This fall, I wrote about serendipitously meeting a group of Amish women at our local office supply store. The women, all teachers I presumed, were making photo copies of lesson plans for their students. I was also making photo copies for students – my college-level mass-communication students.
Because the Amish do not use electricity or modern technology, and because their idea of “communication” is face-to-face and one-on-one, I desperately tried to hide my photo copies (part of which was an article about how the Internet has changed the news industry) from the women.
Their work seemed so quiet. Even their footsteps were soft. I, on the other hand, was causing paper jams and accidentally printing twenty more pages than I had intended. The Amish women helped me with my photocopier, which really impressed me, but not more than learning that one of the women had just hiked Mt. Katahdin – in full, traditional Amish dress.
I thought about those women for a long time afterward, and our meeting sent me down a months-long path of researching Amish culture. I knew that a hired driver had brought the women to the office supply store, so as I read more, I became increasingly curious about their buggies and their school.
So last week, we took a road trip to visit one of the Amish communities and shop at their general store. That was the plan, at least. But GPSs are fickle things, especially in the snow. I don’t know why; that’s not a scientific statement. However, just as people lose their minds and suddenly start parking diagonally in the snow, my GPS loses its way when the temperature drops.
First we ended up at a McDonald’s thirty minutes out of the way. Neither the highway sign nor the pleasant British voice on my GPS mentioned how far “to the left” it would be. Next we followed our trusty British guide another hour up the highway and exited onto a winding, icy road. We could hardly wait to see Amish country. An hour later, we (by “we,” I mean “the adults”) were still just as excited but increasingly worried that we might be lost.
The GPS did this to us once before, when it tried to take us to Mt. Katahdin by circling the entire base of the mountain. It wasn’t until later that night when I saw that Baxter State Park’s website specifically states that visitors should not use the GPS to get to the mountain. But the Amish people don’t have websites with directions. For all I knew, their general store might not exist. Or, in any case, it definitely wasn’t located on whatever road we were on.
And then, over the next hill, there it was – the Amish general store. The inside was just as I had imagined: simple, but full, and lit only by gas lamps.
“We drove all this way to come to a store with no lights?” Lindell said.
He was quickly placated by a bag of M&Ms that we could have bought from the Walgreens near our house.
I had to agree with him, though. It seemed like a long trip to shop in the near-dark. Back in the car, we felt a little deflated. It had all seemed pretty normal.
“I wish I hadn’t come,” Lindell said.
“But didn’t you enjoy our company at least?” we asked.
“No, not really,” he said.
And that’s when we saw it. The Amish children were leaving their schoolhouse. They ran out the door and tumbled into the snow, playfully throwing snowballs at their friends and coating their knit hats until they looked frosted. None of them came out the door with necks bent, staring at handheld phones.
“When have you ever seen me leave school looking at a phone either?” Lindell said when I commented on it. “I don’t even have a phone!”
But there was something else, something I couldn’t put my finger on yet. The children looked like a Rockwell painting as they piled onto their open sleigh with wheels and hitched up a horse to the front.
And then it occurred to me. There were no parents hovering nearby, no parking lots filled with cars waiting with the heaters on. There was only the watchful eye of the children’s school teachers and untouched snow for as far as we could see.
The kids were laughing. We heard that through the glass. It didn’t seem like they were rushing off to organized practices, French lessons, dance, gymnastics, soccer – you name it. They were just playing … with each other … as their teachers watched from the sidelines.
It was so serene. The word that kept coming to mind was “pure.”
I wanted to go outside and say hello to my friends from the office supply store. Everyone else in the car convinced me that might be weird. So we watched through the window (because that didn’t seem weird at all), and then we drove home without the GPS and in near silence, thinking again about all the things the Amish have gained by abandoning the things we are most afraid to lose: control, ambition, technology and, perhaps, the modern world.