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The Appalachian Chronicles: Shades of Gray

The Appalachian Chronicles: Shades of Gray

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The Appalachian Chronicles: Shades of Gray

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May 1, 2010


Two brothers, seeking a spiritual renewal that is often inherent in hiking the Appalachian Trail, take a break from the endless marching and wander from the more predictable path.

The Appalachian Chronicles, Shades of Gray, is set in rural Virginia at the back door of Appomattox Court House, where, according to historians, the Civil War ended...

May 1, 2010

Sobre el autor

Hello, and thank you for considering my book. If you haven't read it, I hope you will. Thanks to a particularly good teacher, I love literature. The most memorable moment in my literary life occurred when that teacher helped me to understand the relevance of Huckleberry Finn's deliberations about sending the letter to Mrs. Watson. The historical context as well as Huck's age and state of mind were explained well by my teacher.... not to mention, life on the river vs the troubled episodes on the land, the many depravities of man and the subtle Midwestern and Southern dialects that Twain apparently got right. As for my writing, it's simple. I just want to write - to leave myself behind after I'm gone. The process of writing is rewarding, but it's hard work that requires dedication. Whether or not I have anything of value to offer will be decided by the reader. So, if you read my book, I'd appreciate your feedback - I'll try to do better next time. If you are interested, I have written a few other short pieces available at these links: http://lifeinmathews.blogspot.com/2009/01/ancient-mariner.html http://lifeinmathews.blogspot.com/search?q=daddy+jim http://lifeinmathews.blogspot.com/search?q=miss+ann As for a website, blog, etc., I'm "old school"... not electronically available for correspondence. Take care

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The Appalachian Chronicles - Seneca Fox

The Appalachian Chronicles:

Shades of Gray

Seneca Fox

copyright 2003 by Seneca Fox

Published by Seneca Fox at Smashwords

The Appalachian Chronicles:

Shades of Gray

copyright 2003 by Seneca Fox

revised and rededicated 2015 by Seneca Fox

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents are products of the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously unless otherwise specified.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.

Smashwords Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Dedicated to my brother. (2003)

Rededicated to my brother,

Brittany and James. (2015)



Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Chapter VI

Chapter VII

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX

Chapter X

Chapter XI

Chapter XII

Chapter XIII

Chapter XIV

Chapter XV

Chapter XVI

Chapter XVII

Chapter XVIII

Chapter XIX

Chapter XX

Chapter XXI

Chapter XXII

Chapter XXIII

Chapter XXIV

Chapter XXV

Recommended Reading


My brother Max and I are beginning our third month of hiking the Appalachian Trail. This is the first thru-hike attempt for Max and the second for me. The beginning was difficult, given that Max weighed far more than he should have when we started. In fact, his urgent need for a change in lifestyle is part of what prompted our attempt.

Max is a recovering electronic-media junkie, just one among the millions of people who have become an unintended consequence of shortsighted ingenuity and affluence. He exhibited all the classic signs, including endless hours in front of a fifteen-hundred-dollar, forty-two-inch wide-screen television that featured three hundred and seventy-two satellite channels, a theater surround-sound system and some kind of computer-interfaced box with an uncountable number of games. He also owned a computer that was complete with Internet access, multiple e-mail addresses, instant messaging, nobody knows how many hand-held video games, and a comfortable couch fronted by a coffee table that was decorated with five remote controls and a continuously refreshed supply of potato chips, sugar-coated nuts and other not-so-nutritious snacks. Like an addict needing more opium to dull his senses, he groped for ever-increasing amounts of electronic stimulation and demonstrated great creativity in the avoidance of physical activity. Given the state of Max’s health and my history as an exercise enthusiast, I would have forever suffered from a do-gooder, guilty conscience if I didn’t try to help him. So here we are, almost nine weeks into a six-month anti-merchandising march to unheralded glory.

In our first seven weeks we experienced enough challenges to make even the most trail-hardened hiker give up. Only days after our adventure began, Max fell on an icy slope, crashed into a tree and suffered a deep bruise on his hip. He was painfully sore, but after two days rest he managed to limp along at a five mile-per-day pace for a while. Unfortunately, that was about a third of what we needed to average to make it all the way to Katahdin, Maine before early September.

Hiking through North Carolina and Tennessee took us longer than expected. Some days we experienced a few thousand feet of elevation change, spending nearly all our time going up and down.

I don’t know which is harder – up or down. Going up with a thirty-five-pound pack on your back is a fast way to breathlessness. There’s an instrument called the Borg scale, which uses numbers ranging from six to twenty to represent the difficulty of one’s physical exertion. An effort equal to a six is about the same as Max experienced while watching his fourth episode of All in the Family during a rerun marathon on Tuesday evenings. In my profession we sometimes joke with our clients, especially women, that an effort of twenty is comparable to having a baby. Of course, we we’re just trying to make a point, and somehow I don’t think exercise effort compares well with labor pains, but clients get the picture. When you’re hiking uphill with thirty-five pounds strapped to your back, you can walk very slowly and still work at a solid sixteen or seventeen on the Borg scale. There are a lot of catch-your-breath pauses when you’re climbing a mountain.

Hiking down a mountain is in some ways worse. Going down would quickly get out of control if it weren’t for the braking action of your thigh muscles. At first it doesn’t seem so bad, like a nice reprieve from climbing. Then with each step down, over and over again, thigh muscles with Latin names like rectus femoris and vastus lateralis suffer minute tissue damage. The accumulated trauma eventually makes your legs feel like they’ve been pounded with a meat tenderizer. Mercifully, with a little rest, the sensation dissipates after a few days.

The stretch from Erwin to Damascus was tough enough on me, but I’ll never understand how Max did it. He’s got the heart of a lion and I think, with good fortune, we’re going to finish.

A real turning point for us came while we were hiking along the border of Southwest Virginia and West Virginia. The portion of the trail that runs through Virginia constitutes about one quarter of the total distance – more than any other state. Hiking through Virginia is regarded by many thru-hikers as a highlight – a mixture of modest grade changes and shady trails interspersed with views of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. The day we entered the state, however, it was cold and dreary. Rain fell for six days straight and Max and I were on the brink of giving up. If it hadn’t been for a fellow from West Virginia who picked us up at a trailhead and took us home with him for a few days, we probably would have given up.

The last week or so has been good for hiking. The sun has shone bright each day while temperatures ranged from fifty to sixty degrees. Nighttime temperatures have been no lower than thirty-five. We’ve walked through the Catawba Valley, close to Roanoke, and now we are north of Lynchburg.

I have important memories of this region of the Virginia Mountains. Known as a good place to hunt deer, black bear and wild turkey, several families from my hometown had once owned or rented cabins in the region. In the summertime, the same families would head for the hills to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of eastern Virginia. As a young boy, I was fortunate enough to spend some time here with a friend named Carter. His parents owned a cabin on Jennings Creek. On several occasions, typically in the summer, I was invited to spend a week with Carter and his family at the cabin. Those were good times – the long days roaming through the woods and swimming in the creek, the lazy afternoons that ended with mad dashes across the yard to catch fireflies and nights spent telling ghost stories and playing childish pranks on one another. During the dry summers, when the creek was running low we would dam it up, raising the water level enough to create a shallow pool. If we were lucky, we might even corner a lonely trout and spend the afternoon feeding it insects.

Besides the still lingering feeling of great freedom, there are two things I remember most about those visits to Jennings Creek. The first was my introduction to the Appalachian Trail – it happened one afternoon when Carter and I set out to discover the source of Jennings Creek. We’d been hiking upstream for about an hour when we encountered a man sitting next to the creek with his bare feet dangling in the water. A large, heavy-looking backpack, hiking stick and his socks and shoes were setting on the bank next to him. Carter and I were still young and uninhibited enough to approach the man without any reservations. When we asked him where he was going, he said, Maine. Well, you can imagine how the minds of two preadolescents were energized by the thought of someone hiking hundreds of thousands of miles from Virginia to Maine. The man became an instant hero whom we assumed must be some unknown descendant of Meriwether Lewis or William Clark. Immediately, we peppered the weary thru-hiker with questions – all of which he graciously answered. When we finally released him to his journey we returned to the cabin, vowing every step of the way to one-day hike the Appalachian Trail. Ten years later, we did.

The second thing I remember most about the summer days at Jennings Creek began one morning when Carter and I were exploring the woods after a terrible storm passed through the night before. Thinking back, I now believe that a twister accompanied that storm because there was a clear path through a section of the woods where a number of tall oaks, some of them four feet in diameter, had fallen. Carter’s father explained that those trees would have normally withstood the high winds, but on this occasion the ground was saturated from weeks of rain. Standing on the trunk of one of the fallen oaks I was amazed that a tree so big could be so easily toppled and a new understanding of the powerful forces of nature moved me. Unfortunately, when we returned the next year the fallen trees were gone; in fact, most of the woods that we enjoyed exploring were gone – clear-cut by a logging company. Carter and I were devastated when we realized that our summers at Jennings Creek would never be the same. It was a coming of age experience that we felt was forced upon us. That night we took an old white pillowcase and painted a picture of the earth on the center of it. The next day we climbed onto the roof of the cabin and attached our homemade flag to the television antenna. A few days later we left Jennings Creek for the last time.

Many years have passed since those cherished summers. Even so, this part of the Virginia Mountains, as you will soon discover, continues to influence my life in important ways. The story that I’m about to tell begins just a few miles from the Jennings Creek area, near a place called Thunder Hill.

Chapter I

May 26th

9:30 am

Half-listening to Max whistle, I sat checking mileage estimates for our next week of hiking. He slowly circled his cup above the few remaining embers of our fire, while I tried to make out his tune. The song sounded as if it was an octave too low and each note was drawn-out, perhaps, an extra eighth or quarter. I couldn’t tell if the tune was meant to be a soothing one, like the sound of a parent softly singing a child to sleep; or, if it was a lonely message to someone who had been lost long ago. The truth is I couldn’t tell if his song had any intent at all, but I could see as he gazed into the fire that there was something longing in his eyes.

When clipping along the trail at an energetic pace, Max typically whistles classic sounds from the 60’s and early 70’s. Nearly a half-generation younger, I prefer the sounds of the late 70’s and 80’s. While Max saunters along whistling No Where Man, I’m often pounding the trail a few hundred yards ahead and breathlessly singing Running on Empty. On a rare occasion we might find common ground in a tune like Let it Be or Stairway to Heaven. Somewhere along the way, though, a subtle change had come over Max. It was as if the many long, and sometimes lonely, days on the trail had allowed something from his past, something repressed, to creep back to the edge of his consciousness. And, for the last few weeks, at the beginning and end of each day, especially when he sat alone engaged in mindless activity, his repertoire was more spiritual.

He swirled his cup again and I listened carefully. He was whistling Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. I wanted to ask him why he had chosen that tune, but I felt that any inquiry would be a rude intrusion, so I was content to wait, believing that in time the answer would be revealed.

Suddenly stopping in the middle of his song, Max gave me a distracted look. Where do we go today? he asked.

Matt’s Creek Shelter.

How far? Max learned weeks ago that each day’s destination was chosen in part to maintain a minimum daily mileage. Today’s distance was average, and the hike was mostly downhill.

"It’s a little over twelve miles and three thousand feet net change in elevation. Minus three thousand feet," I emphasized.

Three thousand, he said, sounding a bit more cheerful. Sounds like my kind of day.

A slight breeze was blowing from the northwest. The cool temperature and the clear horizon promised a good day for hiking. I looked at Max and drawled, Yeah. Looks perfect to me.

Max began to swirl his cup over the fire again and he asked, Matt’s Creek. Who do you suppose Matt was – or is?

I folded the waterproof trail chart and slipped it into my pack and considered Max’s question. I often wondered who or what the various landmarks along the trail were named after. I knew the significance of some names – like the nearby Spyglass Hill, where Confederate sentries kept a lookout for Union troops that marauded up-and-down the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War. But there were many others – lonely places named after people like Tinker or Campbell. These names, I realized, represented a piece of history. A creek first used by a man named Tinker to meet a basic need for water; or, perhaps, a shelter bearing the name Campbell, after an almost forgotten soldier who died for his country. There were hundreds of these creeks, cliffs, and shelters along the Appalachian Trail, but I knew little about their history and even less about people they honored. I was contemplating my previous lack of curiosity when a loud sound ripped through our tranquil morning ritual.

KABOOM, BOOM, booM, ooMm, omm!

Max jumped up and asked, What was that?

I don’t know – thunder?

Don’t think so, Max said as he looked overhead.

KABOOM, BOOM, booM, ooMm, omm!

Man! I exclaimed.

Explosives. A quarry, maybe?

I looked at Max and said, Come on, let’s climb up there. I pointed to a nearby ridge and began to run. Max poured out his coffee and followed. The ridge was probably a hundred feet up, steepest near the top, and there was a side-trail with several switchbacks.

Sounded like a cannon. What do you think it is? I shouted.

I don’t know, Max hollered. We took a shortcut across the first two switchbacks; but the hill was too steep to shortcut the others.

KABOOM, BOOM, booM, ooMm, omm! I stopped to listen to the sound echo through the mountains.

We ran as hard as we could. Max and I were panting. My legs and lungs burned, and the loose soil and rocks sliding out from under my feet slowed me down. I wanted to ease up, but I lifted my knees and pumped my arms. I was three-quarters of the way up the side trail and Max was not far behind.

KABOOM, BOOM, booM, ooMm, omm!

Rounding the final switchback, I looked out over the horizon. In the distance I could see the peak called Sharp Top, but couldn’t see anything that would account for the thundering sound. I stopped running and began to walk. Gasping for air and disoriented, I tried to determine precisely what direction the sound was coming from.

When I crested the ridge and looked across the wide valley I saw multiple lines of people below. Some were wearing what I presumed were uniforms with dark shirts or jackets and blue trousers. Others wore lighter uniforms. There were lines on either side of the field facing each other. A few of the men were scattered behind what appeared to be an embankment and others were hiding behind rocks. Beginning to realize what was happening, I held my hand above my eyes in order to focus on the flags held by each army. One appeared to be an American flag and the other was mostly red. A Confederate flag, I thought. Squinting, as the sun reflected off the many tents that were arranged in an orderly fashion at either end of the battlefield, it became clear to me that this was some kind of mock battle.

KABOOM, BOOM, booM, ooMm, omm!

Max stepped onto the top of the ridge and we watched rings of smoke rising simultaneously from three separate cannons.

A reenactment, Max sighed. Standing half bent over, with his hands on his knees, panting, he added, They have ’em in the Valley all the time.

Plumes of smoke rose from muskets and rifles. A few seconds later we heard the crackle of gunfire. Why? I asked.

Who cares, he replied as though it was too much trouble to explain. He stepped away from the ridge.

I’m not sure why I responded to Max the way I did; maybe I didn’t believe he was as disinterested as he let on. Perhaps his seeming lack of interest made me more interested – it was true that Max and I would occasionally antagonize each other, after all, we were brothers. Maybe it was something else; maybe, for reasons I could not understand, a part of me needed to investigate more closely. Perhaps I sensed that I would find some answers; like some who gives up five or six months of their life to hike the Appalachian Trail I expected to gain something from the experience. There was one thing I was certain of, however, I was eager to take a break from hiking. Thinking back to that day, I now believe it was for all of those reasons that I pointed to the valley and said, Let’s go down there.

For what? asked Max, although his response seemed more like a statement than a question. I’m not going down there. We’re already a week behind.

We can go out to the road and catch a ride.

No way, he said.

I want to go.

It’s a waste of time.

I’m curious, I said, aware that Max was annoyed with me. After all, there are hundreds of people marching around down there, dressed up in Civil War uniforms, and they’re shooting cannons and rifles. I added, Aren’t you curious?

No, Max replied flatly.

I didn’t understand Max’s reluctance. Although he was good about sticking with our daily plans, he always agreed with me whenever I suggested that

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