Evel Knieval passed away on Friday and although we never met, he changed my life forever.
I spent the summer of 1974 hitchhiking across the country with my buddy Joe. We had been in Yellowstone for about 2 weeks and we were starting to get restless when we began hearing news reports about the wild scene at Snake River Canyon. It wasn't that far away so we decided to head for Twin Falls and join the fray.
It was a strange trip. Shortly after entering Montana a pair of pickup trucks stopped for us, one held a young couple with a dog in the back, the other contained 3 tough as nails high plains grannies. Turned out they were all heading to Idaho so we climbed into the back of the pickup with the dog and off we went.
There we were in the open bed of a pickup, hunched down for relief from the whipping wind, truck doing about 80, and those old gals would pull up next to us and wave and laugh. Surreal. The two trucks raced all the way to Idaho Falls, sometimes abreast of each other for miles at a time with either the grannies or us cruising in the oncoming lane.
We lived through that ride and caught a couple more. When we were within about 10 miles of the jump site a van pulled over and as the side door slid open we heard someone call our names. It turned out to be a van load of people we knew from Boston and they were headed to the party. We thought "Wow, how lucky are we?".
It was my last piece of good fortune for quite a while.
The jump site was out of control. Thousands of bikers had descended on the area and local law enforcement decided to herd everyone to the bottom of the canyon and then set up a checkpoint on the main access road. They stayed at the top and took the stance that what happened in the canyon stayed in the canyon.
Long story short, we had enough of camping in Crazy Canyon so we hooked one last ride that didn't end well. I was sitting shotgun in a U.S. Army jeep. No roof, no roll bar. People and vehicles were everywhere and we hit a traffic jam on the way up and out. The driver of our vehicle decided to go around it. "This F-er can go anywhere!" said PFC Harvey. He was a bit panicked at this point as he and his friend would soon be considered AWOL if they didn't make tracks fast.
The passenger side of the jeep slid right off the edge of the canyon road and I got flung out and down. As I slid to a stop on an outcropping I could hear the jeep thud and jangle as it started it's own descent.
Ever watch those Wiley Coyote cartoons where he falls and then looks back up to see part of the cliff screaming down at him?
Yup, it really sucks.
I'll spare you the gory details. I learned later, much later, that our bouncing jeep took out rows of motorcycles that were lined up in one of the campgrounds. It was like Candlepins for Cash. There were some angry bikers in that canyon. In a brief moment of consciousness I remember hearing a woman screaming at someone to stay away from us.
Fade to black.
So I said at the beginning that Evel changed my life forever, but that's really not true. I changed my life forever, and probably for the better. The path I had been on was not a good one. After I recovered I decided to go back to school. Smartest thing I ever did. Plus I'm lighter 'cause I got rid of all the unnecessary organs, and scars are a wonderfull conversation starter.
Funny though, you could never convince Joe's little old Italian grandmother that it wasn't Evel's fault. Until her dying day whenever she heard his name spoken she would fork the evil eye and curse him visciously in a mix of English and Italian. I smile whenever I think of her and my first thought when I heard he had passed was that she was probably laying in wait for him, just inside the Pearly Gates.
Good luck to you, Evel.
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