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Make it or break it
Robert F. Jones
September 02, 1974
Millions are at stake and a life is on the line for one shot across the canyon
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September 02, 1974

Make It Or Break It

Millions are at stake and a life is on the line for one shot across the canyon

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Right now it is difficult to gain a perspective. Horses and beef cattle graze vacantly among the thistles, looking up occasionally with that innocent hauteur of the ungulate to stare at the heavy trucks rumbling back and forth from the jump site. A red-tailed hawk turns lazily over the potato fields in the middle distance. Butterflies bounce on the hot, dry breeze—swallowtails and sulphurs and big bright monarchs. A mounted cowboy trots past, fat and bespectacled under his Stetson, with a shovel lashed to his saddle instead of the traditional rifle. The workmen on the ramp sweat and curse with the easy fluency of carnival roustabouts, and indeed there is a carny air to the whole proceeding. Even the rocket—the Sky-Cycle X-2, as it is styled in the promotional literature—looks like a kiddy ride at an amusement park. It seems tinny and tiny, but perhaps we have been conditioned to gigantism by too many moonshots. After all, this is only a canyonshot.

Staring down from the lip of the Snake River Canyon into the boiling green water below, one suddenly grasps the enormity of the whole operation—the absurdity, the arrogance, the awful, febrile, frightening, heroic lunacy of it. Very soon now he is actually going to climb into that thing and they are going to shoot him out over this great gash in the earth, and he is either going to live or he is going to die.

There will be some 50,000 people right here watching him do it, and millions more watching on hundreds of closed-circuit television screens. They will stare with about the same comprehension as those cows and horses watching the trucks go by. The hoopla artists from tee-vee will be babbling throatily about valor and danger and the six million bucks he has already pocketed—the usual dry-cleaned obscenities of this age of excess—and for a long, loud moment our hearts will seize up and we will watch the high, arching trajectory, the trail of steam and chutzpah, and wish that we could close our eyes.

"I've created a monster," says Evel Knievel, "and I don't know how to control it."

Well, if he doesn't, there are plenty of smart-money guys who do.

The whole notion of a canyon jump came to Robert Craig Knievel more than eight years ago. He had already invented the unlikely art of motorcycle jumping, leaping a bike across ever-widening rows of cars and trucks parked side by side between two ramps, an act accompanied by an ever-growing cacophony of applause and snapping bones. (Today, with more than 300 jumps under his pegs, he has crashed 11 times to the tune of 50 separate fractures, by his count—statistics that become more painfully credible when you watch his walk: the crabbed, hip-stiff hobble of a land-mine victim.) Along the way, nurturing a talent for showmanship unequaled in the realm of American folk art since the days of Barnum and Buffalo Bill, he wrapped himself, as they say, in legend. Here he comes—onetime hubcap thief and bank robber, a hard-drinking, heartbreaking bar fighter, Montana mountain man, big spender, friend to the poor and downtrodden, Jesse James on two wheels; says the first thing that comes to his haid and it's always right, takes no guff off no one; star-spangled leathers, kidnapped his wife in order to marry her, to hell with the fat cats, $1,000-a-hole golf bets, blows $5,000 on free drinks for everyone in New Orleens, don't give a dang what you say so long as you spell my name right—that's Evel, with two e's.

In 20 minutes, it is said, Evel Knievel can tell enough anecdotes about his early life to keep a reporter busy for 20 years just checking them out.

But fame, the real fame that transcends fact and generates fantasy in entire populations, does not accrue merely by means of broken bones and baloney. Real fame, which includes real wealth but eventually leaps beyond it, requires a darker component. It requires blood. It requires death. Suicide or murder. A bullet in the back fixed Jesse James forever in our consciousness; Frank James died old and remains a footnote. General George Armstrong Custer with his boots on, John Dillinger with his Lady in Red, Hemingway with his shotgun, Mama Cass with her ham sandwich—like that.

And Evel with his canyon.

The trick is to combine the awesome grotesquerie of death with the attention of millions, and if possible to tuck in a little grace along the way. Thoughts of that sort must have lain latent in the alcohol-clouded brain of Evel Knievel as he sat drinking one evening in 1966 at Moose's Place, a saloon in Kalispell, Mont. Evel was drinking the notorious Montana Mary, a sneaky concoction of beer and tomato juice favored by the vitamin-conscious miners, cowpokes and sod-busters of those climes. Unlike its vodka-based cousin, the Bloody Mary, the Montana variant works slowly but insidiously on the imagination of the imbiber, aided in its devilish work by the high altitude that normally accompanies its consumption. Some time that evening between boasts and belches, Evel's attention was caught by a calendar on the wall. It depicted the Grand Canyon.

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