We are in a time warp in the Lancaster farmlands of Pennsylvania. Every day, except Sunday, we have watched the local Amish and Mennonite farmers working the fields (spreading manure, haying, and tilling) with teams of anywhere from two to six draft horses. At our campsite in the evening, we hear the clop, clop, clop of hoof beats as the local buggies pass by. It is eerily as if we have been transported to the 1800s.
Of course, we drove to the 1800s by interstate, how else? With continued unsettled weather licking at our heels, we decided to take the fastest route across the Midwest, which meant the interstate. Ugh. The highways were in terrible shape and totally inadequate for the amount of traffic—especially truck traffic—that clogged every highway, even at midday.
The drive across Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania presented a never-ending and varied assortment of rough roads, potholes, narrow lanes, construction zones without actual visible work, and trucks, trucks, and more trucks. Pennsylvania added to the pain by charging over $36.00 to use its turnpike, which was an absolute mess.
Pennsylvania, it turns out, it not the most RV-friendly place around. We spent one night at a KOA in the western part of the state, tucked in an Appalachian-style hollow, inhabited primarily by oil and gas workers living in their RVs—presumably working on the Marcellus Shale development. When we arrived, we were given two free jugs of drinking water, because their well had “just been chlorinated.” We later found that it had been chlorinated because it was contaminated with E. coli. Fortunately, we hadn’t hooked up to their water. We woke early to the sound of large pickups (plates mostly from Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma) starting up as the RV park residents headed out to work. Good riddance to that campground.
Our current campground could not be more different. It is perched on a hill overlooking Amish and Mennonite farms, in a relatively non-touristy area of the county. The farms are worked with traditional methods from the 1700 and 1800s, with horse (or mule) power for farm work and transportation, off-the-grid electrical power (if any), and families in traditional Amish dress.
There are some interesting and illogical concessions to modern times, but the opportunity we have here to live among these farms is the closest we will ever come to time travel. It is one thing to see old farm machinery and implements in museums—it is quite another to see farmers and horses actually maneuvering corn fields with harrows for weeding between the rows, spreading manure, and haying with horsepower rather than modern tractors.
Actually, the Amish do make some concessions for haying—an important part of dairy farming—which we found as we heard the rhythmic chuck and clatter of a hay baler with an internal combustion engine being pulled by three horses and periodically spitting out newly-baled hay. Fascinating to watch.
We are getting to see, touch, smell, and hear what this country’s rural land was like in pre-industrial times, except I would be willing to bet that the Amish farms are far more immaculate than most were then. I have never seen such well-cared for and prosperous looking farms, with immaculate barns, gorgeous, weed-free flower and vegetable gardens, and long ever-present lines of wash—mostly somber colors, but punctuated by some blue, teal, and purple.
The buggies and carriages come out in full force in the evenings, with high-stepping buggy horses at full trot, and a wave from the driver as they pass by. The local stores, including Costco, have buggy sheds for parking. The nearest grocery store, Yoder’s, has Amish romance novels. I would love to know the target audience.
We have been eating like royalty. We visit a nearby farm stand every day for fresh vegetables—peas, green onions, beans, tomatoes, new potatoes, zucchini, and beets—fresh eggs, and homemade root beer. We caught the end of strawberry season, and I ate them with yeasty fresh donuts baked on the farm across the street.
The experience we have enjoyed the most, however, was our quest for some local meat. We asked the young woman at the farm stand if she knew of any place we could get local chickens. She appraised us—checking for undercover health inspectors or just general obnoxiousness, perhaps. Apparently we passed the test, because she said, “I have a friend.” We followed her directions and drove into the farm yard a little hesitantly, not sure what kind of reception we would receive from what was obviously a traditional Amish family.
We needn’t have worried. As is often the case, our Alaskan license plates made us a source of curiosity, especially to the two children who came running outside. We discussed grizzly bears, black bears, moose in the garden, farm animals, and bought several frozen chickens. The farmer urged us to return on Tuesday if we wanted fresh chickens and the kids ran behind us as we drove out, calling: “See you on Tuesday!”
How could we resist a Tuesday visit? We couldn’t. When we returned, the farmer said his wife wanted to meet us, because the kids had been excited to meet Alaskans. We also met their brother-in-law (related to the woman at the farm stand) who was there to get his buggy repaired and we bought some more chickens and eggs. I wondered what the kids thought of us—the five-year old girl with a sweet face alight with curiousity, hair pulled tightly back into a coiled braid bound by net, running to meet us in delight at our reappearance, so eager to please—me with my Mexican embroidered blouse, leather flip-flops, Hawaiian shell earrings, and our stories of Alaska and trailer traveling? I don’t know, but we were clearly a diversion and one that the parents did not discourage.
We really liked this family. They were welcoming and kind. It was refreshing to talk to people who were curious about Alaska for reasons other than the recent spate of increasingly bizarre reality shows (or Sarah Palin). I do not have a romantic view of the Amish—I wouldn’t last five minutes in their culture—but there is a certain calm way and deliberateness about those we met that is noticeable and appealing. And, it is wonderful to see viable family farms.
It feels as though our time here has been punctuated by glimpses of other times, including our childhood: young teenage girls riding on bike handlebars, shrieking on the downhill; a group of small children totally absorbed in ring-around-the rosy (or something similar); whole families sitting out on the front steps in the evening; and talking over the fence. I experienced the fence talk on an evening walk over a back road when I was lovingly assaulted by five chocolate labs. Their owner—an Amish farmer—came down to the fence for a leisurely conversation about the dogs. It was hot and he bemoaned the fact that they had no place to swim but a jury-rigged water trough that he had provided. No car transport to a sweet swimming lake for Amish labs. They seemed pretty happy, though, and delighted with my attentions. My hands smelled of manure afterwards, the ever-present perfume of dairy farms.