing that he began to keep a journal. And that was just the beginning.
Today, Ellis claims to have walked and hitchhiked a distance equal to five times around the globe, and he has written about much of it. The more he hiked, the more interested and curious he became about the human condition. That only made him want to take in more - more of the USA and more of the world, meeting new people, experiencing unfamiliar cultures, and asking plenty of questions.
After he graduated from the University of Alabama, Ellis traveled to New Orleans, where he worked as a server in one of the city's restaurants and pursued his writing. He sold a few short stories to magazines, but his next break came when a patron at the restaurant mentioned to Ellis that he was a Hollywood producer. When the producer learned his waiter was also a writer, he asked what the young man was working on. With some hesitation, Ellis confessed he had just finished a screenplay about a modern-day Cherokee Indian who decided to walk the Trail of Tears from Alabama to Oklahoma. The producer asked to see the script and, shortly afterward, optioned it for a potential movie.
The money for the option enabled Ellis to move to Los Angeles, though he could only afford a tiny one-room apartment on a hillside overlooking Paramount Studios. Before anything could happen with the screenplay, the producer suddenly died from cancer. With money running out and well-paying jobs hard to find, Ellis had an epiphany one night while sitting on the roof of his apartment building. The hero of that script he had written was Jerry Ellis! He had unintentionally written his own future, and he decided to walk the Trail of Tears.
In 1989, Ellis told his worried parents goodbye, climbed on a Greyhound with his backpack and rode to Muskogee, Okla. He had decided to walk the trail in reverse of the route the Cherokee people were forced to walk it in the 1830s. From Muskogee, he walked to Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation.
The 900-mile-long hike from Tahlequah to Ft. Payne became "Walking the Trail: One Man's Journey along the Cherokee Trail of Tears," Ellis's first book, and something of a publishing sensation. It was widely praised, became a bestseller, and was considered for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. It primarily allowed him to observe the human condition all along the route, again confirming to him that most people are good, kind and welcoming. But he also believes that many of us are out of touch with something deeply embedded within us: a solidarity with the earth, with nature and with our heritage. Ellis says everyone needs to do more walking, especially in the woods and mountains of our state.
"We need to get scratched by briars and bleed," he says. "But we also need to marvel at the sunsets, hear the music of the rivers and even try living off the earth for a bit."
Ellis has since published over a dozen more well-received books, including accounts of his similar walks along the Pony Express route and the path of General William Tecumseh Sherman's brutal march across Georgia in the waning days of the Civil War. He holds numerous writing workshops, including a writing and publishing seminar hosted each summer at his home on the family land at Ft. Payne. He and his late wife, Debi, also once spent a portion of each year at a home they bought in Italy, still exploring the human condition but in other parts of the world.
"The main theme running through all my writing is that people need each other," he says. "Too many people are trapped by expectations placed upon them by others, by jobs, by debt. It would help if they could break away from that form of slavery and be free, to have a purpose."
Then, looking out from the house he built with his own hands, one that offers a view across the valley to Sand Mountain on the other side, he adds, "Humanity is in severe jeopardy by our own doing. Look at the people in Ukraine being killed right there in their own nation. It's much like the Trail of Tears, you know."
Ellis won't stop sharing ideas with upcoming writers. He intends to keep asking questions as he meets more people in an attempt to better understand and explain the human condition. If that requires walking in their shoes, so be it.
"I love to talk to people who know things I don't know," Ellis proclaims. "That's how I learn things. And that's how I avoid leading an arrogant life."
Don Keith, an Alabama native, is an award-winning and best-selling author, filmmaker, journalist, and broadcaster, and a regular contributor to 1819 News. He has more than 38 books in print, fiction and non-fiction. Don's website is www.donkeith.com.
Note: Portions of this article are based on an interview of Jerry Ellis by 1819 News's Andrea Tice.