Having gradually needed fewer and fewer material things over the course of our travels, and wondering how we will settle back into our old life once home, I thought it would be interesting to travel through Amish country before ending our US touring. I was looking forward to wondering along Amish trail at horse pace, visiting some of their stores and maybe get to talk to some Amish people.
I had read about the Amish, about their beliefs and lifestyle and was intrigued as to how they managed to sustain their lifestyle in today’s consumerist society. I had read that while the Amish have a prescribed lifestyle (eg no electricity in their homes), some groups of Amish more traditional and strict than others, Amish were also flexible so long as they didn’t do anything that could compromise the basic essence of their beliefs: self reliance and a strong family and community bond.
Sunday was our first lesson. When we ride into Middlebury, the little town looks extremely quiet, surprisingly so, but when we get to an information centre on the edge of town which I thought would be a good starting point, the car park is totally empty. Everything is closed!! Of course. Sunday – day of rest! How silly of me.
Ok, let’s go back to the main street and find a restaurant there for lunch. Nothing. Everything is closed. Too bad. We ride around, the roads, lanes are very empty. There is no one around, apart for the odd cyclist. We eventually spot a little diner in the next village, Bristol, that’s still open for the next 30 minutes. Anthony is feeling tired so after checking into our hotel, he has a nana nap while I ride off and wonder around Elkhart for a couple of hours, visiting the Havilah Beardsley house, an old home turned museum, chatting to a colourful local character in downtown Elkhart and learning about the massive RV industry, local mafia money – I love those encounters!
This morning, Monday, we set off, with the aim of following part of the Heritage Trail, taking us to Warakusa, Nappanee, Goshen and Shipshewana.. I am looking forward to seeing some of the garden quilts, stopping at small village stores and just talking to the locals. Our first stop is the Dime Store in Warakusa, the home of over 450 kinds of candy, a department store since 1907. We have a lot of fun talking to Kelly and Jane. I get to try the biggest, triple coated chocolate malt ball!!! An hour later, we continue our short walk in the village, admire the garden and wall quilts, then walk into a different world as we enter the Yoder Brothers’ Antique store.
Our next stop is the Dutch Village Market in Nappanee. It sounds interesting and I have no preconceived ideas on what to expect here, but a nice cup of coffee would be great. We enter, are greeted by a cheerful young lady behind a counter who was talking to a gentleman near the entrance and I ask her what she can tell us about the place and what we can find here. All sorts of crafts and stalls. Are all the goods made here, I ask? Oh no, some are, others come from other states or overseas. Hmmm. What are you looking for? We explain that we are not looking to buy anything but were interested to learning more about the Amish. As we chat with her and the gentleman, I ask him if he is Amish – I knew he was as I had noticed his trousers had buttons and no zippers. Would you talk to us. Of course. To which Anthony asks him if he would join us for coffee. Absolutely.
His name is David Miller and this is when our day became another unforgettable day. I have read so much about the Amish, but I have so many questions and of course, don’t know how much is correct and/or is still current. Rather than firing questions, I ask David whether my understanding on this or that is correct. He is very open. And asks us questions too. At one point, with glistening in his eyes, and a lump in his throat, he says that he doesn’t know why he happened to be by the entrance when we walked in. It gives me goosebumps – as we pulled up to the centre, Anthony and I had just been talking about how we both know sometimes not to question why the other decides to do something because we somehow know that it will turn out to be just right. We often ‘know’. After chatting for sometime, he is paged so has to leave us but will be back. We decide to order lunch while we wait for him to return. Little did we know that he decided to invite us to his daughter’s home to meet his wife and grandkids a couple of miles down the road and had already called them. Of course, we accept!!! He disappears again but not before paying for our lunch and his coffee, which we only find out when we try and pay!! He leads the way on his bicycle and we follow slowly, very slowly.
We are greeted by Linda and Edna, David’s wife and daughter, who immediately invite us to join them in the garden to weed!! We instantly feel a sense of pure joy. They are laughing and joking and invite us in. We get to meet Edna’s 5 kids. They speak Dutch amongst themselves but the older kids understand English. (Dutch is really Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania Dutch as they call it – with “Dutch” stemming from “Deutsch”, nothing to do with Holland, but Swizerland, Germany and Alsace in France.) We are an oddity for the kids – with our bikes, strange clothing and strange accents!!
We are so privileged to be able to ask so many questions and find out about their lifestyle first hand – about their schooling, their church, their communities, the structure of their communities, their values etc. It is so easy to chat with them all and they are incredibly open and candid with us. When I said that I hoped I wasn’t being rude in asking so many questions, they assured me that they felt they were asked in a polite and sensitive manner and they were therefore very happy to answer them all. They too ask us so many questions about our travels and life. We talk about so many things: local and world politics, travel, marriage, kids, families, schooling, technology, quilting. I have to admit that I am surprised at how much they have travelled in the US: David and Linda have visited every state in the US bar 3. That is so much more than the average American!! They don’t read newspapers although they wish they had access to the Goshen newspaper as it publishes Amish Obituaries: that is just about the only way they find out about deaths in distant communities.
They have electricity in their homes, which they produce through either gas which is used for some ceiling lamps or using a generator for their washing machine, or using solar panels to provide energy stored into a series of batteries which is inverted into 12V which they use for side lamps or fans. So ingenious! There is no doubt that Amish life is still hard work: women make all their own and their kids clothes, their washing machines are still labour intensive!! They still use horse drawn buggies or bicycles – they will only travel by taxi or cars if driven by someone else. There are some groups of Amish who are much stricter in what they will allow to be used – some for example would not have allowed us to drive our motorbikes onto their property. They use call boxes but not mobiles. Basically they ensure they are not dependent on any government or state service such as power-grid or fuel and that anything they do or buy does not negatively affect the basic essence of their beliefs and their family and community structure. We have all seen what mobiles/cell phones have done to our society: how often have we seen couples or groups of people glued to their mobiles rather than holding a conversation with the people they are with. And what about TVs?! How many families in our society have dinner around the family dinner table instead of in front of the TV?! When Amish kids become teenagers, they are allowed to go out and experience our lifestyle but are rarely encouraged to do so because of the inherent dangers of alcohol, drugs etc. It is only as an adult, usually between the age of 16 to 25, that they decide whether they want to be baptised Amish – or anabaptised. That is when they decide whether they want to commit to a life of simplicity, submission, self reliance with a reluctance to adopt the conveniences and trappings of modern technology. David estimates that 40% of young people chose not to embrace the Amish way, but they not shunned or excommunicated for making the decision of not being baptised. One of the waitresses where we had lunch for example chose not to be baptised but still lives at home with her Amish parents – she dressed in a pink t-shirt and trousers, most likely has a mobile as that could be recharged at home, but she wouldn’t have a tv. Considering most Amish families have 7 kids on average, the Amish population is growing steadily. David, who turns 60 at the end of December, had 9 kids and 43 grandkids. Amish do not vote in federal elections, we vote on our knees says David, although very interestingly, David mentions that their views are more aligned with the Republican party, believing in self reliance rather than government intervention and handouts (Amish have even been approached and encouraged to vote as their votes would significantly boost the Republican party!!). The Amish community is very much like our old communities used to be, where everyone would help each other rather expect any government hand out.
Talking about their community and church structure, we are a day late David tells us as yesterday, they held the Sunday church service in their home – the families take turns to host the service as they do not have church buildings. Amish are conscientious objectors but “pay it forward” to the government by the young men, 18 to 25 working one month a year, every March, at no pay. Interesting approach!
David has to go back to work this afternoon for a couple of hours but invites us to his home for dinner which is wonderful because, although we have already spent 3 hours with him, we all feel we would like to spend more time together. Edna invites us on a tour of their home – she is happy for me to take photos so long as I don’t take photos of herself or the kids.
After leaving Edna’s home, we ride around the area for an hour before heading to David and Linda’s home for supper. We meet Brian, Edna’s husband. Interestingly, he uses computers at his work having learned all he knows on the job, as many of us did. He works for an aluminium cabinet manufacturer and uses CAD design software, does project management and has moved around the organisation doing multiple jobs. Again, we get a better understanding of how they use technology as needed, but so long as it does not interfere with their family.
A huge storm comes through the area – the wind, thunder and lightening are incredible. It is 6pm, a couple of lamps are switched on as it is getting dark with the black clouds. David and Linda have a community meeting to go to this evening so leave us in their house with Brian until the storm passes, but not before exchanging addresses and them inviting us to come back and spend time with them next time we are in the US. In no time, David has the horse and buggy set up and we say our final goodbyes. The image and incongruity of that moment, Anthony and I standing in the rain outside their house, next to Streak and Storm, and watching David and Linda disappearing into the distance in the horse drawn buggy will remain imprinted in my mind.
Today became one of our most memorable days on this entire trip. The openness, trust, generosity and friendship of this beautiful and gentle Amish family in such a short time means so much to us, especially at a time when we are re-evaluating what was once important to us and how we want to lead our lives after this trip. The synchronicity of this experience happening at a crucial time on our trip and in our lives is perfect. They didn’t want us to take photos of them but just to remember them in our hearts. That we will.
I sincerely hope that my account of today captures, if only a fraction, what spending time with David, his wife Linda, their daughter Edna and husband Brian and their family means to both of us and what respect I have for their lifestyle and honesty. Rarely have I met people living their lives in complete honesty with their declared beliefs. I also hope that in summarising our time with David and his family and what they shared with us, I have not trivialised but accurately enough captured their beliefs. What makes today all the more special is that total strangers were happy to open their homes and hearts to us, total strangers.
No, I do not intend converting to Amish life, but the essence of their life, believing in humility, simplicity, family, community and their values do ring true to me. Today will remain one of the most precious experiences of our Round the World tour. Strangers welcoming strangers, like Cirik, Jamkur, Sohrab, Reza, Rohan, Aditya, Dharmendra and now David – thank you from the bottom our hearts.
We may only have got as far as Nappanee but we got to see and learn so much more about the Amish than we could ever have dreamed of.