By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
For Kenneth Page, all that he had built his dreams around vanished in a cloud of Central Texas dust on that terrible day this past March. That was the day his wife, Ardes, loaded up his beloved dog in the truck Kenneth bought her as a wedding present and drove right out of his life.
It was a bitter shock. Kenneth thought things were coming together for once. Sure, it had been awhile since the then-45-year-old ex-con and Bellmead, Texas, native had drawn a steady paycheck, but the longhaired, red-bearded, aquamarine-eyed mechanic knew that would come sooner or later. He was a fiercely hard worker and an extremely capable small-engine mechanic. Any day, things would get better, and the Page family-Ardes, Kenneth and their little half-breed border collie Cisco Aloysius-would turn the corner.
But man, did this economy stink, and no one needed Kenneth's services, either as a mechanic or as a driver of forest tractors. And one day Ardes-a night clerk at a motel on Interstate 35-said she wanted to spend some time with her grown kids. It was a ploy. She bailed permanently.
She'd never liked the house they'd had to move into in Thrall, Texas. She'd been happier in the one they had before in Taylor, which was closer to Austin, but when Kenneth lost his job and the rent had gone up from $650 to $850, they had to move further out into the sticks. A friend later told Kenneth the house was a jinx on couples.
"She just couldn't make it anymore," Kenneth said, months later. "I'm not saying she didn't believe in God, but maybe she should have taken more stock in blind faith."
At the time, Kenneth was beside himself. Man, did he ever love Ardes and Cisco. Not only did he buy his wife that truck, but he also took her name at their wedding. (More unusual than that, Page was not Ardes' maiden name. For the record, Kenneth's own birth name is Woolard.) And as much as he smarted at the loss of Ardes, these days it's talking about Cisco that really stings. Page says the little mutt had real personality: He loved the music of Santana and would howl along with the old-time country hoedowns of the Soggy Bottom Boys of O Brother, Where Art Thou? fame. Cisco was also fiendishly smart and could obey multi-step commands, such as "Go get the leash and take it to mama." And Cisco was affectionate: Page swears he awoke one night in bed to find little Cisco petting him with his paw.
And then one day, after less than a year of marriage, it was all gone. He was left with nothing save for some bills he couldn't pay and a broken-down old Harley-Davidson. Within a few weeks, he and the hog were bunking out in a storage building in the suburbs of greater Waco, where Page was born and raised. He called Ardes, once and only once, to beg for one more chance. She said no. And that was all Kenneth needed to breathe life into the dream...
He knew that he had to get a move on, get rolling somewhere, quit letting the devil set up his workshop in that too-long idle mind of his. Page had wrestled with some demons over the years—he cops to a youthful bout with speed, and his fondness for beer was such that it both cost him his upper front teeth and actually helped land him a lengthy stretch in the state pen in the '90s. Kicked around as Page was, a lesser man might succumb again to those vices. After all, it's not often that a man hits the honky-tonk heartbreak trifecta: losing your wife, truck and dog on the same day. Rarer still is the man who can take that whirlwind of haymakers and get back off the canvas.
Kenny Page is that rare man, and like most rare men, he was sustained by a dream. And as the sting of his abandonment faded, as he came to grips with the fact that he had survived the brunt end of all those calamities—"Man oh man, couldn't she have at least left me with the dang dog," he often thought to himself in his moments of weakness, and "Why did she have to tell me she was sending him to the pound?"—his long-germinating dream took root in his soul and shot some shoots up out of its barren wastes.
After all, there was no time like the present for him to get that riding lawn mower and ride it all the way to Florida. Talladega, Florida, to be exact, where he wanted to host a tailgate at a big NASCAR race with warm sodas and hot dogs boiled in his lawn-mower engine. His niece told him his trek would probably make the Guinness book. Page thought he might serve as a role model to his mopey, unemployed nephews. And maybe he could get some work out of the deal somehow himself.
Bobby Simek, a former coworker Page calls his best friend, says that Page once shared this vision with him about five years ago, when the two had worked together for Rusty Greer Equipment, and long before his failed marriage to Ardes. There, the two labored insane hours repairing engines and clearing out brush for pipelines for Greer, the former Texas Rangers baseball great. At one point, Simek was laid off and laid up at Page's house, where he was crashing for the time being.