America is doing fine.
And, while drug problems and poverty seem to outweigh a lot of the good that's going on in the United States, Jerry Ellis said almost 99 percent of the Americans he spoke to are genuinely concerned and have their hearts and souls in the right place.And he should know.
At age 43, he gets to meet a lot of people on his 1,958-mile-trip from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif. - following the old Pony Express Trail - especially since he does it on foot.
He was in Salt Lake City Friday.
He embarked on his adventure, Ellis said,"to find out whether bravery, toughness and an adventuresome spirit are still alive" in today's people.
After panning for gold with an old man and actually finding a few grains in a Nebraska river, branding cattle on a ranch in Wyoming and accompanying an air ambulance pilot on a call-out to Utah's Bryce Canyon, Ellis believes that Americans still have the old adventurer spirit.
"I met this 76-year-old man in Kansas whose farmhouse had burned down in 1975. Ever since, he just lives in a huge hole that he dug in the ground, like a rabbit.
"He showed me around where he lived (in the hole in the ground), and I said, `Ernest, where's your bed?' And he said, `You're standing in it.' "
It was Ernest's warm, kind nature that fascinated Ellis, and that's what he is looking for while he is out on his three-month trek.
Another thing he wants to find out: "In this day of fax machines (and electronic media), do we still have time to communicate?"
Fortunately, according to Ellis, most people he encountered along his route - which also followed the Oregon and the Mormon trails - were interested in both talking and listening, especially those in small towns.
Coming to Salt Lake City felt good to Ellis, who said that he could relate to early Mormon settlers and other pioneers who ventured out West.
"I got a taste of what Mormons must have felt. Salt Lake City is like an oasis. It's a time of celebration," said Ellis, who is saving up energy for the remaining 800 miles to California.
Three months ago, he drove along the old Pony Express Trail in his car to get a better idea of what to expect.
In 1989, Ellis, a Cherokee descendant, walked the 900-mile-long Trail of Tears to honor his ancestors who died there - when U.S soldiers rounded up the Cherokees and forced them to walk across eight states.
After that, he wrote a book about his adventures, "Walking the Trail," which will be published this September.
"That's when I got the idea for this trip," he said.
Ellis travels with only a backpack and usually camps out under the stars. But occasionally he gets invited to sleep in a wagon or allows himself the luxury of freshening up at a motel. He also enjoys watching an old movie.
"A part of me wants to live 150 years ago, but at the same time, I enjoy having some (of the luxuries) available."
Although he doesn't live by a schedule, Ellis said he is eager to get on. He is supposed to meet a man early next week "about one and a half hours south of here" who promised to take him up in his hot-air balloon.