A Colder Place

Written in November of 2012.  Inspired by a hiking trip on a mountain in the Appalachian chain, during which the photograph at the top of the post was taken.




Excerpted from the summary included in Nightmare on Black Mountain: A Review of the McCoy Peak FootageAuthor Carmine Gregory, University of North Carolina Press, 2013.


“My name is Taylor Cuvert, and this is a message for my family.”

“Sandy, I love you. I have always loved you, and I will always love you. I’m so sorry that it has to be this way, but I don’t see any way around it now. I don’t want you to watch anything else on this video. Not under any circumstances. If it comes on TV, I want you to change the channel, and if they give you this tape, then I don’t want you to keep it. I want you to always think of me…as the person you knew while I was alive. You remember that trip we took to Costa Rica, right after college? Remember how the sun beat down on the beach during the day, and how we spent the night together on the pavilion, just watching the moon over the waves? Hopefully I’ll see you again someday, somewhere sunnier than Costa Rica in the summertime.”

“Jordan, you’re my little girl. I want you to be strong for dad, okay? Mom is going to need you to be there for her for a while. I won’t be able to be there for you like I wish I could be, but you have your mom and you have your grandparents to help you out, so I’m not too worried about you. Just keep on keeping on. I know you don’t know about Costa Rica yet, but maybe you can go there when you get older. It’s a beautiful place, and there’s nothing in this world quite like seeing a toucan steal your sandwich on a warm…warm day. Just study hard in school, stay away from sleazy guys in fast cars, and make your dad proud.”

“Maybe I’ll get to give this to you guys in person and we can all have a good laugh, but more likely, I’m not going to make it down this mountain. I miss you both so much right now. Just know that you are always in my heart.”

McCoy Peak, on Black Mountain, is the highest point in the Blue Ridge of western North Carolina. Standing out against the sky at sunset like some ancient, sleeping giant, it’s easy enough to see how Black Mountain got its name. However, the peak’s legacy is more firmly attached to a video clip recovered by the United States Coast during a search following a freak blizzard in early November of 2012.

Taylor Cuvert, along with the husband and wife pair of Jonathan and Carrie Bleak, were caught out in the storm. Why they were on the mountain at all so late in the year, much less near the notoriously dangerous McCoy Peak, is unknown, although hints early in the video suggest that the three may have been looking for some sort of archaeological site on the hill’s northern flank. Given that both members of the Bleak family were instructors of Native American history at the nearby University of Western North Carolina, and given that Taylor was aspiring to the same office, this seems a rational enough assumption.

Regardless, it hardly seems important what the three ill-fated explorers were searching for. No site of historical importance has ever been located on Black Mountain, although the unusual topography and enormous scale of the hill (more of a ridge line than a normal mountain, stretching nearly nine and a half miles east to west) makes it difficult to say for certain what they may have been looking for. Substantially more important are the details of what happened after the group wandered off of the beaten path.

Black Mountain, like most publicly accessible hills in the state, is criss-crossed with hiking trails. One of these, the McCoy Summit Trail, is closed from mid-October through mid-April due to the dangers of winter at altitudes of over 7,000 feet. This, however, did not stop Taylor and his group from traipsing through the line of warning signs and beginning their ascent from the parking lot of the closed visitor’s center. The three continued on the trail, up through relatively flat areas (some with wooden stairs) and then on into relative wilderness. At higher points on the trail, the beaten path became weakly trodden and narrow, ascending and then briefly descending, then picking up again until at last the path came to a near stop. A brief hike up a boulder field (slick with an icey trickle of water coming down from the well known Boone Spring) would have taken the group up to the mountain’s windblown ridge. However, apparently in search of whatever they had come to Black Mountain for in the first place, the group chose to skirt the strewn field. and walk along the lower flank of the mountain’s ridge.

It quickly becomes apparent, from watching the tape, that all members of the group were freezing. Unbeknownst to them, a squall line was moving south, driven down out of New England by the sudden influx of a mass of cold air from Canada. Their first hint of snow comes less than twenty minutes before the viewer realizes that they are in serious trouble. Although Carrie, the first to notice flurries dropping from the gray sky above, looks at the camera and jokingly suggests that the mountain will become a winter wonderland, the danger seems to have been more apparent to the camera man. One of the most infamous frames of the video, sometimes hailed as the voice of Cassandra speaking truth about wilderness survival, is the one in which Taylor, with his camera pointed at the dead pine needles below his feet, says, “I think we may want to turn back, if it’s starting to snow.”

Whether it was already too late is irrelevant. With their goal solidly in mind, the two other members of the expedition stood firm in their desire to move on, and Taylor made the decision to go with them. The three walked for a few minutes, a high cliff stretching up to the ridge on their southern side, and a steep hill leaning down toward the valley far below on the other. When flurries became more visible and began to accumulate, there was another brief discussion about turning back, this time beginning with Carrie. However, this discussion is much more difficult to discern clearly. At this point, the footage experiences severe audio distortion, something commonly associated with what reviewers of the film have called “the Hound” or, perhaps more accurately, “the Watcher”.

Regardless of the decision reached, the snow picks up by the end of the conversation, to the point where turning back is already impossible. The cliff face could lead the group back nearly to the trail, that much is true, but after it terminates, there are still a few hundred more feet of tangled alpine forest (a strange feature of high Appalachia), and the trail is not clear enough so high up. The group apparently decided, off camera, to wait out what they hoped to be a brief snow. The next video, taken probably two hours later, includes the group huddled up against a rock lower on the hill, which they had made the decision to use as a windbreak. Jonathon is visible in the film trying to start a fire, and eventually succeeding. Despite being dressed for normal winter weather, no one in the group appears to be dressed for the kind of weather coming with the squall line, and it clearly cuts like a knife.

Normal, edited versions of the McCoy Peak Footage do not attempt to duplicate the few snippets of conversation and “interviews” which Taylor took, trying to keep spirits up during the storm. Usually, only the most important points are included, particularly Carrie and Jonathon explaining their jobs at Western Carolina, and Taylor explaining his work as a wedding photographer after graduation with a master’s degree in anthropology and no prospects of obtaining a PhD following the birth of his daughter.

Taylor takes care to note that his daughter matters more to him than any degree or job he could ever have gotten.

It is some time shortly after nightfall when the McCoy Peak Footage takes a darker turn. Our first view of the Watcher comes at this point, although it is very unclear whether or not Taylor understood that he was filming it. As the day becomes rapidly darker and the storm shows no sign of letting up, the film maker tries the night vision feature of his camera. Through the lens, we are able to briefly see the creature, moving on all fours like a strange deer. Snow obscures our view, and the being is certainly difficult to make out in infrared. Nevertheless, it is clearly there, less than fifty feet out from the campsite. It looks briefly at the camera, perhaps able to see the flicker of fire, but fortunately unable to detect human movement through the snow.

Things like the Watcher have been reported from California in the west, the Mexican highland in the south, coastal North Carolina in the east, and Nunavuk in the north. While being relegated to North America, they appear to inhabit relatively underpopulated areas across the country. It is unclear what the range of a single Watcher might be, what its diet consists of, and what numbers exist in the wild, although there clearly cannot be many. No Watcher had ever been captured on camera alive in the wild before the McCoy Peak Footage, and reports were assumed to be legendary for many years. Most reports are undoubtedly fictitious, particularly given the wide levels of intelligence associated with Watchers in different stories, ranging from the animalistic fury associated with the Watcher in the possible hoax circulated on the internet as “Behind the Line of Trees”, all the way to the city-building associated with the Watchers described by New Age guru Frances Kobalt. No Watcher has ever been recovered, either dead or alive, and so it is difficult to assess any claims about the creatures other than the near unanimous description of their blindness to unmoving prey.

It is difficult, viewing the quick eye movements of the Watcher in this film, to believe that members of the species are entirely without intelligence. Although Taylor appears to have not noticed the creature before it could slink back off into the forest, he does demonstrate marked nervousness for the rest of the night. Strange sounds cause him to bring the camera back to bear. Audio enhancement, performed on the video by California’s Industrial Light and Magic, suggests that an unusual pattern of infrasound (most likely coming from the Watcher) may have been the cause for his anxiety.

It is during one of these frightened episodes, trying to fight off sleep, that Taylor views Jonathon walking just into the forest with a flaming stick from the fire. Whatever provoked his fear this time, it also seems to have disturbed the others. Taylor watches for a moment before Jonathon starts to come back. It is in that moment that the Watcher finally makes its move. We see a flurry of motion, too rapid for the video to detect. Carrie yells something, and Taylor jumps out from the shadow of the windbreak, stopping suddenly when he realizes that Jonathon is already gone from the view of the camera. His torch lies on the ground, bright enough that Taylor snaps off the night vision and lingers on its glow. Snow whirls and dances in the torch light, the wind of the blizzard threatening to silence it forever. Then from the distance come the screams.

The first is clearly Jonathon’s. It lasts for only a moment before choking out into the blackness. The second is clearly not human. It forces Taylor back toward the wind break, to watch silently as terrifying night goes on toward horrifying day.

Now, all conversation has stopped. The fire begins to die, and Taylor makes a brief foray back into the forest, looking carefully for firewood. Thanks to poor planning, however, the group has not gathered enough to last, and all that Taylor can find is covered with snow. He brings some back, attempting to brush it off, but the wood is too wet to burn. Within the hour, the fire dies, leaving Carrie and Taylor alone in the cold.

At some point, the footage cuts off, with only one more snippet of video recorded just before dawn. Natural light illuminates the scene as Taylor gently tries to wake Carrie. After failing, he touches his fingers to her neck, then moves them away, appearing to cross himself while holding the camera with the other hand.

With day rapidly growing brighter, it becomes obvious that the squall has subsided. Heavy snow now falls vertically, enormous flakes that make the forest look like the winter wonderland that Carrie had predicted. As soon as the light is strong enough for Taylor to see clearly in all directions, he starts out from the windbreak, back up toward the cliff where he had been the night before. Taylor seems unable to run, too weak and short of breath to maintain more than a stumbling walk. He strains to reach the cliff, then slowly moves along its side, an easy hike the day prior suddenly becoming much more difficult. It quickly becomes obvious to the viewer how unlikely it is that the camera man will reached the bottom of the mountain, even if he makes his way to the trail.

Then, all hope is lost.

Regardless of the authenticity of the dubious Texas record, it is clear that the primary method of hunting for a Watcher is recorded accurately in its name. The creature simply waits out its prey, in this case a human being. Another hint that the beings are intelligent, perhaps. Although Taylor moves back too quickly for the creature to have seen him, it is clearly standing in his way, staring upward on the path out. It also seems to have positioned itself strategically on the path, one which Taylor would certainly not have the strength to bypass. For the first time, the size of its eyes becomes clear. Both look like fishbowls, giving it a nearly one hundred eighty degree panoramic view. This time, the creature stands bolt upright rather than prowling like a dog. It looks disturbingly like a man, except for its vaguely reptilian flesh.

Taylor cuts off the footage here. We see a few more shots, taken from ground level, of the camera man breaking a branch from a tree and tying a long Bowie knife to it with his shoe lace. He seems determined to fasten the knife securely.

Then, he goes into his dialogue addressed to his family, and vanishes into history.

The Cuvert family has never been contacted by reputable journalistic sources, out of respect for their loss. Tabloids are turned down unanimously, and from all reports, they seem to have never viewed the film, except for occasional (and inevitable) snippets on the news. While they are obviously not in the dark regarding its content, they have chosen to shun the lime light that the video has obtained. If a scientific name is ever decided on for the Watchers, however, it is likely to include the Cuvert name, in honor of the man who taught humanity a lesson it was able to forget for hundreds of years,

There on some places on this Earth which it is better to shun than to explore.



The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Written in December of 2011.  This was originally intended to be part of a lengthier story about a place called Cooperstown, Tennessee, inspired by the Blue Oyster Cult song Harvest Moon.  I tried to have some degree of authenticity in the writing style, without making it difficult to read (spelling was not standardized in this part of the 18th century, and a letter called the “long S” was still used).


To Bishop Gardner,

It is with great regret, my most Reverend Bishop, that I write to inform you that I must call off this expedition and return to the city of Charles Town as soon as possible. This land is accursed and blighted, and its wasting effects have resulted in the desertion of five of my men and a score of the Indians who accompanied us into the Cherokee Territory. I am sending this message and its courier to precede me, and intend to follow with the rest of my men as early as the weather permits.

It would not do for me to speak to you with tales of the manifold superstitions and fears among those who inhabit this land, so I will spare you those stories which I have heard from our camp followers. Instead, I will recount only what I have seen personally in informing you of the dangers which exist in this rugged territory. I hope that this will do to explain my reasons for returning, and to dissuade future explorations into the high hills west of the Blue Ridge, owing to the perturbations of nature upon which we have stumbled here.

On the fourteenth of May, in the Year of Our Lord 1702, we set out from friendlier lands near the coast to travel inland, at the behest of your office, to bring the religion of the Church of England to the Indians dwelling to the west before certain persons coming from the colonies of the Spaniards could minister to them. Our journey took us through the plantation lands first, where the gentry have their fields, but we soon reached territory where neither the spade nor the plow have touched the earth.

After a week of travel, the land became noticeably more rugged, and the farthest outposts of our Carolina Province vanished away into a wilderness of forest and fields. Our followers, many of whom came from either the Cherokee or Creek tribes, advised us that this land was home to only one population of Indians, that of an unreached band of Cherokee who had chosen to have nothing to do with our traders and would likely choose to have nothing to do with us as well. They told us that they could guide us to them, but they did not suggest attempts at contact, and we concurred with them that reaching out to potentially hostile peoples in this land would not be proper, particularly considering the recent troubles stirred up by the Spaniards in more southerly territories.

Despite our decision not to try to contact the people of that land, some of my men did claim to see them in the forest, and I myself felt at many times that we were being watched, though I was not certain by whom. Our guides told us that the Cherokee band lived several miles to the south of the paths we were travelling, and that it was unlikely they would travel this far north unless they had somehow been alerted to our presence.

Nevertheless, we were left un-harassed by our visitors, if visitors we truly had, rather than simply tricks of the mind. We were through that territory in a short time, and into the higher hills, where at last we did manage to contact some of the region’s inhabitants.

These inhabitants of the upper hills were much more hospitable than their neighbors, and had the rudiments of trade with our own colonists. Many were possessed of muskets and iron cookware and work implements, and one seemed capable of understanding the basics of English speech. We were able to communicate to them through this gentleman and through our guides. For a good three days my party remained with this encampment, all the while trying to reach out to the people with the Faith and trying to find guides more knowledgeable regarding this inland hill country, which our camp followers did not seem to know as well as the lowlands. None of the persons at the camp seemed willing, however, to go with us, urging us instead to retreat to safer ground. Many told us that lands further inland were held by some evil spirit which ate the souls of men and beasts, using trickery and deceptions of the mind to lure them to death.

I was unperturbed by this talk, but almost all of our camp followers agreed with them that we should go no further, despite nominally having been convinced of the Christian religion and being past superstition. Some of the members of my own party were even reluctant to travel further when witnessing the fervency of the men as they told us that we should not go inland. They suggested that some demon might inhabit the land, and our sole man of science, the honorable Dr. Ashton of Cambridge, suggested that there might be some truth to the idea that strange vapors might come from places below the land, as near the vents of some volcanic peaks in Europe. Volcanism had not been witnessed in this new world as of yet, but it was certainly not impossible.

Airing on the side of caution, I decided that what Dr. Ashton said was likely true. Still, I was determined that we should see this place so greatly feared, and so I offered a lofty sum above the normal fee for some of the men from this band of the Cherokee to accompany us to the northwest. All but two, the English speaking gentleman who asked to be called Joseph and a woman who was his wife and whose name was altogether unpronounceable refused to come with us. Joseph seemed as nonplussed by superstition as I wished my own men to be, although his wife seemed to go only at his behest. She seemed quite nervous about the hills to the northwest even then, before we made our march to that region.

It was on the twenty eighth day of May that we came to the forsaken lands which Joseph told us were most feared by the tribe. I will not lie and say that I was not unnerved at that time. Instead, I will say that I tried to make myself brave at the sight of those forests, which felt in some deep way improper. It was the color of their leaves, I believe, which suggested poisoning with some substance from below. They were the wrong shade of green for this time of the year, or for any time, for that matter. Beneath their leafy bows little light could pierce.

The land was a rather simple place, geographically. It was a valley, between two high hills, with a narrow and shallow river cutting through the middle. We followed that river, intending to get through that forsaken valley as quickly as possible, for we did all feel unease at the nature of the place, as well as at the high storm clouds which we occasionally saw through glimpses between the branches. Despite our best efforts, however, we did not manage to get through the valley before nightfall and the coming of the storm.

It was during that night, with the rain and lightning besetting our camp, that we had our first desertion. Some in our camp would favor, rather, that it was a disappearance, and I will include their opinion here. However, as the individual who went missing during that storm-ridden night was Joseph’s easily frightened wife, I have no doubts that she simply meant to slip away while the weather made easy cover. It would not have been impossible for a single person to leave and make a path out of that valley, despite the difficulty for our camp with its carrying horses and twenty-odd men. She was likely nearly back in her camp by the time that morning came and we began our fruitless search for her.

Do not misjudge my statements. I no longer discount that something was in this valley which did not belong upon this Earth, only the suggestion that this woman did encounter it, and that it sought to harm her. I believe this thing to be dangerous only to the mind, perhaps a vapor of a strange sort produced not by volcanism but by some other natural force. Its effect on the mind, however, is most jarring, as I fancied seeing strange sights and hearing odd noises several times during our travels in search of the missing Indian woman. At once I heard a slipping noise, as of water passing over rocks, although the storm has subsided to a very light and misty rain. On another occasion, I believed myself to see an impenetrable wall of blackness, of such a size as your imagination will allow, moving through the forest some distance down the hillside from my position. These were impossible things, and as they were similar only in some details to what the others reported seeing, I believe that they were the unnatural symptom of some Hell-sent vapor, slipping up through such cracks as we were wont to find.

It was during this search that the next wave of desertions occurred. Several among the Indians whom we hired in the low country fled, although I know not how many. If I had to guess as to the number, I would say that it was greater than five, since the size of our party had shrunk to below twenty by the end of the evening when we regrouped. The storm had returned to its original intensity, and we could no longer make our way safely across the ground lining the valley.

That night, few of the men could sleep. Dr. Ashton sat up with me as we talked of what we had seen in the glow of our lanterns. We concurred on the overall cause of the sightings, that it was the result of harmful fumes from deep within the earth, but even the most learned man on our expedition had begun suggesting that the fumes could be coming from the prison of Satan and bringing with them some accursed devil who wished us harm. I rebuked him sharply, and we waited for the rest of the night listening to the storm howl and thunder all around us. In the morning, we had two more desertions, both from a tent of colonial men, and both highly religious in their observances. One man was one of our team’s priests, the venerable Father Danvers. Before, I would have been inclined to ask Heaven to have mercy on that man’s soul, but after what I had seen, I had no doubts that his desertion was fueled by a fear so strong as to limit his right use of reason.

We did not bother to search for these men. The storm was too strong, and I was certain enough of their desertion that I did not find it wise to venture out into the wilderness again. All of us also had contracted a peculiar sickness, an effect that I am sure resulted from the vapor, and which remained with us through the course of that day and to this one. The only man who went out that morning was Joseph, still convinced that his wife had been taken into the forest and had not left of her own free will. He did not return, and I am certain that he made the same decision as to his wife’s location as we did, and returned to his village.

Two of the men who went out later after the rain had lessened to collect wood for our fire fancied that they saw something like Joseph, and that he cried out for help from down the slopes of the valley. They were ready to seek for him, when the wall of blackness which I had seen appeared from another direction and drove the men screaming back to our camp. I told them that it was simply a vapor which poisoned their minds and which was driving us all to sickness, with the somewhat hesitant support of Dr. Ashton, but they would have none of it. They spoke around the camp of what they had seen, and soon I saw men readying their muskets for a duel with a ghost. I can understand why they were so frightened, despite my reassurances. The phantasms which we have seen in this valley have seemed quite real, even to myself.

The three other men from our expedition who departed did so that day as well, although they announced their plans to escape from the valley to me. I could do nothing but wish them the best, seeing as how any attempt to dissuade them might throw the camp into armed mutiny. They left with only a small amount of food, hoping to find their way to the Cherokee camp which we had departed from. I hope that they precede this message, so that I may know that they are well.

The natives who deserted yesterday did so in a much more boisterous manner, threatening to force our muskets from us if we did not give them a supply. They were certain that something evil from a forgotten past lingered in the forests, and cursed us for dragging them to this place. I allowed them the use of four of our weapons, and they set out, telling us that our horses should be accursed and allowed to die in this valley so that we could flee for our own lives, and that all of us who denied the creature’s presence were most assuredly under some dreadful deceit from the thing which lived in the valley.

The rest of the day ran long, with the storm sometimes increasing in its intensity and sometimes decreasing. Fewer than ten people out of an initial troop of more than twenty remained through the day, although none disappeared over the course of the night. We did, however, hear some frightful noises than I am less inclined to attribute to the vapors than to some other, more physical force, such as landslides higher in the valley. Some of my men awakened this morning crying, their physical force sapped from them as if someone had drained their bodies of all their humors. They spoke in frantic tones of a wall of darkness that blocked out the stars with its enormous bulk, one that waited outside the camp for anyone who dared to leave. One of them suggested the possibility of terminating his own life rather than face the thing in the forest, to which I responded that he should remember the fictions brought on by the vapors, and not be so horrified by what he saw.

Because of the sad state of these men, and the general wasted state of all of us upon awaking this morning, I am sending this message to you to let you know that our mission must unfortunately end before its natural closure. I am certain that you will understand, when considering the shape of my men. This runner who I am sending with the message was of greater stamina than most, and the storm seems to be moving away this morning, as I can catch glimpses of the sky even now from my tent. We should depart either this evening or the next day, although I am inclined toward this evening if at all possible, because I do not wish to spend another night in this place. I, too, saw what the men saw last night, and as sure as I am that it is nothing but a lying vapor, my soul questions.

Best wishes and Godspeed,

Sir Walter Bell