Usually, when I go to America, I have a fairly good plan of what I want to see and how my route is going to look. Then I usually stick to it to a large degree. I might do some small detours to see some unplanned attractions here and there ( probably learned about once I’m already in the US), but I don’t suddenly change my plans completely.
However, when I was travelling with a good friend of mine, in 2008, I did the thing I don’t normally do. I radically changed my plans.
But let’s start from the beginning. On our way from Florida back to Washington DC we chose the Appalachian mountains as our route. It was a beautiful spring that year and we really enjoyed our journey. The trees were turning an amazingly rich green color and many of them were blossoming as well. Especially in the southern Appalachians and at lower altitude. We decided to make our first major stop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it is the most visited park in the United States.
We entered it from the North Carolina side (the park is split between Tennessee and North Carolina), from the town of Cherokee. The higher we drove, the less green the landscape. By the time we got to the top of the Clingmans Dome everything was still bleak and wintry, and it was freezing. It shouldn’t be a surprise as it is the third tallest mountain east of Mississippi, reaching 6,643 feet (over 2000m) above sea level. Conveniently, it is possible to drive almost to the top of the mountain, the parking area is located just 90 meters below the summit and the viewing tower. Sure, the road is ridiculously twisty and narrow, but it only ads a bit more fun to the experience. Views from the tower were simply breathtaking. I don’t know how far we could see, but apparently on a good, clear day visibility reaches up to 100 miles. Unfortunately, it was too cold and windy to enjoy hiking so we went back to the touristy Cherokee for a bit of shopping and some sweet treats in a local coffee joint.
From Cherokee we continued north along one of the best drives in America, the Blue Ridge Parkway. It starts in Cherokee and runs for 469 miles (755km) all the way to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, not far from Washington DC. Its construction started in 1935 during the Great Depression and didn’t finish until 1987 when the spectacular s-shaped Linn Cove Viaduct was opened. The parkway is maintained by the National Park Service and runs mostly along the Blue Ridge. It doesn’t really connect any settlements as it uses short side roads to connect to other highways and there are no direct interchanges with other highways. It was designed to be a spectacular drive, with numerous viewpoints, often running as close to the ridge as possible. I can confirm that its designers did a very good job. Our initial plan was to slowly follow this beautiful road and then the Skyline Drive in Virginia all the way to the capital region.
However, we were still in North Carolina when, during a short visit to one of the numerous waterfalls along the parkway, we spotted a group of Amish people. My friend was seriously intrigued by these folks dressed in weirdly old-fashioned clothes and started asking me about them. Once I told her a bit more about this interesting culture we made the unexpected decision to abandon the mountains and head straight to the Amish Country in Pennsylvania. Not thinking much about it too, we simply started driving immediately. It was a long drive, well over 500 miles, which we practically did in one long day. In moments like this you can really appreciate the interstate highway system. You might say it is equivalent to the British motorways, just 17 times longer. Some complain that American freeways are soulless and boring, but somehow I like them. Especially during the long drives from A to B, you can enjoy their design, efficiency, and the amazing choice of fast food restaurants along them. I have to say that such long drives are strangely relaxing for me.
Finally we got to Pennsylvania. For our base in the Amish region, we chose the city of Lancaster, where we booked ourselves into one of the countless motels lining the American highways. Then for the following two days we visited small towns and villages inhabited predominantly by the Amish, sometimes also called the Pennsylvania Dutch. Confusingly, the term “Dutch” has nothing to do with the Netherlands or its people, but comes from the word “Deutsch” as they are the descendants of immigrants from Germany.
The Amish form a very interesting religious and cultural group. Sometimes referred to as Amish Mennonites, they are a group of Christian church fellowships that form a subgroup of the Mennonite churches. The Amish are known for simple living, plain dress, and reluctance to adopt many of the conveniences of modern technology.
There are nowadays many splinter groups, each with different rules and attitudes towards the modern world. In Lancaster country, many of them still don’t use electricity or motor vehicles. That’s why you can easily spot them riding their iconic old-fashioned horse buggies on the local roads. They are however excellent farmers, growing organic crops on some of the best soil in the country. They are also known as makers of good wooden furniture and toys.
We started our explorations from the charming village with a bit of a weird name, Bird-in-Hand. Situated along the Pennsylvania Route 340, just a few miles west of Lancaster, the village was established in the 1700s, and at that time served as a rest stop for travellers heading west. It was during this time that Bird-in-Hand earned its unique name. Inns were identified by painted signs because pictures could be understood by all travellers, no matter what their nationality or level of education was. The 18th-century inn sign that inspired this town’s name literally depicted a man with a bird in his hand. We spent quite a lot of time wandering around the village as it offers the flavor of Pennsylvania Dutch culture and history via its restaurants, bakeries, quaint local shops and an old-fashioned farmers’ market packed with fresh foods, handmade crafts and homegrown produce. I would especially recommend trying some locally grown and made food which you can easily buy at the local indoor farmers market. Fresh meats, cheese, fruits and vegetables, baked and canned goods, spices, and candy are all there, but I really enjoyed a truly fantastic burger made of locally raised beef. Simply delicious.
Just a few miles further west lies another charming place, the town of Intercourse. Don’t ask me where its name comes from as even local experts are not sure. What I can say is that it is another great place to embrace Amish culture. Here, like in Bird-in-Hand, you can see the locals in their strangely old-fashioned clothes going about their daily business. Bearded men in wide brimmed straw hats and women in bonnets wearing simple dresses and aprons ride their horse buggies or, what really surprised me, the little foot-powered scooters. It is the sort of place where you can spot horses “parked” outside the bank or even the local gas station. We spent a really lazy afternoon walking around the town, checking the local antique shops and a small petting farm. Apart from Amish culture, you can also admire the nice wooden houses lining the main street. We finally finished our visit to Intercourse with some excellent homemade ice creams and returned to Lancaster.
The following day, we decided to drive some of the local country lanes to see the real Amish farms outside the touristy towns and villages. They are easy to spot since they are the ones without electricity cables running into them. Local roads are very quiet, perfect for a peaceful drive and some photo shoots. However, here I have to point out that it is inappropriate to take pictures of the Amish people as they find it offensive and against their beliefs. Some might allow it, but you have to ask first. Please don’t behave like an idiot, running around with your camera and trying to shoot everything that moves. Outside the tourist-oriented towns like the ones I mentioned above (which, especially on weekends, can be totally overrun by tourists) the whole region has a certain hard-to-explain old-fashioned charm. Driving along, you can often see extended families working on the fields. Local roads are very good quality, but not really well marked, so I would recommend taking a detailed map with you. Satellite navigation is good in directing you to a specific place, but won’t help with the circuitous routes around the countryside. Besides, it is more fun with a paper map. You can stop on the side of the road, have a break, open the map on the car’s hood, debate with your travel mate over it. Isn’t that cool? Or maybe I’m just old-fashioned in that respect.
I really enjoyed my unexpected visit to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It might not be the most authentic Amish experience (for that you would have to visit some more remote communities in some of the western states), but it still allows a good glimpse of this fascinating culture. We might disagree about some of their values, but it’s hard to deny that it is an interesting place to visit. Besides, the region offers some excellent natural food and great, unique shopping. So, even if you are not really interested in the Amish, you might still enjoy this corner of Pennsylvania.
Originally, the term Pennsylvania Dutch (or Deutsch) referred to any Pennsylvanian of German background, Amish or not. (German immigration to Pennsylvania was enormous in the colonial period). The Amish, or more likely the tourist industry that’s developed around them, have sort of taken the term over for themselves in recent years.
On the other hand, you can still hear Amish people (and some other Mennonites – a broader term that covers the Amish and other, less-strict religious groups) speaking German, or dialect, among themselves to this day, so I suppose they have a right to claim the label….