We follow the Appalachian Trail as close as possible through the Shenandoah National Park, over the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Occasionally we see the white blazes of the AT on the trees or a traffic sign that warns for hikers. Our bicycle legs sputter during the first days and the butt are sore. We didn’t really mis cycling in the last two months and see the eleven days to Old Forge as a mandatory thing. We are not reluctantly on the bike, but it is not the right setting to enjoy a bicycle ride.
From the mountainous Appalachians we gradually move to the rolling hills in Delaware and Pennsylvania. We cycle between green hills with many small farms in Norwegian red colours. The cows are in the meadow, the cornfields are almost at their highest and the grasslands look tasty green. The warm summer days provide a strong thunderstorm daily, which we usually experience behind glass or inside the tent. The further north we go, the more we enjoy cycling. Although it doesn't look like the Netherlands or Belgium, we feel more and more at home. Is it the cows in the meadow, or is there really something of our roots present here?
On a quiet Sunday morning, when religious America is in church, we cycle on a county road, a small road between the towns. "Klak klak klak klak” we hear on the other side of the short hill, accompanied by a rolling sound of steel on the ground. On the top we see a large horse pulling a cart. In the front is the father, in the back four small children. The cart has steel wheels, the children have blond hair, blue eyes and wear old-fashioned clothes. The girls wear a long dress and have a matching headdress on. They stare at us and we stare at the family. "I need a photo of this," says Zoë, knowing that this is an opportunity. "Do you mind if I take a photo?" Zoë asks brutally and embarrassedly aware of her egocentrism. She already knows that the answer is "no" because Mennonites refuse technology in their culture. Surprisingly, the father says "I don't mind" to Zoë. That is a yes, Zoë thinks surprised when she quickly takes the camera. Olivier steps closer with the bicycle and carefully asks a few questions.
"What language do you speak" asks Olivier
"We call it Pennsylvanian Dutch," the man says
"Dutch ?!" Zoë says surprised when she has come closer.
"That’s our language" and she immediately tries to speak in Dutch, but the man does not understand much of it.
How do you say "What’s your name?" Zoë tries with a simple sentence.
"Who hischts du?"
We say "That’s German, wie heisst du", in unison.
A smile appears on his face.
"Why don't you come over to the farm, so we can talk some more," he says.
We follow the horse with the cart, which runs surprisingly fast up the hill. Two hundred meters further on we turn left into the firm where there are two red stables. In the left stable are the horses, two ponies and smaller carts for the ponies. The cows are in the right stable.
We learn that a Mennonite family has around 20 hectares of land and twenty dairy cows. In the meantime Zoë has disappeared with the four children who show the cats and the cows. They are extremely shy and speak their name unintelligibly soft. Yet they are very curious and their eyes stare at us endlessly. She tries to motivate them and finds the answer among the at least fifteen cats who walk around on the farm. One by one they come to Zoë to have a new cat stroked by her until all fifteen passed. Olivier stays with the father who has a lot of questions.
Although the Mennonites refuse to use technology, the father wants to know how a GPS works, what our phone can do and whether we publish our stories on the internet. Outside the cowshed a diesel engine is running the ventilation system in the barn. "That is technology, isn't it?" Olivier asks "We cannot stay completely behind," the man admits, explaining that there are always discussions between the various groups about the permitted technology. There are very strict families who renounce everything, but also families who drive cars and have modern farms.
Two days later we stop at another farm for a lunch spot in the shade. The man has a long beard and simple clothes. His English accent is a bit strange because it is not his first language. That is also Pennsylvanian Dutch, but this man is an Amish and not a Mennonite. Both groups descended from the Reformed Church and were persecuted everywhere they went. The Mennonites originated in the Netherlands, the Amish in Switzerland. The Amish are often slightly stricter than the Mennonites, but we see little difference between the two families. The clothes differ a bit and the Amish do not go to church, but have the mass in a local house. The mother and the eldest daughter come out with a plate of food and both walk barefoot. The food all comes from their own fields, potatoes, beetroot and cucumber pickles. When she hears that we are from the Netherlands, she sends her daughter inside. She comes back outside, holding her skirt up so she doesn't stumble over it. The book is called 'The Hiding Place' by Corrie ten Boom and tells how her family helped Jews go into hiding in the second world war. The mother has read the book and is very curious about the Netherlands. In school they don’t learn much about geography and history, so they barely know their history goes back to the Netherlands. The book is everything she knows about the Netherlands. She wants to know what the Netherlands looks like, what we eat, whether there are farmers and how many liters of milk the cows give.
We have hundreds of questions about their lifestyle and are allowed to ask anything. Children go to special Amish schools until they are 14 years old. Then they work on the land and in the house, often raising the younger brothers and sisters. They don't use electricity, they cool their food in an ice room, the boys get a black carriage, a buggy, when they turn 18 and they send letters by post to family in other states. Yet they cannot live without society. If they want to go to the supermarket, they use the phone from the American neighbour in his garage and call a taxi. If the land needs to be harvested, they hire someone with a machine. If they are not using the technology themselves, it is allowed. It sounds a bit hypocritical how they get around certain rules. We can look inside the house, which looks like the interior of the 1950s in the Netherlands. There are petrolium lamps hanging from the ceiling, a stove that works on wood fire and all vegetables are in glass jars. The household is just what you need and it swarms with flies because it is just as warm inside as outside.
We get back on the bike with a jar of homemade maple sirup and cucumber pickels. It is special that such traditional cultures still exist in the middle of a modern Western world. This is why we travel by bicycle. We can stop when we see something special, ask questions and learn about these cultures. Half an hour later the sky turns dark and a threatening thundercloud comes our way. We see a long driveway to a house on a hill. A man and women drive an ATV (all terrain vehicle) to pick up the mail. His wife gets off and runs to us. She asks if we want to hide in for the rain that comes, it looks thunderous. They hope that we will stay the night and proudly show their helicopters in the shed. We are still under the spell of the special Amish encounter and tell the story. They know that Amish live there and see them driving regularly, but in the fifty years that they have lived there, they have never seen a house inside or had a long conversation. You don't have to travel far to have special encounters, but you do have to open your eyes.