“The Straight Story” is the kickass tale of Alvin Straight, a grumpy and asocial former truck driver and laborer, who aged 73, arthritic, and nearly blind, took it upon himself to make a 250 mile journey on his lawnmower – from Laurens (Iowa) to Blue River (Wisconsin). With a top speed of 5 mp/h and multiple breakdowns the stubborn Alvin was a man with a mission as he needed to reach his brother, Henry, who had recently suffered a stroke.
Alvin did not have a driver’s license due to his deteriorating vision, while living a couple hundred miles away, he reasoned his only option was to travel to his brother riding his lawn mower. So setting off in early July 1994, Alvin Straight drove a riding lawn mower along highway shoulders, towing a trailer loaded with gasoline, camping gear, clothes, and food, from his home in Laurens, Iowa, to his brother in Blue River, Wisconsin.
This is his story and how it got turned in an Oscar nominated Hollywood film years after.
Straight’s journey: by lawnmower to Wisconsin
Alvin began his journey after discovering that his brother, Henry , then 80 and living across the Mississippi River (just north of Mt. Zion, Wisconsin), had suffered a stroke. Alvin no longer had a driver’s license due to his deteriorating (actually quite terrible) vision, and as an eternal cynic did not trust others to drive him. He was also way too proud to accept what he perceived as a hand out – in the form of someone driving him over – so he decided to tackle the trip in the only way he knew how: he’d drive his lawnmower.
By all accounts, Henry was a rather eccentric soul, sometimes milking his goats on the kitchen table, and he was often seen riding his lawn mower to a favorite bar. This explains his ‘logical’ choice for his lawnmotor as his means of transportation.
His brother lived 260 miles away and – given that the nearest bus station was 30 miles away arleady – the trip was quite logical….. At least to Alvin!
He tuned up his decrepit red Airens lawn tractor, hitched up a homemade two-wheeled trailer and waved goodbye to his wife, Betty, and daughter, Dian, and took off for Blue River (Wisconsin) on July 5th; he drove about 25 miles up the road before his old machine gave up the ghost and he got stuck.
Buying a new John Deere Lawnmower
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
Alvin Straight spent $250 for repairs and stayed a while camped in a new friend’s yard. When the lawnmower was fixed he drove on to Highway 18, then eastward, steadily, at 5 miles per hour,often for 10 hours a day. That’s equeally slow as the Girl who drove a Tractor from Holland to the South Pole……but half the speed of the Segway that crossed the USA from Seattle to Boston
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 journey was making steady progress. Slow but steady.
Lawnmower Travels & Delays
When he reached Charles City heavy rains forced him to stay there for a while. As he also ran out of money he decided to wait there until his next social security check would arrive.
When it arrived, 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.
On August 15, Straight’s lawn mower broke down again when he was two miles from his brother’s house near Blue River, Wisconsin. A farmer stopped and helped him push it the rest of the way.
At a top speed of 5 miles per hour and including his breakdowns and waiting time, the 261 mile trip trip took Straight six weeks in all.
Journey back home
Straight stayed with Henry and his fifth wife, June, for several weeks. 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.
After their valuable bonding time Alvin allowed a nephew to take him and his John Deere Lawnmower back home by truck.
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 as he was not interested in fame. He did profit a bit by his new-found status though as a local John Deere dealer offered him to appear in an ad for some money. He also accepted a deal from Paul Condit, the owner of Texas Equipment Company, who traded a brand new John Deere lawn tractor worth $5000 to Straight in exchange for the exhausted mower that he had made the trip on. The latter was put on display in Condit’s dealership as an eye catching marketing piece.
The tractor currently is the property of the Laurens Chamber of Commerce.
A Second Lawnmower Journey
Alvin 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. When he reached the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota he was found suffering from severe sunburn and dehydration and had to abandon his second lawnmower overland trip. He was eventually brought home but never really recovered his health.
Alvin Straight, the lawnmower traveller, died in November 1996, and his last respect was paid by driving his body to Ida Grove Cemetery on a John Deere lawnmower that was very similar to the one he used on his original trip to visit his brother.
Ironically, his brother Henry Straight, whose poor condition led to Alvin’s trip to Wisconsin in the first place, survived his brother.
David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” Movie
In 1999, director David Lynch turned Alvin Straight’s lawnmower journey in a Hollywood production with Richard Farnsworth featuring as Alvin.
Commenting on why he chose this script, Lynch said that “I fell in love with the script because of the emotion and likability of it”. Lynch displayed a great admiration for Straight, describing him as “he is like James Dean, except he’s old.”
The film is an unusually disciplined retelling of the true story that is both simple, funny and moving.
Richard Farnsworth got an Academy Award nomination for best actor for his role in this easy paced movie that feels like you, as the viewer, are making the lawnmower journey together with the Straight.
Not everyone in town of Laurens was that pleased when Lynch came calling, since he hoped to film much of the movie in the quiet town. The inhabitants of the quiet village feared David Lunch would make them look simple. The opposite happened as the entire town embraced the movie and it has come to be one of their proudest town feats. Lynch and his crew actually used Straight’s home on West Section Line Road — since burned by arsonists — in early scenes just like a whole bunch of other still existing buildings feature in the movie.
Straight received $10,000 plus ten percent of the movie’s profits. Straight said that he made the trip to see his brother, not for the possibility of fame or money.
Straight’s journey managed to put a huge smile on our face just like the bathtub sailor in Northern-Ireland. For more crazy and unconventional roadtrip stories like the Straight Story have a look here.