Even for a coast-to-coast drive, 15 weeks is a long time to sit behind the wheel, but Stoltzfus actually made good time considering his ride: a 1948 John Deere Model A tractor with a 24-foot camper hitched behind it. Traveling an average of 15 miles an hour, Stoltzfus had plenty of time to reflect on the purpose of his journey.
“I learned so much,” he said Saturday in Crescent City. “I’m a changed person coming across America. There’s so much good out there yet.”
An incredible journey
Never in the military himself, Stoltzfus always held great respect for the men and women who serve their country in uniform, and he wanted to do something for them in return. Combine Stoltzfus’ heart for veterans with his love for farming equipment, particularly the putt-putt of an old two-cylinder John Deere, and you get his formula for a transcontinental fundraiser. Every cent of the nearly $88,000 donated by people who met Stoltzfus along the way or heard about his endeavor goes to the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit group that helps injured veterans in just about any way possible. Its vision is “to foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation’s history,” according to the organization’s website. Stoltzfus also sold T-shirts and other souvenirs commemorating his journey to fund his stops at the gas pump.
With American flags flying from his tractor’s hood and his camper boldly proclaiming “Across America for Wounded Heroes, Changing Lives One Mile at a Time,” there was no doubt what Stoltzfus was up to as he crawled over mountain passes and wound through forests, slowly gaining ground in the fight against veterans’ suffering.
Everywhere he went, crowds flocked to meet the man driving the “Johnabilt” — Stoltzfus’ affectionate term for his John Deere/Peterbilt cab combo. Veterans, their families, and people with no direct connection to the military all were touched by Stoltzfus’ dedication to his cause, he said, and they flooded him with monetary donations and other gifts to show their support. Some even drove as far as eight hours to thank Stoltzfus, an overwhelming reward, he said.
One veteran gave Stoltzfus his Purple Heart, which hangs in the Johnabilt’s cab along with a button from the 116th Calvary Brigade Combat Team of Boise, Idaho, and photos of soldiers who died in combat. Stoltzfus dedicated his 15-week trek to “our men and women who loved us so much,” he said.
“We’re free because somebody paid the price for our freedom.”
Bringing people together
Manasquan is a coastal borough of about 6,000 people on the Manasquan River in central New Jersey. With strong Native American roots — the Unami Tribe named the area long before it became a township 125 years ago — Manasquan has several similarities to Del Norte. But it was Hurricane Sandy that led Stoltzfus to Manasquan, one of hundreds of communities on the Jersey shore devastated by the 2012 superstorm. He wanted to bring hope to the community and show people that someone recognized what they’d been through.
It was a similar goal that brought Stoltzfus to end his trip in Crescent City, where a 2011 tsunami was the latest big wave to ravage the harbor after a 1964 tsunami destroyed much of the downtown area.
“Crescent City kind of called to him because of the similarities (to Manasquan),” said Crescent City Harbor Board president Wes White during a ceremony welcoming Stoltzfus to town.
“You’ve shown us that one person can make a difference,” White told Stoltzfus. “The tens of thousands of dollars you’ve raised for the Wounded Warrior Project has inspired all of us. Thank you for choosing Crescent City to end your journey here.”
Del Norte County Board of Supervisors Chairman David Finigan, Crescent City Mayor Pro Tem Ron Gastineau and Chamber of Commerce director Jeff Parmer also thanked Stoltzfus for his efforts and for including Crescent City in his plans. In addition to receiving a proclamation thanking him from the county, Stoltzfus is now an honorary member of the Crescent City-Del Norte Chamber of Commerce, honorary harbormaster and an honorary member of the local FFA. He also has a Crescent City street sign with his name on it, a commemorative tsunami anniversary T-shirt and numerous other souvenirs to remind him of his visit to Del Norte.
“I’m speechless,” Stoltzfus said in response to the accolades. “I just felt the love as soon as I came here.”
If anything Stoltzfus did convinces Americans to reach out to one another and lend a helping hand, he’ll consider his journey a success, he explained.
“We can pull America back together. Just lean over your neighbor’s fence and ask them how they’re doing,” he said. “I see America as one big family, and families take care of each other.”