Illinois man traveling nation by mower visits Sweet Home

Sweet Home’s seen it all in the last three or four years, with men walking, riding a horse or riding bicycles, but the latest man to come over Santiam Pass on a nationwide journey of thousands of miles did so on the back of a riding lawnmower.

Gary Hatter of Champaign, Ill., started his 14,000-mile trek in Portland, Maine, on May 31, visiting 37 states so far on a Kubota lawnmower.

His goal is to visit the 48 mainland states, with brief jaunts into Canada and Mexico.

He reached left Sisters last week on Thursday, passing Mountain House on Highway 20 around 3:30 p.m. and reaching Sweet Home a little after 6 p.m. Already a record setter at 4,040 miles when he reached his hometown, Hatter had just broken 9,000 miles when he reached Sweet Home.

In Sweet Home, he stopped off at O&M Tire where he refilled his lawnmower and gas cans. There he delighted visitors with stories of his travels and left local children thrilled with his popping a wheelie as he left for Sweet Home Inn, which gave him a room for the night, and later visiting Chef Kev’s for a chicken-fried steak dinner.

As drivers passed him on Highway 20, he may have seemed a little odd on his lawnmower, but Hatter has already had the Kubota in stranger places, drawing stares on Broadway in New York and taking a police escort through the Lincoln Tunnel. He has already taken the lawnmower past the White House, Washington Monument and many other historical sites in Washington, D.C., through snowstorms and rainstorms and mountain passes not meant for anything but the toughest of off-road vehicles.

He has attracted the attention of all kinds of media, from NBC Extra and Ripley’s Believe it or Not to a feature in USA Today and coverage in the Washington Post.

“I’m doing it pretty much for three reasons,” Hatter said. The most serious reason is to raise money for a third back operation. Hatter was a truck driver and was just starting a promising racing career at the age of 24 when he was hurt while unloading a truck. When he went in for a back operation, the doctor removed the wrong disc, laying him up for two years. Further medical care was not covered by his company, which said the liability was the doctor’s, and Hatter lost his coverage for the injury. A second operation did not include post-operation therapy. The doctor removed the stitches and that was about it. He has been on disability for the last 21 years.

He went to see a doctor about three years ago, who told him his condition was degenerating, with quite a bit of scarring, Hatter said. “It’s (the scarring) getting dangerously close to the nerve, where I could be paralyzed.”

Persons interested in helping may reach Hatter at P.O. Box 1033, Mahomet, Ill., 61853.

The other reasons are quite a bit less serious.

“I’m not one to be cooped up,” Hatter said. “I’m one to go.”

It’s not the same as driving a truck or racing and quite a bit slower, but he’s doing what he wants to be doing — driving.

“This is slower, one extreme to the other,” Hatter said, but through it, he can unleash his energy and get out and drive.

“Part three of the whole thing was I wanted to try to go for the world record,” Hatter said. That record was most recently set last year when a young man drove a lawnmower 4,039 miles in 51 consecutive days. Hatter coincided his setting a new record with Champaign, Ill. He said he was off the mapped mark by only seven feet when he set the new record. He plans to end his trip in Jacksonville, Fla., with 14,000 miles under his belt on or around Dec. 31.

He started the trip with his 18-year-old son, Gary Hatter Jr., following in a 1989 Chevy Cavalier. His son would travel ahead and make contact with hotels and media to prepare for his father’s arrival. They had to part ways in Minneapolis, Minn., on Sept. 4 with 5,700 miles down when his son had to return to Champaign for school. Hatter Sr. decided to continue on alone but does carry a cell phone with him.

Thursday was his 142nd consecutive day on the road. He had just come off a 131-mile-long stint behind the mower’s wheel across the Eastern Oregon desert and was looking forward to shorter hops to Corvallis on Friday, Salem on Saturday, Portland on Sunday and Vancouver on Monday. From there, he may travel to Seattle or west to Highway 101 before heading south into California, where he intends to ride the mower across the Golden Gate Bridge, and hitting the southern states.

He had originally planned to hit the West Coast states through Spokane, Wash., but reports of possible snow in the Cascades prompted him to get over the mountain range quickly, so he chose to come across on Highway 20 through Sweet Home.

The lawnmower travels 9 mph and has a 350-mile range with the gasoline Hatter carries with him. He can travel 140 miles on 10 gallons of gas.

He pass the time by “trying to keep from getting killed,” Hatter said half seriously. “You don’t have a chance to get bored.”

Driving, he must keep an eye out for objects like rocks and screws and other debris on the roadways. At the same time, he takes notes about where he is on a small tape recorder, and he had shot 267 rolls of film as of Thursday.

While dodging the debris, he’s got to watch traffic. To deal with that, he scoots the mower as far to the right as he can, making sure he doesn’t slow anybody down.

Hatter has dozens of stories about his experiences on the road. His journeys include a trip up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, where he encountered a 60-degree difference in temperature in the span of 48 minutes on the mower, about eight miles. He cross the Great Divide in Colorado at a height of 11,371 feet, and saving 60 miles, he headed into Salt Lake City, Utah, through Guardsman Pass, a place recommended only for 4×4 rigs.

That was the scariest part of his trip so far, he said. The pass was graveled, but the rocks were huge, many of them boulders, and the road was not maintained. The grade was so steep, the weight on the back of the mower popped the front wheels off of the ground. He had to throw himself over the steering wheel and front of the lawnmower for several hours to make it over the pass, and the wheels still kept bouncing off the ground.

A highlight of the journey for Hatter was the chance to race go-carts with John Andretti and Kyle Petty.

Hatter gets stopped by people who want his picture or just to talk between 15 and 20 times a day. People along the way “have been just as friendly as can be, helped me along the way,” Hatter said. He takes few breaks otherwise, eating snacks and grabbing a drink occasionally.

When it’s all said and done, Hatter said, the Kubota, purchased at the start of the trip in Maine, will still be well under warranty.