By Matt Hudson Explore Big Sky Editorial Assistant
BUTTE – Beneath a large carnival tent, a white-bearded man twisted the throttle of his Harley-Davidson SX 250, making a high-speed horizontal ascent along the inside of a 14-foot vertical cylinder. The entire structure wavered under his centrifugal force.
Ignoring the law of gravity, the man and his stripped down motorcycle flew only a few feet below open-faced onlookers. His expression was one normally seen on a leisured Sunday driver, not someone riding a 270-pound machine sideways on a wall 10 times a day.
“I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve seen some very bad crashes,” said the rider, “Wahl E.” Walker, a 30-year veteran of the Wall of Death Motorcycle Thrillshow. “The woman who taught me how to ride broke her back. It was a 14-hour operation to fix her. She still rode for another 10 years.”
The Wall was one of many spectacles situated along 10 square blocks of the distinctive uptown Butte landscape during Evel Knievel Days, a three-day celebration of danger and motorcycles named for Silver Bow County’s most notorious native.
Knievel, who was born in Butte in October 1938, was America’s foremost motorcycle stuntman during the 1960s and 1970s. Evel Knievel Days was the brainchild of Knievel and his friends, according to festival executive director Chad Harrington. Now in its 12th year, it is one of Butte’s signature events.
“This doesn’t happen in every town,” Harrington said. “Butte’s rocking during Evel Days.”
Motorcycles of all types lined the hilly uptown streets, but the clear majority were Harley-Davidsons – the brand of metal beasts from Milwaukee that were Knievel’s bike of choice. And they were on display during the ceremonial caravan ride on Friday evening: Sportsters, Road Kings, Dynas, Softails, old shovelheads and choppers rumbled down Broadway Street through a human corridor, the deafening, chugging cacophony of v-twin engines the rally cry of the people riding them.
Other shows at the festival also paid tribute to Knievel’s reckless style. Riders from the Billings-based motorcycle stunt show, 1 Wheel Revolution, performed feats of balance, maintaining steep wheelies on heavy, souped-up Harleys and leaving their trademark lattice of burned rubber on the street.
Freestyle motocross riders flew high above historic uptown buildings. Throughout the festival, professional and amateur races were held on a motocross racetrack dug into a hillside.
Tightrope walker Rick Wallenda crossed two city blocks on a rope high above the street, unharnessed and shouting as he walked among rooftops.
“Steady the rope!” he yelled to the people clutching security riggings below. Wallenda said later that the path was longer than average, but not his longest.
It was a fitting scene to honor Knievel. Gruesome injury seemed to lurk around every corner.
Live music acts performed on two stages, including the Dueling Pianos traveling roadshow, which is equal parts exhibition and musicianship, and country headliner Tracy Lawrence.
As night fell on the scene, beer tent lines grew and police officers patrolled the area in small packs, but serious disturbances were rare. It seemed the aversion to personal safety was limited to the select group of stunt performers.
“We have a great working relationship with the city,” Harrington said. “We also have a great relationship with the police department. We work really hard to make sure the public is safe.”
In a city known for its rough appeal and blue-collar inhabitants, it’s no surprise that Butte is proud to call Knievel one of its own. It’s commonly referred to as Butte, America, as though there is no other place like it in the nation.
From large posters hanging from uptown’s historic buildings, the late Knievel looked down upon the city whose character helped shape his own wild tendencies. Harrington said Knievel loved attending the festival before his death in 2007.
“Butte’s best asset is its people,” Harrington said. “There are some great people in the city.”
Though Knievel’s record jump of 14 Greyhound busses was surpassed in 1999, he still holds the world record for the most bones broken in a lifetime. According the Guinness World Records, he had 433 bone fractures by the end of 1975.