By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
On the message, he said he was in dire straits. His current engine had really bad blow-by. "I don't know if I have enough oil. If it blows it out before I get there, I'm gonna have to idle it really, really slow and try to find a yard [to mow] in the morning."
Evidently he did, because his next report was from the Mississippi Redneck Riviera, where he was tempted by a siren. "A pretty girl stopped me and took pictures of me, and wanted to take me for something to eat at some place called the Bluebonnet Café," he said. She was a homeless girl, he added, and he thought of installing her in his trailer. She was game and headed his way. But then he worried she would drag him into her bad habits. "I've got too much riding on this," he said. "I can't be getting sucked into that stuff. I gave her some money and I knew she probably went and spent it on rum or something. But you can only do so much." (This temptress was not the only woman Page charmed along the way. "How come all the good ones are either married or riding lawn mowers across the country?" sighed another he met later on the trip.)
Around about Gulfport and Biloxi, Page reported scenes of gargantuan debauchery. He said there were 19,000 drunken college-age kids along the seafront, partying at a car show, and they were not just drunk, but hammered. Although he drove through the Mardi Gras-like rumpus on a lawn mower, he didn't have much trouble with them, except that one kid who hurled a bottle at him. "One of his friends recognized me from down the road," Page smiled. "He told his buddy, 'Don't you be throwing bottles at the lawn mower man!'"
Alabama passed pretty much without incident, save for the usual worries about the state of Mow Murray, and those worries intensified once he crossed the state line into Florida. What should have been a cause for jubilation was ruined by mechanical concerns. He wondered if he would ever make it to Pensacola. That part of Florida is full of prosperous spreads — he doubted any of their owners would hire him to cut the grass, and he badly needed money. He was literally rationing his motor oil and was rolling on three bald tires. "I didn't see no yards with junk tractors in 'em, where I could work off a spare part," Page remembered. "You start to worry and say, 'God, if you don't put the right person in my path, I'm gonna have to drag this thing down the road myself."
It never came to that. In a bright, shining moment on June 29 at 9 a.m., Page crossed one last high arching bridge — this one over Bayou Chico. At the apex, there stands a sign reading "Pensacola City Limits." After the Mississippi River bridge, this little Highway 292 span was nothing. And coming down the backside, Page felt safe and jubilant enough to revel in some trick riding. He stood in his seat and hung ten, and then sat back down and turned around and drove it with his hands behind his back. With his beard and long hair, he looked for all the world like one of the trick riders from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show come to life in modern-day Florida. (Having flown in from Houston the day before, I was there to greet him.)
In less than a month, he had made it all the way from Waco to Pensacola. He'd gone through three engines and a bunch of tires. He'd mowed about ten lawns, worked his way across old Dixie, never accepting out-and-out charity, sleeping under the stars, rebuilding his own engines, living off the fat of the land, and he actually looked better than he did in Eunice a week or so before the end of his trip. His poison oak had abated, leaving his arms looking almost normal. (He joked that he would let mosquitoes bite his arms so he could infect them and thus wreak a weird revenge. Maybe they had sucked the poison oak out of him.)
And there seemed to be a load off his mind, too. He fell in love with some of the bayou country of south Louisiana. He met some really great people. And maybe, just maybe, he finally figured out the real reason he drove from Waco to Pensacola on a beat-up lawn mower. In his mind, it was something like an act of patriotism, a way to give people better perspective on their own lives by looking at life from his perspective.
"At the beginning, there were two reasons I wanted to do this trip," he said. "I thought I could get a job, and my niece said I could get in the Guinness book. I thought if I could do that, I would be a better role model to my nephews."
Though he'd been told that the Guinness record was probably out of reach, he persisted to the end in saying that he might still be in the running. Nevertheless, he knew that even if he didn't set any kind of record, he had lived a great American novel. (I had wished that he would come into Pensacola on Highway 90 instead of Highway 98. Page's quixotic quest could have had no better terminus than the former, as it is known locally as Cervantes Street.)