Outside magazine, September 1999
Beyond the Cutting Edge
An epic garden-tractor odyssey trumps the vision of David Lynch
If next month's premiere of the latest David Lynch film, The Straight Story, shocks your sensibilities and leaves you gape-mouthed, it won't be for the usual reasons. Lynch, one of Hollywood's most reliable purveyors of perverse themes, surreal behavior, and stomach-churning visions (e.g., Eraserhead and Blue Velvet) describes the radically undisturbing The Straight Story as his "most experimental film." Indeed, the G-rated movie's straight-arrow plot tells the real-life tale of an elderly man's 240-mile journey across Iowa to Wisconsin, via lawn mower, to visit his sick brother. Lynch's bold departure seems poised for modest box office success. That is, if a wilderùand possibly more Lynchianùlawn mower story doesn't steal its thunder.
On June 10, a 34-year-old soccer coach named Brad Hauter became the first person in history to drive a Yard-Man tractor across the country. Devised by marketers at the Cleveland-based yard equipment manufacturer MTD Products, Hauter's transcontinental trek took 67 days. On April 7, he mounted his modest steed ($2,000, at Sears stores nationwide) and rolled out of Atlanta, flanked by a minivan and an 18-wheeler toting a film crew and supplies. Streaking along at a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour, Hauter first rumbled north to New York and then shot across the continent to Los Angeles, averaging ten hours a day in the saddle and taking time out to mow hundreds of lawns (gratis, of course).
Not surprisingly, MTD's convoy provoked some unusual incidents during its 5,100-mile journey. In Kansas, a man mistook Hauter for a Guinness Book official (maybe because Hauter himself was gunning for a record) and began chain-eating worms in front of him. And near St. Louis, Hauter inadvertently rolled over the bloated carcass of a possum, which exploded, showering him with rotting flesh and maggots. "It was the most disgusting thing that's ever happened to me," shudders Hauter, who's never seen any of David Lynch's movies and is too busy reveling in the wackiness of his own feat to give much thought to the question of whether this is art imitating life or life imitating art. "All I know," says the man who now holds the world record for the longest continuous riding-mower journey in history, "is that during my trip, crazy things happened every day."