LAURENS, IOWA – As Joanie and I drove away from this industrious little town last June, a pheasant — as big of one as I have ever seen — leisurely strolled across State Highway 10, bringing our car to a screeching halt. In no hurry, and despite a honk or two, he made his way from one wet soybean field to another, then disappeared.
Laurens — pronounced LAW-RENZ — has about 1,300 people, a very tall grain elevator, a wide main street, a great public library, and a wonderful story — “The Straight Story.” The latter is the unlikely tale of Alvin Straight, a cantankerous former truck driver and laborer, who at 73, arthritic, and nearly blind, took it upon himself to make a journey of nearly 250 miles from here to Blue River, Wisconsin, and he did it at about the same pace as the aforementioned pheasant, for he drove his lawn mower all the way.
There is no statue on the town square commemorating Straight, and had I not stopped at the Pizza Ranch Restaurant along its main drag, I’m not sure I would have spent much time in Laurens, despite its nickname as “The Busiest Little Town in Iowa.”
But the good people I met in Laurens eventually helped me understand why Alvin’s story — as Hollywood director David Lynch portrayed it in 1999 — is such an appealing one, no bronze plaque needed.
It was a cloudy, warm day, nearing 80 degrees, when we drove into town, having come down state roads from I-90 in Minnesota with our jaws dropping at every passing mile. That region of Iowa had endured rainfall of near Biblical proportions in the days before we arrived, and at every stop for gas or stretch of the legs, we were told of overflowing rivers and flooded fields and swamped basements. In just the two days before we came to Laurens, the residents there had seen seven inches of rain, and in many places the young corn and soybeans were either yellowing in the mud or already under water. The Pizza Ranch’s door was open, so we took that as an invitation to ask for directions.
What we learned was that few people in town knew much about Alvin Straight, for several patrons shrugged their shoulders when I asked about him. But the daughter of the waitress there had done a report about Straight for her elementary school teacher, and she pointed us toward the library for a look at a “big book” about him that she had used to get the facts of his story. It was there, just a few blocks away, that we met a host of new friends, all eager to help us get Straight’s story, well, straight.
One of them was lifelong Laurens native, Pat Boughey, who sits on the library’s board and performs a host of other duties for the town. Boughey says that the Alvin portrayed in Lynch’s film, and the real man did have their differences. “Alvin Straight actually lived only one-and-a-half blocks from my home; however, he really didn’t live in Laurens very many years … perhaps five or so, before he made the lawn mower trip to Wisconsin, and he was actually a very aloof fellow that few people ever came to know,” she said. “He was quite reclusive, or perhaps eccentric,” she added.
As has been well documented, Alvin began his journey after discovering in the winter of 1993-94 that his brother, Henry (named Lyle in the film), then 80 and living across the Mississippi River (just north of Mt. Zion, Wisconsin), had suffered a stroke. Since Alvin no longer had a driver’s license, did not trust others to drive him, and was too proud to accept what he perceived as a hand out, he decided to tackle the trip in the only way he knew how: he’d drive his lawn mower. Besides, the nearest bus station was 30 miles away, so what was another 200 miles or so? He tuned up his decrepit red Airens lawn tractor, hitched up a homemade two-wheeled trailer, waved goodbye to his wife, Betty, and daughter, Dian, and took off for Blue River on July 5th; he drove about 25 miles up the road before his old machine gave up the ghost.
Alvin was towed back to Laurens, where, undaunted, he promptly purchased a well-maintained 1966 John Deere 110, and off he went again. Driving a slightly different route, north up Highway 15, Straight made it to West Bend, where his “new” mower broke down, but after spending $250 for repairs and staying a while camped in a new friend’s yard, he drove past the “Grotto of the Redemption,” on to Highway 18, then eastward, steadily, at 5 miles per hour, 10 hours a day.
Sitting near campfires along the road, sleeping in the 10-foot trailer on a strip of foam rubber, and often cooking on an old Coleman camp stove, Straight’s next leg led him through the likes of Cylinder and Sexton, Clear Lake and Rudd; he even came close to the aptly-named Hawkeye. A veteran of both World War II and the Korean Conflict, Straight claimed he was never afraid.
One of the great attractions to Lynch’s film — which starred Richard Farnsworth, who was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor — and Sissy Spacek — is its slow, easy pace, as if viewers are making the journey with the old man. Lynch said he “fell in love with the script” and wanted to make it because of the “emotion in it.” Whether Straight actually ever said it or not, we come to respect his wisdom when Farnsworth, as crusty and blunt as Straight could have ever been, says in an early scene, “Well I can’t imagine anything good about being blind and lame at the same time, but, still at my age, I’ve seen about all that life has to dish out. I know to separate the wheat from the chaff, and let the small stuff fall away.”
Heavy rains kept Straight in Charles City — at about the half-way point — where he visited a daughter (Alvin and his first wife of 40 years, Frances, had 12 children together, seven that survived infancy) and waited for a badly-needed Social Security check to arrive, but off he went again, eventually making it through some of Iowa’s tough hill country near the big river, crossing over into Wisconsin at Marquette. He drove to within two miles of his brother’s house by early August before he broke down yet again, but for that last, and shortest leg of the trip, he finally accepted a ride.
Straight stayed with Henry and his fifth wife, June, for several weeks before allowing a nephew to take he and his John Deere back home by truck. Oddly, Alvin and Henry Straight had hardly spoken for years, but the former felt he needed to renew the connection and put their differences behind them, particularly since Henry was in poor health; they had been close in their childhood days in Crow Wing County, Minnesota, but had not kept in contact. By all accounts, Henry was a rather eccentric soul himself, sometimes milking his goats on the kitchen table, and he was often seen riding his lawn mower to a favorite bar.
Becoming a celebrity
Alvin became a celebrity of sorts after his journey was made public. He accepted an interview with Paul Harvey, but turned down others with David Letterman and Jay Leno. He had no problem in profiting a bit by his new-found status, taking a local John Deere dealer up on an offer to appear in an ad, then accepting a deal from Paul Condit, the owner of Texas Equipment Company, who traded a brand new JD lawn tractor to Straight for the exhausted 110 so it could be put on display in his dealership. The tractor is now the property of the Laurens Chamber of Commerce.
Joanie and I found the Laurens Public Library just up Third Street, not far from where Farnsworth is shown in the film as he begins his journey, a cadre of old Ace Hardware busybodies hounding him in the broad, empty street. The library is well-shaded, and on that summer day, was filled with children who were checking out books and chattering among themselves.
In succession, we spoke with Library Director Glenda Mulder and co-workers Allison Price and Deb Hertz, all who tried to help us and were in agreement that the big scrapbook of newspaper clippings and photos would do the job best. It wasn’t long before Boughey stopped in too, hinting that if we paid attention to our television listings, she’d soon be a part of a Travel Channel “Mysteries at the Museum” segment featuring Alvin Straight’s story.
“The extended [Straight] family often gathered outside in the front yard in warm weather, but I’m not sure how often Alvin, himself, was a part of that gathering,” Boughey told us. “It was mostly family members of his second wife ... I really don’t remember seeing Alvin and his daughter, Dian, that much; however, she did often walk downtown. I worked in the local drug store at that time, and she would come in there and was always very friendly. She had several young children, of whom she did not have custody, and she was always so happy and proud when they were here for a custodial visit,” she added. The Academy Award-winning actress Spacek played Dian’s role, renamed as Rose.
Not everyone in Laurens was that pleased when Lynch came calling, since he hoped to film much of the movie in the quiet town. “I think a lot of people thought he [Lynch] would make us look simple,” Boughey told us that day, “but to their credit, they came to embrace the movie.” Lynch and his crew actually used Straight’s home on West Section Line Road — since burned by arsonists — in early scenes. The doctor’s office Alvin visited is now a day care, the iconic Ace Hardware (and its anxious owner, Pete, who utters the classic line, “Oh jeez, Alvin. That’s a darn good grabber.”) a fitness center. Yet, the wonderful white city water tower and the impressive concrete elevator silos remain. Alvin loved to listen to the roaring grain dryers from his front yard.
As is most often the case, there are differences between the film’s Alvin and the real one, yet his stubborn tenacity played a central role in both the movie and his life, a factor that produced considerable irony in Alvin Straight’s last days. The man who once told a newspaper reporter that he “…didn’t stay in no damn motel, that’s for sure,” and “didn’t eat in no restaurants, either,” took to the road on his mower again nearly two years to the day that he began his famous journey to Wisconsin. But this time he headed west.
Driving his new mower, Alvin hoped to make it to Idaho, a state he had worked in years before; it was to be a trip of over 1,100 miles. A traveling man in his working days (he was born in Montana and had labored in Wyoming, Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico, too), Straight made it nearly 400 miles this time, but was found in his trailer near Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota suffering from severe sunburn and dehydration. He was eventually brought home, but never recovered his health; he died in November 1996. Ironically, Henry Straight, whose poor condition led to Alvin’s trip to Wisconsin in the first place, survived his brother, and a John Deere lawn tractor, very similar to the one driven to Blue River, was included in the last trip Alvin made: to Ida Grove Cemetery.
Laurens is a wonderfully typical Midwestern town. There is a simple charm to its farm implement and feed stores, its tree-lined streets, to the railroad track that cuts through the business district to get to the elevator. In some ways, Joanie and I were already home when we came there, and there wasn’t much but flat pavement from the town limits to our house, 600 miles away, a trip we were happy to make at something better than five miles an hour.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. For more about his writing and speaking, visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. A trailer to the Travel Channel episode featuring Straight’s story can be found at www.travelchannel.com/shows/mysteries-at-the-museum/video/lawn-mower-reunion.