How did we end up in the little Amish town of Shipshewana, IN?
In almost every small town we go to people ask how we got there and why in the world we picked their town when planning our route. The answer is, that we have to go somewhere and since we stay away from the major highways and hit a lot of small towns, someone wins the lottery. For Shipshewana, the reason we stopped there begins with who we met way back to Escanaba, MI. We spoke to some schools there and made it on the nightly news. People all over the U.P. saw the story and that landed us a stay with a woman named Connie in Gulliver, MI a few days later. She must have enjoyed having us because she got on Facebook and told her sister who lives in northern Indiana. It turns out it was just a 10 mile detour to her place, she was excited to have us, and had even gotten us hooked up with some schools to speak at. So, we added it to our route, directed google maps to take us there, and got a cultural experience in the process.
We weren’t more than a few miles outside of town when we saw a couple of horse and buggies, which has to be the most iconical image of Amish daily life. On the shoulder of the state road the hooves of the horses had worn a deep groove in the pavement that wasn’t the result of a few passes, but that of many. Northern Indiana is home to a good sized Amish population. At the same time, cars flew by at almost highway speeds while the buggies made left turns from the right lane. It was the new world meeting the past in a seemingly dangerous way. As we got into town most everything was closed. It was Sunday and since the Amish are quite religious, there’s no work on that day. Fine with me; I’m supportive of a day of rest.
We reached Lori’s after making a couple wrong turns and realized we’re pretty bad at following oral directions (although in the past we’ve always claimed “bad directions”). For the next two nights we had a great place to stay and another amazingly hospitable host who fed us and let us make ourselves at home. We enjoyed a great get together with some of her friends one night and went out for our Indiana pizza the next. While we were asked about details of our trip, Lori continually fielded our questions about the Amish.
During our stay we spoke at two schools in the area and the first was about five miles south, in Topeka. On our way to school we passed a buggy for sale lot, a bike shop, and a lake for boating with boat trailers attached to buggies, making note to stop at each one on the way back for a bit of investigating and picture taking. First was the bike shop which was larger than usual and well stocked with plenty of bikes starting in the mid $300s. The prices on common items like tubes and patch kids were also rock bottom compared to what we’re used to. Either forgoing electricity saves more money than I thought, or the Amish norm is only to attain a small profit. The guy working the counter, or owner for all we know, expressed some interest in our trip, but especially our loaded bikes, so he went outside and had a look around. As we continued down the road we got a close up look at some of the buggies, complete with a leaf spring in the front and rear each turned sideways. The setup even had hand operated windshield wipers and the only thing missing was a stereo system. Lori’s son, Tom, assured us he’s seen them “bump”. The sticker price was not listed but Lori thought about $2000 – $5000 was typical. Almost back at the house we had to check out the hybrid system of a horse pulling a buggy with a motorboat trailer on back. While the owners must have been out on the lake fishing we got a chance to ponder the allowance of gas motors for boating but not for traveling.
The Amish have quite a few rules, and right there is an immediate turn off for more of a radical “be who you want to be” kind of person bicycling around the country. I want to wear whatever clothes I want to and if I was a girl, maybe do without the bonnet for a day or two. But since footwear seems up to your own discretion, and if I was one of the few Amish kids wearing the new Jordan’s, maybe it wouldn’t bother me that much. There are also rules related to motorized transportation which, as I think about them, begin to make more sense. There will be no ownership of motorized transportation. This means an Amish person typically will not travel farther than 10 miles from their home. But there is a loophole to this. Hiring a driver to take you somewhere, such as the nearest Wal-mart, is within regulation. There are many more elements to daily life such as what color a buggy can be or the number of pleats in a bonnet that all have their standard but I won’t belabor the point.
So what’s the point to these rules? I don’t know but I’ll make a guess. Family life, including relationships with neighbors is very important to the Amish. There are many things that can disintegrate relationships between members such as physical distance from each other (living within driving distance versus buggy distance), competition (owning and working more land than your neighbor and thereby putting him out of business), or jealousy (wearing the latest styles and fashion). The set of rules then is meant to preserve these values and like any set of rules may not seem consistent. Therefore you have what I call “the hybrid life” – horses pulling gas powered farm equipment, people jumping in taxis to get where they need to go yet never setting foot in the driver’s seat, and rumors of frequent cell phone use while a land line for anything but an emergency is forbidden. It’s madness, but with good intent.
Before coming to Shipshewana each of us (myself, Tommy, and Aaron) had our own ideas on what the Amish living might be like. We assumed there were horses and buggies, no electricity, no gas powered engines, and some pretty simple living. We created an idea of how they live, imagining it much like the “back to the land” people of the 70s and today, and put the Amish way of living on a pedestal. We created a romantic idea, a fantasy of how they live, that is probably false. With scrutiny, it seems full of contradictions and generations of indoctrinated beliefs, but with any scrutiny few societies look that great. But rather than be disappointed, we can look to the baseball fields filled with kids playing ball, their belief in rural life and manual labor, and their unbelievably high percentage of bicycle commuters, as examples of a healthy lifestyle.