By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Tracking Kenneth Page was not as hard as you might think. I picked up his trail in Lufkin, where he was written up in the Daily News. Other than Page, the only quoted source in the story was Dr. Bryan Pool, a Lufkin chiropractor for whom Page had done some work while passing through town. (Pool was so impressed with Page he called the paper, thus bringing Page his first media attention.)
Pool told me that Page had called back with a progress report the day before. "He told me he had made it to 10 miles north of Beaumont and turned left," Pool said, and added that Page had said something about some engine trouble. A mechanic had helped him out with new fan belts and other parts, and Page had made it across the state line, Pool said.
That left me with some detective work. I deduced through Google maps that in all likelihood, Page would have crossed the Sabine River into Louisiana on Highway 12 at Deweyville, Texas. He would then certainly have to pass through the town of Starks, but after that, he could either head south on Big Woods Road toward Sulphur and Lake Charles, or head northeast toward DeQuincy on Highway 12.
And since Page was not known to be carrying a cell phone, we would have to track him the old-fashioned way — by asking people and keeping our eyes peeled.
Just to make sure this wasn't a complete fool's errand, we stopped at a gas station on the west side of Starks. I made myself a cup of Community Coffee and told the fiftysomething white lady behind the counter I was looking for a man who might have ridden past on a lawn mower, pulling a trailer behind him. Her eyes narrowed.
"I'm a reporter from Texas," I added.
"He's riding that thing all the way from Waco, Texas, to Florida," I added, trying to be helpful.
"Yes," the lady said. "He was here. Yesterday. He went that way," she said, pointing to the east.
So he was real. In downtown Starks, a man told us he had seen Page on the other side of DeQuincy on Highway 12, so we knew we could rule out Big Woods Road and the Lake Charles route. We peeled out toward DeQuincy.
Our next stop was a roadside barbecue stand on the eastern outskirts of DeQuincy. A broad-faced, grand-matronly white lady who put us in mind of Aunt Bea from Mayberry said she hadn't seen him, but she asked an unseen companion if he had seen a guy ride past on a Murray lawn mower. "Why, did he steal it from you?" asked the man, who turned out to be a dapper, balding Creole with a lilting accent. He hadn't seen him either, but a young family—the only customers in the place—had seen him. They believed he could be all the way to Kinder or Elton by then, as they had seen him eastbound and down, loaded up and truckin' out of the hamlet of Ragley the day before.
We pushed on to Kinder, the famous Coushatta Indian casino town. At the intersection of Highway 165, we stopped at a grocery store to confirm that Page was not headed further north on the highway to Oberlin. I told the fry cook at the store lunch that Page's wife had left him and that he had decided to ride his lawn mower from Waco to Florida. "Beats suicide," the cook said. "I guess. Naw, I haven't seen him." But across the street at a garage/body shop, they had seen him and told us to keep heading east.
By now, the road had changed names to Highway 190 and was informally known as the Acadiana Parkway. To the west, there had been a few scary, overloaded-looking logging trucks lumbering down the road, groaning under the weight of giant pine logs, but this was rice country. Aquatic tractors were churning through waterlogged fields, white herons and other wading birds following in their wake. Silos lined the train tracks in the small towns we passed through. Balke tuned in a Cajun station on the AM radio and we had a soundtrack of accordion waltzes and swamp-pop boogies to round out the tableaux.
And so passed Elton, and then Basile, where instead of beer, ice and cigarettes, the town grocery prominently offered tasso, boudin, cracklins, gumbo and, well, beer, 'cause Cajuns like that too. And by this time, we no longer needed to get out and ask if Page had passed this way, because we already knew, as the blacktop shoulders had given way to mixtures of red dirt, gravel and green grass. Balke and I could now clearly see the tracks of Page's Murray steadfastly heading east.
Eunice is the first town of Walmart-supporting size along this highway for more than 100 miles, and pulling in was something of a sensory overload for Balke and me. I thought we had to be getting pretty close by then, so when we came upon a Popeyes with a few police cars in the parking lot, I asked Balke to stop. The Eunice cops might know where Page was.