Thursday, July 20, 2006

Gaining Momentum

Well, I'm 1,000 miles into the 4,500 mile journey.

I guess I'm about broken in now. I have now grown accustomed to being filthy dirty, having grease underneath my fingernails all the time, attracting flies, drinking every drop of water in my bottles at my campsite, patching and patching and repatching and replacing numerous tubes (the steel wire in my tube broke out of the side wall and I've been determined to get to Carbondale, IL where I can replace it with quality tires....a stubborn and willful decision on my part....but I haven't had to be rescued there), and learning that most any gas station will gladly offer free ice for my water bottles whereupon I can pour Gatorade mix therein and thus save myself oodles of money as after 3-4 hours of riding in 97 degree heat makes you want to drink something cold and tasty.

Nothing tastes as good as soft serve vanillla ice cream on the road.

My brief incursion with the Amish

I have been wanting to spend time with the Amish for some time and fortunately I had a few interesting encounters with them after leaving Mammoth Cave.

There on the road ahead of me was a buggy, pulled by a horse and a young man of about twenty nestled inside. "Good day to you," I said as I passed the buggy. This was the first time I'd seen them and I was really anxious to talk. As luck would have it, there was a gas station ahead, I slowed and saw that he was parking the buggy. Yes, the gas station had a hitching post off to the side for the horse. Ironically, I went in and got ice to make my gatorade...on the cheap, while the young Amish man went in and bought two gatorades! So much for Amish thrift.

I struck up a conversation and told him about my trip and that I was hoping to find an Amish community to visit and learn how they farm. He proceeded to explain that his family owned a horse farm, back the direction from which we'd come. I'd just left Mammoth Cave one hour ago and I desperately needed to burn up some miles, and horse farms in the opposite direction just wasn 't what I had in mind.

I asked him about the community and he said it stretched on for several more miles, and there was a dairy just two miles down the road. We said our goodbyes and I hoped for the best, knowing that two miles down the road still wasn't far enough.

Let me pause here as I received some of the best advice of my trip so far just two days ago from Brother Bob Hardison of the First Baptist Church of Sebree, KY. After a good long talk we were discussing how much more interesting travel is when it involves local people, and Brother Bob stated, "People are so much more interesting than places." I'd have to agree with him there. Then he said he encourages bikers to do two things. First, visit the local churches if you can. They'll often invite you over for a meal and it's a great way to meet people in the community. And then the second one was, "Farmers are a lot more open than people think....go up and ask them what they're doing." He and his wife were travelling through Mississippi when they saw a cotton gin being operated. He asked his wife, "Have you ever seen a cotton gin in operation?" She said no, and he said, "Me neither," and so they went and asked if they could watch while the cotton was being ginned. He added, " probably don't have to tell you this." But I did need to hear that, because there have been many times that I have wanted to just walk up to a place and get about thirty minutes of information but have been too shy to do that. Most of us figure that farmers just want to be left alone, but maybe they'd actually like people to be interested in their operations.

However, on this day I was wanting to cover some miles so I zoomed by the Amish dairy, regretfully, and hoped I would find some more Amish down the road. Just a few miles later I passed one of the most interesting sites of the trip, and one I regret I didn't stop and take a picture of. Way off on the far end of a corn field, was an Amish Baseball game. There they were in their blue shirts, and black pants, and suspenders, and black shoes, straw hats lain to the side, and a fresh looking baseball diamond carved right into the field. Walking through the corn on the way to the game was a father, his young son propped up on his shoulder, the two on their way to the big game. It was late afternoon, things were cooling down, the corn was golden, and the beauty of life lay there in that moment. Again, I'd made up my mind. The road ahead called.

After a couple more hours of riding, and more than a little regret for having not taken the opportunity, the sun was going down and I was trying to figure out where I was going to spend the evening. Then out of nowhere, I see a buggy on the side of the road, and a man in a cattle pen ordering his cows. This was it.

I pulled up and told him I was looking for a place to sleep for the night and could I pitch in his field. Again, it was a young man, I found later to be 22 years old. When I told him I was riding my bike to Oregon, his eyes grew wide. Though I'm sure he'd seen bikers before on the road, I don't think it ever occured to him that we were riding our bikes clear across the country.

He was obviously trying to corner a young calf so I offered to help and he said he could "shore use the help." I grabbed a rope from the back of the buggy and he quickly got a lasso over its head as he explained that the calf had gotten pink eye and he was going to treat it with penicillin. Cornered, roped, with a flaming red eyeball that hurt you to look at it, the calf started jumping and bucking as the young man wrestled the struggling calf against the fence. He had filled a syringe with peniccilin, and after getting the calf in a headlock, squirted the white fluid into the eye. He then took a homemade eyepatch, stitched of a denim material, and glued the patch over the bulging red eyeball.

The excitement and the days chores were over. The young man introduced himself as Orley Miller, and explained that we were on his brothers land and I'd be welcome to camp anywhere in the pasture I would like, but the cows might mess with me. I told him under the cover of trees would be best. I suppose I could have asked to camp in his backyard back at the house, wherever that was, but you know sometimes your mind just doesn't work that fast, so it was looking like I was going to be sleeping with the cows. Before we left the pen he described a problem with one of the cows that had just given birth. "Her tits are too big." He pointed her out and said, "Look at those tits, they're so swollen the calf can't get them in its mouth." "We probably should milk her, but she's never been milked before." The challenges with livestock are a world away from most of my friends.

He unhitched the buggy and I rode my bicycle right along side of him as he directed me to a small grove of trees on the back part of the pasture. As we rode along he kept looking at my rig curiously, and I at his buggy curiously. I asked him questions about how long his family had been here (about 20 years, they came down from New York), what kind of farming they did (little bit of everything, cattle, corn, oats, and a garden for vegetables), and what was his favorite thing about the Amish lifestyle. His answer was horses. He liked taking a new horse and teaching it, making it ridable, and workable in the fields. He was learning a very traditional skill, and one that had tremendous value in his community. He explained that they do use chemical fertizlizers on their pasture lands, and that this year they actually had used pelletized human waste sludge because it was so much cheaper. He seemed quite curious about organic farming.

It was getting dark so I told him he ought to get home. I was "shore" tired by then as it was about 9:30 and I hadn't eaten in a while. After riding off a little ways he came back and said he just wanted to be sure that if something were to happen and a cow step on something that they wouldn't be held responsible. Perhaps the modern American's reputation as a sue happy bunch has made an impression on the Amish. I assured him I was taking my life into my own hands and didn't hold him accountable for my decision to sleep in field filled with horses and cows. "It's all part of my adventure, I explained."

The staggering heat made for a rough night of sleeping.

Next morning I packed up and rode across the bumby field. Orley had mentioned that they were going to be threshing that day (wheat I assume) if I wanted to watch. He described the house so I was on the lookout for a big white house on a hill, with wagons. You can't miss it. Sure enough, there was a young Amish maid in the side garden doing the morning harvest and the front porch was bustling with sales of tomatoes and sweet corn.

I asked two young girls about Orley, and they acted as if they weren't sure who he was. The girls were barefoot, tanned, and in plain blue dresses that covered their ankles, an apron over that, and a bonnet on their heads. They were tough looking girls and they were hard at work.

Their father came out, Mr. Miller, Orley's uncle or cousin I presume, and I told him what I was doing and we had the most fascinating conversation for the next twenty minutes. He described how he farmed, that he did in fact use chemicals but not herbicides. He had seen a dramatic difference in how his fields performed relative to his neighbors, especially during drought years, because he was not destroying the organic material in the soil.

He was quite familiar with no till operations and stated that the Bible says "You should work the land," explaining why he planned to continue tilling. Then I broached the topic of dairies and I struck a nerve with Mr. Miller.

They themselves had had several dairy cows and they sold their milk to a nearby cheese factory that would come by and pick up the milk from several Amish dairies. All dairies are subject to inspection by the USDA and Mr. Miller described his long ordeals with them. Amish laws do not allow them to use electricity. Small concessions are allowed such as a 9 volt battery for a light, but no one is hooked up to the grid. Dairy regulatory laws are very particular. After threatening to close them down if they didn't change from a regular soap and water washbasin to a chlorinator, Mr. Miller gave in and got the chlorinator. Bacterial problems are the highest risk at a dairy, and many dairy farmers have trouble with this, Miller explained. After this upgrade, the inspector started in about having an electric light in the facility. It was one of the standard regulatory requirements. Miller couldn't break the Amish law. The inspector said he was going to have to issue a closure, but that the delivery man for the cheese factory would still come by and pick up milk. This went on until someone at USDA found out about it, and the inspector was sent to get a signature from Mr. Miller saying that he was being closed for infractions against the regulation.

Miller's story was representative of what was happening to small farmers everywhere. Stringent regulation and enforcement was closing everyone down but the big operations. The topic is a complicated one, and one that Wendell Berry addresses in his book. Berry describes how obsessed we have become with sanitation and in the process are substituting the risk of bacterica with the certainty of toxins, steroids, and hormones from the big operations.

"I could talk all day," Miller said. As could I. The struggle of the small farmer against a government determined to do them in was a conversation I was interested in exploring.

So here I am today, two days later and many miles down the road. I rode like a demon to the point I nearly busted myself in the heat. Then I rested for a day at the First Baptist Church in Sebree and as soon as I type this last sentence will go eat some lunch (it's computer is still busted so I'm at the library), and then head to Marion, KY where there is a large Amish community. I hope to hook up with them there. Spend the evening talking or working and hopefully go to church with them tomorrow. Only church may be in Pennsylvanian Dutch.

And after that, my time in Kentucky will be complete and it's on to Illinois and Missouri in the next couple of days.

This entry was posted on 7/20/2006 1:02 PM

  • 7/22/2006 8:31 PM Rebekah wrote:
    I read a Christian romance series about the Amish in Pennsylvania. I've always wanted to visit a community. I enjoyed the blog. Thanks for posting the picture. Maybe it will inspire others =)

  • 7/27/2006 10:30 AM Grace Hook wrote:
    Justin! It's Grace from St. James. I've spent the last 30 min. reading some of your adventures thus far. I love the stories, descriptions of the people you're meeting, and the wonderful pictures. It's going to be 97 degrees in Athens today. I hope where you are is a bit milder. We are all getting adjusted to our new pastor Jerry Meredith. He seems to be a fine man with a wonderful love for the Lord. Marie from our Healing Prayer class is in St. Petersburg, Russia on a mission trip, and Jane Kilgo is in Africa. Both teams come back in a few days. I can't wait to hear their stories. I'll check in on your progress again. I pray for your safety, provision, and wonderful closeness with our Lord as you travel the beautiful country he created. I remember that was one of the desires of your heart for this trip. Learn lots, and enjoy your awesome adventure!
    Love ya!

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