The Amish are a puzzlement.
- They shun attention from outsiders, but they attract tourists like nectar attracts bees.- They believe religion is a private matter, yet they wear it on their sleeves. Dressed in traditional clothing, they stand out in any crowd except an Amish one. They are slaves to their own fashion.
- They aren't materialistic, but they charge plenty for their handcrafted quilts and furniture. Many of them make a living off the tourism fostered by their quaint lifestyle.
- They don't want you to take their picture. But a horse and buggy heading toward you on a country road tempts you beyond your limit.
Every culture has its inconsistencies, the Amish included. But look below the surface and you'll find that by and large they practice what they preach. That alone is worth observing.
There is no better window into their way of life than Ohio's Holmes, Wayne and Tuscarawas counties south of Cleveland. They are home to the largest Amish colony in the country.
The area is a convenient side trip for Utahns making a pilgrimage to LDS Church historic sites in Kirtland in northeast Ohio. Take I-77 south from Cleveland and head west on any number of routes south of Canton, including U.S. 30, U.S. 250 or State Highway 39.
Autumn, when hardwood trees turn into a palette of orange and red and temperatures drop to comfortable levels, is an ideal time to go.
Stay on roads bound roughly by New Philadelphia, Wooster and Millersburg, and you'll be in the heart of Amish country.
The landscape is pastoral. Farmhouses dot rolling hills and fields of grain seem endless. Hand-lettered signs on the highways point you down long dirt driveways to houses where you can buy a hickory rocker or a handmade quilt or have your buggy repaired.
Names of towns evoke country images. There are the creeks (Apple Creek, Walnut Creek and Sugarcreek); the mounts (Mount Hope and Mount Eaton); and the burgs (Fredericksburg and Winesburg).
There are one-syllable towns like Charm (my favorite) and two-syllable towns like Berlin and Kidron.
Lehman's Hardware Store in Kidron is worth visiting just to browse through its large selection of non-electric appliances and old-fashioned farm implements. Where else can you buy a Singer treadle sewing machine or a wood-burning cookstove complete with a compartment to heat water?
How do you know you're in Amish country?
By the texture of the roads, for one thing. Horses hooves have made the pavement rough. The rougher the pavement, the deeper into the heart of Amish country you are.
By the sound of horses' hooves clattering along a highway, for another. You'll often hear a buggy before you see it.
By the hitching rails in grocery store parking lots.
And by the traffic. You'll slow down to a crawl when you find yourself behind an Amish buggy on a narrow road.
The Ohio Amish live amicably among non-Amish neighbors, whom they refer to as the "English."
It's easy to distinguish an Amish home from an "English" home. Amish homes have carefully tended vegetable gardens with a row or two of flowers for decoration. A buggy is parked in the garage. And there are no power lines leading to the house or TV antenna on the roof.
Amish farm buildings are usually painted white with a windmill nearby.
The area is less commercial than Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, but it's catching up at a buggy's pace.
A giant sign alongside a highway says, "Visit Yoder's Amish Home." Another advises you to "turn here for an Amish buggy ride." So many tourists crowd into Berlin on a Saturday afternoon that it's hard to find a parking place for a buggy or a car.
On Saturday evening, dating couples converge on Berlin in open-top courting buggies for a night on the town. The theory is they won't do anything in an open buggy that's beyond the bounds of Amish propriety.
Perhaps "English" parents should buy their teenagers convertibles.
If you explore the back roads, you'll be where tourists are exploited the least.
Simply drive. You'll pass homes where Amish families sit contently on the porch or play on the front lawn. If it's Sunday, you'll notice large numbers of buggies parked at houses. You have happened on Amish worship services. Stop for a minute and you'll hear a booming male voice through an open window. The sermon is preached in German.
Amish country is a time warp. It's life in the slow lane. Follow the small green-and-white signs guiding you down a dirt road near Charm to the Rocker Shop, for example. Pull into the driveway next to the horse and buggy and enter the workshop next door to the proprietor's home. He greets you amiably and explains the three styles of rockers he and his son make by hand. They even gather the hickory themselves, he says. You sit in one and find it irresistibly comfortable. "How much?" you ask. "$170," he says. "Pay $10 now and the balance when the rocker is ready." But there's a hitch. The waiting period is two years.
Or ask a local shopkeeper how long it will take you to reach a certain destination. He can tell how long it will take by buggy but not by car.
Ask him to call the person who handcrafted the little wood wagon displayed in his store. He can't. The person who made the wagon doesn't have a phone.
Life in the slow lane has its disadvantages.
A word about photographs. The Amish don't like you to take their picture. They consider it an act of vanity. Some may consent if you ask their permission. Others won't mind if you snap your shot when you're standing behind them.
Things to remember: The place shuts down on Sundays. The restaurant where I ate lunch closed at 3 p.m., and that was one of two I knew of that were open at all on the Sabbath. (I told you they practice what they preach.)
Aside from a few country inns and bed and breakfasts, there are few places to stay in the heart of Amish country. The Walnut Creek Inn, a new and comfortable establishment with a beautiful view, is one, but it's often full. There are also places to stay in Sugarcreek. Accommodations are easier to find in bigger towns on the periphery, including New Philadelphia, Dover and Wooster.
A word of warning. Drive slowly, especially on narrow, winding roads. You might find an Amish buggy traveling at a buggy's pace in front of you.
Remember, this is life in the slow lane.