“Hi honey, how are you?”
Each time a hiker passes by Carol Smith—better known as “The Butte Lady”—she utters that same refrain.
More often than not, it is returned with smiles and hugs. She’s hard pressed to find a stranger among those out for a Monday morning hike. Petite and nearly 60 years old, Smith may not seem the obvious choice for the public face of Pilot Butte. But the title, she points out, chose her.
“It all started at Costco and quickly got to the point where I couldn’t go there without someone saying, ‘There’s The Butte Lady,’” Smith recalls. “Then it started happening in other Oregon cities and in other states [Washington, Idaho, Montana]. All of that just happened by itself. I never did anything to encourage it. I just hiked and talked with people. Then it happened at a Fred Meyer in Fairbanks and my husband said, ‘We should use this to help the Butte.’”
And so it began that Smith, who recently finished a decade-long stint with her husband Bill as Pilot Butte’s park host, embarked on an effort to turn her warm, bubbly personality and odd sort of celebrity into a tool to give back to the park that helped her get back on her feet. Today, The Butte Lady also has a presence on social media including Facebook, Twitter,and Instagram.
“Mainly we use it to draw attention to all the things people want to happen at the Butte,” Smith explains. “We never had any ideas of what this would become except that we would do our best to accomplish things that everyone who uses the trails wanted. In a way, I think The Butte Lady is successful because everyone has a bit of The Butte Lady
If it’s true, it’s a compliment. Smith’s relationship with Pilot Butte has the underpinnings of a Rocky-esque victory over seemingly insurmountable circumstances. Not so long ago, Smith says she could hardly walk from her bed to the bathroom, her fibromyalgia pain was so severe. But eventually, she made it to the first bench along Pilot Butte’s nature trail, and then the next one and the next one, all the while cheered on by the friends she’d made on the Butte. Before long she was taking as many as 18 trips up the Butte in one day, as a park host.
“The Butte is important to me because it gave me my life back,” Smith says. “But it wasn’t the Butte that did that, it was the people hiking the trails, encouraging me, then being inspired by me and others, and mostly becoming my friends. I’d do anything to help the Butte.”
When she talks about that time, her eyes well up and a few stray tears stream down her face. But Smith is not just moved by her own experience, it’s the stories of others who have turned their health around thanks to Pilot Butte and its makeshift community that stoke the fire fueling her commitment to making Pilot Butte the nation’s first and best “health and fitness park.”
To do that, she explains, the park needs some love and attention. A combination of heavy use and small state budgets has left Pilot Butte State Park in disrepair. Smith says that the park needs more than the Oregon State Park system can provide, and volunteers continue to fill in the gaps.
“Pilot Butte has one of the most fragile ecosystems of all the Oregon State Parks,” Smith explains. “Right now the Butte is being loved back to life and almost everyone who loves the Butte is, in their own way, an environmentalist. I certainly am. I would have never called myself that if not for the Butte.”
Smith and her cohorts with the Pilot Butte Summit Seekers are focusing in on returning Pilot Butte to its former beauty. To accomplish that mountainous task, they are teaming up with Winter Creek Restoration, a local company that specializes in restoration landscaping using native plants. On the fitness front, the group is partnering with Rebound Physical Therapy, who Smith says is so dedicated they would carry the torch if everyone else dropped out.
While fitness and landscape restoration may not seem like a natural pairing, Smith says they have everything to do with each other. Each year, the Summit Seekers host an event called Simply My Best, in which participants raise funds for improvements on Pilot Butte in a summit-a-thon of sorts, where sponsors donate a fixed amount for each summit a person makes that day. As part of the fundraiser, organizers poll participants to see how they would like the money to be spent.
“Not only is natural beauty at the top of the list of what people want, there’s nothing close to it,” Smith says. “Denny Sullivan maybe put it best when he said, ‘Exercising in a beautiful place keeps you going back for more.’ I think that’s why natural beauty tops the list. These are people very motivated to build, maintain, and improve their fitness and health. The Butte’s beauty keeps them going. They believe the more beautiful it is, the more likely they are to continue. They also want others to discover what they’ve discovered. Beauty is key to all of that.”
In an effort to capture that passion, the Summit Seekers is turning Simply My Best into a revamped community event called A Summer Celebration. Slated for June 20, Smith says it will include food, music, and other festivities aimed at raising funds and awareness for the Mirror Pond of Bend’s east side.
“The journey needs to be fun too,” Smith points out, “or it will never be completed.”