Bethany Carol Lott was born in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sept. 20, 1984, to Ben, a pharmacist, and Debbie, a homemaker. Bethany was a little sister for brothers Brad and Brian; a younger brother, Bryson, followed years later. A few houses away, family friends the Kirks brought home their new baby girl Gabby, born the day before Bethany; the two were instant playmates. Red-haired and freckled Bethany was the more adventurous of the two, says Gabby.
When the girls were about 11, they were visiting Bethany’s grandparents on a sunny summer day, and decided to take a walk. The weather suddenly turned, and, after hearing thunder, Gabby began sprinting for the house. Bethany ran behind trying to convince her the storm wouldn’t hurt her. “I think she was half trying to reassure me, but also half disappointed that I didn’t want to stay outside,” says Gabby.
While her older brothers went to work at the family pharmacy soon after college, Bethany wanted to work outdoors, where she found the beauty that she would try to capture in watercolours and photographs. She started classes in environmental sciences at colleges in Knoxville and Asheville, N.C., but grew restless; she soon sold off her things, packed up her truck, and set off with a boyfriend for the West Coast. She spent the better part of a year backpacking and hiking the western states before settling in Tucson, Ariz. For nearly a year, she worked at a café and learned to play guitar. Last fall, after her car was totalled in an accident and her relationship had fizzled, Bethany moved back to Knoxville, feeling a little lost.
One cold night just before Christmas, Bethany went to visit her friend Tracey Savage at the bar where Tracey worked. The place was empty, but for the two girls and Richard Butler, a friend of Tracey’s. The three began talking, and Bethany began venting about a man she’d recently dated for a few weeks, not noticing Tracey’s desperate “zip it” hand motions—Richard was a good friend of the man’s. But Richard was immediately taken with Bethany, and laughed it off. He asked Tracey for a matchbook, scribbled down a note asking Bethany out for coffee, and slipped it into her pack of cigarettes. Their first date was spent at the bookstore asking each other questions from a book called If: Questions From the Game of Life. Before long, Bethany was “completely in love,” says Tracey. The couple moved in together in mid-January.
Being with Richard inspired Bethany to start thinking seriously about her future. After suggesting that a career as a park ranger might be a good fit with her dream to work outdoors, Richard came home from an overnight shift at the grocery store to find her “red-eyed from researching through the night.” She soon re-enrolled in school. She was excited that she’d finally figured out what she wanted to do.
On Friday, June 4, just after her first week of classes and Richard’s 30th birthday, the pair set out to take a hike to Max Patch, a treeless “bald” mountain with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains, part of the Appalachians. It was a place Bethany had visited many times and was anxious to share with Richard. Days before, Bethany had told him of her new professor whose first and last name started with “b,” and how she was excited by the prospect of someday also having a “double-b name.” Richard got the hint, and secretly picked out a ring.
It had rained that morning, but the skies were clear as Bethany and Richard (with the ring in his pocket) arrived at the mountain. On the way up, Bethany stopped to take in the view, and said to Richard (as she so often did), “Look how beautiful it is.” With Bethany ahead of him on the trail, Richard noticed a few strikes of lightning. He was about to suggest they turn back, when “the next thing I know, I’m laying on the ground several feet away, and my shoes are smoking.” Richard turned toward Bethany, and saw her on the ground. She had no pulse, and he desperately began CPR while fumbling through her backpack for her cell. Getting no service, Richard knew he had to go for help. Driving wildly down the road, he turned into the driveway of the first house he saw, and asked the bewildered family to phone 911. With the father and son, Richard returned to the mountain; the paramedics arrived soon after. As they got to work, Richard slipped the ring on Bethany’s finger. Despite everyone’s efforts, she could not be revived. Bethany Butler was 25.