Today was one of those "pinch me" kinds of days. The kind where an overwhelming sense of gratitude floods your body as you reflect on your current life situation. Sometimes when life begins to throw a few too many questions at you at once, sitting back and noticing moments like these has a way of putting it all into perspective; a reminder that where you are is where you are supposed to be.
About noon, Jack strolled into the dining room where I was finishing a cup of black tea with toast and jam, and wondered aloud if I'd like to join him on a trip into town for lunch at the local coffee shop.
"I certainly would! And your timing is impeccable."
We gathered our coats, checked in with the firing crew, and off we went. Jack ordered a soup and salad and I sprung for the chipotle sweet potato wrap with a mug of their dark, roasted-on-site Sumatran coffee. The coffee was sweet and the wrap was tasty, but our conversation was the most filling. We spoke of some of our favorite books and the ideas within them. We shared stories of trust and betrayal, faux pas, and fears. Here and there someone would recognize Jack and with a big smile he'd rise to greet them. "How would you like to go have a tour of Big Valley, Harry?" I wasn't sure what Big Valley was, but I was down. After another brief check-in at the kiln and a stop to deliver the NY Times to an elderly couple of Jack's friends, we headed east to Amish country.
"I always love coming into Big Valley," Jack offered, his eyes fixed on the winding road ahead. "It's a bit like traveling to another country only 30 miles away."
Big Valley is precisely what its name suggests. Nestled between Jacks Mountain to the East, and Stone Mountain to the West, the farm-peppered land was hilly and somewhat barren with most of the crops and fields harvested and waiting to be turned over. Only the teepee-shaped, hand-bundled corn shocks remained.
The area is home to mostly Amish and Mennonite families. As we drove up Big Valley Pike, Jack taught me about the Amish as he knows them. He pointed out how one can immediately spot an Amish residence because the power lines pass right over the houses without any connection; as you may know, the Amish have an aversion to electricity. Horse-drawn buggies trotted with rhythm down the roads. We got caught behind them several times in our speedy modern vehicle. Some buggies sported black tops, and others yellow, each signifying a slightly different version of Amish faith.
The strict lifestyle that the Amish choose is indeed a clear and conscious choice. At the age of about 16, Jack explained, Amish children undergo a sort of rite of passage period called Rumpspringa where the typical lifestyle restrictions are relaxed in order for them to experience a taste of the non-Amish world. During this time those participating go out and try new things, form opinions, grow, and often court a partner. Eventually the time comes where they must decide to return and be permanently Baptized into the Amish faith, or to break from the safety, familiarity, and acceptance of their tightly knit community to brave the outside world. Jack mentioned that a child leaving the community can often be a humiliating process for their family who remain rooted.
Our first stop was at a Mennonite-owned and operated general store where they buy various items in bulk, repackage them, and distribute them with their own labeling. The Mennonites are more liberal in their views and take advantage of the convenience of electricity. Jack bought some snacks and I bought a pack of butterscotch chips to make cookies, and an Amish creation called a Whoopee Pie. Essentially it is a sugary, cakey sandwich with a sort of whipped cream in the middle. Incredibly rich, and horribly unhealthy. Curse this sweet tooth of mine...
We continued on, bound to find the man who makes the best apple butter in the whole valley. Along the way Jack explained how the Amish do not like to be photographed. There is a biblical passage that deals with the prohibition of 'graven images' and evidently that doesn't jive with smiling for the camera. However, there is a certain sect of Amish that are slightly more relaxed on the issue and may allow you to take a picture for a small price. With this in mind, I photographed these little guys instead.
We rolled up to the apple farm which was located slightly higher in the valley as it rose up to the ridge of Jacks Mountain. There were buggies parked in the garage attached to a stable for the horses, and two sheds. As we walked closer I saw that the larger of the two sheds was filled with apple crates stacked 8 feet high, containing a variety of different apples, and the sweet aroma of the fruit encased the buildings. The smaller of the sheds, with rows of apple trees rising up behind it, housed the small shop where the fruit was neatly sorted into labeled bins, baskets, and shelves ready for sale. The rainy day left the interior quite dimly lit, with great shadows defining the shelves of apple products and honeys.
As we were checking out, I noticed the hands of the owner and was amazed at the site. I'd never seen hands quite like his. They were larger than you'd expect from a man of his stature, and knobby at the joints almost as if they had been turned from wood; very likely arthritic from a lifetime of onerous manual labor. His nails were shrunken, yellowed, and thicker than a stick of gum. A task no nail clipper would be happy to handle. The skin was tough and leathery and stretched tightly over the knobs. I wanted so badly to shake one and feel the steel-crushing grip which I imagined they secretly possessed. I resisted, not knowing the protocol for hand shakes in his world.
Before leaving, Jack made sure that we had a drink from their natural spring faucet. For this Mr. Swarey gave us an empty apple butter jar to fill and sip from. The natural springs in the two mountains flanking Big Valley were a big deciding factor in the Amish settlement of the area. Every home in the valley has gravity-fed access to the crystal clear spring water of the mountains; no electric pumps or city water necessary.
Off we went toward our last stop of the day. We pulled into another driveway next to a horse stable, small garden, and chicken coop. Jack strode straight into the barn to say hello to a horse called Ginger, and treat her to an unexpected apple. She snorted happily as she crunched the Hayman Winesap in her powerful jaws. Simultaneously knocking on and opening the front door, we walked into the house to find old Katie sitting at her table getting ready to eat a simple meal of bread, fruit and pickled cabbage. It was warm and dark, with only a small bit of pale light spilling in from a west window. It was as if we had walked straight into a Vermeer painting. The wood-burning oven was the centerpiece of the house and all around were drawings, and small trinkets decorating the walls. She was surprised to see us, but graciously humored our unexpected presence. She and Jack caught up and she showed us the beautiful quilted runner that she had been working on. Jack gave her a peck of apples purchased from Mr. Swarey for her to slice and dry out for the holidays, wished her well and we departed.
On the drive home I heard more stories about the area and the relationships that Jack has forged throughout the years. What a treasure to be exposed to this whole new way of experiencing life. The Amish live so simply and ask so little of this Earth. They work hard, and value the relationships in their lives. They don't impose their ways on anyone else, and they don't judge anyone else for living the way that they choose. Did I form these opinions and generalize about an entire culture based on a couple hours and a few interactions...maybe. But I think you catch my drift;)
By the way, you must try some schmierkees un lattwarrick. It's da bomb.