Archive for Hot Springs

The Untold Story

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2016 by Mike

Empty_bookWhen a loved one dies, you’re left with photographs and whatever recollections your mind is able to drag out to inspect. But my memory is far from a dependable archive and a 2-D image in a photo album can only do so much. It’s easy to start flipping pages or wander down mental side roads that lead you far from where you meant to be. Not a bad thing, really, any introspection is a golden nugget when most days are marked by the hollow, fleeting ding of accomplished tasks.

People with home movies are lucky. Old family videos let you hear your aunt’s voice again and be reminded of the particular way her attention could go from person to person in a room, landing on each face. Or the way your cousin walked—never in a hurry, no reason to suspect that he would die young and only live on in memories and a few precious minutes of video. These are reflections that no still image could elicit.

My grandmother died a few years ago and I’m still adjusting to her complete silence. We used to talk on the phone a lot and we visited her and my grandfather often; the entire family is lucky that we got Nanny for 86 years. Now that she’s gone, I’m stuck with my own remembrances of her long biography and saddened that she will never be able to fill in one of the many blanks in the record.

So I’ve started to record my grandfather’s voice on trips back to Hot Springs, a town that always centered around them and now centers around him, the survivor. If the first time I recorded him made him uncomfortable, it didn’t show. I took out my iPhone, readied the Voice Memos feature, pressed record, and asked him to tell me again about where he grew up. Now I will forever have that detail told through his real voice and inimitable flair. That anecdote and the time when he worked on the boats in Michigan and when he met Nanny and all of these other momentous points in his story, told casually while he cooked breakfast or thumbed through the USA Today. One day, when we return to an empty house in Hot Springs and the cemetery on the hill holds both grandparents, we may play these soundbites again and be able, almost, to share space and time with our beloved grandfather.


We drop in to see my wife’s Uncle Norman after having lunch in Sneads Ferry. While we are all together, Mema, my wife’s grandmother, thinks it would be a good time for us to go see him. Uncle Norman is Mema’s uncle, so he is up there in age, maybe 92-93 years old. He lives in a little house overlooking a finger of marsh and it is a beautiful, sunny, cloudless day.

When we enter his house, Uncle Norman is sitting on his favorite recliner, alone in his quiet and dark home, just waiting and sitting. He has diabetes and cardiac issues, with wrecked and swollen feet, numerous stents and a pacemaker—he doesn’t get around much anymore—he confesses during our visit that he basically sits there and wonders why God hasn’t brought him home yet. He’s ready to die. But as we look around and visit with him and talk about his life and look at his pictures, he starts to open up and play host. There are framed pictures around, old black and whites from his years in the service; he mentions that he was there on Normandy, storming the beach in the face of grim odds. It’s hard for me to imagine that a memory of the beach could be so sinister. Despite his poor physical condition, his mind is incredibly sharp and lucid. He sits there with these stories and no one to tell them to—like an album that never gets played or a book that never gets read. It’s a chronicle of a life that just sits and molders, and you’re not quite sure what’s there until you press play or open the cover.

As he talks about those wartime memories from over 75 years ago, I begin to think that this needs to be recorded. His small audience—including my children who are too young to appreciate it and his family who may’ve heard it before, maybe ad nauseum during every pervious drop in—isn’t worthy. He is, or was, more than the deteriorating old man before us. Surely some historian or military buff on nearby Camp Lejeune would love to hear this. Granted, the history is well documented in books and movies, but this man’s unique perspective has a shelf life and WWII veterans like him are getting rarer by the day.

I get home and reach out to a local history writer, David Allen Norris, to brainstorm and see if there is a Story Corps on a local or state level or any organization that may be collecting stories of area servicemen.  Sure enough, there is.

The State Archives of North Carolina maintains a Military Collection that gathers photographs, maps, letters, personal belongings and other artifacts from our veterans, and also manages an Oral History Program that collects their personal narratives. Military Collection Archivist Matthew Peek travels all around NC to interview veterans for the Oral History program, recording and curating them for posterity.

I speak to Matthew Peek on the phone and tell him about Uncle Norman. I get the impression that he hears it a lot, the tale of an aging veteran with stories to share. My job is to lay the groundwork—getting permission from the family, finding out the dates and details of his military service—before he drives down from Raleigh to interview Uncle Norman in his Sneads Ferry home.

Uncle Norman dies before we are able to schedule an interview.


The Labyrinth

Posted in Family, Verse, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2015 by Mike

Go walk The Labyrinth.

It’s on the lawn of the Laughing Heart Lodge,

just a 10-minute stroll from your house.

Though your heart is seldom laughing these days,

the Labyrinth may bring it some passing amusement.


Resist the dirty building or cabin detour.

You don’t need it.

The swig may briefly numb your new reality

but liquor is a deceitful mistress,

picking your pocket while stroking your hair.


During your walk to the lodge, you will talk to someone you know,

or meet a stranger, maybe a through-hiker or retreat guest

that you will befriend through your playful sociability.

And you both will need that exchange, a moment that is

reproduced 50 times a day in Hot Springs,

maybe more if you’re walking the streets.


The Labyrinth is a spiral stone pathway with a single entry designed

for pedestrians to meander their way to the center.

Of course you could walk right over the rocks and save yourself

some time, high-stepping to the center of the spiral–

but that would be missing the point.

You’re supposed to walk the whole thing.

And there are times when you think,

“Why am I even bothering to do this?”

It does seem pointless.

But it’s like grief: It’s long, painful, sometimes hardly worth the trouble,

with a questionable ending.

Will it even be worth it? What is the payoff?

But you have to do the steps.

You have to make the journey and do the work.

You need to pay attention to the walk and trust

that at the end you will be centered

and somehow more at peace.


There’s likely a good description of the Labyrinth in the lodge’s brochure,

a deeper meaning, a more convincing why,

but the fact that someone arranged all those rocks into that dwindling orbit

is reason enough to go mosey down the path.


I walked over with the kids and they both took the shortcut–

they stepped right over the stones in a beeline to the middle,

bored with the long circular stroll, unimpressed with the design

and unaware of any underlying point.


They are new to all this–just beginning their own walks–

and it’s impossible to guess where their paths will lead them.

And I know we both want to watch them

find their way as long as we can.

All we can do is go until we stop

and encourage each other’s shaky progress.

I still toast our efforts.


The Endless Road

Posted in Family, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2013 by Mike

20 years ago this week, my brother, best friend and I took off on a 4 week cross-country road trip. Scott and I had just graduated college and Dave, a few years older, had yet to settle into a serious job. Taking off from western NC, we made an erratic figure-8 across the continental US, staying with friends and family along the way and camping between city stopovers, hitting the marquee national parks wherever we could. As you can imagine, it was an enlightening adventure with a spontaneity and lawlessness well suited for men in their early 20s.

Coincidentally, I’m now heading from the NC coast to the mountains to see my grandparents with my wife and 2 small children. This mini-voyage is reminiscent of my life’s definitive road trip, the one from 20 years ago. The white lines disappear under the car, the trees dip their branches, they gesture and welcome, waving us along. Then and now, my travel companions are my blood, no better people to travel with.

You tend to travel with things that are familiar, the t-shirt that you pack every time, your most comfortable underwear, whatever book you’re absorbed in at the time. You keep those things close to you. You go out on the road with them, the stowable talismans, and they’re part of the voyage. Maybe those items ground you while you set out into terra incognita. But it’s not always leaving and exploring; sometimes it’s returning and it’s just as magical. You have the things that you experience each time you come through. The quirky selections of WNCW as you ascend into the listening area, the unnamed mountain that is framed perfectly through the window every time, knowing you’ll never stop or learn its name, but it’s always there. And your travel companions, the nuclear family that you’ve built from scratch, glued to their seats in various stages of stunned impatience, ready to get there but making the most of every mile and panorama. My sweet grandparents at the finish line in Hot Springs, ready to serve us nonstop meals and marvel at their great grandchildren, buds on the family tree romping right there in their living room.

Once the travel bug bites, you spend your whole life scratching the bump. Cheers to David and Scott. We’re old dudes now, but those memories will keep us young. And thanks to Carrie, Foster and Alice Wren, my new road crew. Let’s see it all.

[Below are a few short entries from my July 1993 travel journal, along with a couple of doodles and photos from the trip. Top to bottom: Dave and Scott, somewhere in Nebraska; Scott in Onion Valley, CA; me, gazing up at yet another wonder of nature, perhaps Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite; pornographic spoof of Mount Rushmore; bubble Arches.]

[DAY 2, NEMAHA, NEBRASKA] “I can’t believe it’s only day 2. We’re realizing that this quest could be easily lengthened to 3-4 months. Every city, town, tree, critter and insignificant bug nation-wide is calling out to us.”

[DAY 5, WOUNDED KNEE, SOUTH DAKOTA] “Besides the Wounded Knee historical marker, there was a Sioux graveyard still utilized by the people. On many of the tombstones, Sioux men with names like ‘Long Dog’ and ‘Running Deer’ held ranks in the same US Army that murdered their grandparents.”

[DAY 8, MOAB, UTAH] “Cruised through Moab, Utah in search of a campground…Moab, the baby Gatlinburg. Got a lead from a convenience store lady to venture up towards Warner Lake off La Salle Mountain Loop Road. The lengthy, winding dirt road kept out RVs, greenhorns and wuss-tourists.”

[DAY 13, VENICE BEACH, CALIFORNIA] “Feels like we entered another country: freaks galore, artists, vagrants, gueens, muscleheads, gang bangers, panhandlers. Every variety of person slopped together in a steady stream of psychedelic motion.”

[DAY 19, YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYOMING] “Got to our backcountry site and commenced to get on some dry gear. We set up our tent, ate some chili for dinner and attempted to snooze early. Incessant rain and Grizzly-phobia made for difficult shuteye. Our sleeping bags got drenched, the tent had puddles, everything fucking soaked and the rain kept coming.”






A Cool Mountain Mourning

Posted in Family, Writing with tags , , , , on November 5, 2009 by Mike

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.