The ways of plain folk

I've got a new love: isolated populations. Specifically the Amish. Well, only the Amish right now as that's the only isolated population I've ever encountered.

I didn't know crap about the Amish until a few weekends ago when I accompanied my sister Marcia to Lancaster, Pa. We were headed there simply to visit an old pal of hers who works in a bed and breakfast. Little did I realize we were making our way straight into the pulsating heart of Old Order Amishness.

Late Friday night, after taking several wrong turns, we arrived at the B&B to find that our room was decorated almost entirely in Amish stuff -- Amish quilts, art depicting Amish folks tooling around in their buggies, a book explaining Amish codes of conduct. Clearly, this was all people came to town for: to stare at the Amish in their rural 19th century farm garb. Me? I was only mildly interested. Mostly I just wanted to hang out with my sister for the weekend, and read and sleep.

Sensing, perhaps, that here's nothing like talk of disease to pique my interest, our host, formerly a nurse, sat down with us at breakfast on Saturday and told us about some of the odd disorders common in the Amish population. Apparently, because the Amish confine themselves to a very small gene pool, it's not uncommon for them to go permanently rigid in the arms and legs following a bout of the flu. Inbreeding has also ushered in various amino acid deficiencies that often end in death for young kids.

Next, in breezed the host's loud and bombastic husband who informed us that some Amish orders allow the teenage boys a period during which they can go out and taste the modern world -- partake of willing Lancaster flesh, smoke some weed, going wherever their fun receptors lead them. Afterward, the boys may return to the Amish way of life or join us heathens permanently, no hard feelings.

This wild oats sowing went badly for two Amish dudes a few years back, the bombastic guy continued. Turns out the boys met up with some bikers who persuaded them to start selling cocaine to other Amish youth. Sounds like a bad TV movie but it was true. All hell broke loose, there were arrests, and all of Lancaster is still gossiping about it.

When our hosts saw our eyes were spinning around in our heads from their stories, they quickly broke out a county map and a highlighter, showing us where to go. The real hotbed of Amish folk, the white-hot epicenter of buggies and quilts and sullen looks, they said, was just west of Lancaster in Intercourse, Pa.

Intercourse! My eyes spun even harder inside my head. Why, I'd had a giggly fascination with that place since I spotted it on a map when I was 14. And I was going there today? What had I done to deserve such riches?

From where I was sitting, I had all I needed for a completely fulfilling afternoon: disease, drugs and Intercourse. I trotted upstairs, snatched "The Amish A to Z" off my bedside table and hurried Marcia out of the B&B.

On the way, Marcia wanted to go to garage sales. This made me jittery and anxious -- since breakfast, my desire to be with the Amish had shot from zero to 60. I couldn't wait another minute to gaze upon their spare outfits, to hear the clippity clop of their horse-and-buggy combos, to try and look into their eyes and decipher: Why? Why do you guys do this stuff? Don't you want to use Palm Pilots and smoothie makers and ride on planes?

While Marcia circumnavigated the suburbs of Lancaster looking for bargains, I read some fun facts on Old Order Amish.

"They call us 'the English'; they call themselves 'the Plain People,'" I said.

"Oh?" she replied, scrutinizing signs tacked up on phone poles.

I read on. "They came to Pennsylvania in the 1720s, seeking religious freedom. Catholics and Protestants considered them heretics because they believe a person shouldn't be baptized until he or she's old enough to choose it. They also believe in renouncing the modern world and following a strict code of conduct called the Ordnung. They don't use electricity, or go to school past the eighth grade. They can't ride bikes or drive cars, but some ride scooters. They don't look in mirrors and they don't want their picture taken."

"Hey, this one has furniture!" Marcia said, reading the classifieds and taking a hard right.

An hour later, with garage sales thankfully petering out, we motored past tall corn and tobacco fields, meandering slowly to Intercourse. But after a few miles of country roads, we spied no Amish. I was beginning to think they were going to be as elusive as the rare Mangrove Cuckoo or the white alligator. But then my eyes fell upon a pile of horse poop on the asphalt, lying there like so many discarded charcoal briquettes. Bingo! The Amish were near.

And sure enough, about a mile down the road, there he was, my first Amish guy. Tall, lean and young, he stood at a stoplight in front of Tires Plus Total Car Care, one leg on a gas-powered scooter, one off. He wore a straw hat, tight black pants, a purple short-sleeved shirt and black suspenders. Even from across the street you could that see if he had come up in another culture, he'd have a good shot at the cover of Teen Beat with his curly brown locks and big blue eyes.

I didn't want it to be like this. I wanted my first Amish guy to be revealed in a field or a barn -- not in front of a tire place. But that didn't stop Marcia and I from filling the van with yelps and giggles. Though we didn't want to, we drove on, and a few minutes later saw more poop in a left-turn lane. We followed the trail.

And Viola! With that turn we hit the jackpot, stepped into the promised land. Right away, a full-fledged Amish buggy was coming toward us going about 10 miles per hour, holding up an impatient red Ford Explorer. At the same time, to our right was a farm with an Amish woman standing out front raking leaves wearing a white bonnet and a purple housecoat cinched tight with a white prayer apron. Her husband, with Abe Lincoln look in full bloom, pushed a giant buggy wheel up the driveway toward an old barn. The skinny black buggy on the road then passed us in a flash, revealing a bonneted mom and her little bonneted blond girl.

Marcia and I ooohed and ahhed. The whole thing seemed like a scene out of a movie set in the 1800s rather than 2002, a year rife with corporate fraud, terrorism recovery and J.Lo getting both married and divorced.

"Hey, let's drive back and look at 'em again," I said.

"No -- I think there'll be more." She was right. Pretty soon there was more horse poo, more buggies, more farms, more suspenders. I spotted a little girl in Amish garb walking though a yard with a cat draped around her neck. Then we saw a guy in a straw hat stumbling down a slope as he tried to cut grass with some kind of gas-powered weed-eater. To the left and right there were old farmhouses with very Amish outfits flapping in the breeze on long clotheslines.

It was like driving through Lion Country Safari -- only the attraction wasn't hyenas and zebras; it was morose women in bonnets and stern guys in weird hats. And it was much more exciting than I'd anticipated.

At a crossroads with Amish farms on each corner, we found a tiny market manned by a teenage girl in a bonnet. Marcia pulled in with great vim and vigor. Oooh, we were going to interact with one of them! Just then, my cell phone rang, which seemed surreal amid all these pastures. Where were the cell phone towers? I answered. It was Marty.

"Marty! I'm in Amish Country! I'm 12 feet from an Amish woman RIGHT NOW!" I squealed, enthusiastic beyond all reason. Thank god the van's windows were rolled up tight. Though, who knows? Maybe they weren't.

I got out and stood by the van, surveying the tobacco barns and grazing horses all around us. I tried to listen to Marty talk about his weekend, but it was hard. Just then, a buggy approached. I cut him off.

"Hey Marty! Here comes a buggy! Listen!" I extended my arm toward the road until the clip clop clip clop was just a few feet away from us. I was jumping out of my skin. Poor Marty.

In a few minutes, Marcia and I approached the market and began admiring all the jarred jellies, fresh bread and egg noodles. I was nervous about speaking to the Amish girl, thinking she could see right through me, could detect that I considered her a strange, exotic novelty. Marcia on the other hand -- captivated by what looked like bonnets for jars of jam -- approached her without reservation.

"Hello. Where did these jam cozies come from?"

"Why, m'grandmother made them, miss," answered the Amish girl, clearly unfazed by us English yahoos.

Her voice, so very old world, sounded like a cross between a British accent and a German one. But I could have sworn she had on lipgloss. Maybe it was just pig fat. Or perspiration. With minimal interaction, I bought horseradish mustard and hot pepper jam in unmarked jars. In the car, I jammed a finger into them and tasted, expecting both to be bland, just like the Amish people's garb, facial expressions, world. But the condiments were nothing of the sort. They were so spicy they made me snort. Thematically, it was hard to reconcile.

A half hour later, we were in Intercourse, learning first hand that the town is basically a two-block stretch of Amish-oriented tourist shops that tie up traffic something fierce. There, you could buy Amish quilts, icky lifelike dolls of Amish kids, bonnets, calendars showing Amish families appearing happy and content instead of sour, or you could spend $8 to watch an informative film about the Amish. Against my own will, I became so distracted by all that stuff that I barely noticed the actual Amish trotting through town in their buggies and walking though on foot pretending no one was staring at them.

The irony of the town was almost too much to bear. How could it be that a completely repressed society lives in Sex Town? Apparently, even the Intercourse Chamber of Commerce is unsure how the place got its name. Formerly called "Cross Keys," the town's name changed in 1814, perhaps to reflect the intersection of two major roads there, or perhaps, says the Chamber, to honor all the "fellowship" and "social interaction and support" that went on there. Yeah, fellowship.

To get my mind off that, I bought a bonnet and broke out my camera. Marcia and I talked about taking pictures of the Amish, noting that you're not supposed to. We decided we'd honor that. This lasted for about six minutes, then I began shooting cowardly shots of the backs of buggies and Marcia was leaning out the drivers' side window snapping intimate close ups. We may both rot in Amish hell.

As we drove back to the B&B that night with planes soaring high overhead, likely leaving Philadelphia, we had many more questions about the Amish than answers. What about natural wanderlust? What about the desire to achieve? What about ambition -- especially for the women, who seem relegated to cooking and cleaning and not much else? How do they tuck all those desires away and just keep frowning and making jam? It boggled our minds. Two hundred years ago, when more of the world was like this, this could have been us. Or really, 35 years ago we could have been born to this, in this tiny town or any of the other Amish enclaves on our continent. We thanked all the forces in the universe it didn't turn out that way.

On Sunday when we woke, we still had Amish fever. Unfortunately, we were told we were probably out of luck. Said our hosts, the Amish only go out on Sundays to get themselves to "gathering," their version of church, which takes place in whatever barn they designate that week.

We packed up, said our good-byes and took to the country roads, planning to snake home that way. And gloriously, before too long, we were unexpectedly rewarded, passing a farm whose yard was filled with buggies. Through an open barn door I caught a brief glimpse of what was transpiring inside -- mostly guys in black pants with white shirts and black hats standing around. Exciting!

A mile or so later, we were lucky enough to spot another gathering. This one was breaking up, with teenage boys out front getting all the buggies ready to go. Attempting to navigate the country roads to the Maryland border, within a half hour we were lost. Seeking directions, we turned onto a rolling road with open pastures on each side, and saw, to our surprise, a group of young Amish girls walking along the asphalt, making their way home from gathering two by two. They all wore black bonnets angled toward the ground, plain dresses with black prayer aprons. They were barefoot. It appeared boys rode home in the buggies; girls walked.

"I'm going to ask them for directions," Marcia said, slowing down.

"No you're not," I said. What could a 13-year-old Old Order Amish girl know about where Route 465 was? Plus, I was scared of them.

But the tallest girl, it turned out, knew exactly how to get to the highway, and she told us succinctly, politely, smartly, in the most intriguing accent. After thanking her, Marcia rolled up the window and pressed the accelerator. "I want one!" she opined. As we pulled away I watched them in the visor mirror, noting how wrong their little bare feet looked next to the road's yellow lines.

On our final passage out of town, we happened upon what appeared to be another cultural phenomenon: Sunday joyriding. Over the course of an hour, we must have seen 12 buggies manned solely by teenage boys, Sundays afternoons being the time to wrestle the keys from dad, we surmised. Other boys had adolescent girls by their side, and it seemed some courting was afoot. Many of the nubile girls wore solid purple dresses minus prayer aprons. One young hussy had her leg hanging out of the cart, dress hiked up to the knee.

Their coltishness made me bold, and I started waving at them. First I tried it out on a teenage girl riding shotgun with a boy. As we passed them, I turned and gave her a big smile and a wave. She lifted her fingers in a demi-wave, letting her wrist remain affixed to her thigh. There was the tiniest, almost imperceptible hint of a smile.

"'Please help me out of this religion' is what she was trying to say," Marcia said.

On down the road we came upon two buggies clopping along in single file. As we got closer, we saw that one had a bumper sticker on it. I just knew the sticker's words held the key to something -- to the Amish religion, to the universe, something. Because what's anything doing stuck to a carriage of enforced simplicity?

We got closer and closer and soon I could see the sticker was glittery, like something a little girl might have attached to her Barbie condo. It just didn't compute. I counted the seconds until I could see it, until the universe would be revealed.

When we were nearly upon the buggy, I leaned out of the car window squinting. And there it was. The sticker. Plain as day. It read, "It's Good to Be Bad." My head spun from the incongruity of it all, but I didn't want to look away yet. I had to see who was in this buggy. A split second later, there he was, a curly headed boy of about 16, looking ready to get high and dive into a pile of naked girls.

"What? WHAT?" I yelped to Marcia. " 'It's good to be bad?' What's that about?" Her jaw dropped. She was silent.

In a few seconds, we passed his parents. Not surprisingly, they looked mortified. I waved at the mom. She waved back with a grimace. Oh, those poor parents. All I could think was: cocaine ring. If not now, soon.

A mile or so later, there no more county roads and Marcia and I were forced onto the Interstate and back into the modern world. Still in a lather over the Amish, we theorized about them as fast as our tongues would move. What about mental health care? Surely they had the same incidence of clinical depression as the rest of the population. What did they do about it? And what about spouse abuse? Surely that goes on, too. But can the women not seek help?

But we also wondered, once we crossed the state line, would we care anymore?

We waited anxiously to see what would happen. And once past the Pennsylvania/Maryland border, we breathed a sign of relief upon discovering that yes, in fact we still cared. We even pledged to get on and order books by people who have broken away from the Amish and can detail what it's like on the inside. And we vowed to seek out other such insular cultures, wherever they may be. Because everything's changed now and we have a new hobby. Isolated populations? We adore them. We could eat them with a spoon.

Suz Redfearn writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to [email protected]

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