- Associated Press - Saturday, September 12, 2020

MUSCLE SHOALS, Ala. (AP) - Their journey has run the gamut of experiences.

For two days, they chugged their way through Kansas cornfields. They have sweltered in 112-degree heat in Arizona.

They were out of commission for two days while recovering from a wreck while trying to maneuver downhill on a cliff in New Mexico.

But Karima Spates and Wealthy Guan are quick to point out they wouldn’t exchange the experiences of their cross-country journey on a riding lawnmower for anything.

“We have so many stories from a lot of places,” Spates said Wednesday as they stood outside Days Inn by Wyndham hotel on Woodward Avenue seeking a tow. “People are so friendly and really supportive.”

Spates and Guan comprise the Blue Team in a five-team race that started in Los Angeles and will end in Tampa, Florida. It’s part of an online reality show called “The Great Grass Race.”

The competition requires the teams to make that journey on a riding lawnmower. It started July 9. Initially, the teams were told the destination was New York City. However, in a plot twist, producers surprised them in Missouri by telling them Tampa, Florida, actually is the destination.

The winner receives $100,000.

As if riding a lawnmower all that distance isn’t enough of a challenge, the teams are not allowed to bring money with them. That means they depend solely on people to provide them with essentials like food and shelter.

As difficult as that is, Spates said that also is the point of the show.

“The reason we’re doing the show is to show the generosity of people,” Spates said. “It’s the people, the good people all over the United States, who are making this possible.”

Fans follow the show and individual team members on Facebook, and the show posts episodes along the way at www.menace.vision.

The Blue Team’s journey traveled into the Shoals on Tuesday night. At that point, it stalled well into Wednesday due to an obstacle all of the teams frequently encounter: Law enforcement pulled them over and told them they cannot ride a lawnmower on the highway.

Spates said they don’t begrudged police, saying officers have safety in mind when they stop them. In fact, many officers have made runs to restaurants to buy food for the team.

The problem, however, is that the contest isn’t only based on getting to Tampa first. There also is a point system, and being stopped means you have to get a tow for a stretch, and that costs a team points.

That’s when the team sends pleas out to their Facebook fans, and calls local businesses asking for help in getting a tow. After all, they have no money to pay for one.

“That’s what’s so amazing about this whole experience, is watching people go out of their way to be charitable,” Spates said. “Some have actually been standing at the side of the road with food for us. We’ve stayed at about 10 people’s houses, and they’ve washed our clothes and fed us.”

In New Mexico, the lawnmower broke down in front of someone’s home. The man living there invited the team in to stay the night while he worked all night to repair the mower. He made them breakfast the following morning.

“We’ve made new friends all along the route,” Spates said. “Some of them call me every day.”

Kansas was the location of a two-day journey through a cornfield in an area that did not have a paved road.

“After two days, we came up on a McDonald’s and I’ve never been so happy to see a McDonald’s,” Spates said.

She is from New Jersey and Guan is from San Francisco, so the trip across the country has been a treat, especially seeing so much of small-town America.

A cameraman, Anthony Nathanial, follows them in a recreational vehicle, documenting the experience. He agrees it has been refreshing to see a different aspect of America.

“I wouldn’t trade it for the world, seeing America, especially middle America,” Nathanial said. “There’s a lot of animosity in the world right now, but people still are good and that’s what this show is all about, because they rely completely on the generosity of others. It’s really been a blessing, and we’re learning a lot about ourselves.”

The mower initially only reached 5 mph, but the Blue Team found out that other teams have flipped the pulley on their mower to make it go a few miles per hour faster, so they found a “chop shop” along the way that did the same for them at no cost.

Spates said she initially didn’t think she would continue after the first day. She jokes that anyone who watches the first episode of the program will see that. However, she is glad to have stuck with it.

The competitors got a surprise free tour Wednesday at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios.

“That was amazing,” Spates said following the studio tour. “It was an honor to be where all of that happened.”

She said the people keep her going.

“I can’t get over how dedicated people are to helping people,” Spates said. “When I think about all the connections I’ve made, when it’s over, it’s going to be sad. But the memories are going to last forever.”

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