Feature: Walking with Spirits

Jerry by tree

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Author Jerry Ellis transforms quest for adventure and search for meaning into life-altering trek along the Trail of Tears


Old soul, adventurer, romantic, pilgrIm, dreamer, sophisticate, philosopher…

Any of these could be used to describe Jerry Ellis or various aspects of his life. But each alone lacks the breadth and depth to truly define him. Then again, how is it possible to adequately apply a modifier to a man whose essence is so inextricably intertwined with the Southern culture of his upbringing, the Italian influences of his current life and the haunting spirits of his Cherokee heritage?

Just a few weeks removed from reading his best-known work – “Walking the Trail: One Man’s Journey Along the Cherokee Trail of Tears” – I met up with Ellis at a gas station near his Fort Payne, Ala., home. It was his suggestion for me to meet him there and follow him to his house, which he has christened the Tanager Retreat International. A good idea since “secluded” often means lost for the directionally challenged like myself.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]After a short distance, we turn onto a rather nondescript driveway to the modest home where Ellis grew up. past the driveway, Wills valley gives way to a wooded ridge we climb compliments of a steep one-lane path just wide enough for a vehicle to traverse without scraping a tree.

The trail ends just a few feet from Ellis’ chalet, which sits adjacent to a compact, three-story cottage dubbed “the tree house” – the original abode he built before upgrading to living quarters with modern conveniences like running water.

The main house is unconventional. traditional chalet styling on the outside – Italian elegance blended with rustic accents on the inside. roman goddesses, a marble fountain, classic artwork… its eclectic nature is a pleasant shock to the senses. We are in the middle of the woods in Southern Appalachia, for Pete’s sakes.

But, really, should one expect normalcy from a man who ran away from his Alabama home as a teenager en route to a decade-long trek of wanderlust that encompassed enough miles on foot and by thumb to circumvent the globe five times? (His hitchhiking ways garnered him rides with people from all walks of life, including Mr. Universe and the Hell’s Angels.)

Still, the foot journey that is the foundation of Ellis’ writing career (and personality) is the trail of tears – the tragic moniker applied to the early-19th-century forced removal of Native Americans from their homelands in the east to the Indian territory of the West.

“It was totally life-altering,” Ellis says. “I honestly don’t know what would have become of me if I hadn’t walked the trail.”

Ellis’ decision to walk the trail of tears came later in his life than those not familiar with the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book might think. After graduating from the University of Alabama, he set out on a writing career, getting a play produced and a few short stories published in New York magazines. Ellis bounced around to several major cities, supporting himself as a model in addition to taking menial jobs like waiting tables. But his adventurous spirit and Cherokee heritage were yearning for something with deeper meaning. He wrote a screenplay about a modern Cherokee who walked the Trail of Tears in reverse to symbolically bring home the spirits of the 4,000-plus Cherokees who died on the forced exodus. Ellis moved to Los Angeles with his script, only to be told again and again that Americans were not interested in the plight of Native Americans.

Ellis then had an epiphany, if you will. He would become the real-life character from his script. still, it took him a great deal of soul searching to put his plan in motion. “It took me about four years to get up the courage to actually do it,” Ellis says.

In 1989, Ellis sold most of his possessions to fund the walk and boarded a bus for Tahlequah, Okla. – the terminus of the trail – and began his quest to become the first modern person to walk the 900- mile trail of tears back to Fort Payne – his home and site of one of the 13 concentration camps where the Cherokees (and some intermarried Creeks) were held before being forced West.

"Just what is my plan for this journey? Well, it seems simple enough. I’ll walk the Trail to honor the Indians who suffered and died there in 1838. I hope my walk will help ensure that others will learn of what happened to the Cherokee and that it will never be forgotten as the years pass. Rather than follow the original trail from Alabama to Oklahoma, I will walk from Oklahoma to Alabama as if I were freed to return to my roots, a luxury taken from the Cherokee … the walk will be a spiritual journey for me. I long to know about the man I am, where I came from, and where I am going.” – Jerry Ellis, ‘Walking the Trail’ "

Ellis explains the walk in reverse had a dual meaning for him. “I had run away from home at the age of 17,” Ellis says. “I couldn’t wait to get out of here. At the age of 41, I had come to realize how sacred home is. I wanted to come home in celebration and in contrast to what most of the Cherokee lost on the Trail of Tears.”

The book Ellis wrote about his journey was critically acclaimed and paved the way for Ellis to become a popular lecturer at seminars and universities around the world. In addition to bringing this dark chapter in our history to the forefront of the American conscience, the book fosters a greater understanding of the modern Cherokee and their deeply held beliefs. But it isn’t a matter-of-fact history lesson. It’s part travelogue, part memoir, part Thoreau-esque introspective yearning for the meaning of our very existence. In it, Ellis isn’t afraid to show the reader his insecurities and shortcomings.

“I made a promise to myself before I started to write the book,” he says. “It had to be authentic. I decided I would write this like a love letter to someone I trust.”

Today, two decades after “Walking the Trail” was first published, Ellis and his wife, Debi Holmes-Binney, split their time between their Alabama mountain home and Rome, Italy – where she works as a tour director. Each year, Ellis and Holmes-Binney, who is also a published author (she was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show for her book “Desert Sojourn: A Woman’s 40 Days and 40 Nights Alone”) and music composer, hold a writing workshop at Tanager to help other aspiring writers.

After our fireside chat in the living room, we go outside and Ellis offers a quick tour of the immediate grounds, which include the detached music room his wife uses for composing and the famed tree house. He is rightfully proud of his retreat. It’s the result of the many influences of his life.

As Ellis graciously poses for photos with the hiking stick he used on his epic walk, he continues to talk about Indian artifacts he has found nearby and old native American footpaths that leave impressions in the landscape of his family’s 200-acre, mostly wooded spread. “I’ve been blessed. i love the lifestyle that I’ve been able to enjoy,” Ellis says. “I love the fact that I’ve had the privilege to travel and to be on six continents including Antarctica. I love the time we spend in Italy, but here is my home.” to Ellis, home seems to be much more than the man-made structures – it’s the land, the soil and the heritage of his Cherokee ancestors that he returned to in their stead when walking the trail. perhaps there is a word to define Ellis – partly by blood and wholly by spirit. Cherokee.

‘Walk the Line’ and more: Ellis’ actress sister Sandra Lafferty


When Jerry Ellis ran away from home at 17, he ran toward another talented family member. His sister, theater (and now film) actress Sandra Ellis Lafferty, was living in New York City at the time. Lafferty is perhaps best known for her portrayal of Mother Maybelle Carter in the hit Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk the Line.” She also played Greasy Sae in “The Hunger Games” and was in “Footloose” as well as a long list of television shows. She has character roles in three soon-to-be released movies, including “Prisoners” starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. Look for a feature on Lafferty in an upcoming issue of Lookout Alabama.

Ellis’ latest book is available for Kindle at Amazon.com.


Other works by Jerry Ellis:

  • Cherokee History for Indian
  • Lovers Marching through Georgia: My Walk along Sherman’s Route
  • On the Trail of the Pony Express
  • Walking to Canterbury
  • Ciao from Roma: Spring in the Eternal City of Love
  • The Boy with the Giant Hands Many of Ellis’

books can be purchased at The Book Shelf in Fort Payne, Ala., and online at Amazon.com