Sunday, October 23, 2016

Hiking among the Amish, and curious about their culture

The Riddle of Amish CultureThe Riddle of Amish Culture by Donald B. Kraybill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I grew up in the late 50's and 60's in SE Pennsylvania at the fringes of Amish country. It was a rare sight to see an Amish horse and buggy in those days. Last week, on a beautiful autumn Sunday, driving a seven mile stretch of PA 372 southwest of Lancaster, heading to a hike of the Mason-Dixon Trail, I lost count after passing more than two dozen buggies.

It was probably visiting Sunday, not a church Sunday. I could not have reached that conclusion had I not just finished reading Donald Kraybill's comprehensive documentary about the enigmatic ways of the Amish people.

I had been away from the area for fifty years and just recently returned to help my Mom and Dad during and after my Dad's final illness. The Amish population had multiplied seven-fold in those years. With such a significant presence around me, I thought it would be worthwhile to read up on these people in order to get a quick education on 'what makes them tick'. Kraybill's book was recommended, by name, within the fictional text of 'The Atonement' by Beverly Lewis, a novel about an Amish woman with a secret past (see the review below). The book has wonderfully filled many of the gaps in my understanding. It is a comprehensive resource, and I recommend it.

What this book will not do is give you any understanding about what it feels like to be Amish, or what their day-to-day life is like. For that I believe Lewis's 'The Atonement' provided a good glimpse.  What Kraybill's book does is provide an academician's clinical, scholarly perspective on the culture and beliefs of this sect that has successfully remained separate from the American mainstream but yet has managed to integrate smoothly into the greater society whose values it largely rejects.

Kraybill's main purpose seems to be to explain how the Amish have managed to do that, how they have maintained a viable community on their own terms despite prohibiting education beyond the 8th grade, despite avoiding owning automobiles, despite prohibiting electricity in their homes, and despite becoming a major tourist attraction for the region.

In a nutshell, the Amish do change and adapt to changing times and technology. While hiking I would frequently see Amish in their farm fields pulling modern farm implements with draft horses, as many as six and eight.  The wheels on those implements are always steel, not rubber.  I could clearly hear the sound of a gasoline engine, mounted on the implement, operating the machinery.  When driving past an Amish farm there are no electric wires running from power poles on the street, but their pastures are encircled with electric fences.  Propane tanks are prominent beside the large, neat homes.  And I frequently would hear the sound of a large generator humming beside the barn.

The changes to the Amish 'Ordnung,' their strict oral code of conduct, are selective, slow to evolve, and made to balance their deeply ingrained 'Gelassenheit' (humility), their mandate to separate themselves from modern ways, and their literal interpretation of biblical canon, with the practical reality that they need to make a living.  I won't provide 'spoilers' by explaining further. Suffice it to say that Kraybill manages to very successfully 'crack the code' or solve the Riddle.

The book is a 2001 update of the original 1989 volume. It is about time for another update. Though the Amish seem to be thriving, the Lancaster settlement continues to face challenges, not the least of which is their burgeoning, indeed exploding, population. The average Amish family has six to eight children. Their population doubles with each new generation. All these new 'plain folk' need to make a living. Traditionally they were farmers, but God's not making more land, and suburban development around Lancaster is raising land values and turning farm land into housing subdivisions.

Bottom line: The fate of the Amish Culture remains uncertain. Their story is an ongoing, dynamic one, and it's fascinating. They are adapting to the twenty-first century in some surprising ways, and Kraybill provides an excellent guide to understanding these sometimes enigmatic practices. His 2001 edition remains relevant and highly informative, but for how much longer?

* * *

The AtonementThe Atonement by Beverly Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lucy Flaud is Old Order Amish from Lancaster County PA. She is single and 25, almost too old to marry, and she holds no hope of ever finding love. She harbors a deep secret so shameful that she does all she can to avoid thinking about it. What she knows is that this secret disqualifies her from ever being worthy of happiness. She has not taken communion for nearly a year. When her long time close friend Toby asks to court her, she refuses, both in person and in writing.

We learn that Lucy's shameful past involves a relationship with an 'Englisher,' a worldly outsider. That relationship is over but now she seems to be getting dangerously familiar with another outsider.

As the story unfolds we follow Lucy's frantic attempts to drown her painful memories in selfless volunteer service, yet events keep prying open her self-imposed seal on the subject of her past.

Author Beverly Lewis has written dozens of novels describing various facets of Amish life. I cannot say from personal experience whether her characters and their actions and their language are true to form but they certainly appear to reflect the self-effacing 'Gelassenheit' mindset that dominates Amish culture, their heavy emphasis on family bonds, their mistrust of the ways of the outside world, their unshakable work ethic, and their humble, abiding Christian faith. I picked up this book because I'm currently living in and hiking through the sprawling Lancaster Settlement and wanted to begin to explore the culture of these distinctive people.

Regardless of whether Lewis is faithfully depicting the culture, her story is a page-turner. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I recommend it without qualification and hope to read more of her work.

View all my reviews

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Mason-Dixon Trail along the lower Susquehanna Gorge

Two-state view of the lower Susquehanna Gorge, Conowingo Reservoir, from 440 foot Bald Hill.

Looking for a memorable hiking experience that offers plenty of thigh-burning mountainous terrain but no mountains? Want a hike that provides consistent close encounters with, and spectacular views of, one of the nation's great rivers?  Then head for the Mason-Dixon Trail along the west bank of the Susquehanna.  It has no peers.

I'll be reporting this bit of trail in two segments, the lower and the upper Susquehanna, each about thirty miles in length.  Both sections offer miles of wild-land hiking along the steep-walled escarpments that the river has carved for itself out of rolling Pennsylvania and Maryland farm country.  As said, there are no mountains here, but the elevation difference between riverside and the adjacent high ground is as much as 300 feet.  With numerous tributary streams plunging off the high ground into the river, a trail following the river inevitably descends and climbs many times over.

Is the Susquehanna River really one of the nations greats?  Yes, in two different ways.  First of all, at over 300 million years old, it is the second oldest continuously flowing river in the world.  It pre-dates the formation of the Appalachian Mountains through which it delves.  Its second claim to greatness is the volume of flow.  Of the rivers in the continental US (lower 48) that drain into the sea, only the Mississippi and Columbia Rivers have greater discharge.  If you multiply this quantity, the expanse of flowing water to be experienced, by the number of miles of nationally recognized foot-only trail, away from roads, that are within view of the water, then this hike is far and away number one in the country.

My hike of the Lower Susquehanna began at the Norman Wood Bridge, which connects Lancaster and York counties.  The bridge was built in the late 1960's.  When I was a kid going to church camp in the area (Camp Donegal), it was not there.  I remember it being built, remember what a great short cut it provided us to get to the camp.

Norman Wood Bridge as seen from the river bed downstream

This is Amish country.  As the Lancaster Amish Settlement continues to grow, it is expanding across this new bridge.  There's also a hiking trail that crosses the bridge called the Conestoga Trail, and I took the time to hike a three mile piece of that on a quiet Sunday early morning before starting to explore the Mason-Dixon Trail.  As I walked across the bridge I was passed by as many Amish buggies as motorized vehicles.

When I came to Camp Donegal as a kid one of my strongest memories is hiking down to the river.  We followed a foot trail in deep rhododendron growth beside Mill Creek to where it empties into the river just below Holtwood Dam.  I loved the many waterfalls along the creek, and loved exploring among the pools and boulders on the river bed.  That was twenty years before the Mason-Dixon Trail was conceived.  Today the Mason-Dixon uses the lower part of the trail I hiked, passing the best of the waterfalls before climbing steeply to a viewpoint overlooking Holtwood Dam.  Here's the waterfall.

And here is a good view of Holtwood Dam, not from the Mason-Dixon Trail but from the Conestoga Trail on the eastern side of the river.

Along the west shore, the Mason-Dixon Trail offers more than spectacular scenery.  There is history too.  In places it follows the course of the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, built in the late 1830's.  I started this segment at Lock 12 ...

... and ended in the town of Havre de Grace at the head of the Chesapeake Bay at the final lock, with its embedded 1839 dedication stone.

In the background is the white painted steel structure of the US 40 bridge, which the M-D T uses to get across the river.  Unlike the Norman Wood Bridge, however, pedestrians are not allowed to cross here.  You have to find a ride.

In between these two points there are more wonderful sights than I can possibly show.  There's more history, mills, furnaces, and ruins.  There is Conowingo Dam and Peach Bottom Nuclear Power Plant, which, along with Holtwood Dam, continue to supply the area with electricity.  There is a 2 1/4 mile river-side bike trail called the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway.

That follows an old railroad track that usurps some of the even older canal tow path.  There are marinas and boat launch areas with wonderful river views.

And then there are the little things.  A baby box turtle.

Tree bark that seems to be begging for a kiss.

And the first of the fall color among the Sassafras leaves.  I decorated one of my hunter-orange hiking shirts to commemorate this species.

There was one section of trail near Peach Bottom where they are desperately seeking a maintainer.  Here I encountered a completely impassable section with an ad-hoc bypass, and lots of thick underbrush.

But that was the exception.  The bulk of the M-D T along the Lower Susquehanna was a wonderful experience, and I highly recommend it.

Here is an overview of the GPS tracks of my wanderings, sometimes employing short cuts in the six out-and-back day-hikes that I used to cover this segment.

Fall means hunting season, the first frosts, and some of the best hiking conditions of the year.  More to come.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Hiking Home, Sixty-Five Years later

"You can't go home again."

Thomas Wolfe made that phrase famous.  It was the title of his posthumously published 1940 novel, and it has since made its way into widespread popular usage.

It's true.  But it's not true at all.

I knew the truth in 1980 when I returned to my home grounds after ten years away in Colorado.  Nothing was the same.  The old touchstones that lent comfort and security to my youth felt empty and stale, worse, unreachable.  The new me reacted to the familiar places and changed people in new ways, making them all seem alien.  It was scary, a rude lesson.  I think I was having what my generation called a 'mid-life crisis'.

Mid-life is far behind me now.  Now, as I come back home to these once familiar places where I first dreamed my innocent dreams, I find that I have sorted the bitter from the sweet, the hopes from the reality, the past from the present.  Couched in a new more robust security of maturity, I find that home is still there after all.  It had never disappeared.  Rather, it had become legend.

A good legend is timeless.  So as I left the Mason-Dixon Trail and wandered the streets where I grew up on the north side of Wilmington, DE, I looked for the timeless.  And I found it.

Rockford Park with its wide sweeping sledding hill, its century-old iconic water tower overlooking Brandywine Creek, and that rock where my brother and I posed for Dad in 1953.  They were all still there.  Look at the headline photo up top.  Every crack and crevice of the rock looks the same.

You see, time changes us, and it tries to change everything around us, but after we live the reality it gradually becomes legend, and time only amplifies a legend.

246C Thomas Drive, Wilmington, Delaware, part of the newly constructed Monroe Park Apartment complex, is now 246C Presidential Drive, Greenville Place Apartments, Greenville, DE.  The landscaping trees have gone from spindly sticks to majestic monarchs.  But the bones are still the same.  The pattern in the bricks is the same in the photos from 1951 and 2016.  Look to the left of the door for the ones with dark staining in the second photo headlining this post.

The legend is this:  It was 1951.  When my Dad finished his PhD and took a job at DuPont for $480 per month he rented an apartment in Monroe Park, sight unseen.  There I had my first adventure, wandering off on my tricycle until I got lost.  I ended up trying to escape across a field beyond the apartment complex with older kids throwing rocks at me.  Mom came to the rescue.

After two  years we moved to a duplex at 1410 Riverview Avenue, just four blocks from Rockford Park.

The house had a wonderful front porch then, with room for a swing, rocking chairs, and even a table.  Somebody ripped out that porch, but the bones are still there.  And the legends.  I still have the big scar on my knee that I got trying to ride a 24-inch bike that was taller than I was.  Dad had just taken the training wheels off my little bike with the 14-inch wheels.

I started school at newly constructed Highlands Elementary.

That playground was paved even way back then.  We stayed there until I finished the fourth grade, then we moved out into the country to our new house on White Clay Creek.

I've covered the White Clay Creek memories and trail reports previously.  This report is about the rest of the Mason-Dixon Trail east of there to its eastern terminus at the white-blazed Brandywine Trail near Chadds Ford, PA.

There's a fair amount of road walking on the M-D T connecting White Clay Creek with Brandywine Creek.  But there's a nice walk through the Auburn Heights Preserve where the huge Victorian-style Auburn Heights Mansion stands.

There's a museum devoted to early steam-driven automobiles there, and every year in mid-September the owner, now in his 90's, holds an antique car show and opens the mansion for the public to tour.

The trail then crosses into Pennsylvania and plunges into some nice woods, part of the a conservancy property in Southern Chester County.

Other parts of the conservancy property continue to be farmed by the owners, and the M-D T is routed through the heart of some of the corn fields.

The trail here winds for a couple of miles, taking the greatest advantage of this off-road oasis before more road walking.  Finally one last bit of off-road trail takes you beside a Sunflower field ...

... and then on to join the Brandywine Trail along Brandywine Creek.

The Brandywine Trail runs north from there to connect with the Horse-Shoe Trail.  To the south it comes to an end in Wilmington near Rockford Park and my early childhood homes.  This is a proprietary trail for members of the Wilmington Trail Club.  It crosses some private land where the owners only allow passage during club events in the spring.  I hiked that with the club's annual spring group-hike on a rainy Saturday this past April.

Leaves were not out on the trees yet, and views of the creek were abundant.

The trail makes use of this old bridge across the creek ...

... and passes an even more historic covered bridge.

A few days ago I hiked the connecting route from the southern end of the Brandywine Trail to Rockford Park, and as I got there I found preparations underway for a Charity 5K walk/run.

It was sponsored by the local branch of Lutheran Community Services.  I had the time, it seemed like a good cause, so I signed up on the spot and even bought a t-shirt for an extra contribution.  It turns out that this was the 25th anniversary run, and somebody had put together a quilt made up of all 25 of their t-shirts.

The course covered most of the roads through Rockford Park and also came out on Pennsylvania Avenue where we had a lane closed just for us.

I finished the 5K in 51 minutes, which is a brisk walking pace for me, then bade them farewell and headed on back to the Brandywine Trail on some quiet roads along the creek.

Fall was approaching and the weather was cool and comfortable for this set of hikes.  Below is a composite of the GPS tracks that I recorded as I walked, connecting me from White Clay Creek to the North-South Brandywine Trail and my early childhood homes.

Next I'm headed west and to hike the western part of the M-D T which runs along the west bank of the Susquehanna River from near Chesapeake Bay all the way up to north of York, PA.  Keep watching this space.