The cutting-edge road warrior

Fund-raising: Gary Hatter needs back surgery, so he's driving across the country on a lawnmower.

June 22, 2000|By Rasmi Simhan | Rasmi Simhan,SUN STAFF

Gary Hatter likens his vehicle to a large citrus fruit. Or an orange UFO.

But when passers-by in Manhattan saw Hatter roll down Broadway at nine miles per hour, they knew he was riding a lawnmower.

They'd just never seen one before.

Children touched the hood in awe. People drove by, doubled back to stare, then doubled back again to give him a thumbs-up. One man even offered him $12,000 for it.

Hatter declined. After all, his 14,000-mile drive through the lower 48 states in the next five months will help cover the $100,000 pricetag of his third back surgery. In the process, he'll break the world record for riding a tractor, now set at 4,039 miles driven in about 50 consecutive days.

"The way my back is, I've got to have an operation, period," says Hatter, 46. He had covered more than 1,000 miles in his tractor when he passed through Baltimore yesterday. "Either I'm going to sit around and watch my life deteriorate to where it's too late to do anything about it, or I'm going to try to create something."

Hatter, a former truck driver from Champaign, Ill., has been on disability leave since 1979, when he suffered a herniated disc in his back while lifting a 250-pound milk crate. During his first surgery, the doctor removed the wrong disc, he says. His second surgery worsened the injury. Three years ago he realized he needed a third surgery, which would no longer be covered by worker's compensation. He had already raised two children, with a third about to attend college. He needed money.

When he was 10 and his family needed to buy meals, he mowed neighbors' lawns, loving the smell of cut grass. How many lawns would he have to mow now to pay for surgery? Remembering his passion for race cars and go-carts, he tried a new strategy: taking the mower across the country.

If he makes it, the prospects for paying for surgery look promising. In addition to corporate sponsorships such as CellularOne, Hatter has received about $475 in donations from passers-by during the first leg of his trip, which began May 31 in Portland, Maine.

The lawnmower, a Kubota BX 2200, isn't the used push-mower he had as a kid, but it's no Porsche, either. When he kicks it into neutral at the top of a hill, he can coast down at 20 mph, which is about twice as fast as his usual cruising speed. Being low to the ground, though, makes 20 feel like 120, he says.

"I don't go too awfully far too awfully fast," Hatter says. "Say you see a sign that says, Baltimore, 19 miles. If you're in a car you say, `OK, in 20 minutes I'm going to be there.' I see that sign and I'm thinking, `I'm going to be there in two hours and 10 minutes.' "

It's still no ordinary tractor. Hatter added a sun roof, chrome hubcaps and a license plate that says, "Allison," the name of a racing buddy in Champaign.

The snacks, clothes and diesel fuel travel with 17-year-old Gary Jr., who drives ahead of his father in their 1989 Chevrolet Cavalier.

Hatter planned his trip to avoid the East during hurricane season, the Midwest at tornado time, the Rockies when it snowed and the desert when it would be too hot. He even postponed the journey a year to avoid the heat wave that hit the Midwest last summer. He still ended up driving nine and a half hours through heavy rain in New Hampshire, where it was 40 degrees, then hitting the 97-degree heat in Boston and getting sunburned and blistered.

Hatter drives three to 10 hours a day, until his back aches or he feels shooting pains down his legs, and the Indy 500 souvenir pillow he alternately sits and leans on doesn't help anymore.

But adrenalin takes care of much of the pain, he says. He got a rush early this month from chugging to the summit of 6,288-foot Mount Washington in New Hampshire, an eight-mile trip that took 40 minutes.

At the base of the mountain, it was 80 degrees. Up top, the peak was covered in snow and the temperature plummeted to 40. Gale-force winds ripped the checkered flag from the tractor.

He's been well-received all the way down the coast, with complimentary meals, hotel stays and fuel. He's even welcome on such major thoroughfares as U.S. 40. Other drivers, traveling about six times faster than the tractor, seem willing to share the road with Hatter.

"I've had not one hostile motorist since I've been on this trip," Hatter says. "Nobody's (gestured at) me yet. Nobody's yelled and screamed at me because I'm holding them up. One of the reasons is I use common sense, and I don't hold traffic up. If I see a line of cars, I pull over and let them go."

After leaving Baltimore for Washington, Hatter will head south to visit his daughter in Tarboro, N.C. He says his journey will end in Florida, but he's not sure in which city. He'll leave it up to the citizens of Daytona Beach, Jacksonville and Orlando to pool their funds. The city that donates the most for his back surgery will be his final stop, he says.

By the end of the tour, he will have driven across the country four times. That's if you count driving from Champaign to Portland to arrange for the journey and returning home, to the Indy 500 and back, and from Champaign to Portland again, all in the week before the trip. Hatter traveled those miles by car.

Driving a tractor down the highway isn't as easy as mowing the lawn, he says.

"A lot of people think you go out there and you're going la, la, la, like you're mowing your yard, when you've really got to have total focus, total concentration in order to do this," he says. "You're watching the traffic behind you, you're watching the side of the road, you know everything that's going on.

"It's a full-time job."

To contribute

Address contributions for Gary Hatter's back surgery to: Gary Hatter P.O. Box 1033 Mahomet, IL 61853

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