Saturday, July 26, 2008

Amish Country

You've probably never heard of Belleville, PA. If you have, by all means skip ahead a few paragraphs. I won't be offended. Really. Everyone else, let me tell you about a wide, fertile valley wedged into a broad ripple in the Allegheny Mountains.

Let me tell you about a most marvelous place, home to a contingent of Amish* farmers who made their way to this broad valley between the Stone and Jacks Mountains in the late 18th century. Let me tell you about a people who have managed to hold fast to their Old Order ways and today, seemingly cloistered from the outside world, live in a place that feels unsullied by crass commercialism and busloads of tourists that plague their more famous brethern to the southeast in Lancaster County.

Mennonite farmers (an Amish-light sect who own "worldly" 20th-century motorized devices) and a smattering of "English" (everybody else), share this valley with the Amish. The sleepy little farm town of Belleville features some houses, a Gas-n-Go, a Mennonite Heritage Center, and a broken down glue nag harnessed to a rotten old buggy. Steady old fella...

And that's pretty much the extent of it. There's not much else to see here, other than the scenery. Except on Wednesdays. Because on Wednesdays the town of Belleville becomes a hive of activity thanks to the Belleville Livestock Auction and Flea Market.

Town residents angle their pickups in hot competition for parking spots, and high-gloss buggies vye for hitching spaces.

We learned that the colors of the buggy tops give some clue as to which major group the owner belongs. Buggy tops come in white, yellow, and black. Apparently, white tops indicate that its owner is of the most traditional sect.

Then again, maybe not.

Because schisms are a constant in this land of Luddites where seemingly everyone is named Yoder (individuals are distinguished by the initials of their given names: I. E. Yoder; E.G. Yoder; and so on), issues of how to dress, how a barn should be built or painted, and who knows what else have splintered this one Amish community into more than a dozen sects.

But to the casual observer at the Belleville Livestock Auction and Flea Market, none of this family bickering is evident. The kids are mindful and respectful to their elders. The adults, though terse, are friendly enough to outsiders and even jovial among their own.

So why not join us and step into the low-slung concrete building where the Amish women sell their homemade specialties...

... while the auctioneer bids up homemade pies by the tin and garden-fresh beans by the package, starting at $1.50 each.

It is a place where even the least among them has a job to do, without complaint...

... because when the hard work is over, there is a just reward waiting for the entire family.

We loved this place. We loved the prices. We loved the scene...

... and we loved the food.

It was one of those rare places where complete outsiders like us could witness the people of another culture, unlike our own yet somehow familiar, as they conducted their normal business--be it kicking the udder on a new milker...

... or weighing the relative merits of a load of hay before it went up for auction.

It seemed to us to be a veritable heaven on earth. And it may very well be just that, especially because we had to travel at the speed of a bygone era that is somehow very much alive.

*The Amish trace their origins to the Anabaptist movement that swept Europe in the 16th century. One group of Anabaptists who sheered off to follow the teachings of Menno Simons, a Dutch elder, became the Mennonites. Disagreements in the Mennonite community flared, and another group broke away under the leadership of Jakob Ammann--the Amish.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Three Days in July

After dipping our toes in the Jersey Shore, we headed west for the hills of southern Pennsylvania. We brought the bus to a whoa-ful stop just outside of Lancaster, PA, in a vibrant little town called Gettysburg.

We weren’t there for the colonial architecture so much as to tour the Civil War battlefield on the south side of town. In real and symbolic terms this battle was the high water mark of the Confederacy, and armies of researchers and historians have created libraries of material that study, ponder, and rehash those three fateful days in July,1863. While you can read all about it, I recommend you simply get yourself to Gettysburg National Battlefield. Once there, it's worth your while to stroll through the absolutely excellent on-site museum and finish out your day by touring the sites themselves.

Thusly primed, you can take aim at the Union forces from the front lines of Pickett’s Charge.

(The three little clumps trees along the right side of the horizon mark the exact spot where the Union armies held the high ground. Imagine marching across that mile of open field under heavy fire. The Confederate forces tried it and almost won the day.)

Then detour through the back roads of history and listen to the echoes among the rocks.

I could go on and on... But I have to admit that I've become a bit weary of battlefields. So instead of me prattling on and on about this place, I’m going to let someone else say a few words. He wasn’t at the battle either, but he delivered an address at Gettysburg way back in October, 1863.

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."


If you’re lucky in this world, you’ll make a few lifelong friends. If you’re really fortunate, you will see them often. This makes me, by my own definitions, a lucky man who isn’t as fortunate as he’d like to be. However, this extended cross-country road trip is going a long way toward improving my lot in life. Which is to say we were able to see two of my oldest friends, in two very different cities, in the span of just a few days.

After descending the Ivory Tower of Jefferson’s Monticello, we pointed our good old bus north and bravely waded into the shark-infested swamps of Washington, DC. We did not travel there to fight for justice for the common man.

Nor did we go to speak our peace.

But we did go to DC to for a just and noble cause. We went to see one of my lifelong friends, Chris Munday, and his family—Tilden, his wife and Tayen, their son.

Chris is also an Iowa City, Iowa boy. We were both bike riders back in the 1980s, which means we spent a lot of time riding side-by-side on the backroads of Iowa’s farmlands, driving around the country to bike races, and otherwise making the scene with a shifty cast of road-wise bike bums: Dogbait, Dumpy, Sluggo, Bananas, Gomez, Blockhead, Mongo, Curly-Bite-Ball, Buzzsaw, Rat, Skin, Dirty Dick, Worthless, and many, many others. If you think this has makings of a fraternity to rival the Animal House, you wouldn’t be mistaken.

Who is to say why people become friends in the first place and remain friends? The reasons are likely as varied as the circumstances. It seems to me that Chris and I became friends long ago because, I think, we have common and complimentary interests that extend well beyond the normal dumb-athlete repertoire*. Chris is a master carpenter; I have held an actual saw in my hand. Chris is an expert on colonial era furniture; I like sitting in chairs. Chris is an attentive student of art and art history; I enjoy looking at colorful pictures. See what I mean?

Since Chris and Tilden currently live a scant few blocks from Capitol Hill**, the very best that DC has to offer was within easy walking distance—be it a groovy restaurant, coffee shop, or the many faces of the Smithsonian. As this was my first visit to DC, I insisted on seeing as much of it as I could. (Many heartfelt thanks to Diane, Chris and Tilden for so heartily indulging me.)

First up was Capitol Hill and the People’s House. Note the sharpshooter lurking on the balcony, above my pointy head. He’s there to keep us people out.

Then it was down the Hill to the botanical gardens, home to the world’s most far-out flower gardens…

By "far-out" I mean far out. This was as close as we could get to the actual White House gardens. Apparently George W. was playing t-ball on the East Lawn and couldn’t be disturbed (true!).

Undeterred, we took to the Capitol Mall, where Frisbee football games, clueless tourists, and protest movements freely intermingle…

… and where the marquee museums of the Smithsonian are located. No where else but in Washington, DC can you, in a single day, gaze at the actual death mask of Honest Abe...

… then lean over and touch an actual Nazi terror machine hand-built by slave labor.

What’s more, you can share an intimate moment with an actual stewardess…

… get cozy with two Ohio bike mechanics who had their right hands on the first flying machine…

… behold the world’s original space monkey…

(Yes, this is the real thing - he died four days after he came back to earth then was stuffed and mounted; and yes, this is how the little shaver was suited up for his blast into outer space.)

… then take a break and watch the other tourists Gogh by.

Of course we cased the White House from afar, paid our respects at the Ford Theatre, and reflected about the nature of Washington while on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

But mostly Diane and I simply hung loose with the Munday clan. We were only in DC for a few days, but these days were filled with excursions to the nearby farmer’s market, insightful neighborhood walks (Tilden grew up in DC and is a most excellent tour guide), and polished off heaping plates of late night dinners. We had a great time and we missed these fine friends of ours as soon as we left.

However, we were on deadline—a rare event on this microbus roadtrip—for if we wanted to visit another worthy old bike-bum friend of mine, Scott Dickson, we had to hurry. You see, Scott was a day away from flying to Iowa in order to make the start of the rolling circus commonly known as “Ragbrai.” (If you don’t know what Ragbrai is, I recommend you both Google it and then make plans to go.)

Feeling pretty good about driving a whole 110 miles from DC to the pastoral little college town of Norfolk, DE in a single afternoon, we arrived at Scott’s place a bit on the late side. Turns out Scott had just beat us there. He had covered about 80 miles that afternoon, too. On a bicycle.

But that’s Scott. He’s been riding and racing bikes longer than anyone I’ll ever know (since the 1960s) and sports many national championship cycling medals in his showcase to prove it. He also holds a Ph.D. in hydrology and assumes the role of adjunct professor when the circumstances are suitable. He’s an interesting and funny guy with many a mischievous tale to tell. Marsha, his wife, tells a good story, too.

So we had a great evening with Scott, Marsha—herself a reformed bike rider and professor at the University of Delaware (she studies apparel industry sweatshops in the developing world and advocates for better working conditions), and Marsha’s mother, Madge, who just happened to be visiting at the same time we did. Suffice it to say that the good old days are very, very good indeed when camped out on the Dickson’s back deck with a plate of garden-fresh food before you.

The morning came all to quickly, as it always does when you are in the company of old and true friends. We would have liked to stay longer, of course. But Scott was headed for the friendly skies and Marsha had a day of appointments at her office. So we again hit the road.

Next time we’ll stay longer. And, if I am fortunate, next time the span between visits will be measured in months, not years.

*Dumb-athlete areas of interest will be familiar to anyone who has played any sort of sport for any length of time. Specific areas of interest depend on the nature of the sport itself, of course, though the themes remain constant. In the world of men’s cycling, the dumb-athlete areas of interest are: Bike Racing, Cars, and Girls; Girls, Bike Racing, and Cars; and Cars, Girls, and Bike Racing. Heated discussions in regard to favorite bands and music genres have also been known to occur from time to time, particularly during cramped, cross-country road trips.

** Chris and Tilden want to leave DC for greener pastures, and their current plans could have them hitting the Oregon Trail and winding up somewhere near, if not in, our beloved Willamette Valley. Without doubt, if this were to happen then I would be a very, very fortunate man indeed.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Ivory Tower

After our slog through the highlights of the Civil War, it was a delight to inhale the fresh mountaintop air of Monticello, the retirement home of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, third president of the United States, architect, gardener, scientist, founder of the University of Virginia, champion of religious freedom, plantation owner, slave owner, and man-about-the-town.

However, you can’t climb the steps to the summit of this ivory tower. You have to ride a tour bus.

And you can’t go it alone. You have to moo along with a herd of other tourists.

But it’s worth it. That is if you like hanging out in what amounts to a giant bachelor’s pad. Behold the main visitor’s entrance, replete with cool mastodon fossils and trinkets scored from the Lewis and Clark expeditions.

Of course, Jefferson’s daughter and her 11 children lived in the house, too. But he squirreled them away safely upstairs and forbade the meddlesome kids to enter his inner sanctum, which is just off the visitor’s entrance.

As you can see, all that’s missing are the neon beer signs and a flat screen TV. To be fair, and not to confuse our 3rd president with our 43rd, Jefferson’s personal library is the foundation of the famed Library of Congress. I also find it telling that one of Jefferson’s favorite books was Don Quixote, which he read in the original Spanish. Generally regarded as the western world’s first true novel (its author, Miguel Cervantes, was a contemporary of Shakespeare), Don Quixote is essentially one long and ridiculous road trip story. It is also the story of a man who so rejects the encroachments of the modern world that he casts himself in the role of a heroic errant knight and undertakes a great quest to right all that has gone wrong, and maybe even save a fair damsel in distress.

So. Back to Monticello. This hilltop retreat was the center of Jefferson’s world. Said the man himself, “all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.”

True to his words, he goofed around with his house, his “essay in architecture.” He wrote letters. He entertained guests. He cultivated every plant imaginable, be it tree or flower or fruit or vegetable. He tinkered with astronomy at night, then during the day trained his spyglass on the grounds of the University of Virginia to supervise its construction (built from his design) from afar. History does not say whether or not the women’s dormitory was completed prior to the old man’s passing.

Of course, none of Jefferson’s great labors would have been possible without the help of his father’s fortune, which included vast land holdings and a veritable army of slaves.

At Monticello, the slaves lived on a sort of ring road, affectionately called “Mulberry Row,” which from the main house is conveniently sloped just out of sight down the side of the hilltop.

Jefferson, a man of his time, had no compunction about owning slaves and profiting from their labors. But he also wasn’t afraid to offer them education and opportunities, suitable to their station in life. He brought his best slaves with him wherever he went. Some learned the fine arts of French cookery. Others became masters of the skilled trades. His common slaves could learn to read and write, should they so desire. Unlike other slaveholders, Jefferson wasn’t threatened by any of this. And why should he be? The more educated his slaves, the better his own life would be. Besides, he was always the smartest man in the room.

Today, Monticello is a clean and quiet place. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and we recommend that anyone who has the inclination and opportunity should visit. It provides fascinating insights into the interests, talents, ideals, and realities of this creative and complex American icon.

Back down in the thoroughly modern town of Charlottesville, VA and strolling through its noisy, car-choked streets, I missed the quiet of Jefferson’s hilltop retreat. On the hilltop, back in Jefferson’s day, the air was clean. The water was pure. The dark earth was untainted with toxic chemicals. And only the gentle blur of wind rustled the skies.

My ire up, I was ready to slip on my silk knickers, snug down my waistcoat, powder my wig, and get back to nature. But then Diane suggested we duck into a tavern for an ice-cold beer and a giant cheeseburger, and my resolve melted. For she knew what I had temporarily forgotten—that no matter the sounds or the odors, every era has its own troubles in its own way. Even on a hilltop retreat.