Posted by: trevormeers | January 29, 2012

Buggies & Tundras

We’re hunting deer inside a Mamas & Papas song. All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray. Afternoon is losing its daily fight with night, stretching the battle a little longer each day now that we’ve made it to late January. These woods in southern Iowa are filling with the bluish tint of coming sundown, and I wait by a tree with four trunks rising from a single stump. The chemical hand warmers inside my gloves are nearly used up after nine hours on the job. Out of habit, I slide open the bolt on my borrowed rifle until I spot the rim of a cartridge, confirming the Tikka is ready to go bang if a deer shows itself.

A strange rumbling rolls up from the minimum-maintenance road bordering this woodlot known as “The Triangle.” I watch the low spot between a couple of mounds until I see the source, a simple box wagon pulled by a small black horse. The wheels are solid wooden discs, like you’d see in a movie about medieval villagers. Two boys bounce in the box, their black hats pulled low until nearly sealed against gray coat collars pulled high against the cold. The boys glance my way, and I figure that they can’t miss seeing my blaze-orange vest, splashed like Krylon paint in the darkening woods.

The wagon rumbles on, out of sight. Within a few seconds, it must be passing my bright red pickup parked on the fringe of the dirt road. As the boys roll past the Tundra with the V8 engine in their medieval cart, I wonder what they think of the blaze-orange man who owns it. Are they envious of the truck’s speed and power and radio and heat? Or do they pity the person who requires such cushions?

This is how it always seems to go with the Amish. You can never quite figure how they frame the world, or what they think of the people curiously watching them. This hunting ground on the Iowa-Missouri border—the vast recreational refuge of a wealthy friend of a friend of a friend—sits in the midst of Iowa’s Amish enclave. A day here is not only a day among deer and hunting buddies, but a day among black carriages, people in plain gray clothes and the constant sense that you’re being evaluated from behind the curtains of a big, square farmhouse.

I’ve spent more time than your average Iowan considering Amish ways. Partly, that stems from where I hunt. Mostly it comes from where I work, a magazine that regularly publishes articles about the tourism opportunities in Amish areas of Indiana and Ohio. If that last sentence makes you laugh, then you haven’t been someplace like Holmes County, Ohio. Non-Amish tourists (known as “the English” by the Amish people) arrive by the busload to eat starch-heavy meals, shop for Amish-made furniture and generally marvel at the simple life.

In most Amish communities, in my experience, photos of kids' faces are OK, but adults avoid photography in order to curtail pride and/or steer clear of "graven images."

My recent business studies have taught me that economies move in stages from agrarian to industrial to service-oriented to experience-oriented. The Amish in places like Homes County have seemingly managed to skip all the middle steps and link their pre-industrial agrarian lifestyle to the experience economy that middle-class Americans crave like mocha frappuccinos.

Some of the fascination is with the idea of a life uncluttered by busy schedules, technology and career pressure. Actual rural people know there’s actually no pressure like worrying whether the calf will live or the corn market will hold up, yet it’s the myth of simplicity that sells.

But beyond the lure of the Green Acres trope, most of us are simply eaten up with curiosity about what makes the Amish tick. In general, their ordnung (church rules) seem to reject technologies that have come along since about 1880. But why can they accept a ride in a car, even if they can’t own one? Why can they have barns made of modern steel panels? Why is electricity forbidden, but giant propane tanks stand outside many of the houses? Why are modern tractors out–unless they have steel wheels? Why do you see empty plastic ice-cream tubs in simple buggies, betraying one of the notorious Amish vices (at least in the Wisconsin forest where I spotted this)?

OKed for use in some Amish communities, thanks to the aftermarket steel wheels.

The seeming inconsistency keeps us digging for resolution, much like the guys I know who would quit a job before they’d work on Sundays, yet pay someone else to serve them lunch at a restaurant every week and spend Sunday afternoons watching other men playing football for pay.

Perhaps most compelling among the Amish mysteries is the rumspringa or “running around.” Many Amish communities (maybe all; these things are hard to nail down) let teenagers throw the rules to the wind for a few years while they decide whether they want to settle back down into the Amish lifestyle for the rest of their years. One documentary I watched on Pennsylvania Amish showed kids diving into a stretch of drunken parties, illicit relationships and even drug dealing. In one scene, Amish kids dressed in modern American clothes sat on the hood of a car outside a dairy barn, pounding beers while an Amish father slugged around the barnyard doing chores.

As I recall, most of the Amish kids hang up their skinny jeans and Marlboros after a bit of rumspringa and meld back into the world of beards and plain clothes. Like sailors at the end of shore leave, they sober up and get back to work.

On this January’s hunt, I stood in the dirt road before heading into the woods for the last stand of the day. I clicked my truck door shut, shouldered my rifle and pulled my windproof beanie lower over my ears. A crude wooden sign across the road read “Mormon Trail,” announcing that I was standing on the path another enigmatic religious group took on its way to freedom in the West.

Far down the road, I caught motion out of my eye and looked up. Amid the brown streaks of frozen earth and the white streaks of grainy snow, I saw a person on a pale horse, cantering up a hill, heading away from me. They wore a flowing white coat that snapped over the horse’s back as they crested the hill. It seemed dramatic enough to be a kid heading off to begin a rumspringa. Or maybe it was just someone trying to get away from the orange man in the red truck. People who live so differently can be tough to figure.



  1. I hope you always keep writing in some form…I find it quite entertaining. I cracked up at the ice cream bucket in the buggie. I’ve heard that you won’t see a shopping cart without a pail ‘o cream when they come to the checkout. At least that seems to be the way in these parts. Keep up the good work!

  2. The Amish…that is bizarre stuff. Personally, I am excited about the upcoming Tommie Hilfiger spring Amish line for Men.

  3. My husband used to work for Casey’s in the early 80s as a service guy and Kalona was in his territory. The store there has a hitching post in the parking lot for the Amish (maybe they like doughy, nasty pizza too?). He was on the roof one day working on the A/C and a buggy came pulling in, followed by a Firebird. Two boys got out of the buggy, two got out of the Firebird and they changed places. The Firebird peeled out of the parking lot and the buggy took off the opposite direction.

    Oh, and the Buggy Boys gave the Firebird Boys their hats! We’ve laughed about that scene several times. Might have been a little rumspringa action going on.


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