When I called Jerry Ellis a man of letters, he liked that so much he asked me to repeat it. But I really wasn’t kidding. The Fort Payne native and graduate of The University of Alabama has written nine books. His inaugural book, about walking the Trail of Tears, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. 

I will call this interview the tip of the iceberg because Jerry’s story is so rich that we couldn’t cover it all here. So, I asked for the “Reader’s Digest” version.

“I was born in 1947 in Fort Payne,” he says. “My ancestors, who were mixed-blood Indians, settled in Sulphur Springs in 1837. I had a great childhood, but by age 17, wanderlust kicked in and I started feeling strangled by a small town.”

Needing to stretch his wings, Jerry took off to New York to stay with his sister, actress Sandra Ellis Lafferty (you may know her from “Walk the Line,” “Hunger Games,” “A Walk in the Woods,” and other films). During the trip, he realized he loved everything about hitchhiking. 

Fred Hunter visits with author Jerry Ellis to discuss walking the Trail of Tears and his life as a writer.

“I had hitchhiking fever,” Ellis says. “By the age of 26, even going to The University of Alabama and later a year of graduate school in Oklahoma, I’d hitchhiked enough miles to circle the planet Earth five times.” 

You can imagine the tales that result from miles and miles of hitchhiking and how that fuels the mind of a writer. Ellis was picked up by a wide range of individuals and families, including the Hells Angels, Mr. Universe, and Mr. Teenage America. Fitting, as he’d been a weightlifter who’d set a regional bench press record. Weightlifting and travel had become his fire, as he put it.

Over the course of his life, Ellis has traveled to six continents. He lives part-time in Rome. The road called him, steered his life in new directions, and taught him about humankind.

“Listening to all the stories … people began to open up to me a lot, and I realized, circumstantially, I was a kind of confessor,” Ellis says. “In a way, I was a very secular priest in the sense of people telling me their deepest, darkest secrets. I’m cheap therapy. They can talk to me. I’m polite, I’m kind, I’m compassionate. I ask the right questions sometimes, and all these stories began to accumulate in me. I realized I was being introduced to the human condition. And I wanted to try and make sense of it.

“I realized I had a talent for writing,” he adds. “I had not known that. I knew I had a great imagination; I knew I was very sensitive and all that good stuff that artists have.”

His talent was quickly discovered, as he sold short stories in New York, and the first play he wrote was produced in an Oklahoma City theater. Lots of creative folks would have stopped there. But Ellis hadn’t yet found his destiny.

“I ultimately wanted to do something more daring, more meaningful, with more substance than just writing short stories,” he says. “In the 80s, the idea of walking the Trail of Tears to honor the Cherokee came to me. It took some failures and confrontations with myself and the world to take the leap of faith and actually walk it, which was my breakthrough spiritually and personally and commercially into New York publishing. I did not walk the Trail of Tears for recognition; I did it to honor the Cherokee and to up awareness about what had happened. You know, Fort Payne was one of the forts or stockades or roundup areas for most of the Cherokee of this area. It always had a strong influence on me.” 

Ellis actually wrote a fictionalized story about a modern-day walk, only to discover the story was really about him.

He gave me a little backstory that led to that linchpin moment in his life. He was waiting tables in New Orleans back in his 30s when he met a director/producer from New York. They made a connection, and the director agreed to option a screenplay Ellis had written.

“So, I decided to go for broke and go out to L.A. to sell that screenplay,” Ellis says. “As soon as I got there, I called him because my option money was due. He said, ‘Jerry, I’m going to have to drop the option. I just discovered I have cancer and I’m not going to live much longer.’ I had another script about a man who walked the Trail of Tears in reverse after his Indian grandfather appeared to him at the foot of his bed one night and said, ‘To redeem your soul, you’ve got to go walk the Trail of Tears and offer the spirits of those who died on the trail, the 4,000, to come back home with you.’”

Those in the publishing business told Ellis the writing wasn’t bad, and was, in fact, interesting history, “but people aren’t going to buy tickets to anything about Native Americans,” Ellis recalls. “I don’t usually get depressed, but I got very depressed.”

Ellis was so broke that at one point he scoured the sidewalks for coins. Ironically, his apartment building overlooked Paramount Pictures, to which he could not gain access. One night, while on the roof of his building overlooking the studios, he had an epiphany.   

“I realized I was the man in the script I had written,” he says. I had written Jerry’s story, and I didn’t know it until I got so desperate. God, the gods, spirits — whatever you want to say, my own insight or luck or whatever — said, ‘Hey, man, that’s you. Now, do you have the guts to do it?’ Honestly, it took four years to get up the guts.”

Meanwhile, for several months he worked odd jobs, including renovating a wealthy woman’s home on the East Coast.

On his return trip home, Ellis made a decision. “I thought, ‘That’s it. I don’t want to do any more lawn work or carpentry for someone else,’” he told himself. “‘I’ve got to go to Oklahoma and walk the Trail of Tears. I’ve got to because I don’t feel like I’m doing anything that means anything to me or anyone else.’ That got me out to Oklahoma. It was life-altering from the day I arrived in Tahlequah [he walked the trail in reverse, from the Cherokee nation capital of Tahlequah to Fort Payne]. The universal puzzle seemed to start clicking together on its own.”

Walking The Trail by Jerry Ellis was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

The story that resulted from that journey remains his bestselling book, “Walking the Trail: One Man’s Journey Along the Cherokee Trail of Tears” (Delacorte Press, 1991). When the book came out, Jerry received many letters, and it wasn’t unusual for folks whom it had touched to stop by his parents’ house in Fort Payne, where he lived at the time, wanting to visit the author and have him sign their copies.

All these words and gestures are blessed gifts for the writer, who considers them riches. Of all the kindness he received from his readers, the words of one particular visitor stand out in his memory.

“A gentleman came, a grandfather wearing overalls, with his 9- or 10-year-old grandson,” Ellis recalls. “His grandson had a speech impediment, and he said, ‘Sir, I just wanted to meet you, sir.’ Such a sweet boy, and I said, ‘I have something for you.’ I had a box of arrowheads. I love archaeology. So, I brought him a beautiful arrowhead, and he was very touched. I’d signed his book, and his grandfather said, ‘Go on now, son. Wait on me in the car for a minute.’ Then the grandfather came over and said, ‘You have no idea what that meant to that boy.’ Walking the Trail of Tears was worth it just for that.”

Encounters like these are what enrich Ellis’ life. That’s the beauty of writing at its best — arousing thoughts and feelings people might not ordinarily have,” he says. “And it was all new to me, because it was my first book to be published. I felt incredibly blessed to have that kind of connection with human beings.” 

Some letters struck Ellis’ heart so much that he shaved a sliver of his oak walking stick from the now-famous walk and mailed it to the reader to keep as a piece of the Trail of Tears experience. The stick is a lot smaller now.

After that project, Ellis’ publisher asked him, “What’s next?” Jerry’s answer to that was “Bareback! One Man’s Journey Along the Pony Express Trail” (Delacorte, 1993), for which he followed the 2,000-plus path used to carry mail from one side of the country to the other. The trail was operational less than two years, but it still symbolizes life in the Old West. From Missouri to San Francisco, Jerry didn’t stick with horses; he traveled by foot, by covered wagon, and on horseback. He met a champion bronc-riding mother and daughter duo and a man who literally lived in a hole. Again, tip of the iceberg — the book is a great read for history fans, travel buffs, and those who just love a good tale.

We didn’t dive deep into all of Jerry’s books, but we did touch on his third work because its subject matter is near to his heart. “Marching Through Georgia: My Walk Along Sherman’s Route” (Delacorte, 1995) not only traced the march of a Civil War general, but also searched the soul of the South: our values, our traditions and how our collective emotions were affected by the war. 

Ellis’ work reflects his passion for exploring the interconnection of events and the people who experience them. That work extends beyond books. 

“Every year I hold an all-day writing and publishing seminar,” he says. “I have a lot of repeat clients and they kind of take it over themselves after a while, once they feel disarmed with each other. It’s kind of like a partaking of spiritual food or water or sacraments. I don’t mean that they’re conscious of this necessarily. The 2024 seminar will be the 21st annual workshop.”

This year’s writing seminar was held in May at Tanager House, an artists’ retreat Ellis co-founded.

Our conversation just scratched the surface of Ellis’s rich life and work. His books contain so many more stories that you shouldn’t miss.

Ellis splits his time between Fort Payne and Rome, Italy. You can find out what he is working on by visiting his Facebook page. You can also buy his books in bookstores and on Amazon.com. The 30th-anniversary edition of his Trail of Tears book is out now.