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Stymied Search for Sacred Sites

Journeys: Author Jerry Ellis is on a quest to find spiritual gathering places throughout the nation. But in the Southland, keepers of the 'power spots' are reluctant to reveal their locations.

July 31, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jerry Ellis is passing through town in search of "power spots," which you might expect of an aspiring writer who pitched screenplays here in the 1980s.

But this time, don't expect to find Ellis at Morton's or Spago. The power spots he has in mind are Native American sacred sites, and Ellis, a professional pilgrim, part Cherokee and now a veteran author, is on the home stretch of an epic road trip from one spiritual gathering place to another. His goal is to transform this journey into his fourth book, and his vehicle is a hand-painted Ford Escort with 263,000 miles on its odometer.

But of all the American territories where he has sought out spiritual sites, Ellis concedes, none has given him more unholy hassles than Southern California.

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On a sunny afternoon, Ellis and his partner, Debi Holmes-Binney, stand in a parking lot along Pacific Coast Highway, eyeing the slopes above. Following policy provoked by vandalism, state park rangers have refused to tell him where the old Chumash sites lie. But by Ellis' reckoning, this lot sits just a short hike from Muwu and Wilahef, a pair of all-but-forgotten Native American villages on the slopes and meadows of Point Mugu State Park.

"These are confirmed village sites. And we are right . . . here," says Ellis, poking a meaty finger at a map he has discovered in an old anthropology text. A few miles to the south lies the old village the map labels Maliwu, better known these days as Malibu.

Is this a power spot? Maybe. By Ellis' definition, a "power spot" is not necessarily a miracle on Earth, but merely a place where people feel or felt a sense of heightened spirituality. And the larger project, says Ellis in his Alabama drawl, is meant to be an impressionist look at the interaction of long-held faith, the landscape and contemporary society. Above all, he says, "it's an adventure, to tell about the people we meet, and why they're there. And also to tell readers about the history and mythology of these places."

The biggest surprises? The generosity and optimism of strangers, and the "keeper-of-the-keys" mentality that seemed to intensify the closer the two drew to Los Angeles.

This odyssey began in August 1995. Since then, Ellis and Holmes-Binney have put 13,000 miles on the Ford Escort, wandering as far northeast as Mt. Katahdin, Maine, as far northwest as Mt. Rainier, Wash., which has been held as holy by Salish tribes of that area. On a private ranch near Madison, Wis., they viewed the "miracle" white buffalo (now closer to beige) whose birth made headlines in 1994.

The journey has led to many encounters with people Ellis calls "holy gabbers"--people who Ellis and Holmes-Binney suspect may be using spiritual psychobabble as either a psychological crutch or a money-making tool. Perhaps those people expect a man looking for "power spots" to speak their language, Ellis says, but he tends to shy away from it.

Meanwhile, Holmes-Binney decorates the Escort with site names and symbols as they go, shoots video of people met along the way, and in spare moments works on her own book about another journey. (In 1994, she spent 40 winter days alone in Utah's Great Salt Lake desert.) When the two aren't on the road, they live in a three-story treehouse that Ellis built in Fort Payne, Ala., near his mother's home.

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But Ellis is on the road a lot. Forty-eight years old, one-eighth Cherokee and raised in Fort Payne, Ellis has an English degree from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and a resume that reads like a train schedule: In cities from Long Beach to Oklahoma City to New Orleans, he's been a librarian, a weight-lifting instructor, an artists' model and junk dealer, and for six months in 1985, an unsold screenwriter. By the time he was 26, Ellis estimates, he had hitchhiked enough miles to circle the world five times. And in the last seven years, he has published three books about contemporary journeys through historically significant American landscapes.

For "Walking the Trail: One Man's Journey Along the Trail of Tears" (Delta, 1993), Ellis walked the 900-mile route that the U.S. government forced displaced Cherokees to march from Alabama to Oklahoma in the winter of 1838. For "Bareback! One Man's Journey Across the Pony Express Trail" (Delacorte, 1994), he explored the old Pony Express route by foot, by car and briefly by horseback and wagon train. In his last book, "Marching Through Georgia: My Walk with Sherman" (Delacorte, 1995), he went pedestrian again, this time to describe a simultaneous journey through the new South and Civil War history.

One Times critic found "Walking the Trail" a "warmly intimate journal." A year later, another Times critic dismissed the prose of "Bareback" as "pedestrian enough to raise corns."

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