Trail Magic

May, 2008

by Barbra Alan

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Frazier at the northern end of the AT, the summit of Mt. Katahdin, Maine. Photo courtesy of Bette Frazier.

Visit Bette Frazier’s trail journal to read her journal entries and view more of her photos.

For many hikers, the Appalachian Trail is the ultimate challenge. The physical demands of hiking the trail’s 2,174 miles are grueling, and the mental demands can be even more so. It’s a 14-state odyssey that can take five to seven months to complete, and it’s estimated that only about 20 percent of those who attempt to hike the entire trail do so. Bette Frazier ’75 is one of them.

For Frazier, a Dover, New Hampshire native who earned her bachelor’s degree in physical education at Plymouth State College, physical activity has always been a way of life. She grew up skiing in the mountains and swimming and boating the lakes. During her PSC undergrad days, Frazier also competed on the women’s varsity gymnastics team. As an elementary school physical education teacher for more than 25 years, Frazier enjoyed sharing her enthusiasm for exercise and the outdoors with her young students. And she cultivated a love of nature and physical activity in her four sons, who in turn inspired her to take up hiking.

But it wasn’t until she met Mary and Calvin Batchelder, a septuagenarian couple who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, that she started to contemplate embarking on the hike of a lifetime. (“Thru-hike” is the term used for walking the entire length of the trail, all 2,174 miles from Georgia to Maine.) After attending a presentation the Batchelders gave on their Appalachian Trail hike, Frazier recalled thinking that it “sounded like a wonderful opportunity to take a spiritual walk, enjoy nature, see parts of the country I’d never seen, and live a minimalist life.”

Frazier also remembered being impressed with and inspired by the couple’s ability to thru-hike at their ages. “I knew that if they could do it, I could do it, too,” she said.

After two failed attempts to take a leave of absence from teaching to hike the trail, Frazier felt she had put her dream off long enough. She retired in 2006 and immediately began planning her Appalachian Trail hike.

The Journey Begins

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Frazier on Franconia Ridge, in the White Mountains. Photo courtesy of Bette Frazier.

Just how do you prepare for a 5–7 month hike? Fortunately for Frazier, her son Kevin had thru-hiked the trail in 2003 and advised her on everything from what to pack to where the best shelters were. She was also able to borrow some of his gear, including a small stove, titanium pot, tent, and headlamp. On March 31, 2007, with her food, clothing, and shelter in her backpack, Frazier embarked on the journey of a lifetime at Springer Mountain in Georgia—the starting point for the northbound hike.

Frazier’s hiking schedule was rigorous. A typical day on the trail would begin at 6 a.m., with three-hour intervals of hiking followed by a short break, until around 5 p.m. when an exhausted Frazier would call it a day. In the early days and weeks of her journey, Frazier hiked 8–10 miles a day, eventually working up to an average of 15 miles a day.

Her biggest adjustment to life on the trail was the sleeping quarters, most often a hard shelter floor. Frazier was alternately serenaded to sleep by the snoring of fellow hikers, the unrelenting croaking of frogs, or the comforting soft hoot of an owl. “Generally, you’re so tired at the end of the day that you fall right to sleep,” Frazier said.

Hiking Hazards, Trail Magic

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The Appalachian Trail is marked for daylight travel in both directions, using a system of paint "blazes" on trees, posts and rocks. Here Frazier sits at the very first blaze on her journey from Spring Mountain, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Bette Frazier.

Frazier knew her hike would be physically demanding, but an unexpected blizzard in the Smokies was nothing short of life threatening. One of the reasons Frazier had decided to start her northbound hike in late March was to avoid severe winter weather, yet early April found her ill-prepared to face overnight lows that were in the teens. “I had a 40-degree sleeping bag and wore every bit of clothing I had with me,” she said. “To wake up shivering in the middle of the night was scary—you didn’t know if you’d experience hypothermia or not.”

Almost as scary was Frazier’s hiking experience much later in the trail, in Maine’s Mahoosuc Notch, a treacherous mile-long boulder scramble. It’s a stretch that is commonly known among hikers as the toughest mile of the trail. “A dead moose greeted us at the entrance,” Frazier said, referring to the remains of a fallen moose that failed to negotiate the massive boulders. “It took me two hours to hike this one mile. It was great relief to get through it.”

Frazier is quick to point out that the beauty of the trail far outweighed its brutality. “I loved Virginia—the Shenandoahs were lovely and abundant with wildlife,” she said. “And you could put on long miles for the first time; I averaged about 20 miles a day.”

For Frazier, the best part of her journey was the many people she met along the way. While she started her hike solo, Frazier never walked alone. Like most thru-hikers, she and her companions used trail names; Frazier herself adopted the moniker Catchup. First, there was Kokopelli, the 54-year-old Ironman athlete with whom Frazier started hiking the trail; then AT70, a 70-year-old hiker who had been on the trail 14 times before; and later came Two Dogs, a middle-aged man from Atlanta who was with Frazier the night she learned that her ailing mother had passed away. There were a host of other hiking companions, some of whom she’s continued to keep in touch with, and all of whom she’ll never forget.

Also unforgettable were the many unexpected acts of goodwill she encountered along the trail: the cooler of cold drinks in a stream, the container of cookies by a tree, the impromptu cookout—these are just some of the examples of trail magic. “Trail magic is a blessing to hikers, because you don’t expect it or know where it’s going to occur,” said Frazier, noting that many former thru-hikers and their families are the sources of trail magic. “The trail brings out the best in people … there’s a level of trust and fellowship you wouldn’t normally have in everyday life,” she said.

Throughout her hike, Frazier’s family was never far from her mind, and at times, they were even right by her side. Her brother Bob, known on the trail as Skiman, hiked 1,000 miles with her, starting in Atkins, Virginia. And her husband Richard, aka Cargo Master, visited the trail monthly to provide trail magic for Frazier and her hiking companions.

A New Journey Begins

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Frazier on Little Haystack in the White Mountains. Photo courtesy of Bette Frazier.

On August 27, 2007, after four months and 28 days of hiking, Bette Frazier summited Mt. Katahdin in Maine—the trail’s northern terminus. A photo of Frazier from that day shows her kneeling on top of the sign for Katahdin, arms triumphantly outstretched and a big smile on her face. What she was feeling, she recalled, was “intense sadness. It was wonderful and exhilarating summiting Katahdin, and it was great to know I had completed my goal feeling strong and confident. But I was sad to see it end.”

However, the trail’s end was a new beginning for Frazier, who lost nearly 60 excess pounds during her hike and has managed to keep half of it off. “I didn’t start the hike with the intention of losing weight, but the health benefits have been incredible,” she explained. “My cholesterol has gone down 40 points, my BMI [body mass index] has gone down ten points, and my blood pressure has decreased. I hope I can maintain it by making good choices for the rest of my life.”

Another goal Frazier has set for herself is hiking the White Mountain 4,000-footers—48 peaks in New Hampshire that are 4,000-plus feet high. To date she has hiked 40 of them. She also plans on returning to the Smokies, the site of the April blizzard and her brush with hypothermia, “to experience that mountain range when the view is clear and beautiful,” she said.

Although Frazier feels that thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail once is enough for her, she can’t deny that she feels compelled to return to the trail to do section hikes. “There’s a pull, a draw, to reconnect with the trail,” Frazier explained. “I can’t wait to get back there.”


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