A Cool Mountain Mourning
This time last year, I lost my dear cousin Patrick in a car accident. He will be forever missed by all who knew him. Rest well, Pat.
We were in the pediatrician’s office when mom called my cell phone. Trying to settle my month-old son, I swung his carrier while Mom cried and struggled for air. My wife watched the concern collect in my face. “Your cousin Patrick was killed in a car wreck last night,” mom finally managed to say. Maybe I gasped, maybe I cursed, I don’t remember now. But I know I looked down into the face of my little son and felt life and death slam together in a disorienting collision.
The last time I saw Patrick Anderson was over the 4th of July holiday, a long weekend when we’d gone to Hot Springs to visit my grandparents and have a little vacation before the baby came. Hot Springs is a quaint mountain town in Madison County, a few miles from the Tennessee state line, and my family lived there in a small cabin beside my grandparents’ house when I was a toddler. We ended up moving on to Asheville and beyond, only returning to Hot Springs to see my grandparents and reconnect with the mountains. Patrick never left. Patrick owned the only watering hole in town, Paddler’s Pub, and this lively place served as an oasis for weary Appalachian Trail hikers and boaters from nearby rivers. Hot Springs to me was a location that resided in my soul, a place I could visit in my mind when I felt the need to return to something I’d lost. To Patrick, Hot Springs and the surrounding area was home and I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous when I visited and saw how well it suited him. I always felt like a returning tourist.
I loved my cousin and his sudden absence from our family is still hard to accept. It is like a fresh scab, one that keeps opening up when I bump it into things. And he wasn’t even in my everyday life, what about the people who spent real time with him? The people who worked at the pub, all the regulars, the townspeople and visitors who spoke to him as they walked into and out of his life?
As news of his passing spread, it became clear that this would be a very special funeral. People would be coming in from all over–Montana, Colorado, New York–from destinations both far and near, inching towards western North Carolina on a pilgrimage of grief and love.
The last farewell to Patrick was made up of several unique events and the first was the visitation at Madison Funeral Home. Even though I’d seen much of my family since arriving that afternoon, I’d yet to see Patrick’s siblings, and frankly I dreaded it. Since my own brother and I are so close, I viewed Pat’s passing through the prism of brotherhood and I couldn’t fathom losing mine so young and unexpectedly. Patrick’s parents preceded him in death; thankfully, they didn’t have to suffer the agony of burying a child.
People stood in line for up to 4 hours at the visitation, paying respects to someone local resident Billy Ebbs called “The Gandhi of Hot Springs.” Behind Paddler’s Pub sits the Creekside Inn, a small hotel Patrick owned that caters to tourists and through-hikers. Ebbs recalled when his own life hit a rough patch and Patrick let him stay free in the hotel for several weeks until he could get back on his feet. It seemed like everyone in line had a similar story to tell. Patrick’s younger brother, Jonathan, later said, “You wouldn’t believe all the strangers who hugged my neck and told me how Patrick had given them a meal when they didn’t have any money.”
There was a bonfire afterwards at Patrick’s childhood home, a place full of memories for friends and family alike. Though tinged with melancholy, the mood was festive since only a person like Patrick could unite so many kinds of enjoyable people. There were country boys, hippies, fishing guides, housewives, accountants, loafs, outlaws and everything in between, all sharing their beverages and stories and comfort. Fittingly, there was also a group of bagpipers in attendance, friends he’d made at the Highland Games in Grandfather Mountain. Those guys had heard the news and wanted to come pay tribute through their music. If you collect romantic images, it’s hard to beat a pair of bagpipers playing by the soft glow of firelight for a cold, huddled mob of mourners as mist settles on a gurgling stream.
On the next morning came an epic mission. A group of us went up in the woods to haul Patrick’s monolithic headstone out from a mountain gully. In an inexplicable moment of irony, only weeks earlier Patrick had seen this giant boulder from the dirt road and told a couple of buddies that he wanted it as a headstone when he died. Taking him at his word, the group engineered a web of straps and chains and affixed them to their trucks, hoping to pull it out and make it easier for a backhoe to grab it. Progress was slow and the funeral was scheduled in a few hours. Someone had the genius idea to push it downhill to meet the windy road on a switchback, and real progress began. The mob pushed the boulder downhill until it was stopped by a tree, then they would chainsaw away the obstacle or change its direction, and push again. With each advance, there was a war-cry that drifted up from the woods. “There are people who roll giant rocks off of mountains, and there are people who watch them,” said Brad Platt, who had flown from Montana to witness such a thing.
The afternoon funeral was held at the lovely Zion Baptist Church Cemetery, a little south of Hot Springs. This was largely a symbolic gathering since Patrick’s siblings had decided to bury their brother up on Papa’s Mountain, a large tract of family land that is mainly an undeveloped and wild treasure. So after hearing the preliminary graveyard service, whoever had the inclination and the 4-wheel drive, joined the funeral procession that snaked across the dirt road that led up Papa’s Mountain.
That’s where we ended up—in a leaf-strewn clearing on the top of a mountain, staring into an incongruous hole that would forever hold my cousin. It was amazing and stirring and different, and it all somehow fit together. The giant boulder rested at the head of the grave like it had been there for centuries. The bagpipers, wearing Patrick’s family clan tartans as tribute, squeezed out a funeral dirge. The assembly wasn’t a group of individuals; it was one organism that pulsed with emotion and reverence. The whole weekend shed light on how one singular event–or one singular personality in this case–can bridge generations, politics, demographics, and every other quantifying factor that divides us.
Cheers, Patrick. Keep a good watch over us, and over the mountain.