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Short and Bittersweet

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. 


Getting Lost, Being Found

And so began a new adventure with me climbing aboard a 24-foot, Mercedes Benz Sprinter sightseeing bus. This bus has been around, I'll tell you, though you wouldn't know it from its sparkly shine and tidy interior. 

Lots of people board this bus every day, but most climb on from the other side. As for me, I would be plopping myself into the driver's seat. Today would be my first solo flight as a guide with Amish Heartland Tours. I was excited, sure. But I was also pretty nervous. The route had been altered slightly from what I had learned, with a new stop added, but even if it hadn't changed, I had not yet navigated the whole thing alone. During the other times I had ventured along the backroads of northeastern Holmes County, Ohio, I had either done so in my own beat-up Honda with Canon in-hand and no real destination, or with the Amish Heartland Tours owner, LaVonne DeBois, by my side. 

It's because of LaVonne that I'm embarking on this new journey, by the way. She and I have been Facebook friends since October, 2014, but we had never met. Back in February of this year, she sent me a message asking if I'd be interested in joining her company as a part-time tour guide. At the time, my plate was pretty full. I was working 20-hours per week as a reference associate at our local library and freelancing as a writer, photographer, and marketing/social media specialist for a number of clients. I didn't think I could add one more thing. We decided to get together when our lives had calmed down some, and, as is wont to happen, two months passed before we managed to sit face-to-face at Boyd and Wurthmann's Restaurant in Berlin to get acquainted. I liked LaVonne right away, but I wasn't so sure I could fit the bill as a tour guide. Yes, I love Holmes County, and I really enjoy the country roads and the bucolic scenery, and Lord knows I love meeting new people, but my life was pretty full, and I had determined to spend as much time at home with my two young daughters as I could. 

But LaVonne is persuasive--and encouraging--and, before I knew it, she had me seated behind the wheel of the Mercedes and we were ambling along Berlin Township Road 366 while I practiced my tour narration. My freelance load lightened, and I resigned from my position at the library. I started to think that maybe--just maybe!--I could do this tour guide thing. 

Then today happened. 

I have five kids, and it seemed that every one of them, plus my husband, plus a few friends, needed me today. Cars that wouldn't cooperate. Bosses who were being unfair. Bank accounts that were drained. Health issues that required immediate attention (and fervent prayer!). I was pretty emotionally exhausted by the time I had to leave for my tour. Plus, I had miscalculated my required departure time and ended up missing breakfast AND lunch.

And yet, onward I went.

I started the Mercedes, tooled through town, and arrived to greet my guests at the Holmes County Flea Market just east of Berlin. For the first tour, I welcomed two couples aboard, one from Tennessee and one from Pittsburgh. For the second, it was three college friends--two from Ohio, one from Chicago--gatherered for a Girl's Day Out. They were all tour newbies, so I felt confident that we could learn as we went. We started along Berlin Township Road 366, and I chattered away about Amish parochial schools, typical Amish homes, the difference between the orders of Amish in Holmes County, and the use (or non-use) of technology, telephones, grid power, and motorized farm equipment.

I was cruising right along, answering questions, pointing out purple martin houses and solar panels, when it happened. It was like I had been plopped into a different country. I didn't recognize a thing around me. I knew I had taken a questionable turn somewhere around Fountain Valley School, and I wasn't sure what had happened after that. I know now that I had gone too far on Township Road 654, but at the time, all I knew was that there were people sitting sweetly in their seats who trusted me, but I wasn't sure if we were headed to Mount Hope or Mount Rushmore. I pulled over and consulted my guide, my phone, and my quickly-retreating brain, but to no avail. The guests were ever-so-gracious as I called the amazing Marsha back at the office and she set me back on course. I needed only turn around and cross the intersection to be where I needed to be. Thank goodness, because I did NOT want to miss stopping at Mary's house. 

Mary and Mahlon Miller and their 11 children are Swartzentruber Amish. The Swartzentrubers are an Old Order Amish sect that came about in 1917 when a group led by Sam E. Yoder broke away from the larger Old Order sect and then later became known as the Swartzentrubers, so-named for the next bishop, Samuel Swartzentruber. The largest concentration of Swartzentrubers are made up of about 20 districts in Holmes and Wayne Counties, but there are others in about 15 other states. 

Mary and Mahlon, like most Swartzentruber families, don't use of electricity or indoor plumbing, so the younger children's bare feet, hands, and faces are often spotted with dirt, but they're always grinning from ear-to-ear and happy to receive guests. Their clothes are dark navy, burgundy, and gray, and the girls' dresses fall to the top of the shoes, fastened by straight pins. Babies and children under the age of 10, Mary told me, will have buttons instead of pins. She said she loves that because it's so much easier. There's no gravel on Mary and Mahlon's driveway, and farm animals squawk and moo and oink from all corners of the homestead. 

I made two stops at Mary and Mahlon's today. On the first visit, we were warmly greeted by one of Mary's daughters. 

"What is today's project?" I asked her. 

"Strawberries," she answered, telling me how they had spent the morning in the berry patch harvesting about 80 quarts that would be turned into jam. 

"Did you eat a lot of them in the field?" I asked.

"No," she said. "I don't really like them until they're mashed up and have sugar put on them."

As the tour guests shopped the baskets, Mary and I talked about something we could both identify with that day--what happens when you run out of time to do everything you want to do. For her, a plentiful berry patch and a string of visitors had prevented her from doing the day's washing. She would get to it eventually, she said. She had learned that there's only so much you can do, and if it doesn't get done, it will still be there tomorrow. It's the children who are important, she said. They come first. Everything else can wait. "It took me a little while to learn that," she said. Little one-year-old Suzie, the youngest, orbited around her mother's skirt, stopping occasionally to grin at me. Suzie doesn't speak or understand English, so all I can really do is smile at her. 

Mary's eldest daughter, who is 16, was on a "baby case" this week, meaning a friend, neighbor, or relative had a baby and needed a girl to stay with them while mama and baby acclimated to their new situation. Mary told me that most baby cases last about six weeks when the family has many children and they farm. Mary's daughter was only going to be there a week as she was filling in for a cousin. Mary was glad, because she really felt she needed her daughter at home, especially with the extra chores like strawberries and making lye soap for laundry and face-washing. 

On the second visit, a Porsche was parked under the willow tree, the children were nowhere to be seen, and Mary's wringer-washer was churning a batch of dark denim clothing. Mary told me that a former neighbor had come for a visit and brought ice cream, so the children were inside enjoying their treat. As we were leaving, all of the children gathered on the porch with their visitors, two English women. One of the tour guests overheard one of the women saying that there was a crew shooting a film at the Millersburg home of one of the women, so I went back to investigate. Kathy DeHass told me that, yes, her home, Windy Hill Farm, was one of the filming sites for "Love Finds You in Valentine, Nebraska" which is being filmed in Holmes County right now with Diogo Morgado (Son of God, "The Messengers"), Michaela McManus ("Aquarius," "One Tree Hill"), Lindsay Wagner (The Paper Chase, "The Bionic Woman") and Ed Asner (Up, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"). We chatted for a few minutes while the other woman silentlly listened. Then it occurred to me, and I put two-and-two together.

"Are you Lindsay?" I asked. She smiled and nodded, and then I could see that, of course she was Lindsay Wagner, former Bionic Woman and a member of the "Love Finds You...." cast. They had visited Mary knowing that it was "way off the beaten path," and then here came this tour bus! We didn't stick around or ask for selfies, though. We left so the family could have their guests all to themselves. 

Here's something I loved about Mary. As we were leaving, she was standing on the porch digging into the ice cream, eating it with a spoon straight out of the round, white tub. My kind of woman. 

The tour guests bought their baskets, signed the guest book, and climbed aboard the bus again. We headed up the road just a bit to Abe's furniture store. 

Abe is a trip. His showroom has about a gazillion coffee mugs hanging from the ceiling. He started his collection with a set of Campbell's Soup mugs that his wife had insisted he get out of the house. He couldn't part with them, though, insisting that they might be worth something. He still has those mugs, plus a couple others. 

Abe showed us his office decorated with fish trophies and photos. He told us about Rumspringa, about his innovative phone system (a pipe running underground from his house to his son's with an NBA-regulation whistle attached to both ends to serve as ringers), and about the practice of Old Order Amish men growing their beards after they've joined the church but keeping them disconnected from their hairline until after they've married. He also shared the details of his evening relaxation ritual, which involves supper, coffee, a cigarette (he also sells tobacco and pipes in his shop), a recliner, a nap, and, after mowing yard with a human-powered reel mower, a cold Bud Light from the ice box. And when I say "ice box," I literally mean a box (freezer) kept cold using big chunks of ice delivered to his door by the local ice company. 

I returned my guests to their vehicles and made my way back to my own world. The earth had continued rotating without me. I made a few phone calls, answered a couple of texts, and grabbed a bite to eat. The pressing issues I had faced before the tours hadn't gone anywhere. They were still there, waiting for my attention, just like Mary's laundry.