Butte, Montana, hopes to stay Evel

This hardscrabble town still honors Evel Knievel, native son and stuntman, whose tenacity defined its frontier spirit

Motorcycle stunt performer Levi Renz at the top of the ramp.
William Campbell for Al Jazeera America

When the kid backed up to the end of the street, a thousand pairs of eyes looked his way. Straddling his bike — a red, white and blue machine covered in stars and stripes and his name, Levi Renz — he kick-started the engine, let the machine cough to life and hunched forward as he rode its chainsaw buzz toward the ramp.

When Renz hit it for the first time, he flew up and up and up, higher than the light posts, higher than the flat roof of the auto shop, higher than he had ever flown in his life. And every face in the crowd — folks with cans of cheap beer and cigarettes in hand, bikers in leather vests, girls in bikini tops, moms with strollers — turned to watch the kid fly like a bright white shooting star crossing the afternoon sky.

Butte, Montana, held its breath.

A stunt man is set on fire at the festival.
William Campbell for Al Jazeera America

When the people of Butte gather every summer for Evel Knievel Days, a celebration of its most famous son — the notorious rebel and stuntman Robert “Evel” Knievel — they scream as motorcycles fly, as men set themselves on fire and jump out of helicopters and fling themselves from 12 stories with no parachute. This is a town that loves to see a potential disaster.

But it’s as if the people at Evel Knievel Days aren’t just waiting for a crash. It’s as if they’re hoping for the unbelievable, waiting for their own boys to prove that here in the heart of the West — in this place that once burned so bright and is shunned by the rest of the Big Sky State — is where magic really happens.

The festival, popular with bikers, is now starting to draw tourists and a more family-friendly crowd.
William Campbell for Al Jazeera America

For a period earlier this year, the future of the 12-year-old festival started by Evel Knievel himself was uncertain. The Knievel family clashed with festival organizers, arguing over naming rights and fighting over whether the festival should be a biker party or an extreme sports festival. A media circus ensued when Kelly Knievel, the daredevil’s eldest son, verbally threatened to “destroy” festival organizers if they didn’t make changes. Newspapers questioned if the festival might end for good.

When organizers backed out with just four months to spare, the Knievel family took the reins. “It’s supposed to be a family-friendly event and was literally created to inspire the children of Butte,” Alicia Knievel Vincent, Knievel’s youngest child, said just days before the festival. “Honestly, I wish my dad could see what we’ve done.”

But for Butte, a town that imploded when the mining industry left nearly everyone unemployed here and has limped along while the rest of the Big Sky State thrived, this isn’t just a festival of thrills. It’s an annual celebration by a once-lawless town trying to remember who it is. And if anyone personified that, it was Evel Knievel, the man who suffered broken bones and became famous for bad ideas. A man who, somehow, kept getting back up again.

Butte's aging copper mine.
William Campbell for Al Jazeera America

When the world thinks of the great American West, it visualizes places like Butte: towns buried deep in mountain ranges, places where fortunes were dug from rich veins running deep under the earth’s skin. It’s where rough laborers fought for their rights and lost their lives underground. Over the years, when the whistles blew at the end of each day, thousands of miners were carried out in bodybags. Butte propped up the single mothers and fatherless children left behind.

This is a town of a million nicknames. The Richest Hill on Earth. The Gibraltar of Labor. The City of Champions. The Can-Do City. The Mining City. The Copper City.

But it’s also been called the ugliest city on earth. Where cities like Bozeman and Livingston, Mont. sit in lush green mountain valleys, Butte sits on the edge of the Berkeley Pit — a yellow and brown gash in the earth left from 150 years of mining here. One of America’s largest EPA Superfund sites, the pit is a scar so large it can be seen from space.

The mining deaths, the rough labor unions and the unfathomable pollution here alone have earned Butte a bad reputation in the state. Butte residents are often called “Butte Rats” by outsiders. And it’s a place like no other.

A popular souvenir at the festival.
William Campbell for Al Jazeera America

Butte is one of fewer than 10 cities in America that fights to preserve laws that allow public alcohol consumption. It is a place where people die earlier than the state average, where fewer young people graduate from high school. In Butte, babies are born smaller and more children live in poverty. Here, more people die from violent crimes.

But Butte has never begged for love by the outside, even going so far as to shun the rest of  Montana, opting for the city slogan “Butte, America.” At Evel Knievel Days, people don shirts that yell “BUTTE VS. EVERYBODY” in big red letters.

Matt Vincent, chief executive of Butte-Silver Bow.
William Campbell for Al Jazeera America

Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Matt Vincent, who is married to Alicia Knievel Vincent, says there’s a unique pride held by people who live here. “The pride of being such an impactful and important place for so many years in so many ways is still deeply instilled in the people that live here,” Vincent says. “It was one of the world leaders in copper production. That’s where some of the pride came from. It wasn’t a glorified pride — they worked and died in the mines.”

And when mining all but closed here, the town fought to stay alive.

Like it always had, Butte embraced its wounds: creating jobs in environmental cleanup, and even turning the toxic pit into a tourist attraction.

But Vincent says that the biggest challenge he faces while in office is marketing. How can he embrace the rough-and-tumble reputation image of Butte while keeping the city approachable enough to attract business?

“There aren’t many places where you can mine continuously for 150 years. We still have about 40 years left, but we have to start planning and making changes dramatically so we can survive,” he says. But folks here are wary of change.

“[People here] can’t see the fact that the whole premise of this town has been adapting and improvising and overcoming,” Vincent says, “And if we don’t grasp onto that spirit that got us here, we could lose it.”

Robert and Yvonne Stotts from Norris, Montana, visit Evel Knievel’s final resting place in Butte.
William Campbell for Al Jazeera America
The winner of the kids’ Evel Knievel look-alike contest, Will Fitzpatrick of Butte.
William Campbell for Al Jazeera America

Talk to anyone in Butte, and you’ll hear the same thing about Evel Knievel: he was good to Butte, but he was a wild man. When he died in 2007, people here either loved him or hated him. There was no in between.

But almost no one disputes his love for his hometown. Knievel famously bused the Butte High School band and dance team to the banks of the Snake River in 1974 for his attempt to fly in a rocket across the Snake River Canyon.

“He thought he was going to die,” Alicia Knievel Vincent says. “He really thought he was going to die … The last song [the band] played before he went was [the high school fight song] ‘On Butte High School.’ That’s the last song he wanted to hear.”

Butte-Silver Bow Sheriff Ed Lester says everyone in Butte knew Knievel, whether for good or bad. “He is truly one of the most independent, outspoken people you’d ever meet,” he says. “He’ll shake your hand, you know you were shaking a man’s hand that meant something. And if he didn’t like ya, he’d tell ya.”

Folks here say that even if you didn’t like the man, you couldn’t fault him for what he gave back to Butte. Dorothy Anne Honeychurch, who has lived in Butte since the 1950s, says she remembers how Knievel spoke to kids at schools about what he did.

“There are some people here who just worship him, they really do. He wasn’t always the sharpest tack in the woods at all. But he was good to Butte,” she says. “And I’ll tell you one thing, when he came home after he got so famous, he came around to the schools where I was teaching and he did presentations about safety and told kids ‘you have to wear a helmet.’ I was proud of him for that.”

But what Knievel didn’t know was how he would also spawn an entire generation of new daredevils, Butte kids who also wanted to feel what it was like to fly in the sky above a crowd of cheering fans.

Mike Hoffman's Death Defying Dare-Devils perform on July 26.
William Campbell for Al Jazeera America
Motorcycle stunt specialist Levi Renz.
William Campbell for Al Jazeera America

High above the crowd, Levi Renz hangs there for a split second before he rides the air back down the earth and spins his bike around to jump up the ramp again.

The crowd screams.

“Give it up for your hometown boy, Leviiiii Renzzzzz!” the announcer yells. Renz pauses at the top of the ramp to rev his engine in response.

A day later, the shaggy-haired Renz sits inside the Broadway Garage. The soft-spoken kid still has a year left in high school, and he says he’s on the fence about college. His dream is to be a daredevil, a pro rider in the X Games, maybe.

Renz has already had his share of injuries as he’s learned to jump his bike on his backyard ramp. Compressed vertebrae. Cracked ribs. He bought a ramp two years ago, and set it up behind the house even when his mother didn’t want him to. He knew it was dangerous, that maybe it was a bad idea.

“My mom is one of those ladies — she will always support me no matter what I do, but she didn’t approve of it. She didn’t want her son doing that,” he says. “She let me keep doing it. She still hates it … She gets butterflies, too.”

“It’s just kind part of the game,” Renz says of his hobby. “You gotta be willing to crash and get back up and keep going. You just gotta get past it.”

And maybe that’s why his mom watches from the crowd this weekend, or why she helps pay for his gear. Life in Butte has always been a little scary. People take risks. This place was built on crazy ideas.

For over a hundred years, in some way, the people of Butte have rushed to see if their loved ones can beat the odds. Mothers like Renz’s used to rush to the mine shafts to see if their husbands came out of the mines alive. Today, they watch their sons fly in the air.

In Butte, sometimes doing the wrong thing is the right thing. You ride a motorcycle with no helmet, or you jump it off a ramp.

You do things that make no sense. You do things that might ruin your life one day.

But in Butte, you get back up. You get up every time, no matter how bad it hurts.

Residents of Butte hope that events like Evel Knievel Days can help restore the town’s fortunes.
William Campbell for Al Jazeera America

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