By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Squatting by the roadside just inside the Pensacola city limits at the end of the trip, he grew more reflective than I had seen him before. "It's a hard time in our country right now. We're in a depression and it's worse than that — our people are in a depressed state," he said. "I don't care if people dub me Forrest Gump or Mow Dirt or whatever, if somebody may have been fixin' to jump off one of them big bridges and saw me, and then thought, 'Well, who is this nut?' and then decided not to, then it was worth it.
"Or maybe somebody would see me when they were on the way to a job interview. They would see me with my feet kicked up on the hood of the mower ridin' down the highway, and that would put a smile on their face, and then they'd walk into that interview happy and get that job."
Pensacola sure needed a smile. The gracious old Spanish-tinged Southern city's other prestigious visitor that very same day was Joe Biden, in town to allay concerns about the oil slick, which was then only just beginning to despoil the city's wedding cake-sand beaches and turquoise waters. Dead dolphins were washing up along with tar blobs and oiled pelicans. A restaurant offered "Oil-free crawfish" as a special, but humor, even black humor, was rare. The mood of the city was mutedly apocalyptic.
Page and I talked a little more. Page speaks in run-on paragraphs and tends to forget what he's told you already and at a pace much greater than Mow Murray's top speed. In other words, Page can be hard to follow, but there was one more thing that came through loud and clear: "This thing" — Mow Murray and the trailer — "is my reality and my life right now."
And then it was time for us to part. I had a plane to catch back home to Houston. Page was the better part of a thousand miles from a home that wasn't even a home anymore.
"Where are you headed now?" I asked him.
"A guy in Alabama said he might have a job for me," Page said. He said BP was offering free HazMat classes. "A friend of mine back in Texas told me he'd get me on the list," Page said. He switched on the engine, turned his rattling Murray around and roared back across Bayou Chico and toward the state line.
Like frontier scouts, we picked up his trail
T racking Kenneth Page was not as hard as you might think. I picked up his trail in Lufkin, where he was written up in the Daily News. Other than Page, the only quoted source in the story was Dr. Bryan Pool, a Lufkin chiropractor for whom Page had done some work while passing through town. (Pool was so impressed with Page he called the paper, thus bringing Page his first media attention.)
Pool told me that Page had called back with a progress report the day before. "He told me he had made it to ten miles north of Beaumont and turned left," Pool said, and added that Page had said something about some engine trouble. A mechanic had helped him out with new fan belts and other parts, and Page had made it across the state line, Pool said.
That left me with some detective work. I deduced through Google maps that in all likelihood, Page would have crossed the Sabine River into Louisiana on Highway 12 at Deweyville, Texas. He would then certainly have to pass through the town of Starks, but after that, he could either head south on Big Woods Road toward Sulphur and Lake Charles, or head northeast toward DeQuincy on Highway 12.
And since Page was not known to be carrying a cell phone, we would have to track him the old-fashioned way — by asking people and keeping our eyes peeled.
Just to make sure this wasn't a complete fool's errand, photographer Jeff Balke and I stopped at a gas station on the west side of Starks. I made myself a cup of Community Coffee and told the fiftysomething white lady behind the counter I was looking for a man who might have ridden past on a lawn mower, pulling a trailer behind him. Her eyes narrowed.
"I'm a reporter from Texas," I added.
"He's riding that thing all the way from Waco, Texas, to Florida," I added, trying to be helpful.
"Yes," the lady said. "He was here. Yesterday. He went that way," she said, pointing to the east.
So he was real. In downtown Starks, a man told us he had seen Page on the other side of DeQuincy on Highway 12, so we knew we could rule out Big Woods Road and the Lake Charles route. We peeled out toward DeQuincy.
Our next stop was a roadside barbecue stand on the eastern outskirts of DeQuincy. A broad-faced, grand-matronly white lady who put us in mind of Aunt Bea from Mayberry said she hadn't seen him, but she asked an unseen companion if he had seen a guy ride past on a Murray lawn mower. "Why, did he steal it from you?" asked the man, who turned out to be a dapper, balding Creole with a lilting accent. He hadn't seen him either, but a young family — the only customers in the place — had seen him. They believed he could be all the way to Kinder or Elton by then, as they had seen him eastbound and down, loaded up and truckin' out of the hamlet of Ragley the day before.