The future? SpaceX Starbase and Starship

Brownsville is probably not the first item on most people’s travel itinerary when visiting Texas. Located on the banks of the Rio Grande river close to the Gulf of Mexico, it is over 1100 kms. / 700 mls. round trip from Houston, where we are planning to catch up with friends. We are drawn to Brownsville, or more accurately Boca Chica, the home of SpaceX’s Starbase, to see where the construction of the Super Heavy boosters and the Starships are being undertaken.

I find the SpaceX story fascinating, developing a reusable rocket system from scratch.  When I watch the boosters landing either on the ships or land, I am transported back to my childhood watching Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds or earlier Fireball XL5 series on black and white  television where model rockets appeared to land vertically just like we see today. Science fiction then, reality now. Until SpaceX developed the Falcon series, rocket boosters were just dumped into the ocean.  I wonder if there is an undersea mountain of discarded boosters down there.

As we headed south through Texas, we notice that in addition to the good old “nodding donkeys”used for oil extraction that have been there for decades, we start to see wind farms with the giant wind turbines rotating in unison, seemingly stretching to the horizon in some locations. The change to a renewable future is even here in oil rich Texas.

Wind Turbines now start to dot the landscape.

As we have travelled over the preceding years, much of what we have seen and experienced has been historically based. We read the plaques that give details of events that have shaped the past and present.  In a sense, we are looking backwards, not forward.  What we are about to see with the Starship is the future, it has not happened yet and the reason we are here.  We want to see and feel the future.

Texas State Highway 4 runs from Brownsville to the beach at Boca Chica on the Gulf of Mexico.  The state of the road, potholed in some places, gives no clue as to the importance of this route High voltage transmission lines the only indication that something of substance lies ahead. We notice on our left a US Border Patrol checkpoint for vehicles coming back from the coast due to the proximity of the US Mexican border along the Rio Grande river. We will have to negotiate the checkpoint on our return.

Our first glimpse of Space City is of two tall grey buildings rising out of the almost flat sandy landscape, as we drive closer a series of tall objects come into view, The Rocket Garden. 

Our first glimpse of SpaceX Starbase..
SpaceX Production facilities at Boca Chica.
We are here at the home of the Starship.

We both feel the excitement rising as we approach what is the SpaceX construction facility. We were not sure if it would be worth the long detour here, but as the buildings and rockets come more clearly into focus, we both know the trip was worthwhile.

I had expected that we would see more visitors here to see what SpaceX is doing, but only a couple of locals are present.  There is no large visitors car park full of curious visitors, souvenir stands or guided tours.  It is all so low key.  I guess I was expecting large gates, fences topped with razor wire and guards shepherding away those of us who get too close.  The opposite is true, low fences open gates and in some cases no gates just a small sign saying “ No trespassing Private Property”. We get an uninterrupted view of the Starships and booster.

Our first stop is the launch pad where to see the rocket combination on the launchpad. We are able to just park at the side of the road in the sand and walk back towards the rocket. What an amazing scene greets us.  Only a day or so before we arrive, SpaceX have assembled Super Heavy Booster No. 7 and Starship 24 on the launch pad. We hear that this is the combination that could be used for the first test launch.  Did they put it up just for our visit, or for passengers the convoy of Teslas that probably had Elon Musk inside one we saw entering the complex?  We will let you decide.

Ready to go SpaceX launch facilities and the crowds watching.
Hope they do not start up while I am standing here.
Starship 24 and Super Heavy Booster No. 7 Assembled on the launch pad.
The old and new. Original houses from Boca Chica village.

Driving back, we park outside the Rocket Garden, an aptly named area that has earlier designs three Starships including SN15, which was the first to successfully take off and land on the 5th of May 2021, plus a Super Heavy Booster to round off the display.  It interesting to compare each one and see external differences as the designs have evolved. 

No Gates, just a polite “Private Property” Anthony outside the SpaceX Rocket Garden.
Hang on we are off for a ride.
That close but not trespassing. Amazing.

We are back again the following morning to see everything again in the early morning light, better for photographs. Just beyond the launch site the road abruptly finishes at the beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Golden sands stretch north and south with the mouth of the Rio Grande just a short distance away.

My sentiments exactly, but more artistic than I could do.

In addition to purchasing a number of the original Boca Chica village residences for staff accommodation, a certain Airstream salesman must have got a great commission of the dozens and dozens of Airstream trailers/caravans that dot the landscape.

We are educated on how to identify the house that Elon Musk stays in when visiting, sorry no clues from us. No, it is not a Tesla parked outside, Teslas are common cars around here. Sadly Elon was not home to discuss our longer term travel plans. Yes we would move from motorcycles and cars to Starships given the opportunity, but there are many many more qualified than us ahead in the queue for such adventures. We will just have to dream.

The place is a hive of activity, even on the weekends.  We understand from a local that SpaceX operates multiple shifts a day, 7 days week in some areas.  You can see that this level of activity must move things along more quickly than the Monday to Friday 9-5 routine.  The challenge would be the handovers each day.  It must be much easier to come into work as we did and know that nothing has changed since you went home. 

One of the perhaps lesser known facts about SpaceX operations is the clever recycling they use.  There are two 9m high S-Band Tracking Antenna that were formally used by NASA for the Space Shuttle program and were considered scrap that have been purchased by SpaceX for their use with Starship and Falcon programs.  One of the original rocket engine test beds that flew a few meters off the ground is now a water tank.

9m. / 30 ft. high S-band tracking station antenna.

We leave the SpaceX Starbase complex for the second time and head for Houston.  We feel lucky and privileged to seen what we have. The detour here was definitely worth it.  Thank you SpaceX for making this all so open to see for those who come here. Please respect the boundaries and enjoy seeing the future before it becomes reality.

– Anthony

PS Anyone has Elon Musk’s email address so we can discuss our future travel plans?

 

Shopping in Texas

When in the USA we have always taken a little time for shopping. In the past, we have found both competitive pricing and variety giving us the best of both worlds. 

Being in Texas where everything is bigger, yes I know that Texas is just a small town in Queensland, I meant the other one, we should avail ourselves of the opportunity.

With Christmas approaching and having binged on numerous Netflix Christmas movies in the motels, perhaps now was the time to upgrade our festive decorations from minimalist to extravagant.  Lunch at the Cracker Barrel chain offered such an opportunity to do just that.  Surrounded by all the glitter I was ready to buy up big, but just could not decide between the “All White” or the “multi coloured look”. Oh well there is always next year.

Texas was where some years ago I introduced Anne to the pistol range.  We both shot 9mm and even though it was Anne’s first time, her aim was good with only the recoil of her Smith and Wesson MP9 affecting the grouping of the rounds vertically.  Anne likes to keep her eyes out for an all in one versatile handbag and I thought that these might just be the ones.

All I need now is that nice 9mm handgun.

Seems the colour choices and the lack of armament options back in Australia have killed another sales opportunity. Oh well.

The term “Premium Outlet Stores” has, in my mind, conjured up a slightly better class of discount store. What I had not realised is that there are Premium and “PREMIUM” outlet stores. We learnt that at the San Marcos Premium Outlets located between Austin and San Antonio.  Armani, Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo amongst others provide a chance to acquire luxury branded goods at atmospheric, not stratospheric prices, but still outside our price range. 

If only they had my size in that style.

Luckily, seems we cannot get past the dark suited gentlemen with earpieces at the doors, something about unfashionable customers – phew that saved a few dollars.

Gun detection dogs in shopping centres. Whatever next.

When parking in shopping centres we are always mindful of our personal security and that of the automobile which usually contains all our possessions, no guns here, for the trip. Most centres seem to have some form of security but this was purely Texas.

Mounted car park patrol Texas style.

Eric explained that being on horseback gave a commanding view of the vehicles from above roof hight and I am sure it is easier to lasso a varmint from a horse than a security golf buggy.  Great idea.

Well shopping in Texas was a bust. A couple of pairs of jeans for me and a wallet still full of dollar bills.  Not a bad shopping trip.

And for those who don’t know us that well, our home borders on the minimalist, our 43 year old Christmas tree is a mere 50cm/20 inches tall and Anne hates guns.

– Anthony

Nashville, a little bit country

Where we left you all standing at end of the last blog.

Sorry to leave you all standing in the queue outside The Station Inn for so long back in October.  This blog entry was delayed by a version on “Writer’s Cramp” that afflicted us since our return to Australia at the end of that month.  We will over the next week round off the USA portion of our 2022 journey and hopefully normal service will be resumed sometime in 2023 when we actually work out what we are going to do next.

Just before 7pm the queue starts to move forwards, we have been chatting with those around us and it seems to be a mixture of “out of towners” and locals.  For a fair number including us this was the first time here. Slowly up the ramp, still wondering about the capacity limit and we are in.

Some of the Station Inn crowd on Sunday night.

We scan the room looking for an empty table and make our way to the wall on the left of the stage. Settling in we start talking to neighbours who like us are both from out of town and first timers. 

Sunday night is “Bluegrass Jam Night”, There is no set format just a group of musicians who have turned up to play.  Bluegrass instruments only (guitar, fiddle, mandolin, dobro, bass, etc) are allowed at the jam. Numbers can vary and musicians from famous names to newcomers can turn up.  The relaxed atmosphere and the unknown mix of music makes each Sunday night a unique experience.

Station Inn Sunday night jamming.

The walls are covered with generations of posters from previous events. Since “The Station Inn” has been running since 1974 there is quite a range of dates.  With my almost non-existent County Music knowledge I do not know any of the names.  Anne may be better placed as she used to enjoy country music when she was driving the Australian outback roads by herself in a 4×4 in a previous life.

With food and drink sorted, we settle in to an evening of music.  I have to admit that every time, which is rarely, that I go to a live music event I enjoy the atmosphere and think why do I not go more often. Oh well. 

All part of the Station Inn’s long music history.

Part way though the evening, as part of interacting with the crowd, one of the musicians asked who has come the furthest for the evening.  “Florida”, “New York” as few call out.  The couple next to us call out “ They are from Australia” pointing to us.  Others take up the refrain and suddenly we’re declared the winners.  Great, we have won.  The music restarts and we go back to enjoying the evening.

A short time later a man approaches our table, introduces himself as Josh and asked if we have collected our prize for being the furthest away.  There is a prize? We can select a piece of merchandise from the store. Anne asks him if the is the owner, yes he is and we can get a t-shirt, or a cap.  In fact, take anything you like he says, t-shirts and caps and whatever.  We go to collect our prize. We both choose a t-shirt and as I eye the hat, I have always wanted an American style cap from a local business. We have our prizes.

With Josh. An amazing connection made.
Behind the bar at the Station Inn with Marissa
Anne’s new T-shirt from the Station Inn.

We continue to chat and are then invited to move back to the other side of the bar where we end up spending the rest of the evening.  The conversation flows and we feel we have made a connection, not only with Josh  but the other people we meet behind the bar, musicians, and other workers.  The bar is busy, and we often feel like we are in the way with rushing waitresses squeezing past or behind us,  never complaining.  Anne and Josh spend quite some time in his office, talking his Native American artwork and other photos on his wall and chatting for ages about his past, his family and his dreams.  Musicians come and go, business goes on around us but we all make the most of each other’s company.  As we once did previously in Indiana where a chance encounter leads to  lifelong friendship, this feels very similar.

Our new home behind the bar at the Station Inn.

What an amazing evening, being able to make such a strong connection we will be back tomorrow night for sure.

The next morning, in our budget motel’s foyer which doubles up as the breakfast area, we meet a young couple and get chatting.  He is a musician, looking to break into the Nashville scene, with his own songs.  He is young, and he has the best contacts here he tells us.  Another guest is there too, having his breakfast, walking back and forth, then just standing,  listening to our conversation.  He tells us he recognised us the winners at the World Famous Station Inn last night – he was behind us.   We get chatting and ask whether he’s local.  It turns out he is none other than Howard Fields, one of Kenny Rogers’ ex co-managers.  How he got into the music industry was fascinating.  A former army lieutenant colonel, he was asked by a friend to check on their son who had been trying to break into the music scene in Nashville for some years and they wanted his opinion on his talent and their investment.  Discovering there are many buskers with more talent than some represented in the numerous bars in Nashville, he thought he could help them with his business and management experience.  He become involved in artist management in 1992 and opened an entertainment management group with a couple of partners in 2009. He shared stories of his first meeting Dolly Parton, how he would use his time on the road between Atlanta, where he lived, and Nashville to listen to the hundreds of CD’s he received from fledgling artists and how he selected the ones to keep listening to.  We realised his stories to us were really lessons for the young artist we had been talking to.  A nice way of not giving them a lecture.  The artist’s girlfriend did ask Howard some interesting questions.   We left so that they could spend more time with Howard and hoping they would listen to his advice.     

While Nashville is well known as the “Country Music” capital, a lesser known title the city has looked to add is the “Bachelorette Capital” challenging Las Vegas for the title. The visible signs for us are the tractors pulling trailers loaded with partying ladies slowly through town. 

Bachelorette party on the move in downtown Nashville.
Not sure the legality of a Pedal Tavern under drink/ drive laws in Australia.

Broadway, a street that bisects the centre of Nashville downtown to the Cumberland river is home to numerous entertainment venues offering food, drinks and of course live music.  Each venue has at least one band playing, in some cases there is a band per floor!   One wonders how many musicians are needed to provide each venue with continuous live music every day of the week. As we wander amongst the tourist throng, of which we are a part, going from venue to venue we are struck by how each building seems to contain their own sounds. Perhaps the older buildings have better sound insulation.

Broadway in Nashville, teeming with music venues.
Layla’s Honky Tonk, Broadway Nashville.
Let hope they used the stronger brackets securing this one.
Nudies, been running since 1947.
Window listening instead of window shopping.
Elvis Presley’s suit in Nudies bar
The place to get those special cowboy or girl boots.

We spend an afternoon wandering from live music venue to live music venue sampling a wide range of both musical styles and artists.  Of course, some were better than others, most playing more contemporary country music than blue grass.  We saw a number of artists walking the streets with their instruments, walking in and out of those venues hoping for a gig and buskers on the pavement – witnessing many dreams in the making, or so we hoped for them.  The quality was nothing like that of the Station Inn but the atmosphere was great. 

We have complied a short music video which will be posted separately which gives a small glimpse of the array of musical talent on display.  Go and enjoy for yourselves.

Anne’s grandfather was a printing engineer so her interest was pricked when we came across the Hatch Show Print, a letterpress print shop since 1879, which has been printing with wood type, hand-carved images, oil based ink and mineral spirits which conditions and preserves the wood.  Sadly there were no tour slots left over the next few days.  It has created the many iconic posters for classic films, circuses and fairs. 

Hatch Show Print, Nashville
All the original machinery inside Hatch Show Print.

Our evening concludes back the “The Station Inn” for another night of music in what after only 24 hours seems like “home”.  We are lucky enough to meet Lorretta and Jane who has been coming here for decades. 

Eddy Dunlap playing his steel guitar
Eddy Dunlap’s steel guitar
Val Storey, Carl Jackson, and Larry Cordle

A great musical evening is sadly curtailed by a medical emergency for a band member’s family which required an ambulance. While the remaining band members gamely played on, their hearts were not in it and the audience applauded and supported their decision to conclude early.  I am pleased to say that they survived this very worrying episode.  

Anne, happy after an evening of Bluegrass music.

We reluctantly leave Nashville knowing we have new friends, a feeling of family and we will return to Nashville and “The Station Inn” to renew friendships and continue our country music education at some time in the future, hopefully not too far.

– Anthony & Anne

A day on the road or why we have no time to write blogs

I write this as we speed down Interstate 40 towards Memphis as in the car seems the only time there is to write in the last 10 days.  Our days seem to be so packed with experiences that there is no time to record them. While not a typical day as they are all different, I would like to take you through one day. We are in Louisville Kentucky staying near the airport at one of the Hilton Tru branded hotels.  This brand is a new experience for us: it is modern with new decor and reasonably priced for us retirees. Think Ibis Styles with larger rooms and huge bathrooms it you’re familiar with that brand. Having never been to Louisville, Anne has been diligently researching the city for places of interest.  Since neither of us are followers of the “Sport of Kings” horse-racing, the city’s connection to the Kentucky Derby holds no major attraction for us. However Anne has discovered there is a family museum here. The “J B Speed Art Museum” established in 1927, now known as the Speed by locals.  What a find.  Situated in the grounds of the University of Louisville, the museum is housed in a modern airy building, which reminds Anne of the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane.  Famous works on display included a Rodin sculpture and Renoir, water lilies of course. I did ask for a family discount, but luckily Sunday was free.

“Our” museum in Louisville

Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky

In their own words, “ Whether you’re an art aficionado or don’t know a Dali from a Degas, you can find fresh inspiration and meaning at the Speed Art Museum. With modern architecture, expanded programming, interactive exhibits and inviting outdoor spaces, the Speed offers countless opportunities for everyone to create their own connections and experience art at their own speed.” “ The Speed acknowledges that indigenous peoples were the original stewards of the land and resources on which the Museum is built. ” Their description of their museum, acknowledgement of indigenous people added to its name, our name!, was very enticing and did not disappoint. Fabulously airy sections, modern, quirky, fun, traditional, surprising, and extremely accessible – not overwhelming as some museums can be. Most rooms only have a few pieces in them. They invite you to reflect and connect, bringing different perspectives to a certain topic.

“Vocho” by Margarita Cabrera

“We the People” by Nari Ward

Close up of the laces making “We the People” by Nari Ward

Part of the Parlor, 1619 from Grange, a house located in Devon

“The Three Shades” by Rodin, sculpted before 1886

Cherry Tree quilt attritubed to Virginia Mason Ivey, around 1860

Close up of Virginia Mason Ivey’s Cherry Tree pattern

Dress by Dakota Sioux artist, 1880-1890

Great idea!

There was also a huge interactive section

The Speed Art Museum could rival Anne’s favourite modern art gallery in the world, Brisbane’s GOMA.

Anne’s artistic viewing needs sated for now, we head south.

Interesting location for a roller coaster as we leave Louisville.

Louisville Storm Chaser roller coaster

The interstate road system is great for covering distances in a day, but not as interesting as the back roads we prefer when on the motorbikes.  We stop for coffee in Elizabethtown Kentucky, a small town that has worked hard to spruce up its centre.  The coffee is good and a restaurant beckons for lunch. We have found that each place we visit has something to offer or a story to tell.

Elizabethtown courthouse

Beautiful mural brightens an abandonned shopping centre

Imagine…

Refreshed we continue south towards Nashville, we had hoped to visit Mammoth Caves National Park but all online enquiries showed no availability for the day to tour. These caves are the biggest system in the world.  Over 420 miles / 675 kilometres have been mapped to date on five levels with a tiny fraction open to the public.  The caves are so big that for many tours, you have to be bussed to a separate entrance miles / kilometres away.  We decided to head there anyway and were rewarded with being able to secure some freed up tickets for self guided tours that afternoon. No fantastic stalactites or stalagmites for us but an introduction to an amazing cave system. We see mining from 100 years ago and evidence of human activity dating back some 4,000 years. The weather is also warmer and for the first time in a 10 days, the sweaters are off.

The original entrance to Mammoth Caves.

Audubon Avenue looking towards Rafinesque Hall.

Yes this did fall from the roof!

The Rotunda, a feature in the roof of the cave.

We had decided that Nashville, famous for its country music heritage should be on this trip.  Anne used to enjoy country music while driving in the bush, she had swapped to country from learning Italian on tapes which Anne found she concentrated on more than the dirt roads!     Our driving has us running a little late for an evening of Bluegrass music at the world famous “Station Inn” in Nashville. Anne discovered this place, which has been running since 1974 the same year we met, during her research. Playing live music seven nights a week with excellent reviews, it seems a good place to start our country and bluegrass music education. The Station Inn is situated in the “Gulch”, so named as it was once a depression in the ground that contained a railroad yard.  After WW2, the decline of the railways saw the area fall into decline. Development around the turn of the century has seen the “Gulch” develop into an upmarket area surrounded by new high rise apartments and offices 6:45pm sees us standing in a queue/line on our first warm evening on this trip, I do love the warmth, while waiting for “The Station Inn” to open.  No tickets are sold, first come first served cash only entry, although for Sunday “Jam Night” entry is free.  Will we even get in? We have no idea of the capacity.

Looks like we arrived too late

Getting closer but can this place take us all?

It’s been a long day already, so you’ll have to wait til the next blog to find out what happened next…

While not a typical day, one can see how there is no time left for blogging, well after all we are the 2 slow speeds.

– Anthony & Anne

Visiting our Amish family

We hadn’t seen our Amish friends since 2017 when we returned to see them on our second round the world trip.  While we hadn’t seen other friends for some years on this trip, at least we had remained in touch via whatsapp video or other social media platforms. I did wonder whether we’d recognise our Amish friends as our only form of communication had been via letters and a couple of phone calls this week. And remember, that we have never taken a photo of them as per their beliefs and wishes. 

We had planned our arrival to see them at the end of the working week so as not to interfere with their work or week end which is precious family time. We had not expected Brian to leave work early just for us. But Brian suggests we arrive at noon Friday and asks whether we’d like to go to the kids’ school that afternoon and give a short presentation. You can imagine how long it took us to decide!!!   What an incredible opportunity to get to see, experience and learn a little more about the Amish way of life. Of course we would love to!  

That Thursday evening, we set about finding somewhere that would print photos at short notice. All the office type of stores on our way to Indianna seem to have shut down. The US recession has been very noticeable to us as we’ve been driving for these past few days.  Whole shopping centres closed and seemingly abandonned.  Luckily we find a Staples that hasn’t shut down in Warsaw where we’re staying for a couple of nights. All we have to do is email Staples the photos, they email a code back which we present to Staples the next morning for them to download and print. I also wanted to find a map of the world and we find a great laminated one.  

We know we were getting close when we drive by a field ploughed by tradional means with four workhorses pulling a threshing machine. 

Amish farming

Amish life


I am getting excited. Especially as until the night before when we spoke with our friends on the phone, I didn’t think I was going to be able to see them. I had picked up one of our godsons’ bug and I had been very unwell these last few days. We normally do a tag team when we present but the actual presentation will have to be given by Anthony this time – I can’t say two sentences without coughing fits. The odd thing is that I don’t have the sniffles or headache. Just razors in my swollen throat, coughing all the time and barely able to swallow. I did a Covid test and it was negative but I definitely did not want to pass this horrid bug to our friends.  I had worn a mask all day long for days to make sure Anthony didn’t catch it and so far so good.  Our friends were not concerned about my passing anything as they constantly had one or more child coughing and I was told I was certainly not to miss out on seeing them. 

As we near our friends’ home, we see more and more horse drawn buggies. Life slows down and so do we. The country seems peaceful with flamboyant trees in all hues of yellow, orange and red. A carriage is parked in Brian and Edna’s driveway. It is all as we remember it. The garden is beautiful, well manicured, beds of flowers in full bloom. What makes the house look even more pristine is the lack of uggly power poles and cables to the house of course. We park our ridiculously large bright red Dodge near the carriage.  I have mentioned in the past that I have not taken photos of our most memorable moments as I am too busy living them. Oh how I wish I had a photo of our red Dodge next to their horse and carriage!  We laugh at the incongruity of our different forms of transport. The extreme is not lost on them either and laugh when they come out to greet us and give us the biggest heartfelt hugs.  Our friends have not changed and we would have recognised them anywhere. Only the eldest of their 7 children, Amy and two youngest, Myron and Anthony whom we had not met yet, were at home when we arrived.    At 15, Amy had recently graduated from Amish schooling and was now helping with home chores and looking after the younger ones.  Edna’s mum Linda was there too – she had been helping prepare tonight’s feast.

After a brief catch up, David, Edna’s dad who was the first one of the family we met in 2015, arrives – he too has left work early for us.  When we remarked that we certainly had not expected them to take time off for us, they told us it was normal as we’re family.  

I make the most of the other kids being away at school to ask questions about the Amish education system.  But first here’s a bit of background on Amish education: Amish schooling stops at the 8th grade. Because Amish society emphasises agriculture, craftmanship oriented or manual trades, they feel that formal education beyond the 8th grade can provide limited value.  In May 1972, in the Wisconsin vs Yoder court case, the Supreme Court held that state laws requiring children to attend school until they are 16 violated the constitutional rights of the Amish to free exercise of religion.  The Amish sincerely held to the belief that the values their children would learn at home would surpass the worldly knowledge taught in school.  The Court contended that the Amish community was a very successful social unit in American society, a self-sufficient, law-abiding member of society, which paid all of the required taxes and rejected any type of public welfare and the Amish children, upon leaving the public school system, continued their education in the form of vocational training. Interestingly, compulsory education after elementary school was a recent movement that developed in the early 20th century in order to prevent child labor and keep children of certain ages in school. Since that court case in 1972, all states must grant the Old Order Amish the right to establish their own schools (should they choose) or to withdraw from public institutions after completing eighth grade.  The decision specifically applied to Wisconsin, but it was written in terms broad enough to apply to all states that require attendance in public or private schools beyond the eighth grade.

I had so many questions regarding their education including what would happen if a child wanted to become a doctor.  My understanding was that they would have to leave the community.  The reason being that Amish kids would not be able to fulfill their learning due to higher education promoting ideas counter to Amish values and would therefore have difficulty integrating with other students.   I wish we’d had more time to discuss this and how they approach evolution vs creationism but time had come for us to leave for school and we did not continue our discussion.  It was interesting to learn that Amish students perform a similar test to other government schools at the end of year 8, (think Australia’s NAPLAN test), and they usually come out on par or better than the state average.  

Both David and Brian have been extremely successful in their jobs and been able to support very large families, large in our eyes but normal to them, they have not suffered from leaving school at age 15 and getting apprenticeships. It makes me wonder why we keep hearing that so many Australian families cannot make ends meet, how they can’t afford child care, how the government needs to provide more support… 

We all get ready to head off to school which Brian and Edna’s other 4 kids attend.  Five of us pile into the carriage which Brian has hooked up to a horse faster than we had time to notice.  Edna passes me a warm blanket to cover my legs as it is unseasonally cold here at the moment.  We trot off past our ridiculously showy red Dodge.  

An Amish schoolhouse is typically built on donated land and contains enough ground for a softball field, as well as playground equipment with Amish families maintaining and paying for the school house.  The school board, made up of 2 or 3 Amish couples, helps to make decisions such as hiring and salaries for teachers with parents covering the school’s costs. Parents often visit the school, and each school has a guest book for visitors to sign. An Amish school typically holds 30 to 40 students with two teachers – when the number of school children grows beyond that, then a new school needs to be built. The school we’re going to was recently built by Brian and other family members.

The first thing that struck us when we walked into the classroom was how quiet it was.  The large room was divided in two by a long curtain, the younger ones on one side, the older on the other.  There were 2 teachers.  The young lady teaching the little ones was in her early twenties and had been teaching for 5 years.  The other teacher was a little older.  With 5 years’ experience, she looked so at ease moving from child to child.  Occasionally, a child or more might have their hand in the air to attract the teacher’s attention.  No calling out “miss, miss!!”.  Just a quiet hand in the air.  As the teacher moved to one of the kids asking for help, the others flicked their little red flag attached to the side of their desk.  So clever!  On the other side of the room, the older students are sitting in a square facing each other and seem to be checking and marking each other’s work.  Then they all get up, go to their desks, drop books, pick up others, clack clack as they slam their desks in unison before rushing back to the square for the next exercise.

At afternoon break time, on cue, all kids then rush outside – it is play time for 15’ before returning to the classroom for our short presentation.  That’s when I notice the school visitors’ book which I duly complete.   Sadly during playtime, Lucas gets injured and winded at softball and taken to the hospital emergency – all good luckily.

The presentation is a bit of a blurr as I am not well, I am unsettled by Lucas being injured and our time has been halved now so it’s going to be a rush.  It was not our best presentation and only the parents sitting at the back of classroom asked questions.  But what a priviledge to get an insight into Amish schooling.  I would love another opportunity to talk to them again sometime and have a more interactive experience.  

Back home, while Edna and Linda put the finishing touches to our feast and Brian is at the hospital with Lucas, David asks if we’d like to see his hobby.  We pile into the Dodge and off we go to David’s home.   His “man cave” is a serious woodworking studio, with all sorts of saws. What exquisite work.  I have long said that I love ducks in all forms, I think they are the cutest animal and tastiest, whether confit or pâté. David’s wood carvings are exquisite – he has created so many stunning carved ducks, all to scale.  The blue-winged teal catches my eye and David immediately offers it to me.  But being made of untreated wood, I was worried our quarantine might have confiscated it.  So my duck remains in David’s special studio. 

My blue-winged teal carved duck

Look at what David made in honour of every single one of his 46 grandchildren – a butterfly for the girls and frog for the boys. 

One butterfly or frog for each of David’s 46 grandchildren

Back at Brian and Edna’s, it is soon time for dinner.  What a feast they all spent hours preparing for the 12 of us.  Only the youngest child, 18 month old Anthony, leaves table early to play.  Our conversation covers so many topics from travel to politics to current affairs to the economy.  David reminisces about our first meeting back in 2015 and still does not understand what made him go to reception when he never had anything to do there and why we ended up meeting. Life works in mysterious ways… After dinner, the conversation continues in the lounge, again with all the kids present, interested and participating. We are told several times over the evening how we are part of their family, even telling us we would be invited to their family weddings whenever that may be.    

Time has sadly come for us to leave, all of us wishing we had more time together and grateful that we have been able to share so much with open hearts in a non-judmental way.   In a country that has become so polarised politically in recent years, it was refreshing to have such an open conversation where no subject is taboo and no judgement made on our obviously extremely different lives and beliefs.  Before we leave, Eric presents Anthony with a pen he has made himself and Lydia, with whom I had shared private moments with admiring the sunset, gives me a macrame key ring.  Such sweet gifts. 

This is why we travel still, for the connections we make and the things we learn from others and how they open our minds.

– Anne