CONWAY — Dust from the long road home covered the two tractors, each towing a trailer, that parked not far from the Conway Pub and Eatery.
Jeff Newell and Ron Wachholtz were making what would likely be their final stop Friday afternoon before the last 12 miles back to the Arlington property where Newell, 56, has lived all his life.
The two men drove their tractors nearly 5,000 miles from Arlington to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and back. They left July 11. It took about six weeks.
“We didn’t have much down time, just a couple times for repairs,” Newell said.
An alternator went out once, and they had to fix the trailer hitches multiple times.
It was a challenging trip, but a rewarding one.
Newell is a local business owner who bought a run-down John Deere tractor at auction, stripped it and rebuilt it over about nine months. The trip from Arlington to Alaska was a route he did years ago on a motorcycle, but he wanted to take it at a slower pace — and it was certainly slower by tractor, at about 15 mph.
Wachholtz, 62, became friends with Newell through a family member. He didn’t have time to get his own John Deere ready for the road, but his New Holland served him well.
Though Newell didn’t originally intend to make the trip into a fundraiser, he decided that if he was going to spend so much time, he might as well do it for a cause. He’s been collecting donations for diabetes research and education.
He was diagnosed with Type 1, also called juvenile, diabetes when he was 11.
The trailers behind the two tractors were painted with green and yellow banners that say “Driving for Diabetes,” with a web address for the fundraising site: www.gofundme.com/johndeerealaska.
“It was a couple of guys on tractors and people act like we come from the moon,” Wachholtz said. “It’s just something to catch their eye.”
The effort raised well over $20,000 online, and several thousand more in cash donations. The money will go to the American Diabetes Association.
Messages on the fundraiser page include personal stories. Several people donated in memory of a loved one, or because they have lived with diabetes.
“I have been a Type 1 diabetic since I was 9! Thank you so much for what you are doing!” one person wrote.
Another: “Donated in memory of my grandpa Red.”
Heading up through Canada and Alaska, Newell and Wachholtz heard more stories in person. The locals were welcoming and supportive. The owner of a service station paid for $275 in gas. He told them he was part of the First Nations people in Canada, and that diabetes affects many of the native population.
“He wouldn’t quit shaking our hand,” Wachholtz said.
Another man let them use his shop for repairs and drive his truck into town.
“He just opened his doors like he knew us for 100 years,” Newell said.
The man also called his sister, who owned an RV park nearby, and arranged a place for them to stay that night.
Everywhere they stopped, people wanted to talk, Newell said.
“And every time, there was someone who (said) they or a grandkid or a parent or a friend has diabetes,” he said.
In one town, they were invited to camp in the yard of a Canadian military veteran who is on dialysis.
“So many people opened up,” Newell said. “It’s kind of an unsung disease. People think, ‘Oh, he’s diabetic,’ but they don’t stop to think of what he goes through the rest of his life.”
A central goal of the trip was encouraging people to learn about the disease, which impairs the body’s ability to produce or use insulin to process food, causing elevated blood sugar, and can lead to serious medical complications.
Newell feels he accomplished his goal.
Along with the people they met, the scenery will stay with Newell and Wachholtz.
The sights were “unreal,” they said, like something from a movie. They drove alongside crystal clear rivers and passed over steep mountains.
“It’s like you’re driving into them,” Newell said. “Maybe it was because of the 15 mph speed, but they almost consume you.”
There were some heart-pounding moments. While riding on the shoulder of a rural road, the ground began to give way.
“I was able to pull out of it, but boy, it was close,” Newell said.
On the northward trek through Canada, they managed to stay ahead of wildfires that have burned in recent weeks. They spent four days on a ferry on the way home to stay clear of fires.
Newell plans to keep the fundraising site up for at least a few more weeks. He hopes to reconnect with some of the people he met on the road and still is taking donations. He hopes it helps find a cure.
He knows he’s not the only person with a creative way to bring attention to the disease. His wife sent him a news article about an 11-year-old boy who walked from Florida to Washington.
“I would sure like to shake his hand,” Newell said.