The 15-year-old boy in the tattered straw hat is as eager to learn about his visitors as they are to know about him. "Where are you from?" he asks shyly as his grandparents peddle handwoven baskets, fruit preserves and Wet Bottom Shoofly Pie from their roadside stand on a quiet country road in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
We are on a bus tour offered by the Amish Farm and House (amishfarmandhouse.com), one of at least 20 tour operations in Lancaster County, home to the largest Amish settlement in the United States. Manager Mark Andrews says he gets roughly 100,000 visitors a year eager to learn about this serene and prayerful community.
"There is a fascination with a subculture within a culture that can still survive and maintain its integrity," Andrews says. "To us, on the outside, have a quiet peacefulness about them that we long to have again."
Lancaster County is a three-hour drive from Manhattan. You can choose to explore the countryside on your own, stopping at the various Amish-owned businesses along the way. But the Amish, while friendly, are private people, so you might glean more from a guided tour. Allow at least several hours for any tour. You might pay about $10 for a guided house tour, $20 for a bus tour alone or $30 or more for a package that includes both. There are plenty of places to stay overnight, should you want to extend your visit.
Among the things you might learn on a guided tour of Amish country:
--The Amish population has doubled over the past 20 years, with families of seven to 10 children not uncommon.
--Amish schoolchildren typically end their formal schooling at the end of eighth grade, and the majority of them attend classes in a one- or two-room Amish schoolhouse.
--Amish women never cut their hair. Unmarried Amish men generally remain cleanshaven. After they are married, they grow a beard.
No modern conveniences
--The Amish eschew electricity to avoid secular influences like computers, TV and radio. Instead, they might use hydraulics, solar panels, gasoline-powered generators, 12-volt batteries, bottled and/or pressurized gas and other nonelectrical means to light their homes and run their farm equipment, tools and certain household appliances.
--Travel by horse and buggy is the primary mode of transportation. Owning a car is not permitted. Bicycles are not allowed, either, so many Amish youth use nonmotorized scooters to get around.
--Rumspringa (literally "running around" in the Pennsylvania German dialect) is a period, beginning around age 16, when Amish young people are allowed greater freedoms to experiment with so-called worldly activities, like buying a car, using a cellular phone, going to the movies and wearing non-Amish clothing. After a few years, an Amish teen then chooses whether to be baptized and join the church or to leave the Amish community.
"I love the Plain people and the life that they live. I think they are to be admired," says Kathleen Eshbach, a Huntington native who started Old Order Amish Tours (oldorderamishtours.com) in Ronks 25 years ago. "I'm very grateful to the Plain community for allowing me to bring visitors over the years."
Or how about a ride in an authentic Amish buggy? There are a handful of buggy tours across Lancaster County, Ed's Buggy Ride (edsbuggyrides.com) among them. Edward Littler -- another Huntington transplant now in Ronks -- owns four buggies and 13 horses and has been trotting visitors past Amish farmlands for 32 years. Among his repeat customers is a retired heart surgeon who returns each year to savor the tranquillity of a place where time seems to stand still.
"I asked him, 'What brings you to our county?'" Littler says. "He said, "I rode on your buggy almost 30 years ago. When I come back, I ride down the same road now that I did then. I see the same tree. I see the same farm. There's nowhere else in the world I can do that."
Back on the Amish Farm and House tour, we stop at Lapp's Toy and Furniture in Lancaster, an Amish-owned shop where the carefully crafted wooden playthings speak for themselves. John Lapp, 33, has been honing his woodworking skills since he was a teenager.
"I don't think we're that different," Lapp says when asked about the perceived clash of cultures between the Amish and their neighbors. "We just live a simpler life."
IF YOU GO
Five Things to Do in Amish Pennsylvania
1 Enjoy the tranquil countryside as you ride along in a horse-drawn buggy, experiencing transportation the Amish way.
2 Sample an Amish soft pretzel . . . so buttery you'll be hooked after one bite.
3 Keep a look out for the hitching posts (and in some cases, special parking structures) that local businesses have erected for their Amish patrons.
4 Spend the night on a working Amish dairy farm.
5 Try one of the many tours available for a comprehensive look at the Amish way of life.
And please remember that the Amish community believes that photographs of themselves violate the biblical dictate, "Thou shalt not make unto thyself a graven image."
Here's how the Pennsylvania Dutch Country Visitors Center explains it: The Amish people "want to be remembered by the lives they lived and the examples they left, not by physical appearance. Just as the Amish do not carry personal photographs or display them in homes, they do not want others to take photographs of them. Many visitors to Lancaster County find it difficult not to do so. Yet, if there is one thing that appears to frustrate the Amish, it is tourists attempting to take their picture. . . . Refraining from taking photos is more than just a courtesy; it's a respect for our Amish neighbors and their way of life."
To find a tour and plan your visit, start with the Pennsylvania Dutch Country Visitors Center, 501 Greenfield Rd., Lancaster, Pennsylvania; 717-299-8901, padutchcountry.com