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Thursday, August 8, 2002
Trying to go the extra mile

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

Miles: 737 (Missoula to Sturgis); total miles: 1,234; road kill: deer 2, raccoon 3, rabbit 4, skunk 2, too decomposed to tell 3; motorcycles passed: 458; Diet Pepsi: 4 units; moving violations: 0; hours driving Wednesday: 10 (includes gas station stops); hours of sleep: 6; Tootsie Roll pops: 2 units; "Grapes of Wrath'' cassettes: 3 (the Joads leave Oklahoma and, after Grandpa dies, they bury him along Route 66); miles to go: 2,000 (approximate) ...

BUTTE, Mont. -- Given that an official guide to the city's cultural sites includes the Dumas Brothel Museum, a 135-year-old ore crushing machine and the largest open-pit copper mine in the country, there may not be a truly good time to find yourself in Butte, Mont.

But if there is, that undoubtedly would be during Evel Knievel Week, a six-day salute to the city's famous native son, which drew upwards of 20,000 people and featured appearances by the man himself, artifacts from his career, a Joan Jett concert and a stunt man named Spanky Spangler setting himself on fire and leaping from the roof of the nine-story Finlen Hotel.

Unfortunately, Evel Knievel Week ended four days before I drove into town Wednesday afternoon. Timing. So much of life is timing.

The Evel artifacts, however, remain on display in the brand new Evel Knievel wing at Butte's Piccadilly Museum of Transportation Memorabilia and Advertising Art, which was more than enough reason for a stop during my 750-mile drive from Missoula, Mont. to Sturgis, S.D., easily the longest leg of my trip from one end of Interstate 90 to the other.

The Smithsonian Institute has the Wright Brothers' first plane, Lindberg's "Spirit of St. Louis" and John Glenn's "Friendship 7'' Mercury capsule. The Piccadilly Museum of Transportation Memorabilia has all that beat, though.

It has Evel Knievel's Sky Cycle.

Evel Knievel
Butte's favorite son, Evel Knievel, can still draw a crowd.
Yes, that Sky Cycle, the motorcycle/rocket ship Knievel rode in his attempted leap over the Snake River Canyon. The vehicle from one of the most hyped events in "sports" history. The machine that fascinated the media for weeks in the late summer of 1974 and inspired boys around the nation to race down alleys on their Sting Rays, lean way back in their banana seats and soar above overturned garbage cans and right into the orthopedic unit.

The Sky Cycle looks like something Disney auctioned off from its old "Mission to Mars" ride. Our Evel lunch buckets were nearly as big and undoubtedly made of thicker, more durable metal. And he tried to leap the Snake River Canyon in this thing? He had bigger cojones than we ever thought.

"Most people react the same way you did," said Jeff Francis, the museum owner. "They say, 'Oh, it's that small.' They're amazed by the size of it. They expect something much bigger."

I at least expected something that looked big enough to hold the apparently life-sized Evel figure commemorating his 14-bus leap at King's Island in October 1976. The figure appears to be the work of the same skilled craftsmen who sculpted the Col. Sanderses adorning KFC entrances. It depicts Evel in full stunt-cycle regalia (complete with swagger stick and pterodactyl collars) and at the peak of his career, when he was the hottest thing in sports. Or at least to boys old enough to be interested in Marcia Brady but young enough to like a motorcycle-jumping maniac better.

That was long ago. Evel is 64 and from what I understand, not in very good shape. "He keeps saying he's going to jump again, but he never says where or when," Francis said.

Francis is the first person who showed absolutely no interest in my cross-country trip. That was partly because he was trying to concentrate on all the work that piled up during the Evel Week commotion, but mostly it was because he drives a similar distance all the time. He winters in St. Petersburg, summers in Butte and he estimates he's driven between the two at least 50 times.

Evel Knievel
Knievel sits in his Sky Cycle before his infamous 1974 attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon.
Considering that he drives a Lincoln Navigator, he's probably personally responsible for melting a 6-inch layer off Antarctica.

"It's 2,731 miles from St. Pete to Butte," he said "I have four different trips. I have the Hammer Trip, the Fast Trip, the Laid-Back Trip and the Dawdle Trip. The Hammer takes three days, the Fast takes four days, the Laid-Back takes five days and the Dawdle takes 10 or more.

"The Hammer trip is really pushing it. You're doing 900 miles day. You can do a thousand miles in the West without much trouble but in the East, it's pretty tough."

Francis says he's traveled to all 50 states and 105 countries -- "Driving in some parts of Africa is pretty bad and so is Eastern Europe, but Colombia is the worst" -- and what he really wants to do is join the exclusive Extra-Mile Club by driving through every county in the United States (there is a plaque on the museum wall listing the club's 10 members).

In case you were wondering, there are 3,121 counties.

"If I had one year to do it, I figure you could average 10 counties a day and you would still have a couple days to rest each month," he said. "Obviously, I'd want to do the South in the winter and the North in the summer, but then I'd have to have someone plot it out for me, and, like I said, I hate bookkeeping. What I need is to find two or three people to do it with, but not too many people can take a year off."

And even fewer care to spend it visiting every county in the nation.

Motorcycles
Jim Caple's been passing all sorts of horses and hogs along his cross-country journey.
I personally have zero interest in a tour of every U.S. county, but I can appreciate the trip's appeal for Francis. We're all interested in going somewhere, to hit the road and just keep going.

Part of the reason I wanted to do this trip was because I've often left the Safeco Field parking lot, turned onto I-90 and felt the urge to drive until I reached the end of the road in Boston. So have many readers. Since hitting the road, I've been flooded with e-mail from people writing to say they just finished a similar road trip or are just beginning one or have always dreamed of doing so (I also have been flooded with e-mail that promises "sexy Japanese lasses" in the subject line, but I don't think that's related to my trip).

"I'm thrilled for you; your road trip is a magical one, and I speak from experience," one reader wrote. "As a person who grew up in Seattle and now lives in Boston, I've driven the length of I-90 a number of times, most recently to drive my '65 Volvo back to Seattle where it became an 'organ-donor car' and return with a new '74 Volvo wagon to the salted winter roads of New England.

"While you seek out sporting events of all shapes and sizes, I encourage you to take in the geography of our amazing nation. The contrasting shapes and sizes, from the jagged Rockies to the rolling plains to the expansive lakes to the rounded Appalachians, from the exits in Montana labeled only 'Ranch Access' to the exits in the cities that pass before you can read them as the stressed-out commuter rides your bumper, from sea to shining sea, all speak to the amazing diversity of our country."

I saw a lot of it Wednesday during a 750-mile, three-state drive that went by surprisingly quick. I left Missoula in the morning, stopped briefly to walk along beautiful Rock Creek (thanks to the reader who suggested it), viewed the Sky Cycle, saw Ponderosa pines so majestic I could practically hear the theme music to "Bonanza," drove over the Continental Divide, crossed the Yellowstone and Little Big Horn rivers several times, passed the Custer battlefield, gazed at the vast Montana and Wyoming landscapes and dined at the Sheridan Inn that was once owned by Buffalo Bill.

Sparky Harris
Sparky Harris and her Betty Boop Bike await Caple in Sturgis, S.D.
And for the final two hours, I drove through the most magnificent thunderstorm I've ever seen.

The storm started around dusk and just as I neared Devil's Tower, the monumental rock made famous in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." I had seen Devil's Tower before and worried it would be too dark to see anything by the time I drove the 20-some miles off the freeway to reach it. But I drove there anyway, and I'm glad I did. Despite the darkness, the lightning flashes constantly silhouetted Devil's Tower against the night sky, so much so that it was like watching the final scene from "Close Encounters,'' only without a John Williams score. It was haunting, inspiring and breathtaking all at once.

Unexpected moments like that are what make a drive like this so special. No matter how much you plan in advance, no matter how much you try to coordinate schedules and events, no matter how much you strive to be in the right city at the right time, something completely unexpected and entirely wonderful always comes along to prove that there is never a truly bad time to pull into any town.

Not even Butte.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at cuffscaple@hotmail.com.