Darkness covered everything except the small halo created by my headlights as we sped along mountain roads well before dawn. The roads got narrower, rougher and curvier as we neared the Smoky Mountain National Park. My destination was the Big Creek Ranger station where I was to meet a man named Mark driving a brown Subaru and give him $75.
I had talked to Mark ten days before and arranged for him to pick up me, Adam, and Greg Stritch at the ranger station at six AM and drive us to where we would start our Appalachian Trail section hike. As I sped through the darkness hoping to reach the rendezvous in time I worried about the fragility of the relationship. I didn’t know Mark’s last name; he may not know mine. No credit card number had been given, no confirmation received. All I had was his phone number and all he had was my promise.
In the first miracle of our day, I found the ranger station at exactly six, and as I turned into the parking lot headlights appeared in my rear-view mirror. Mark had been as true to his word as I had been to mine.
He had silver hair tied back in a ponytail–the aging hippie look–and was gently friendly in his questions and advice about hiking conditions. He had been raised in southern California near one of the places Greg had lived as a boy. They had surfed the same beaches. Mark restored old guitars, as did Greg. He biked and swam as I did. Common ground expanded, and we seemed to bond in our hour-and-a-half journey to Newfound Gap.
As we neared Gatlinburg, he talked about the fires last winter and the drought that proceeded it. For ninety days the area was without rain–unheard of in that area–then the forest around the ironically named Chimneys section of the park exploded in flame. The fire raced down the mountainside, through the valley and into Gatlinburg where homes and businesses were destroyed by the hundreds.
Literally as the smoke cleared, Mark and his wife reassessed the water supply to their own home a few miles away and came to the conclusion that they needed a new well. Yet, they had no idea where to dig. Neighbors had dug wells four hundred feet or more in depth, some of them still dry. His wife had heard of a “water witch.” They called her, and she told them she would be glad to help.
She was an elderly woman living alone in the mountains. They picked her up and started to drive back to their property. She rather suddenly made Mark stop the car when she saw a peach tree. “Onliest thing to work would be a peach branch,” she said.
Thus armed she made short work of finding the optimum spot for a well on Mark’s property. Mark’s wife, fascinated, tried the peach wand, too, and felt its power. Mark, still skeptical, tried, felt nothing, and wondered if this was a group-think con job like a Ouija board.
“I see you need a little help,” the water witch said, and she walked behind him, reached up, and touched both earlobes.
Mark’s hands began to tingle with a sensation he could only describe as electrical and the peach wand pulled him toward the same unseen water source with a force that he was unable to resist. Convinced, he decided to dig the well on that spot.
The woman chuckled. Mark offered to pay her. She refused. “If I took money for what I did, the water would be no good,” she said.
They dug the well and found plentiful water at forty feet.
Whenever I hear a story like this one I want to jump to one of two conclusions: the story is untrue, or the story is true but the powers are satanic. But I couldn’t make the jump with this one.
I believe Mark’s story. He is the kind of man who loves the outdoors and music. He makes things with his hands and he keeps his word to a stranger to make a rendezvous in the dark based on a single phone call. He is not a teller of tall tales.
And if his story is true, what could possibly be satanic about an elderly mountain woman carrying a peach branch as she volunteers to help her neighbor find water?
I choose to think that God has imbued this woman with a special gift, given her a special tool–the branch of a peach tree–and a willingness to share her gift.
Though unique, she is not alone. God gives each of us a special gift to use to bring the Kingdom to the Earth, here and now. Then He gives us a tool to use that gift. And He gives us an opportunity to share our gift and encourage others to use it.
For a long time I had a gift–or a calling–to heal. My tools were sometimes a pen and a prescription pad, sometimes a scalpel, sometimes a drill or a microscope, and sometimes exotic instruments that are beyond description. The lame walked, the blind received their sight, those on death’s doorstep lived–in a sense, magic every bit as powerful and amazing as the ability to find water with a peach branch. And every time I consulted with a colleague we learned from each other, commiserated with each other, and encouraged each other–though I don’t remember taking hold of anyone’s earlobes.
Today I have a gift–or at least a calling–to be a witness. My tool is a computer. I don’t often get to see the magic, but I trust it happens out there somewhere when somebody reads a story and recognizes something familiar, or sees a new truth, or opens their heart and mind to the larger reality of God.
You have a gift, too; I am sure of it. I don’t know what it is. Maybe you haven’t called it a gift or recognized a calling, but if you stop and think about it for a moment, you will know what I mean. You have a toolbox, too. A stove if you’re a cook, a car if you’re a driver, a voice if you’re a preacher or a singer. That’s your peach branch. You can find living water for seekers in a way that is beyond your power or their power to resist, and you have a passion to share it.
Mark dropped us off at the trailhead about 7:30 AM, the place where the Appalachian Trail crosses the crest of the Newfound Gap road. Darkness had given way to the flat, gray light of dawn. Wisps of clouds and mists drifted through the mountaintop forest, lending a mystical quality to the morning. Anything could happen; Brigadoon could appear.
We bade Mark good-bye and I shouldered my pack. Before I walked away I screwed together the two parts of my aluminum hiking stick. It has a strap and a foam handle and, on the very top, a knob of some kind of wood. On that morning, I chose to believe it was peach. As I started walking, I began to think about earlobes and tingling hands.