Evel Knievel Jump Site Snake River Canyon
September 8 marks the forty-third anniversary of Evel Knievel’s attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon. This event impacted many people in southern Idaho, including ten-year-old Billie Neville who wanted to be a daredevil, just like her hero Evel Knievel. Riding “the best bike in the whole world” Billie was desperate to enter a bike jumping contest with three boys named The Meanies and show them her cool bike skills. When Evel came to town, the most amazing things happened.
Chapter 1 – THE MEANIES
Billie Neville sat on the Snake River Canyon rim and let her imagination soar over on wheels and rockets.
Every day for a full week that summer she wolfed downed her cereal and raced her bike to the spot where her hero Evel Knievel would jump in four weeks. The whole world would be watching. Sitting on the flattest lava rock she could find, Billie held onto her knees, shut her eyes and dreamed her favorite daydream where she was the daredevil ready to leap over the wide canyon. Her fantasy was always the same.
First, she stepped out before a humongous crowd that clapped so hard it drowned out the sounds of the thunderous water going over Shoshone Falls a mile away. Her costume was exactly like Evel’s—only in a junior girl’s size: white jumpsuit with stars on blue stripes running down the front and along the sides of her pants. Her cape shined like a pearl with a huge “1” embroidered on the back. Wearing the baddest sunglasses and smiling the widest smile, Billie waved to her fans and then climbed into her own version of Evel’s Skycycle X-2. Painted red, white and blue, her banana bike was fitted with two sleek rockets on each side. She put on her helmet and climbed in. She didn’t care how deep the canyon was, or how far across; her bravery glowed like a Christmas star. Then her crew lit the rocket fuses. WHOOSH. Her bike-rocket tore off into the sky. Flying high over the Snake River Canyon, Billie landed on the other side, skidding to a halt without a scratch on her bike or getting any dirt on her jumpsuit. In triumph, she smiled as she rode in a parade down Main Avenue of Twin Falls, Idaho, all in her honor.
Then Billie opened her eyes. Of course, she didn’t have a Skycycle like the one Evel was going to ride over the canyon. But she did have the best banana bike in the world. Sure, it was scarred like her knees and it wasn’t the newest model. The long narrow seat was scuffed as an old pair of shoes and smelled like it, too.
She remembered the day her dad brought it home in his truck. A gift for her eighth birthday, he had bought it at Sears. He admitted he got it cheap because the backrest was broken. He fixed it for her after hours at the garage on Main Avenue South where he worked. She loved the u-shaped ape hanger handle bars and the way she could zoom along the streets.
But she really hated that the bike was painted pink, a color for girls, not someone like her. So, unlike the other kids on the block who washed their bikes to make them shine, Billie kept hers dirty. That way it didn’t look so pink. The day she crashed her bike and scratched it could have been the worst moment of her life but she was secretly happy. Without asking her parents, she took a handful of blue markers to the frame. Now it was a cool shade of blue and didn’t look half bad. Her bike couldn’t hit hundreds of miles an hour like one of Evel’s motorcycles, but when Billie felt the breeze stream through her brown hair, she could have been flying faster than any daredevil. Best of all, her bike took her where she wanted to go, and where she wanted to go was to see where Evel Knievel was going to leap over the Snake River Canyon.
A tall wire fence surrounded Evel’s launch site, but she had found a good spot where she could watch all the action. And boy, there was a lot of action. She hadn’t seen so many people in Twin Falls, Idaho, well, since…ever. This was better than the circus coming to town, even though there were no clowns or elephants. Hands tucked under her chin, Billie saw men work on the metal ramp where Evel’s rocket would launch. The ramp was anchored in cement on top of a huge dirt mound piled near the rim of the canyon. Another group of men was building a tower for television cameras. “Wide World of Sports” was going to be there on September 8. “Wide World of Sports!” If they were coming, this had to be a big deal.
Billie glanced across the canyon, which opened like the mouth of an old lion with jagged brown rocks for teeth and wiry sagebrush for a mane. Evel was going to have to tame that old lion, which had a mouth four hundred feet deep. Billie whistled in awe.
Seventeen-hundred feet across. That’s how far Evel would have to ride his rocket to land on the other side according to the TV news station. That number had too many zeroes to think about. She’d much rather think about Evel atop his rocket, his white cape flaring out like a flag.
The crews sawed, hammered and talked loud. Billie had never heard so many cuss words in her life when the workmen hit their thumbs with a hammer or tripped over the lava rocks sprouting out of the ground. She was about to head home when the work stopped. A group of workers rushed to the gate. Billie stood up hoping Evel had arrived. The only place she had ever seen him was on TV, or in the newspaper. What she wouldn’t give to meet the famous daredevil. But Evel wasn’t coming through the gate. It was only a truck with more building supplies.
“Hey, Billie Ken-Neville.”
She knew those voices. They belonged to the group of boys she called The Meanies because they were mean to everybody but each other. They were best known for catching garter snakes on the canal banks behind Morningside Elementary and chasing girls around the playground. The Meanies included Pete Williams, Arthur Richards and the very worst, Jack Howard. She stood up, pulled down her baseball hat, stuck out her chin and faced them. “Name is Billie Neville.”
“Yeah, right,” Pete spit out. The tallest of the three, he wore cowboy shirts with pearl snaps to school. Pete had a tan face from helping his farmer dad, or so he complained to anyone within hearing distance. Pete also boasted to other boys that he could lift a twenty-pound bag of clover seed in one hand. Billie always thought who the heck would want to do that anyway.
“Weirdo.” Arthur gave a whiny laugh. With a blond butch, Arthur was shorter than his buddies. He was thin as a scarecrow with thick black-framed glasses. Arthur was forever in Pete’s shadow and often repeated whatever his friend uttered.
Then there was Jack Howard. The kind of kid who looked like he had eaten one too many apple pies. His hair was even red like an apple and his freckles always stretched sideways when he glared at Billie, which he usually did. He lived down the street from her and had been teasing her since third grade.
“Weirdo,” Jack repeated, his freckles stretching with his familiar glare.
She wished she could punch Jack in the head, but if she did, his dad the cop would put her behind bars. “If liking Evel Knievel makes me weird, then that’s a great kind of weird.”
“We like Evel,” Pete said.
“So that makes you weird, too,” Billie replied.
“Na-ah,” Jack said, while Arthur just looked confused.
Billie pointed to the commotion on the other side of the fence. “You’ll never be a daredevil like Evel.”
“Oh yes we will. We’re going to be awesome daredevils,” Jack said.
“You’re not jumping the canyon.” Billie put her hands on her hips. Boys always tried to sound cooler than they were.
“We’re doing our own stunt at Pete’s farm.” Jack pointed upriver. “His dad’s land is right next door.”
“What are you guys going to jump?” she said.
“A canal four feet wide and four feet deep,” Pete said. “We’re even building our own ramp.”
“Our own ramp,” Arthur echoed. “The day after Evel’s jump, we’re going to hold a contest to see who’s the best daredevil in all of Twin Falls.”
Billie felt her eyes go wider than the canyon. Her bike could handle a canal. But how was she going to get in the contest? If she asked The Meanies nicely they probably wouldn’t let her anywhere near the spot and call her even more names. She smiled with an idea.
“Bet you’re making all that up,” Billie said.
“No, we’re not, Billie Ken-Neville,” Pete said.
“Yeah,” Arthur added.
“Hold on,” Jack said and motioned for the two boys to join him in a huddle a few feet from where she stood. They looked at each other, nodded and whispered in what Billie decided was a kind of boy speak. After a few minutes, they raised their heads.
“We’ll prove it,” Jack said. “Follow us on your girlie bike.”
“This ain’t no girlie bike.” Billie hated when people put down her wheels.
All three of The Meanies snorted, got on their bikes and rode off. Because of the tall fence erected around Evel’s launch site, Pete told Billie they had to take a longer way around to his family’s property. They headed down Hankins Road, which was bumpier than her Grandma Irma’s couch. The boys rode ahead of Billie, taking every dirt mound they could to show off. Jack turned his head to watch to make sure she wasn’t following.
But she was and rode over the same mounds. She swore surprise shot into Jack’s eyes when he saw her expertly vault over a small dirt hole.
The dirt road led to Pole Line Road, which was asphalt but narrow. Looking both directions to make sure the way was safe, Billie pulled out on to the side of Pole Line. She prided herself that she wasn’t stupid on her bike like other kids. She followed all the rules and watched for cars and trucks because her mom threatened to take away her bike if she got in another accident. One time, when she fell after hitting a pothole, her mom wouldn’t let her ride for a week. Billie couldn’t afford a repeat, especially now that there was so much to see in Twin Falls because Evel Knievel was coming to town.
One mile up from Hankins Road, the boys turned left on to another dirt road. They continued until they all came to a metal fence.
NO EVEL KNIEVEL WATCHERS ALLOWED stated a handwritten sign on cardboard attached to the fence. Everyone got down off their bikes.
“Lots of people are coming on our place and tramping through my mom’s garden and in my dad’s fields,” Pete said as he walked his bike through a narrow opening between the gate and the fence. “But when Evel makes the jump, Dad’s going to charge people to park. Seven bucks a car.”
“Your old man’s gonna get rich,” Arthur said.
“Dad says it’ll probably bring in more dough than he gets for his entire sugar beet crop.”
“Come on. I want to practice. My mom’s cooking fried chicken tonight,” Jack said, ignoring Billie.
Once past the gate, Billie and the three boys got on their bikes. Billie couldn’t help but be envious of their banana bikes, which were newer and shinier than hers. Jack’s was the best with red stars, white rims and a bright blue seat. But even if hers wasn’t as nice, her dad made sure it was well-oiled and overhauled every month, which was one more reason she loved him.
The Meanies finally stopped at a field of short green plants that smelled like one big lawn. Even though Twin Falls was surrounded by farms, Billie didn’t pay much attention to what grew there. Billie followed as the boys walked over to a dirt canal where brown water flowed and smelled fishy.
“There it is,” Pete said with a bit of pride.
“Whoa,” Billie said. It wasn’t the Snake River Canyon, but she’d never jumped anything that wide before.
Arthur walked to the edge of the canal and stomped his tennis shoes, which created a puff of dirt. “This is where we’re gonna build our ramp.”
“Okay, you can leave now,” Jack said. “We have to practice.”
“On that canal over there.” Arthur pointed to which Jack and Pete threw him the dirtiest of looks. The smaller canal intersected the larger one and measured about three feet across and as many down, but was dry.
Billie walked to the smaller canal and squatted for a better look. Once, after watching Evel Knievel soar his motorcycle over a line of busses in London on TV, she sneaked her mom’s old round vacuum cleaner into the backyard. She put a board on a brick as her ramp and sailed over the vacuum. Three feet easy.
Before she could ask to join the contest, Jack got in her face. “Get lost, Billie Ken-Neville.”
“Or I’ll sic my dog on ya,” Pete said.
“Goodbye,” Arthur added.
Billie got on her bike and rode home. “I’ve got to get into that contest,” she repeated almost as many times as her bike wheels rolled over the asphalt.
Her mom’s Chevy was under the carport when Billie got home. One step into their small house on Sherry Drive and Billie’s stomach grumbled and hurled at the same time. Meatloaf. She knew that beefy sweet smell because her mom made meatloaf so much Billie swore she wouldn’t be able to look a cow in the eye. But Billie didn’t complain because her mom was sad enough. Since her dad left, Billie’s mom had also become as cranky as the old man down the street who always yelled at the kids running through his yard. Whenever her mom showed her unhappy or grouchy face, Billie remembered the pretty mom who used to laugh at her dad’s jokes and hummed as she washed dishes. That mom disappeared when her dad moved in with Grandma Irma.
Billie still remembered the day he left. “I’m working all those long hours to give us a better future,” her dad yelled at her mom.
“No you’re not. You’re stealing the present from us,” her mom said. “We’d rather have you home instead of chasing dreams of your own garage.” Her mom cried and her dad slammed the door.
Billie cried too the day he left. She cried the better part of the week, even though her dad said he wasn’t mad at her and he would see her every day. And he did unless he had to work late.
She could hear her mom clattering pots in the kitchen and was glad that her mom didn’t have to work late. Billie even smiled when her mom yelled, “Wash up and sit down, Belinda.”
“Mom, you know I hate that name.”
“Billie makes you sound like a boy.”
“I like Billie.”
“Okay, Billie, my little star.”
Billie ground her teeth. Her mom called her that sometimes because of the dime-sized birthmark on Billie’s right cheek. Her mom and dad said she was their star from heaven. Billie thought the birthmark looked more like a squished grape.
Her mom mumbled something and set a dish of meatloaf and macaroni and cheese in front of Billie on the kitchen table. Billie dug in and swallowed the meatloaf with difficulty. She used to love it, but now the meatloaf tasted different. Like her mom’s unhappiness was mixed into the hamburger, along with the onions, breadcrumbs and eggs. Billie added extra ketchup to drown out the flavor.
Billie jumped up and turned on the TV in the living room. “We’re missing the news. They might have a story about Evel.”
“That man is bringing nothing but trouble to town. And Mr. Knievel dresses like a really bad Elvis.”
“I thought Elvis was dead.”
Her mom laughed. “Come back and sit down.”
Billie did, but kept turning her head to look at the TV. There was nothing on but stories about car accidents, the cost of corn and a city council meeting. Then a commercial flashed on for the Twin Falls Department Store.
“Enter our Evel Knievel essay contest.”
“What?” Billie got up and sat down in front of the set.
The television showed Evel making several of his famous jumps. There was also a picture of the canyon where Billie liked to sit and dream.
“Just write an essay about why you’d like to meet Evel Knievel,” said the deep announcer’s voice. “The winner will have lunch with Mr. Knievel at their school. Your parents will receive $150 to spend on school clothes at the Twin Falls Department Store on Main Avenue. The contest is only open to sixth-grade girls and boys. Bring your essay to the Twin Falls Department Store by August 20 and the winner will be announced September 3rd. Enter now.”
“Did you hear that, Mom?”
“I heard. I work at Sears. You shouldn’t enter that contest. The Twin Falls Department Store is our competition.”
“Competition nothing. I’m going to enter! Look, Mom, if I win, think of all the clothes we can buy without spending any money.”
“I don’t know.” Her mom frowned. “That Evel Knievel does nothing but teach kids to take risks.”
“Didn’t you ever take a risk, Mom?”
Her mom’s eyes flashed to a wedding picture in a frame on top of the TV. “Finish your dinner, Billie.”
That night before bed, Billie stared at the photos of Evel she had taped on the walls of her room. The photos were mostly cut out from the newspapers her Grandma Irma saved. Pulling off the white pillowcase, Billie fashioned her own cape with a safety pin. She looked in the mirror.
There she was. Billie Neville. Daredevil.
She was going to find a way into the jumping challenge at Pete’s farm, and also win the essay contest. She leaned in closer. For the first time that birthmark on her cheek really did look like a star.
Find out if Billie enters the essay contest and finds a way into the jumping challenge at Pete’s farm by reading the book, available here.