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.


17 Responses to “A Cool Mountain Mourning”

  1. This is beautiful Mike. Ally and I have been to Hot Springs several times over the years, and I’ve bellied up to the bar at Paddler’s Pub. I had no idea that the owner was your cousin. I’m sorry for the loss; sounds like he touched lots of people.

    It’s strange an ironic that before seeing this I posted something that was almost the opposite of this, about the death of someone who once had lots of friends, but recently died alone and homeless. I suppose this is a commentary on the best way we can try to live our lives in the time we’re given. Thanks again MJ. Any time you’re up for a journey to that headstone, let me know.

    • Thanks, Jonny. Pat was a special person and he did so much in the relatively short amount of time he was here with us. His younger brother is my age and we all grew up together. That whole family is amazing. The atmosphere on Papa’s Mountain is impossible to describe–we’ll head that way sometime.

  2. Well put my friend–it evoked many emotions for me…you described HS perfectly. Ironically, remember we went up to Hot Springs right after Steve’s memorial? Good times, good times.
    you are a gifted writer.

    • Scott–I’d forgotten that. Good call. I was just in Asheville a few weeks ago and thought about Steve. Hard to believe how long ago that was but it’s still so present, you know. I’m sure you do. Thanks for reading and thanks for writing–cheers out across the miles!

  3. Mike….that was just perfect!

    • Thanks, Sonia–it was such a moving experience. I appreciate your kind words. Hope to see you and your family again in Hot Springs soon!

  4. Mike,
    As I read this, I could picture all of this in my mind much better than the days that we were living it. These words are beautiful….just as Patrick is. Living in Hot Springs allowed me to see him almost daily and to this day – it is not the same. I carry him in my heart and talk to him often in my mind as I drive past the place where the pub used to be. He is a silent presence in all our lives and always will be. I hope you and your family are doing well. Thank you for providing the opportunity to read, remember, and reflect with a smile on my face.

    Take Care,
    Lisa Gahagan Snelson

    • Thanks for stopping by, Lisa. I was in Hot Springs last month and you’re right, things are not the same. There’s a huge void where Pat used to be. And I can’t believe the pub is gone. I think it comforts everyone to know that great people still reside in and pass through Hot Springs and will keep him alive in their thoughts and stories. Hope you guys have happy holidays–

  5. Becki Heilers Says:

    Hi Mike,
    I am so sorry for your loss. I know its late, but I just now found this today while doing searches about the pub. I had no idea. I used to to work for Patrick at the pub years ago and he was one of the nicest people I ever met. My husband and I are shocked and heartbroken to find out this news as we both thought the world of him. We live in Ohio now but are coming down for vacation this summer so I will have to make a trip to HS in his memory. Patrick was so kind and helpful to us. We were just a couple of kids from Ohio when we met him and he always treated us like family. Most of our fondest moments were spent in NC and almost all of those included Patrick & Aubrey. The world won’t ever be the same without Patrick in it.

    • Hi Becki–I’m sorry you had to stumble upon such sad news. It was a huge loss for all of his family and friends–and Hot Springs will never be the same. I’m sad to report that Paddler’s Pub was demolished not long after Pat’s untimely death, so the empty lot is a gloomy reminder. (I haven’t been back for many months and am not sure if anything has been erected in that spot.) Considering what a remarkable guy he was, the outpouring of love and support has not surprised anyone. I’m glad you had the opportunity to spend some time with Patrick and work a stint at the pub. Do come through Hot Springs on your vacation and raise your glass for a toast–he would appreciate the thought. All best and thanks for sharing your memories–Mike

  6. Matt Simpkins Says:

    This is from Matt Simpkins, I once worked for Patrick, he was the greatest man I have come to meet in my life. He had the kindest heart and the most amirable personality. He had a way with making life and work enjoyable and if he could be remembered in any way I believe that he would smile at knowing how well he made others happy, and even if he didn’t know it he would still be smiling, with that gigantic grin. I wish that I could have seen him again in this life but I know one day I will see him again… hopefully with a bottle of Dickel in his hand and two cups on the table beside him… so that I can revisit some of the happiest and most memorable times in my life.

    • Glad you stopped by, Matt. There are a lot of sweet memories out there with Patrick right in the middle of them. It’s always nice to hear. Cheers, with a shot of Dickel!

  7. Time moves forward. I remember Patrick in school. He was always incredibly kind, gentle spoken and had the most amazing smile and eyes. I’m glad I found this…such an incredible write up–thank you for allowing me to be part of this….
    I knew Patrick as a boy…after reading your tribute, I will remember him as a man.

    • Thanks, Julee. Appreciate the very sweet words. Patrick was a gem–his siblings are all wonderful as well, so the spirit lives on.

  8. […] published at Lunaphyte. Reprinted with […]

  9. Tammy Cody Says:

    Just read this for this first time. Beautiful memory of a wonderful friend. Thanks for sharing this Mike. Hope you are doing well.

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