Fear and Loathing in Lancaster, Part Three: Gawkers
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You knew it was coming, didn't you? How can one visit Lancaster, Pennsylvania without addressing its most pertinent topic?
That topic is Amish people as a tourist attraction.
If you want to see something nauseating, get in your car and drive east of Lancaster to the two little Amish towns that are the most prominent tourist traps: Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse. Both towns lie along PA Route 340, about 3 miles apart.
People take bus trips to these towns to see the Amish in their buggies and plain clothes.
Granted, the Amish do stand out from the rank-and-file. It's hard to ignore those little black horse-driven buggies. It's impossible not to peer quickly into the depths of the buggies as you pass, in order to see the odd people inside. If you drive past a farm, and some man is working in the field with a horse-driven plow and a straw hat, it does grab your attention. We're human. Anything out of the ordinary interests us.
The Amish themselves have a love-hate relationship with the tourist trade. On one hand, they cash in on it big time. There's a ready customer base for their food and other goods. (The furniture and quilts are mostly made by immigrant labor now.) They have nothing against commerce. They have big families to feed and to provide farms for.
On the other hand, being stared at and photographed for a lifestyle can be exceedingly annoying. These aren't hula dancers being paid to wear leis. These are religious people who wish to remain aloof from the worldly world.
How do the Amish handle the unseemly tourist stares? They tell their children that we're all going to hell, one and all, no exceptions. Heaven is completely populated by Amish. No Old Order Mennonites allowed. Old Order Mennonites drive cars. Black cars, yes, but cars are worldly. To hell with them!
It must be weird to be an Amish kid, growing up amidst a stream of seasonal gawkers who are all doomed.
My daughter The Heir and I had a long day to spend in Lancaster as we waited for the start time on an 8:00 p.m. wedding. I freely admit this. We could have spent the day in Lancaster, itself a charming small city with art galleries and a town market for the ages. Instead we headed out to Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse to people watch.
Except the people we set out to watch weren't the Amish. They were the kind of people who would be attracted to watching the Amish. How postmodern! We were watching people who were watching people.
The first thing you notice about Amish Country tourists is that they're mostly overweight, and they dress almost as if they want to be the quintessential opposite of the Amish. Tight jeans, bright t-shirts, flip-flops, big hair. And everywhere you look, people are eating. Fudge, kettle corn, cake, pie, jams, jellies, sausages, funnel cakes. What the people can't eat on the spot, they buy in quantity to take home.
What's interesting, though, is that one can purchase the same kinds of foods (with the exception of the pies, jams, and sausages) at any Jersey Shore town. For that matter, all these foodstuffs can be had at carnivals and county fairs. So why do people hop on buses and ride into the pig-reeking countryside? Just to see the Amish.
There are Amish keychains and Amish t-shirts, and stuff that says "Intercourse Is Great" and lots and lots of souvenirs having to do with God and angels.
So you go look at the Amish, and you eat fatty foods, and you buy a t-shirt that says, "I Looked at the Amish," and you get on the bus and go back to Baltimore.
Talk about a weird ritual. Truthfully, as I looked around at the teeming throngs of gawking tourists, I sort of saw the point the Amish make. I wouldn't want to be in heaven with these people either. I know I shouldn't lump all tourists together, that everyone's an individual, but there was an awful lot of unseemly worldliness on display.
Heir loves cheesy tourist attractions, but she drew the line at Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse. However, our day of forced visitation to Lancaster County was not completely devoid of fun. Tomorrow I'll tell you about the fun. Suffice it to say that the fun did not include photographing men with beards in blue shirts.