In our summer-long series, “Highway to MEL,” we’re exploring all the twists and turns of a perfect getaway. Stick with us as we roll through all-American tales of great escapes down endless highways, and prove once and for all that there is nothing more liberating than the open road. Read all the stories here.
For all the high pressure situations Brad Hauter faced as a pro soccer goalkeeper, nothing quite prepared him for careening down the side of a mountain on a rattling, out-of-control riding lawn mower. “I was quickly approaching a sign that we hadn’t seen at the top saying, ‘WARNING: 25MPH TURN,’” Hauter tells me. “I was nearing 60 miles per hour on a vehicle that normally topped out at — and therefore only had the brakes to handle — eight miles per hour. That’s when I realized there weren’t any guardrails.”
The 33-year-old had been driving eight to 10 hours a day for roughly 46 days straight through alleys, parks, yards, backroads and highways. He’d started in Atlanta, Georgia, and had now made it to Blanding, Utah. He was so close to his final destination — the end of a pier in Santa Monica, California — which would culminate in a Guinness World Record-clinching 4,000-mile continuous lawn mower ride. And so, he wasn’t about to let his trusty travel companion go and throw it all away. “But by this time I’m up on two wheels and leaning the other direction. Then it was just… there’s no way, it’s going to flip,” he tells me. “So I jump off, hit the pavement, break my arm and watch the mower go over the edge.”
Had anyone else been driving their lawn mower through the mountains that day, they might’ve called it quits. But not Hauter. In fact, having to be helicopter-ed to New Mexico for emergency surgery only made him more determined to finish the journey that began with a forwarded promotional email from a coworker at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota. The lawn-care company MTD Products Inc. was looking for someone to ride their Yard-Man riding mower across the country. It was an event they were calling “Mow Across America,” and the act of pure American grit would hopefully raise funds for the Keep America Beautiful organization.
Though Hauter’s coworker later admitted she “didn’t think he’d actually do it,” Hauter ultimately spent months interviewing for the opportunity, and on April 7, 1999, he set off on the 4,000-mile odyssey from Atlanta’s Olympic Centennial Park.
Based on appearance, Hauter’s lawn mower was a carbon copy of the model being sold at Walmarts across the country. “But if you got it off the floor at Walmart, it was going to top out at eight miles per hour, whereas they changed the transmission on mine so it could go 25 miles per hour,” Hauter explains. “It was a bit fragile — like if I hit a pothole a couple times, it would mess the transmission up — but otherwise, it felt like driving a go-kart across the country.”
In addition, MTD Products outfitted Hauter’s mower with a comfier seat with “improved lumbar support,” he says, noting that they’d replace it whenever he rode into town so “people wouldn’t think that’s the seat they’d get if they bought it off the floor.”
To be sure, Hauter wasn’t alone on the road. He had a pacer van driving in front of him, populated with MTD Products’ PR team to handle interviews, as well as a mechanic. Behind him was a tractor trailer with a bathroom, everyone’s supplies and luggage, a machine shop “in case we had to replace a tire or change up the transmission,” and a fuel tank. “We probably filled up once a day maybe, it was actually pretty fuel efficient,” he says. “We were on backstreets most of the time, so going 25 miles per hour there feels fine, but when people are zipping by you at 70 miles per hour on the highway, like they were when we went into New York through the Lincoln Tunnel, it’s a little nerve wracking.”
Not to mention, he drew a lot of attention while puttering along the highway on a lawn mower. One time, he “looked over to see this lady SCREAMING out the window of her pickup truck and waving,” only to then watch her rear end the car in front of her. “I was like, ‘Oh nooooo!’” he says. “But chaos like that became the defining theme of the trip — like if you go across the country on a motorcycle or a car, you’re not going to see or experience the kind of chaos that we did with the lawn mower.”
In accordance with the Keep America Beautiful ethos, Hauter would occasionally stop to actually mow a lawn, too. “Sometimes we’d mow at public spots like the Lincoln Memorial, the Arch in St. Louis and other more PR-centric, ‘ceremonial’ mowing,” he explains. “But sometimes we’d just be driving along the road and we’d pull in behind someone cutting their yard, and start cutting along with them until we finished up. Then we’d be back on our way.”
Despite all the demands on his time in the hustle and bustle of cities, he struggled the most when he was outside of them. “When we’d get out in the countryside, we’d go five or more hours between stops,” he says. “Your mind goes crazy if you don’t have something to listen to or think about.” To that end, Hauter started bringing a “little pocket recorder” along with him on rides. “I’d talk into it with different thoughts and ideas because I wanted to be able to recall things from a 10-hour drive — like, ‘What was I thinking 10 hours ago?’” he jokes.
At some point, Hauter had the idea to write a book for his kids. “I talked into the recorder on the drive, and when I’d get to the hotel at night, I’d put it to text,” he says. “I later put it out to seven or eight different publishers and one of them actually liked it and wanted to publish it!”
For all the excitement that writing a book in his head and visiting peak highway Americana like “the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas” brought him, it was during one particularly tedious stretch of travel that the idea to “see how fast we could get the mower going” was born. He was having dinner with his team when someone asked, “What if we put it in neutral down the mountains,” Hauter recalls. “We were just bored at that point, and we got lazy and careless. When the crash happened, I was more pissed that my arm being in a cast was going to distract from the Keep America Beautiful message that I’d been entrusted with.”
But again, at no point throughout the painful aftermath of sending the lawn mower off a cliff did Hauter think about packing it in. “The only time I thought about calling it quits was two weeks into the trip when I went on The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” he tells me. “It was really cool — here I am a small-town soccer coach in Will Ferrell’s dressing room. [O’Donnell’s] producer walked me through what we were going to talk about, but then I got blindsided when I got out there.”
Having learned that Hauter’s journey began about 30 days after his wife gave birth to twins, O’Donnell offered to pay the $200,000 fundraising goal for Keep America Beautiful if Hauter cut the cross-country trip short. “She said, ‘It’s important that you’re home as a dad, so I’ll get you to meet your goal if you go home right now,’” Hauter recalls. “I was looking at the folks from the charity and the company in the audience and didn’t know what to do.”
“I’d made a promise to this company and the charity, so I’d either break my word to them, or leave Rosie’s millions of viewers to assume that I’m a bad dad,” he continues. “So I told her I wanted to show my kids how to follow through on things you believe in, and declined the money.”
After that, Hauter felt personally responsible to raise more than what O’Donnell had offered. “And we did, we raised $250,000, which was good,” he says. “Because had we fallen short I would’ve struggled with that decision.”
When I ask Hauter what a 4,000-mile lawn mower ride can do to a man, he tells me, “The moment the trip ended, I collided with reality. From the minute I kicked off in Atlanta to the very last interview we did in Los Angeles on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, I was treated like a king. For 67 days, I was doing 15 to 20 interviews a day, and brands were rushing up and asking if I’d wear their hat. You feel like you’re so freaking important. But then you go from being driven around in limos and going backstage and meeting big stars to taking a taxi to the airport, where nobody’s there to pick you up and nobody’s handling your bags. It’s like this crashing reality of, ‘What just happened?’”
Not unlike the isolation he felt when his first contract as a pro soccer player in Chicago ended, Hauter recalls a “certain depression that hit because I got my whole self-worth caught up in being a professional athlete.”
“Once I was able to get grounded and get my feet underneath me, I was like, ‘It’s never going to happen again,’” he says. “Then two months — two months! — on a lawn mower, and I was back to basing my value on people wanting to talk to me about riding a lawn mower, instead of doing something good in the world. So gaining a bit more perspective on what’s important in life has been the lasting impact of that entire trip.”
Which is why, in the end, Hauter is most proud of the fact that no one remembers his name. “People remember that there was a cross-country lawn mower trip, but they don’t remember me,” he says. “I’m happy about that, because ultimately it was about the trip and the charity.”