In 1979, Butch Baker began the work of his lifetime, a creation so vast it weighs more than a ton and takes up one side of his living room — a monument constructed from his easy chair.
The masterpiece began on a snowy day when Baker, stuck indoors, cut an advertising brochure into thin strips of paper and linked them together like lattice work.
Before long, his paper chain stretched down the hallway, then out the door. So he collected more brochures, snipped the pieces into a favorite cigar box and added links until his chain formed a ball.
As the years passed, the ball grew taller than his head and toppled over. So over the course of three weeks, he gathered up loose ends and piled the whole works behind his easy chair.
And now, after 39 years and seven presidents, Baker's chain has reached 23 miles, long enough to cover the distance between his front door in Four Oaks and the Raleigh Beltline.
He would contact the Guinness Book of World Records, he explains, but he isn't finished yet.
"I can sit here and work on this paper chain, watch a football game, watch racing, and not even know I'm doing it," said Baker, 78. "I could do it in the dark. Do it blindfolded."
By day, Baker repairs Volkswagens in his own garage in Johnston County, not far outside the town of Four Oaks, where he began his career tinkering with cars at a Texaco station. He describes himself as the best VW mechanic around, and his yard is full with aging Bugs. He and his wife Maria keep five cats, the youngest of which, named Little Bit, can fetch bottle caps and place them inside Baker's shoe.
But for nearly 40 years, the paper chain has consumed the bulk of Baker's idle time, so much that the couple often travels to Cherokee or Gatlinburg, Tenn., just to collect paper brochures from tourist racks. A stack in the closet stands 2 feet high.
Every time Baker adds 100 yards to the chain, he marks the spot with a pen. Maria keeps a logbook with all the entries, marking the chain's slow progress.
"I like it," she said. "But it's too heavy, and it damages the floor."
Baker once calculated his chain's weight by counting the number of brochures in a 1-pound stack. By his reckoning, every mile of paper weighed 100 pounds, making his chain as heavy as the biggest moose ever shot in the history of moose hunting — an animal that stood 15 feet tall. Because of this, the Bakers have had to prop up the living room from below.
"It's something way over a million pieces," Baker said. "When you first start out, you don't know you're going to do all this."
Having created a piece of folk art with the length of a marathon route, Baker commands respect around Four Oaks. Pilgrims sometimes show up unannounced.
"I had a motorcycle gang come one time," Baker recalled.
On another day, a carload of people pulled into Baker's driveway explaining that they'd seen him and his chain on the "Tar Heel Traveler," and that they made a point of visiting every spot featured on the WRAL program. He invited them inside.
At 78, Baker has considered the future for his life's work, and it presents a knotty problem. Any folk art museum would gladly add it to the collection, but how many have the means to move a 23-mile, 2,300-pound string of folded brochures? The only way to transport the chain, Baker figures, would be to build a crate and wind it inside. Nothing short of that could manage its bulk through a set of double doors.
But regardless, Maria wants it preserved. She witnessed many of those miles getting added.
"My husband said, 'If I pass away before you do, you can do anything you want to with it,' " she said. "Keeping that ball is like keeping him."
In recent months, Baker hasn't added a link. A plastic cover stretches over its mass to keep the cats from roosting there and peeing on his progress. But the cigar box full of new strips sits within arm's reach of his easy chair, reminding him that he has miles yet to cover.
Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08