When a guest climbs the steps of that silver Amish Heartland Tours bus and settles into their seat, there are quite a few variables. What will they want to know? What will they want to see? Will they enjoy a sense of humor or a straightforward, textbook-style tour? Will they have visited Holmes County before? Do they know anything about the Amish?
And there are plenty of variables about the tour itself, too. Will there be farmers plowing in the fields? Will there be children driving pony carts? Will there be dairy cows stopped smack-dab in the middle of the road?
But I can tell you one thing without a doubt. I know there's going to be at least one sure thing.
Two hours will not be long enough.
Today was no exception. As a group from a Columbus assisted-living home boarded the bus on this hot early June afternoon, I met each of them and learned that one of the guests, Philip, was in town celebrating his birthday. Tomorrow, he told me, he would be 70. Not today, though. Tomorrow.
"Are you married?" He asked me.
"Yes," I said. "I'm married and I have five children."
Shouts went up throughout the bus. "FIVE children?!?"
"That's right," I said. "But that's a small family compared to most in this area. The average Amish family has eight children. And they count every single one of them a blessing. A gift from God."
There's so much to see along the backroad route. Today, we had to stop to ogle over a tiny, newborn sheep snuggled up in the pasture.
We paused, too, to take a picture of a gorgeous hillside overlooking Mt. Hope.
"Did I smile big enough?" Bill (on the right) asked.
"You smilled just fine!" I said. "It was a perfect smile!"
Lisa (middle) was one of the group's leaders. She had a lot of questions about the Amish way of life. "Do they drink beer?" (Yes, some of them do.) "Do they smoke?" (Yes, some of them do.) "Do the women smoke?" (Good question. I've never seen an Amish woman smoking, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.) "What would you need to do if you wanted to become Amish?"
Great question. Some might think it's not possible to become Amish if you were born English, but there are several people in our community who have gone through the process. There's a pretty good outline of that process here, if you're interested. There are books about people who felt they were called to be Amish and made the transition to join the church. Called to be Amish by Marlene C Miller is one of those books. Marlene is one of the few outsiders who joined the Old Order Amish church and stuck with it.
If you think the plain people's way of life is appealing to you, a good question to ask yourself is "why?" What about it is appealing? The modest, simple clothing? The lack of technology? Working with the land? A measure of self-sufficiency? Living off the grid? Having lots of children? The question, then, would be, why not apply those principles to your life the way you're living today? It's not necessary to become Amish to embrace some of their choices.
But for Lisa, it was more than that. What appeals to her is the structure. The community. The fact that there are accepted roles within the Amish community and people know, for the most part, what is expected of them. Children are taught by example from a very young age that they are important, functional members of the community. Grandparents are respected and cared for. Needs are met. Educational structures are established. Limits are set. There's an infrastructure that has been in place for a very, very long time, and there's a certain comfort in knowing that your wedding will be like this, and when you marry, your role will be this, and as you grow older, this is what will happen.
So, yes, there's a way of life that wouldn't be easily attained just by adopting plain-living principles. Changing yourself, after all, doesn't necessarily change your children, or your spouse, or your parents. So one aspect of Amish living is the security and stability of living within such a community.
We stopped at Mary Miller's house today. Last week when I was there, they had picked 80 quarts of strawberries from their patch. I thought that was a pretty impressive feat. Today she told me that they have now picked about 450 quarts so far. Sheesh! Some of them she cold packs with sugar and water, and some she will turn into jam. They sell some, too. She hasn't started her jam yet. Today's task was to care for the new strawberry patch. Patches have to be started every year because they don't reach a good production until the second year. The first year, you're supposed to pick off all of the blossoms and encourage the runners.
"Did you pick off all the blossoms this year?" I asked her.
"Well, we certainly tried," she said. "Though, today, I found one that was ripe, so I ate it. It wasn't supposed to be there, but it was!"
Speaking of impressive feet, here are a couple.
Mary's children run around all day long without shoes, and this is the result. When the bus arrives, one of the children greets us at the gate and leads us to the shop in the house, and then they all cluster on and around the stairs. Today, the girls were napping when we got there, so this little guy was the only one taking it all in.
But Mary told him to go and wake the girls because she thought they'd want to be there, so in they came. Katie was still away on a baby case (new mama's helper) about 12 miles away. Mary said they can't wait for her to get back home.
The group bought some baskets, some soap, and some jam. Lovina totaled it up in her spiral-bound notebook.
Usually, she sits at a little desk by the door, but it was being occupied by Philip the birthday boy who was just sitting quietly, taking it all in. I asked him if he'd be willing to sit for a birthday portrait.
"Okay," I said. "How about if you smile this time?"
"Like this?" he said, and struck this goofy pose.
"Perfect," I said.
Then the Miller family's cat posed, too. It didn't smile, though. And I had to say, "Pssh! Pssh! Pssh!" to get her to look my way.
And, just like that, our two hours were up. Done. And when I say there's not enough time, only part of the reason is because there's much more to see along the route. It's also because I have to say goodbye to people like Philip and Lisa and Bill. It's bittersweet--meeting new people, spending two hours with them, juuuuuust starting to get to know each other, and then it's over. But I'll remember them, and I hope they'll remember their time with me, too.