PENNSYLVANIA'S LANCASTER COUNTY should be checkered with dairy cows nibbling on grass, bearded men riding horse-drawn buggies, and bonneted teenagers selling strawberries at roadside stands. This is Amish country, after all.
But the region's summertime reality is a blur of traffic and tourists flocking to such traps as the Plain & Fancy Farm Restaurant, a park where you can watch the film Jacob's Choice at the Amish Experience theater and take buggy rides with Jack, who reels off a comic monologue that could qualify him as a New York City cabdriver.
What's going on?This doesn't represent the kind, soft-spoken Amish, who are modest by religious decree and believe in social separation from the evil world. This is the evil world, which has discovered a great draw—and is cashing in. Granted, a sizable Amish minority profits enormously (some quilters earn six-figure incomes), but the souvenir shops and exhibits bring thousands to gape at a community that doesn't want to be a zoo attraction.
The advertising is somewhat misleading. It's the Old Order Amish you want to see, the ones who wear aprons, long dresses, suspenders, and straw hats; eschew cars and TV; and have been witnessed by Harrison Ford and spoofed by David Letterman (among the Top 10 Amish Spring Break Activities: wet-bonnet contest, sleep till 6 a.m., churn butter naked). Yet Lancaster County is full of the more liberal Mennonites and Brethren; they're often the ones offering the Amish-style dinners and the buggy rides. Many visitors aren't aware that they're seeing what some locals refer to as "Amish lite."
So how do you get a real glimpse of the Old Order?Don't stalk the Amish. Be Amish. On a Saturday afternoon, cruise into the middle of nowhere—the townships of Bird-In-Hand, Gordonville, New Holland, Smoketown, or Intercourse—turn down a side road, and ditch your car and camera. Hike over the hills and through the cornfields. Moo back at the cows, wave to children passing on non-motorized scooters, and feast on plums, peaches, and watermelons from a roadside stand.
Walking, after all, is an Amish courting ritual. "We will be with our supper gang [a youth group], and me and my friend will sneak off with two girls," says 20-year-old Sylvan. "We link arms and stroll, maybe chat about the weather. But if our friends find us, they'll yell and tease and whoop and make us really red in the face." You might see a grandmother fetching eggs from the henhouse or a bunch of teenagers playing four-corner ball—baseball-meets-dodgeball. As you pass windmills, horse-drawn plows, and clotheslines draped with bright laundry, you'll feel an inkling of the serenity that guides these people. (And don't worry: no one is going to whoop at you.) If walking seems a bit slow, you can test out another Amish teen favorite: Rollerblading.
I CHOSE A LOFTY PERSPECTIVE ON AMISH LIFE, with the U.S. Hot Air Balloon Team's hour-long journey from Rockvale Square, outside the town of Lancaster. There's no destination; that's up to the winds. Six of us hovered several hundred feet above the farmland, skimmed over treetops, and landed in a mushy cornfield. Four wide-eyed children wandered out, muddy and barefoot. Then three more, along with their mother carrying a baby, two daughters clutching her dress, and the family German shepherd. We chatted about what it's like to fly as the pilot and his associate scrambled to pull the balloon off their crop. "What do we look like from up there?" one boy wanted to know. "From up there," said his mother, "we all look the same."
There is no exact way for a traveler to meet the Amish. Most are shy but polite. If you offer a hello, it will be returned; ask a question and tell them about yourself, and you may strike up a conversation, especially if no one else is watching. Many Amish are curious about you, too.
On my third visit to the area, I met John, who invited me to his family's house for an enormous supper of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, broccoli, carrots, and sweet potatoes. After prayers, we talked about everything from the Phillies to the Empire State Building to their table-making business. The owners of many local bed-and-breakfasts, such as Jim Kent and Stuart and Hermine Smith, who run the Churchtown Inn, near Narvon, have decades-long friendships with Amish families and can set up informal dinners for their guests.
Early birds will find that a Lancaster dawn is beautiful—and it offers a chance to meet people working in the fields or in their shops while most tourists are still asleep. One morning I ran into Abner, a bookbinder of about 70, who said he'd tell me about the Amish "only if you'll share by telling me about your Jewish heritage." I also got to know Mary Ann, a 28-year-old religious but strong-minded woman, who had been excommunicated. "I didn't pin my cape the way they wanted me to," she explained. "And they said my dress, a few inches past my knee, was too short." She was given the opportunity to apologize publicly and refused.
On Saturday around 8 p.m., Amish teens gather at the Getty Mart across from the Hayloft Candle Shop in Intercourse, taking a break from saintliness. With their Iroc-Z's parked next to buggies, they loiter in front of the store, smoking Camels, combing their hair, snapping gum, drinking Pepsi and even beer. Some wear jeans and Reeboks; others are traditionally attired.
On Sunday, not surprisingly, all the Amish shops are closed; that makes it a good day to explore secular Lancaster County. Check out the Gast Classic Motorcar Exhibit in Strasburg, which features a 1958 Edsel Citation, perhaps to remind us that the buggy just might be the way to go. In the early 1800's, Lancaster County produced 7 percent of all American beer. A century later, H. L. Mencken swore by Rieker Star, a local brand that was put out of business by Prohibition. Good beer is still available at the Lancaster Malt Brewing Co. The area is also home to four wineries. At Nissley Vineyards, you can take a self-guided tour and taste young local vintages, such as Chambourcin '95—not a bad bet. Big bands play here in July and August.
On my last visit to Lancaster, I ran into Michael, a 25-year-old wheelbarrow maker, clad in a purple shirt, black suspenders, and straw hat. We talked about computers, which are banned in Amish society. "Sure, sometimes we want what you have. If I were tempted on any one issue, it would be the computer, to help me create spreadsheets for my business. But that's what you have to understand about this community. I might wish I had a computer and someone else will want a car and someone else won't want to wear a hat," he said. "But it's worth the sacrifice in the long run. That's what being Amish really means."
MICHAEL GOLDSTEIN writes for Vogue, New York, and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.