Riding the Heart of Pennsylvania Amish Country
True confession time: I usually have preconceived notions about what a trip will entail but they are rarely right. The fact is, I never really know what’s going to happen on a tour and how a particular riding experience is going to effect me. I expect cold weather; I broil. I plan on spending a lot of time on sparsely populated roads, and end up stuck in traffic.
Almost as if to drive this point home with crystal clarity, my recent riding adventure through the heart of Pennsylvania Amish country was a very different experience from what I had anticipated. Granted, many of the charms I remember from the last time I rode through this area are still present and still make Lancaster County and surrounding areas a unique place to ride and explore. But my visit this time was bittersweet in that I ran headlong into an impending collision between traditional simplicity and the complex technicalities of modern life.
This all started (as it usually does) with my riding off on a motorcycle from the stores of an unsuspecting manufacturer. In this case the company was Harley-Davidson, and a 2002 Road Glide built at their York, Pennsylvania, factory was the souvenir I claimed after going on the public tour of the facility. Other folks purchased T-shirts; I got a motorcycle (temporarily). To each his own, don’tcha know.
The tour of the plant turned out to be really prophetic, by the way. York has been churning out Harleys since the early ’70s, and in some ways you see the old crashing into the new. For example, there’s a foundry area where red-hot Springer suspension components are forged in a manner that is almost medieval. But travel across the floor a short way and you’ll see state-of-the-art robots polishing floorboards like chrome-craving Terminators. There’s no air-conditioning on the factory floor, but plenty of lasers cutting all kinds of components. The more you look around the more you realize the old is slowly but surely getting replaced with the new.
So as I walked out of the York plant and to my mount, a subconscious seed had been planted in my brain that would accompany me throughout my survey of southeast Pennsylvania. Things may seem timeless, but they are actually changing. The Harley beneath me looks like a throwback to a simpler time, yet it has cruise control and a very sophisticated fuel-injection system. What would the rest of my trip hold in store? Electric Amish? On one section of Route 30 amazingly, yes. But the rest of the time, no way.
The first thing my Amish Adventure would throw at me was traffic. Honestly, Route 30 in front of the Harley plant is a mess during the late afternoon. I remember this congestion from the last time I was here (years ago, at a Rider Rally no less) and I think a lot of the same people who were stuck in traffic then are, in fact, still stuck now. Their kids are all grown up, of course, and no doubt are products of car-schooling.
But soon all this inert highway business was over as I escaped to Interstate 83 South and then Route 74. Here is where you’ll be better off cruising leisurely than wringing out your mount, for there are some very interesting sites to be seen as you roll west and start rolling back the clock.
Red Lion is a great example of a town that should be chugged through leisurely and the congested (yet charming) nature of main street will ensure you do just that. The houses along this peaceful boulevard are squeezed together like wheels awaiting frames at York’s Harley plant, and are just as spotless. It’s a neat atmosphere, even in the dense fog.
Oh, did I forget to mention the fog? The first part of my trip was under some of the most dismal weather conditions I’ve experienced in years. I looked forward to the rolling green hills, perfect farms and crystal blue skies of Amish country, and what I got was the vexing conundrum of low visibility. This was not fair. I wanted sun and unlimited visibility, and what I got was a grayness that would have depressed Sherlock Holmes.
Fog is a bad thing for the touring motorcyclist on many levels. It can be dangerous when it inhibits your ability to see the road, obviously. It also plays absolute hell with your photography, by putting a wall of gray gauze between you and your subject. There could be a field of prancing unicorns out there, and you’d never know it.
I changed over to Route 372 outside of Sunnyburn (great name, don’t you think?) and started to encounter more plentiful, yet isolated, Amish settlements. The imagery was a lesson in contrasts because I could just make out through the fog Amish men working in the fields with draft horses, while right across the street I’d see massive tractors doing the same chores on more worldly farms. Often there would be an Amish house with an adjoining produce or quilt shop, where a parking lot full of SUVs would be right next to a buggy or two. There’s definitely a clash of cultures here, but the disparate levels of technology seem to have found ways to comfortably co-exist.
Just in case I’m talking about things that are unfamiliar to you, allow me to explain. The Amish don’t own motorcycles, Segways, or even cars, for that matter. They are strict in their habits in that they try to keep their lives as close to what they feel is the biblical ideal, and shun technology in the name of purity, simplicity and self-sufficiency. This means they won’t use “on the grid” electricity or many other modern conveniences, even telephones in most cases. They get around by bicycle, push scooter or the ubiquitous black horse-drawn carriage. They don’t have radios or TVs and live very private, modest lives in their own highly religious communities.
You would think that these somewhat segregated settlements would be able to just keep to themselves, but the Amish have a problem. They can live quite self-sufficiently, thank you, but they have to pay property taxes like anybody else. So, they need to make money. Because of this, they have to deal with outsiders and the monetary system by selling their wares. They sell amazing woodcraft items (like a picnic table I wanted that wouldn’t fit on the Harley). Many of the men even work with other non-Amish carpenters. I saw this at one site where a store was being assembled by the road, and there were regular carpenters with their pickups working next to traditionally garbed Amish with their buggies. Old meets new, and the building goes up.
As I got deeper into Lancaster County the roads became more Norman Rockwellish, and wonderfully free from traffic (except for the odd Amish buggy now and then). This is primo riding country for a comfortable cruiser like the Road Glide, highlighted by some excellent sweepers and even the odd right-angle turn to keep you on your toes.
The fog continued and I could feel the humidity increase, which by now was so thick you could just barely cut it with a frame-mounted fairing. Storms were close—on the Harley radio’s weather band warnings were being posted. Sure enough, when I dismounted to get gas I could hear thunder approaching. Uh oh.
I decided to hang out at the gas station while the storm broke loose, for what turned out to be an amazingly short period of time. I just relaxed and read a book, and in about an hour it was like a whole new world was revealed. The clouds and fog were blown out, replaced by a beautiful blue sky. It was amazing. I motored on west and the road dried out while becoming tighter and more villagelike around the towns of Christiana and Atglen. Perfectly attired Amish kids waved as I rumbled by, and I couldn’t get over the neat perfection of the farms and their inhabitants. There were also some strange things, too, like massive, futuristic-looking birdhouses and a man I swear was Father Time waddling out to check his mailbox. I stopped to watch a young boy plow a field with a team of flawless Belgian draft horses, and was captivated by the silence of a land largely devoid of modern machines. I shattered this peace by firing up the Harley, which made me feel a trifle guilty.
But not for long. Each to his own in my world, and I really don’t want to live without motorcycles at this point in time. But I did have to feel a bit for these people. Technology and outsiders are creeping in, and it’s getting harder and harder for the Amish to keep these things away. Like the way Harley’s York plant is seeing more and more robots, the Amish are losing more and more of their homesteads thanks to high property expenses these simple farmers can’t afford. Oh well. Perhaps when they finally have to park their buggies, a motorcycle in the barn will ease the transition. Machines like the trusty Road Glide have a certain “simple tech” feel to them that they may find delightfully familiar.
I concluded my tour by heading north on Route 10, and then back west on Route 322. My final stop was Hershey, where a company that shares the town’s name makes chocolate. I took another plant tour (this one was a ride, actually) and sampled the company’s product. Unlike some other things on this trip, the taste of this brown gold is exactly as I remember it the first time I had some as a kid. Some things, at least, never change.
(This article A Clash of Sensibilities: Riding the Heart of Pennsylvania Amish Country was published in the April 2004 issue of Rider magazine.)