Like a shout echoing through a canyon, the past keeps resonating with Jerry Ellis.
It’s been many years since the Alabama native sold everything he owned and retraced the Cherokee Trail of Tears, the 1838 tragic forced exodus of native Americans from places like his hometown of Fort Payne, Alabama. His own trek along the route gave him a sense of accomplishment and identity with his ancestors.
The experience, which he put into a book called Walking the Trail: One Man’s Journey Along the Cherokee Trail of Tears, opened many doors for him as a writer, including receiving a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Now the story is available on Kindle, and Ellis is putting the final touches on a follow-up titled Cherokee History for Indian Lovers.
“It is unique from other books on Cherokee Indian history because I’m the first person writing on the topic after actually walking the Trail of Tears,” he said.
“Having spoken to thousands of people across America, Asia, Africa, and Europe, I know what grabs people dramatically. I’m trying to make it an extremely compelling narrative focusing on some of the key figures throughout the history. It goes all the way up to the Oklahoma land rush, which many people don’t realize was a land that had been given to the Cherokee, yet again taken away.”
He described the history he uncovered as “Shakespearean.”
“We have a tendency to romanticize the Cherokee, but there were some big thugs like there are anywhere around the world. There were some real scoundrels as well as wonderful, loving people. There are a lot of photographs and documents that highlight the story,” he said.
An 1860 tintype of his grandmother and other photos from the period compelled him to retrace the Trail of Tears.
“I wanted to heighten awareness of the tragedy. (The journey) represented humanity and being free from most material things, carrying a backpack and sleeping mostly in woods and meadows. It opened up so many doors for me because there is a fascination, and it continues to give me meaning and purpose.”
Ellis also finds purpose in teaching the art of writing. He and his wife, Debi Holmes-Binney, are hosting a writing workshop March 2nd at their Tanager House, which is modeled after an Italian villa and sits on 200 wooded acres atop a hill between Lookout and Sand Mountain, where Sequoyah invented the Cherokee alphabet.
Their creative and lively event will do more than cover the nuts and bolts of writing and how to promote your books. It will explore — in a down to earth manner — how to overcome writer’s block and how to out fox the fear of writing.
“Nine out of 10 people would say they have a book, a poem, or a play inside of them. A lot of people don’t do it because they fear failure or simply don’t know how to do it. We want to get people over these barriers,” Ellis said.
E-publishing for platforms like Kindle have opened new doors for creative writers, but with opportunity to publish comes the challenge of knowing how to market oneself.
Holmes-Binney never thought she would get her book published about spending 40 days and nights alone in the Great Salt Lake Desert, where she almost died in a freak snowstorm. Every publisher in New York turned her down, yet the resulting book, Desert Sojourn, reached No. 1 at Amazon, was published in three languages and led Oprah Winfrey to name her as a featured writer on her show.
Also joining in the event will be Ellis’ sister, actor Sandra Lafferty, who appeared as Maybell Carter in Walk the Line with Joaquin Phoenix. She was recently in The Hunger Games and is now shooting The Prisoner with Jake Gyllenhall.
“Sandra’s going to talk about what it is like to perform from a script and tell a story visually,” Ellis said. “Quite a few people are intrigued to meet her. We will have a lavish Italian meal and then wine and cheese at the end of the day.”
The event is limited to 15 attendees. The cost is $125, due by Feb. 15th, and it will last from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
He looks forward to sharing their home, which is decorated with antiques from around the world and reflects their travels. They live in Italy twice a year because of her work as director of a tour company.
Last fall, Ellis captured the essence of Rome in a new book, Ciao from Roma! Spring in the Eternal City of Love. It is obvious from his prose that he loves this place and the interesting people he encounters there.
“If you put the miles together, I’ve hitchhiked across North America and Europe enough to have circled the globe five times,” he said. “I’ve stood on six continents. I joined an expedition to Antarctica and witnessed the whales, the ice cliffs caving and more penguins than you can imagine.”
Yet his heart always returns home to Alabama.
“This is where I grew up and where my ancestors settled in 1837. I feel a real bond with nature, as do the majority of southerners who did not grow up in large cities. I wouldn’t want to live in Alabama all the time, nor would I want to live in Rome, Italy all of the time,” Ellis said.
“From that first hitchhiking trip at age 17 headed to New York, I realized I had a need for urban life, variety and excitement, but I also have a need for nature. One of my passions is going out looking for ancient Native American Indian sites and artifacts. It’s not a matter of possessing these items. It is a spiritual experience connecting with the past and realizing I’m just another human being in their footsteps waiting to pass on too.”
With one foot in the past, Ellis takes his next step into the most exciting adventure of them all: the great unwritten future.