In the June of 1994, Alvin Straight, veteran of both WWII and the Korean war, was facing a tough decision. His 80-year-old brother Henry had suffered a stroke and was incredibly ill. Straight, aged 73, hadn’t spoken to his brother for nearly a decade and decided that now was the time to make amends…but he lived in Laurens, Iowa and Henry in Blue River, Wisconsin: 250 miles away. Alvin’s age and failing eyesight meant that he didn’t have a valid drivers license and he had a deep distrust of the public transport system.
So what could he do? This could be his last chance to see his brother alive. By July, he’d finally made his decision. He loaded up his trailer with food, water, petrol and camping equipment and hitched it up to his reliable ride-on lawnmower and set out to see his brother.
Alvin Straight had only travelled around thirty miles on his lawnmower before the engine blew. He was towed home, the lawnmower a write-off and the trailer still full of provisions.
Maybe it was a sign; perhaps the universe was sending him a message to invest in a bus ticket instead. Or perhaps it was sending him a message to buy a more reliable lawn mower.
Upon returning home, Alvin bought a 1966 John Deere riding lawn mower and once again set off at a whopping speed of 5 miles per hour on the 250 mile journey to Blue Water (roughly the same distance from Portsmouth to Leeds). He waved goodbye to his wife and daughter and headed down the U.S. Highways, shunning the winding country roads that he’d favoured before.
This time, it took four days (and only twenty-one miles) for Alvin to once again run into troubles as he plodded down Highway 18. The John Deere mower had a slew of mechanical troubles which he was forced to stop in West Bend, Iowa for repairs, paying around $240 for a new generator, starter, and spark plugs. But Alvin was stubborn and would not be deterred, and after paying for the various repairs once again set off.
His next bump in the road came 90 miles from West Bend when he ran out of money. The veteran lived off of social security cheques, and his next installment wouldn’t be for two weeks. With a tiny engine that only held around 5.6 litres of fuel, petrol was one of the highest costs of the journey. Undeterred by this seemingly minor setback, he parked his lawn mower and trailer at the side of the road and camped out while he waited for his money to come in. With a trailer packed with groceries, a foam rubber mat to sleep on and a camping stove, Alvin spent two weeks in his makeshift camp, waving to the cars that passed him by.
If it wasn’t faulty parts or money stopping Alvin Straight, it was the weather. Just thirty miles from Wisconsin torrential rain forced him to stop once again. Nearly blind already, the poor conditions made driving impossible. In an interview with the Washington Post, Straight said “I’m not crazy enough to drive in the rain…If you can’t see, get off the damn road.”
Finally on the home stretch, with the weather cleared and his money woes behind him, the road ahead seemed clear for Alvin: but there was one final moment of bad luck in store for him. A mere two miles from his brother’s home, the mower broke down for the final time. A passing farmer helped him push the Deere and the trailer the rest of the way, arriving at the house on August 16th, six weeks after setting off.
Alvin Straight stayed with his brother and family for several weeks. During this time, news of the lawn-mower road trip had reached national news organisations and offers were pouring in for interviews and TV appearances. He turned down the chance to appear on the Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, choosing rather to stay away from the spotlight. He did, however, accept a fee to appear in a local John Deere dealership’s advert. He also traded his 1966 mower for a brand new one worth $5000 with the owner of the Texas Equipment Company, who displayed his old one as a curiosity.
Several weeks later, Alvin Straight reluctantly accepted a lift back to Laurens with his nephew in his truck. After his recovery, Henry followed his brother and moved back to Iowa to be closer to his family.
You’d think that his six week, 250 mile trip was enough adventure for Alvin, but nearly two years later he set off again (on his new mower) for Idaho. At 1100 miles, the trip was nearly four and a half times as long as his journey to Wisconsin. He made it 400 miles before being found in South Dakota, suffering from sunburn and dehydration. Straight returned home but never fully recovered, and passed away after a stroke in November 1996. True to form, his funeral procession was accompanied by a John Deere mower.
Lotti works with the Primrose Product Loading team, creating product descriptions and newsletter headers.
When not writing, Lotti enjoys watching (and over-analyzing) indie movies with a pint from the local craft brewery or cosplaying at London Comic Con.
Lotti is learning to roller skate, with limited success.