Butte, Montana is a forlorn and windswept town with a mountainside so scarred from copper mining that it is visible from space. In its heyday, it was the ideal Petri dish for miscreants, a wide-open place renowned for prostitution, gambling, and general debauchery. In recent and more civilized years, Butte has served as a backdrop for Evel Knievel Days, an annual festival in which fans gather to pay tribute to the city’s most famous export.
Last year’s event included the Ball of Steel Stunt Show and the Wall of Death, as well as unintentionally ironic scenes such as the National Guard’s recruitment booth, which featured a massive combat tank that happened to be aimed directly at the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall. The heart of the gathering, however, was a celebration of the bravado, adrenaline, and can-do spirit of reckless endangerment that was pioneered by the original daredevil himself.
Of all the festivities surrounding the long weekend, the Evel Social attracted the most ardent of fans. While the $100 admission fee suggested the possibility of direct interaction with the event’s namesake, rumor had it he was in failing health and considered the evening an opportunity to say goodbye.
As my wife and I found our seats in the hotel’s turn of the century ballroom, we witnessed the stuff that hardcore Knievel fans are made of. The couple seated across from us had flown in from England, and the husband—a large-framed, bald-headed teddy bear of a guy—gushed breathlessly about how he couldn’t believe he’d soon be in the same room as his childhood hero.
Next to him sat a bright-eyed physical therapist from Missoula who had been emulating Knievel for as long as he could remember. Preceded by murmurs of "Here comes Evel," Knievel entered with the assistance of a friend, a tank of oxygen, and a lollipop reputedly containing a painkiller 100 times more concentrated than morphine. (Click image to enlarge)
The crowd descended upon Knievel, whose wispy white hair, teardrop sunglasses, and oxygen tank gave him the appearance of an aging superhero who had seen feistier days. The question of "Should I or shouldn’t I?" rolled through my mind. After evaluating the temperature of the room, and the impossibility an undistilled experience with him, I decided to observe the Last Supper-like proceedings, rather than participate in them.
When it came time for Knievel to speak, eerie silence spread as he stood up and removed his sunglasses. Barely able to breathe due to pulmonary fibrosis and, perhaps, the lingering effects of having broken countless bones throughout his airborne, and often collision-intensive career, he uttered each word through sheer willpower. Though a few jocular comments proved he still had a wicked sense of humor (he responded to his squealing grandchild by barking, "Hey, it’s my show, you little punk!"), Evel was disarmingly frail for a man whose name was synonymous with death-defying stunts.
Rather than relive his swashbuckling past, he thanked God for his life, lauded family and friends, and gave his audience the simple advice not take the ability to breathe freely for granted. The man famous for soaring hundreds of feet through the air was terribly human that weekend, grounded by the inexorable fact that the human body eventually fails, whether or not one chooses a profession as treacherous as motorcycle jumping.
Evel pioneered the art of being a daredevil before extreme sports became commodified and commonplace, and he did so with the braggadocio of a man who sought freedom by confronting his fears. While Evel’s son Robbie flew through flames and landed without incident that day, the jump couldn’t compare to the original, the man who lived ferociously through his statement that "Life is an everyday battle of keeping death at a comfortable distance." He may have eventually lost his battle, as every man does, but Evel Knievel could never be accused of going without a fight.