The simple pleasures of Amish life in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
To pass or not to pass. That is the question. I am driving along a beautiful winding road in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania with my nine-year-old on a mother-daughter road trip.
The landscape with its rolling green hills, its stark white barns, fields alive with free ranging horses, cows and chickens is unmarred by sprawl or skyscrapers or even unsightly cell towers.
The vehicle in front of me is a compact black buggy pulled by a high-stepping chestnut gelding that’s going about the speed of the 19th century. What’s the proper Amish Country etiquette? Do I pass? Do I hold back?
I opt to cross a double yellow line to pass in route to our own horse and buggy ride for which we have made reservations. I sprint past the buggy and the Amish teen commandeering the chariot waves good-naturedly. I later learn that English, what Amish call non-Amish, are expected to pass, even the state troopers do it, I’m told.
My daughter Maxine and I arrive just in time at Jessica and Aaron’s Buggy Rides. The horse pulling us is neither smart (several times he lurches into traffic) nor motivated (slow-paced is an understatement), but he is a workhorse that has spent most of his life navigating the back roads of Lancaster County. Our driver, a chatty Amish grandfather, leads us to the farm that his family has worked for more than 100 years. His eleven-year-old grandson darts from a calving barn to offer homemade root beer and chocolate chip cookies.
Life swirling around the Amish may have changed with cars, cellphones, the internet and airplanes, but for the approximately 64,000 Pennsylvania Dutch in Lancaster County, not much has changed since the early 18th century, when they first arrived from Germany seeking religious freedom. That’s why this area is an American treasure, a place as awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon. During our weekend away, Maxine and I meet Japanese, German and Brazilian tourists, who have made the pilgrimage to visit this special place.
While the Amish eschew most vestiges of modern life, they mingle freely with English, swapping tales from life on either side of the modernity divide. This is a rare opportunity to get the skinny on what life was like before the mid-20th century started us on a rollercoaster against time. Our driver points out farms that have electrical wires connected to them. “Not Amish,” he explains. Amish rely instead on candles, yes, but also propane, gas and, most recently, solar panels.
And, this is the most beguiling part of any trip to Lancaster Country. This region is no museum, nor an enclave of outcasts. Instead, the Amish maintain a vibrant presence amid non-Amish life, living side-by-side and doing business together. (There’s nothing quite like idling behind a horse and buggy at a drive-through ATM).
Maxine and I hole up at Bird-In-Hand Family Resort, owned by the Smuckers family (of jam and jelly fame). It’s set on a sprawling pasture across from a horse farm. There’s a petting zoo, complete with alpacas, a mini golf course, an old-school game room with air hockey, indoor pools, and, our favorite, a ping pong table. The resort also happens to be home to one of Lancaster’s best-loved restaurants, which has a mammoth Pennsylvania Dutch buffet that serves irresistible cholesterol spiking treats, including slabs of traditional shoofly pie made with sticky molasses.
Just down the street sits one of Amish country’s biggest success stories, Kitchen Kettle Village. Begun in a two-car garage in the 1950s to sell the family’s homemade jam, it has since grown into one of Lancaster’s primary attractions. With more than 40 shops, people up and down the East Coast come expressly to stock up. Maxine and I only have an hour here, but manage to nab homemade strawberry and blackberry jam, a candy-red hot sauce, a handmade catnip toy, a miniature music box, and a calico-clad cat made of clothespins that she decided she couldn’t live without.
We also visit non-Amish sites like Turkey Hill Experience. This ice cream company has a hands-on museum-cum-play-world housed within a converted silk mill, where we record our own commercials in the TV studio and create our own ice cream. (Mine: cherry espresso bean; Maxine’s, a fruit-infused sherbet confection.). On the campus of Franklin & Marshall College in downtown Lancaster, we stop in at the North Museum of Nature and Science, which has a digital planetarium, dinosaur bones, and live animals, including a large monitor lizard.
But, our favorite part of the trip is driving along the gently winding lanes that weave through the farmland that has stood against the march of time for centuries. Connecting these farms are small villages, where Amish farmers capped in straw hats trade their wares, where young boys in black suits and girls in bonnets walk to one-room school houses, where covered bridges still rattle with the sound of buggy wheels and hoof beats. In this era of high-speed multitasking, there are few better places to slow down and appreciate life’s simple pleasures.