Lawn Mower Man
For Kenneth Page, all that he had built his dreams around vanished in a cloud of Central Texas dust on that terrible day this past March. That was the day his wife, Ardes, loaded up his beloved dog in the truck Kenneth bought her as a wedding present and drove right out of his life.
It was a bitter shock. Kenneth thought things were coming together for once. Sure, it had been awhile since the then-45-year-old ex-con and Bellmead, Texas, native had drawn a steady paycheck, but the longhaired, red-bearded, aquamarine-eyed mechanic knew that would come sooner or later. He was a fiercely hard worker and an extremely capable small-engine mechanic. Any day, things would get better, and the Page family — Ardes, Kenneth and their little half-breed border collie Cisco Aloysius — would turn the corner.
But man, did this economy stink, and no one needed Kenneth's services, either as a mechanic or as a driver of forest tractors. And one day Ardes — a night clerk at a motel on I-35 — said she wanted to spend some time with her grown kids. It was a ploy. She bailed permanently.
She'd never liked the house they'd had to move into in Thrall, Texas. She'd been happier in the one they had before in Taylor, which was closer to Austin, but when Kenneth lost his job and the rent had gone up from $650 to $850, they had to move farther out into the sticks. A friend later told Kenneth the house was a jinx on couples.
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"She just couldn't make it anymore," Kenneth said, months later. "I'm not saying she didn't believe in God, but maybe she should have taken more stock in blind faith."
At the time, Kenneth was beside himself. Man, did he ever love Ardes and Cisco. And not only did he buy his wife that truck, but he also took her name at their wedding. (More unusual than that, Page was not Ardes's maiden name. For the record, Kenneth's own birth name is Woolard.) And as much as he smarted at the loss of Ardes, these days it's talking about Cisco that really stings. Page says the little mutt had real personality: He loved the music of Santana and would howl along with the old-time country hoedowns of the Soggy Mountain Boys of O Brother, Where Art Thou? fame. Cisco was also fiendishly smart and could obey multi-step commands, such as "Go get the leash and take it to mama." And Cisco was affectionate: Page swears he woke one night in bed to find little Cisco petting him with his paw.
And then one day, after less than a year of marriage, it was all gone. He was left with nothing save for some bills he couldn't pay and a broken-down old Harley-Davidson. Within a few weeks, he and the hog were bunking out in a storage building in the suburbs of greater Waco, where Page was born and raised. He called Ardes, once and only once, to beg for one more chance. She said no. And that was all Kenneth needed to breathe life into the dream...
He knew that he had to get a move on, get rolling somewhere, quit letting the devil set up his workshop in that too-long idle mind of his. Page had wrestled with some demons over the years — he cops to a youthful bout with speed, and his fondness for beer was such that it both cost him his upper front teeth and actually helped land him a lengthy stretch in the state pen in the '90s — and kicked around as Page was, a lesser man might succumb again to the siren call of those vices. After all, it's not often that a man hits the honky-tonk heartbreak trifecta: losing your wife, truck and dog on the same day. Rarer still is the man who can take that whirlwind of haymakers and get back off the canvas.
Kenny Page is that rare man, and like most rare men, he was sustained by a dream. And as the sting of his abandonment faded, as he came to grips with the fact that he had survived the brunt end of all those calamities — "Man oh man, couldn't she have at least left me with the dang dog," he often thought to himself in his moments of weakness, and "Why did she have to tell me she was sending him to the pound?" — his long-germinating dream took root in his soul and shot some shoots up out of its barren wastes.
After all, there was no time like the present for him to get that riding lawn mower and ride it all the way to Florida. Talladega, Florida, to be exact, where he wanted to host a tailgate at a big NASCAR race with warm sodas and hot dogs boiled in his lawn-mower engine. His niece told him his trek would probably make the Guinness book. Page thought he might serve as a role model to his mopey, unemployed nephews. And maybe he could get some work out of the deal somehow himself.
Bobby Simek, a former co-worker Page calls his best friend, says that Page once shared this vision with him back about five years ago, when the two had worked together for Rusty Greer Equipment, and long before his failed marriage to Ardes. There, the two labored insane hours repairing engines and clearing out brush for pipelines for the former Texas Ranger baseball great. At one point, Simek was laid off and laid up at Page's house, where he was crashing for the time being.
"He just told me one day he wanted to ride a lawn mower from Texas to Florida," Simek chuckles. It was typical Kenny, Simek says. He also liked to say he was going to buy a canoe and put it in the headwaters of some northern river and float down to the coast. Neither idea seemed to be much more than idle talk. "I was like, 'What?' Come on!"
Simek thinks the world of Page. Simek was his shop manager — he both hired him and served as his superior, and he says that Page was "one of the more dedicated workers I ever had." He recalls that he and Page would work from seven in the morning until midnight, and Page, who was living behind the shop in a company travel trailer at the time, would stagger off to bed, sleep a few hours, and head right back to work. They called him "Turbo" around the shop, and Simek says that there is little Page can't accomplish if he sets his mind to it, especially if it is something that has to do with small engines.
But to ride a lawn mower from Texas to Florida? That still sounded crazy, even for a guy like Page. "I thought he was full of shit," Simek says. "I guess not."
Indeed he wasn't. While Kenneth Page never did make it to Talladega, Florida — which, of course, doesn't exist — he did ride a lawn mower all the way to the Sunshine State. (Watch a YouTube video on Page's journey here.)
When he left, and throughout much of the early stages of the trip, Kenneth Page had a hard time articulating why he wanted to undertake this journey. There was some talk about setting the world record, and at other times he would say it was about finding a job. He would say that the EPA was hiring lots of people in Florida for oil spill clean-up, but why would he need to ride his lawn mower all the way there? And how did that jibe with the fact that he had told Simek about this dream of his all those years ago?
People he met along the way were left wondering. "I don't really know what drawed him to Florida," said Dan Culler, a mechanic he met in French Settlement, Louisiana. "It sounded to me like he just wanted to get away."
"He just didn't have a real good reason to stay here, I guess," said Christina Miller, Page's niece and someone who was privy to his dream in the development stages.
Another person he shared his dream with early on was Nikki Watson, a manager at the Dollar General store in Elm Mott, Texas, another little town just north of Waco. She said Page would come in her store often and the two of them would "talk and talk and talk." (And Page is a world-record talker.)
"He is an outstanding man," said Watson. "He is so pure-hearted. I would love to see good things happen for him, and hopefully because of this. He's doing something that hardly anyone would do. He left here with hardly any money and nothing but a dream and hope."
From committing to the idea to actually getting on the road was a bit of a journey in itself. First, there was this small matter: Page did not own a lawn mower. He did have that Harley, though, and he found a man in Austin who was willing to make a deal. He swapped the hog straight up for a beat-up old Murray with a streak of rust a foot wide on the hood. The man did throw in a trailer to go along with it. Page rode it up from Austin to Waco. "When he got to our house, that motor was already going bad," said Miller. She and her family gave him another, slightly less worn-out motor, along with a push mower for him to put in his trailer.
Page needed the push mower because once he got going, he planned to finance the trip by mowing lawns as he passed through. (Other friends gave him an old Weed Eater, too. Page charged $20 per yard.) But first he needed to get together a nest egg, or "startin' cash," as he called it. After all, Mow Murray (so he has named his vehicle) would need some extra gas and oil, and Page would need some Ramen noodles and Chef Boyardee. "He kept tellin' me, 'When I get 60 bucks I'm outta here, 60 bucks I'm gone.' That was all he needed, I guess," Miller says.
There were a couple of false starts. One night Page's friends and family had a big send-off, but the next day found Page still stuck in the Waco 'burbs. And he remained stuck, day after day, until finally about two weeks had passed. Miller explained that there were a couple of times he managed to raise the $60, only to see it slip through his fingers because of engine trouble. He believes his Murray just didn't like his hometown. "This thing blows up in Bellmead," he says. "I told her, 'Just let me get out of Bellmead and I'll never bring you back.'
The Murray must have listened because after a few such words of encouragement, Page managed to raise and hold the cash. And finally, on May 30, much like a homesteader would on the eve of leaving for the Oregon Trail, Page hitched up the trailer, fired up the Murray and rode around saying his goodbyes. "I may never come back, so that was important," he explained later.
"And then he told us, 'I'm out,' and at eight o'clock that night we all said 'Bye!' and he was gone," remembered his niece.
There was also that talk of the "Guinness book" with this trip, but whoever told him he had a crack at that with a jaunt as short as this was sadly misinformed. Back in 2001, an Illinois man named Gary Hatter rode a custom-built Kubota in a vast, Continental semicircle, one that stretched a full 14,594.5 miles, from Maine to the West Coast and back to Daytona Beach, Florida. Hatter passed through every state in the lower 48, and for good measure gallivanted off on side trips into Canada and Mexico. (By contrast, Page's trip was only about 700 miles.)
Hatter and Page are eerily similar men in some ways. Both are gearheads, and when they climbed aboard their mowers, both were also 46-year-old ex-cons with both rotten luck and some terrible decisions in their past. (Page's offenses were mostly alcohol-related, while Hatter was convicted of kidnapping an ex-girlfriend.) But that's pretty much where the similarities end. These lawn-mower journeys might as well be two different forms of transport. Hatter's ran on publicity and gasoline while Page's ran on things like desperation, ingenuity and self-reliance. Hatter's was a novelty. This was survival.
Hatter's trip was publicized from the get-go. The whole thing seemed meticulously planned in advance. He sold little checkered flags to raise money for his cause — which was himself. (He needed expensive surgery on his back.) He was feted all along the way with free motel rooms and restaurant dinners. His son followed him in a Chevy as a sort of support team. His brand-new Kubota mower had a roof, for heaven's sake, and Hatter even boasted about never cutting grass on the trip. It may have been a long trip, but it was a joyride compared to what Page put himself through. (When told that Hatter drove a Kubota on his trip, Page dismissed it as a tractor and not a real lawn mower at all.)
First, for Page, Florida was less a destination than it was a direction, a sort of Shangri-La where work would be easy to find and he might finally find permanent peace of mind. The image of Florida you got in talking to Page had a sort of Steinbeck-meets-Will Ferrell, Talladega Nights of Wrath feel to it, with a tinge of Ponce de León's mysticism.
Maybe Page was seeking his own personal Fountain of Youth. Ponce de León would certainly recognize his navigational techniques. Not only did Page not carry a GPS, he learned to get by without even a paper map. He seemed to have no idea how long the journey would take, mentioning once something about "maybe making it to Florida by October." And then there was the whole Talladega thing. Page is a big fan of Ricky Bobby — he even stenciled "I wanna mow fast" on the back of his trailer — but he seemed to have come away from that fictional biopic believing that Talladega was in Florida instead of Alabama. It was not until Page reached French Settlement, Louisiana, east of the Mississippi River, that he was put straight on that geographical misunderstanding.
"He told me he was headed to Talladega, and I asked him if he meant Tallahassee, and he said, 'Yeah, I think that's it,'" chuckles Dan Culler, a Louisiana mechanic and part-time minister. (Eventually, Page settled on Pensacola as his destination, as it was the first major town in Florida.)
Page navigated Texas and the westernmost parts of Louisiana with a faded, rain-tattered, Google Maps printout that showed only interstates and major state highways. As for the rest of the trip, he used no map at all. "He doesn't really have nothing drawn out at all," marveled Culler. "He just talks to people and they tell him the best route to go."
"He's pretty unsure about a lot of things," said Miller. "Wherever the wind pushes him, that's where he goes."
He wasn't whoring himself out to the media, and it almost goes without saying that he didn't Tweet his trip. While he had a cell phone for the duration, he rarely managed to load it with minutes. He braved elements like brutal, unrelenting Dixie heat and sudden cloudbursts with no protection whatsoever. (Asked what he did when it rained, Page laughed and said simply, "Get wet.")
His mower was a rust-bucket factory model with a Frankenstein monster engine of salvaged scrap parts and usually at least two tires that were completely bald. He joked that he wanted to install a fake car alarm on it just so it could make that little chirp-chirp sound and people would think he was a big deal. Page slept wherever he could — inside a car wash one night, another night in a donated jail cell, but mostly under the stars near his mower, often parked in truck stops, Walmarts and rest areas, and instead of free restaurant fare, he ate lukewarm Ramen and SpaghettiOs straight out of the can.
"I didn't want this ride to be easy," he said, from a roadside in Waveland, Mississippi. "I was in it for the long haul. It ain't worth the ride if you don't go through pain and suffering, you know? I think people think it's interesting that I'm working my way down there and all the miseries that goes with that. And it's got its good points. You see the stars at night and meet some great people."
Rattling along on Mow Murray, the rattletrap engine's vibrations coursing through his arms and up through his haunches, he also had plenty of time to think. When he wasn't worrying about his oil level or the contents of his gas tank or the condition of his bald tires, sometimes music would pop in his head, especially Beatles songs. He says that the sight of a fresh roadkill started him humming "Rocky Raccoon"; at other times, a break in a rainstorm would have him whistling "Here Comes the Sun."
And at other times he would wax philosophical: "I ride past all these empty houses. You can tell people were living there not too long ago. Maybe there's a swing set in the yard or something, but you can tell nobody lives in 'em anymore, and that this economy has got 'em. Those poor people have got nothing now.
"At least I've got this."
From Waco, Page headed due east to Rusk, where he turned south toward Beaumont, where he made his big turn toward Florida. (Somewhere in East Texas, he picked up a truly epic case of poison oak, one that made his forearms look like Popeye's, if Popeye's forearms were made of welt-covered chicken skin.)
In Lufkin, he met Dr. Bryan Pool, a chiropractor who hired him to cut his grass. Page asked him for $20. Pool thought that was too low, so he wound up giving him $40, plus a $10 tip when he found about Page's mission. "He did a really, really good job," Pool said. Pool was so impressed with Page and his dream he called The Lufkin Daily News, which sent a reporter out. So far, that was the only substantial media attention Page's trip garnered, or at least that made the Internet.
Mow Murray was officially classed as a slow-moving vehicle, so Page could ride it on the shoulder of any highway so long as it sported an orange marker on the back. He had few hassles from the cops until Louisiana State Police intercepted him just before he attempted to ride his mower across the Atchafalaya Swamp Parkway. "Three of 'em were cool about it, but one of 'em said he was gonna confiscate my mower," a chastened Page said a day or so later. He wound up riding in a trailer for that leg of the journey. (Once on the other side, Page drove backwards and forwards to make up the lost distance. At the time, he still believed the world record was in reach.) In fact, Page learned to like the police a little on this trip: Some slipped him cash, while others allowed him to sleep in jail as a guest.
That was a first, but Page is no stranger to a jail cell. You could say that if Kenneth Page didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have any luck at all. He's the first to admit he brought some of his bad mojo on himself, but the stories he has to tell just leave you shaking your head and chuckling ruefully to yourself.
There was that time back in the '90s when he got his third DWI, which by law is a felony. "My wife at that time came from a little money," he says. "She was a RN. She liked to go out and drink in bars. Me, I liked to just stay home and drink in front of the TV. So that was what I did. She went out and came home drunk and wanted to fight, so I had to leave just to get away from her. Well, what did I do but come up on the only stop sign in Waco that was covered by branches, and I rolled right through it and hit a car."
While out on bond for that charge, and after the hard-drinking RN had left him, Page says he got arrested for "burglary of a habitation that wasn't a habitation." He was initially apprehended by the property owner, an acquaintance of his. "He said, 'Kenneth, I knew if your wife ever left you, you'd screw up.'" Nevertheless, the man said that if Kenneth put back the stuff he had tried to steal, he would let him go. Unfortunately, a patrolling sheriff rolled up on the scene and was not so forgiving. Nor was the judge presiding over his felony DWI case. Page got ten years in prison.
A few years into his sentence, Page had a prison-yard epiphany. "I had two friends in there — or they was as close to being friends as you want people to be in prison — and I was sitting on a bench and a tear came down my eye. They asked me what was wrong and I told him I was done fighting. I was not gonna drink anymore when I got out. I was gonna fly right. I owned all my troubles there and then."
And since then he's pretty much stayed out of trouble. He's worked hard and never asks anybody for anything.
The people he met along the way on this trip were often taken with his drive and energy. "I could tell he didn't have much, but he was doing more than most people," says Ricky Collins, a mechanic at J&J Lawnmower Repair just east of Silsbee, Texas. "He's got a lawn mower and a weed eater and he will work. It's not like he's standing on the side of the ride beggin' for something. And he didn't ask me for a thing. I just kinda seen what he had. He asked for a muffler. He said he wanted a used one, and that there was no way he could pay for it, but that he would work it off. And 'course that's what I try to tell my kids — I got five of 'em, and I tell 'em, you can't help someone who don't help their self. So I didn't mind helping him."
Collins said one of his daughters had been to the pen three times because of drugs and his teenaged son seemed headed down the same route. They both wanted something for nothing. Page, whom Collins got to know well over a fried-chicken lunch, was willing and ready to pay for whatever help Collins could spare. "He's just trying to get by, I guess, just make enough to get him a pack of smokes, somethin' to eat and a gallon of gas," Collins says. "I never really understood why he was doin' what he was doin'. He never really made that clear. He just, I don't know...I kind of felt for him, I guess."
The idea of the trip resonated with Collins. "I've often wanted to just take off, but I didn't have the funds or the means or whatever and I never done it," he says. He didn't let his envy get in the way of his generosity, though. "When he fired that engine up, I saw it smokin' and rattlin' so I found an old used engine we had and I give him that, so if his fell apart he could piece together whatever out of the two motors," Collins remembers. Page said he would pay by handing out J&J business cards to the people he met. "I figured that would be good advertising, so I gave him quite a few cards," Collins says.
Collins also noticed that Page didn't really seem to know the whole way to Florida, or what exactly he would do when he got there. To Collins, that was pretty much irrelevant. In having even that ill-defined goal, Page was way ahead of most of us.
"That's more than I can say for half of America, you know what I mean? It's pitiful to say, but that's the truth."
"Hey Mister Lomax, this is Kenneth Page. I made it through that town, what's its name? (Muffled voices in background.) Yeah. In other words, I made it over the Mississippi bridge, I made it through Baton Rouge and I'm fixin' to get back on 190 and make it on down the road. I had a little trouble with the po-lice...They kinda got upset that I crossed the Mississippi bridge on a lawn mower, but hey, you know, that's life. Three of 'em were real good about it and one of 'em was kinda crappy."
— Phone message from Kenneth Page
After photographer Jeff Balke and I tracked Page down in Eunice, Louisiana, he was very good about calling me with his progress reports. That was one of the best. He would later say that in a life of riding dirt bikes and motorcycles and hot rods, he had never known an adrenaline rush like the one he got roaring down the backside of that humpback Highway 190 Mississippi River bridge at what he estimates was 55 miles an hour.
A couple of days later, he reported that he was closing in on the Louisiana-Mississippi border. He said that he had gotten rained on near Ponchatoula and was slowed by the roads. "I'm ridin' on gravel, non-shoulder for about 40 miles now," he said from somewhere west of Madisonville, Louisiana.
The next day's call was from Lacombe, Louisiana, and an agitated Page was the bearer of plenty of bad news. He'd blown another engine and several tires. He'd almost fallen down a culvert off the side of a bridge. What's more, the last two towns had been exceedingly challenging.
"Never ever try to ride a lawn mower through Madisonville and, what's that town with the long bridge? Mandeville. Oh God. Blind curves, jumping curbs...I come through Sonic about 80, naw, 30 miles an hour, jumpin' over curbs, drivin' down the shoulder, freakin' everybody out in town. And then I was ridin' behind guardrails and on sidewalks. It was just bad. The Mississippi River bridge was much easier. It's all been exciting today. A camera crew would have flipped out. Ricky Bobby and the Dukes of Hazzard have got nothin' on me. Evel Knievel would have stopped and shook hands with me."
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.)
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.
We pushed on to Kinder, the famous Coushatta Indian casino town. At the intersection of Highway 165, we stopped at a grocery store to confirm that Page was not headed further north on the highway to Oberlin. I told the fry cook at the store's lunch counter that Page's wife had left him and that he had decided to ride his lawn mower from Waco to Florida. "Beats suicide," the cook said. "I guess. Naw, I haven't seen him." But across the street at a garage/body shop, they had seen him and told us to keep heading east.
By now, the road had changed names to Highway 190 and was informally known as the Acadiana Parkway. To the west, there had been a few scary, overloaded-looking logging trucks lumbering down the road, groaning under the weight of giant pine logs, but this was rice country. Aquatic tractors were churning through waterlogged fields, white herons and other wading birds following in their wake. Silos lined the train tracks in the small towns we passed through. Balke tuned in a Cajun station on the AM radio and we had a soundtrack of accordion waltzes and swamp pop boogies to round out the tableaux.
And so passed Elton, and then Basile, where instead of beer, ice and cigarettes, the town grocery prominently offered tasso, boudin, cracklins, gumbo and, well, beer, 'cause Cajuns like that, too. And by this time, we no longer needed to get out and ask if Page had passed this way, because we already knew, as the blacktop shoulders had given way to mixtures of red dirt, gravel and green grass. Balke and I could now clearly see the tracks of Page's Murray steadfastly heading east.
Eunice is the first town of Walmart-supporting size along this highway for more than 100 miles, and pulling in was something of a sensory overload for Balke and me. I thought we had to be getting pretty close by then, so when we came upon a Popeyes with a few police cars in the parking lot, I asked Balke to stop. The Eunice cops might know where Page was.
I walked in and asked one — a shaven-headed behemoth with tattooed arms. He didn't bat an eye. "He's right down the road at the car-care center in front of the Walmart," he said. "He is right there, right now."
By the time Balke and I scrambled back down the road the quarter-mile or so it was, he had started heading west toward us. And there he was, looking just like he did in the picture from the Lufkin paper. My heart leaped as I saw him rumbling down the wrong shoulder, headed toward a gas station with a huge, truck-stop-sized parking lot. And that was where we ran him down, and first interviewed him, near the gas pumps. As the speakers piped in Cajun versions of "La Bamba" and classic rock hits, Page spun his turbocharged tale in person.
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