ON HIGHER GROUND: Their disappearances are no mystery to the Lord

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By Bill Horner

 “O Lord, You have searched me and known me.  You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off.  You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”  Psalm 139:1-3.

It was more than 50 years ago that I was introduced to the Great Smoky Mountains, and they still hold every bit as much fascination to me now as they did when I was a wide-eyed youngster.  On a recent weekend trip to Gatlinburg, Marcia and I found time to hike the Bullhead Trail, one of the Smoky’s lesser known hiking adventures.  In six miles we saw beautiful vistas, varied terrain and even evidence of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ presence from the 1930’s.  What we didn’t see was people, and I began to realize how easy it would be for the mountainous woods to simply swallow up an unwary victim.

In the past several decades, three individuals have disappeared without a trace in these mountains.  Juanitta Baldwin’s book Unsolved Disappearances in the Great Smoky Mountains gives the basic facts of each case.

In June of 1968, a 7-year-old boy named Dennis Martin was playing a hide-and-seek game with his brothers and some family friends as they camped at Spence Fields.  But young Dennis failed to come out of hiding.  He was not out of sight five minutes before the others began to look for him in earnest, and despite an exhaustive search by hundreds of professionals and volunteers, no sign of the boy was ever found.

About eight years later on a school outing to Andrews Bald near Clingman’s Dome, Trenny Lynn Gibson, a 16-year-old Bearden High School student, was missing as her fellow classmates lined up to get on the school bus to return home.  Other students had seen her on the trail that day.  Again, exhaustive searches turned up little.  Dogs did track her to a nearby highway, fueling speculation that she was abducted.

And then late in 1981, middle-aged Polly Melton of Jacksonville, Florida, hiked on ahead of her companions on a mountain road in western North Carolina, and they never caught up to her.  Back at the campground, they discovered she had not returned there.  Again, a thorough search failed to determine what happened to her.

I remember well the search for the little Martin boy, because the very weekend he vanished, I was visiting Gatlinburg with some friends from Nashville.  The weather was quite rainy those two days, and streams and rivers were swollen.  I could not help but wonder if he possibly stumbled into rushing water.  In any event, the downpour certainly hampered the search.

My heart goes out to each of their families, as for decades they have not known the fate of their loved one, whether they are dead or alive.  I can only imagine their pain and grief.  As I was trying to put myself in their place for just a moment to understand better their plight, I heard a song play on the radio that I had not heard in years.  It was a quiet praise-and-worship tune composed around Psalm 139.  In this passage David, who was frequently chased around the countryside by a crazed and murderous King Saul, took time to ponder the worth God had placed on him.  Wherever he went, whatever his end, whether he lived or died or was never heard from again, God knew him.  And as the song reminds us, “I could never be lost from You.”

I do not mean to minimize the heartache of grieving families but rather to observe that even in such despairing circumstances, nothing escapes the Lord’s watchful gaze.  He cares for his own no matter how mysterious their disappearances may seem to us.

“Where can I go from Your Spirit?  Or where can I flee from Your presence?   If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.   If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall fall on me,’ even the night shall be light about me” (Psalm 139:7-11).