The train skirted the New River, then called at a small West Virginia town near Shady Spring. A group of Amish travelers came on board. There were at least three families.
They stood out in their simple clothes, tidy and clean, but immaculately so, the caps of the women impossibly snow white. It was a Flemish Renaissance fresco amid the dissonances of modernity surrounding them. One was a family of a man of 34 and his wife of 31, with their four little children, one of them a newborn baby, rosy cheeked and wrapped in white.
They were all descended of a seventeenth century Anabaptist schismatic group, led by Jakob Ammann. Amish immigration into Pennsylvania began in the 18th century, followed by later waves. While still concentrated in their original state, there were now big communities in Iowa, where these families lived.
I was surprised to see them making use of an industrial era vehicle, so I approached them to inquire if we could talk, introducing myself as a journalist. Peter, the head of the family, happily agreed. But I let them eat in peace and agreed to return half an hour later. They were having open top tartines, with cold cuts and large tomato slices of a bleeding intensity that I had not seen east of Italy or north of Mexico.
“There are many types of Amish,” Peter said. They were Old Order Amish, he said after some hesitation; he translated into English what his wife told him. Their conversational language was Pennsylvania Dutch, but their Bibles are in High German. Once they were visiting Niagara Falls and they heard a group of German tourists singing a song they recognized: “It was exactly the same, the same melody and the same lyrics.” The Amish had joined the Germans in song.
Different communities of Amish made different exceptions to modernity. Some would travel in modern vehicles as long as they did not own them and somebody else did the driving. Other Amish would not ride anything but their horses and carts. They had black buggies, a common sight in some parts of rural Pennsylvania. “We also have tractors with steel wheels,” Peter said with a booming laugh. But at least one community he knew of used tractors with pneumatic tires.
The Amish woman sitting in the row behind was New Order Amish, and she was not related to them, as I had mistakenly assumed. Despite their more liberal approaches to modernity, in other respects New Order Amish were more traditionalists, rejecting amenities like washing machines that some Old Order communities had already adopted. I also noticed all of them were wearing commercial footwear, albeit black and simple. I saw a young man wearing Nike sneakers.
Only then did I realize that the New Order woman wore a different kind of headwear, still white. Her dress, however plain, was beige too, whereas Peter and his family wore grey clothes, but I do not know if the colors signaled a different affiliation. The women’s outfits looked like nurse uniforms.
Did he feel curiosity about visiting the land where his ancestors had come from in Europe? “We are not allowed to travel by plane.” They were, however, to do it by boat. His wife smiled at the notion of cruise travel to Europe. Some Amish had done it, they said. “I think I would enjoy it,” Peter said. “But then I would think of the time it would take and the money it would cost, and wouldn’t do it.”
There were Amish that rejected all contacts with modernity. Peter and his family were of the high end of Old Order Amish, who consented to certain compromises with modernity. “We travel in vans, these fifteen-passenger big ones, trains, but we cannot drive or own them,” Peter said. “My great uncle is non-Amish and he drives us around.” His great uncle was born into the community but later opted out.
Amish were free to leave their community and join secular life or any other community. Peter had a brother who had abandoned the group, he said, his smile vanishing for a moment. A passenger who sat across the corridor asked him if he would allow his children to leave the community if they so decided.
“They are free to leave but we wished nobody did.” With a stern face, he said his oldest daughter had taken to speaking in English with the brother who came after her, who was picking up English faster. “It’s OK,” Peter said, or rather grumbled, with an expression that did not show much happiness about it. The children were schooled in the community up to eighth grade, but they would pass the state standardized tests with satisfactory marks. His wife occasionally smiled but never spoke with me. When she addressed her husband, it would invariably be in a whisper in Pennsylvania Dutch, the language the kids used with their parents but not among themselves. Regardless of age, all Amish borrowed from English, especially for modern-life terms, like “car.” Indeed, their Midwest accent would initially mislead others to believe they were speaking in English, until one paid closer attention.
If they were free to leave, why had Peter stayed in the community? “Because I feel protected in the Church, there is strength in our unity,” he said. “There is strength in our values.” As he was a steel roof salesman, he was in contact with middlemen. Business had forced the Amish to some compromises. In his community they had set up a chat room with a telephone that they used strictly for their commercial transactions.
Peter had seen what the Internet was on what he called computers, but the devices he described sounded like tablets. “People in your world have so many distractions,” he told me. “I see it when those salesmen come; whenever they are idle they start fiddling with their smart phones: people in your world don’t have time to meditate and spend in the company of God.”
His family only went to church service on Sundays. The rest of the week they would observe what he called “family venerations.” On weekdays and Saturdays, he and his wife woke up at seven and read a verse from the Bible. They were not allowed to be photographed. “But I cannot stop you from taking our picture; we cannot pose for the camera.” The same passenger across the aisle, who had been intervening in our conversation, asked him with great surprise if they did not keep photos of their children. They did not, and did not have any kind of portraits – not even drawn or painted – and none of their parents, family, and other ancestors.
Was it true that they were forbidden from any violent action even in case of aggression? “We are, but we are human,” he told me, and I realized he was examining me now with more attention, perhaps wondering if I would push the limits of my curiosity. The Amish were explicitly prevented from any type of violent behavior in emulation of Christ. “But we are imperfect and we fail, too.” Peter did not elaborate, nor did I ask for examples. In a strange way, I envied them in their benign simplicity and thought how wonderful it would be if everybody’s neighbor was Amish.
The Amish did not have crosses or crucifixes either, nor did they venerate them. “We honor God by just praying to him,” he said. Then I begged again if I could photograph them: I did not want to part without taking their picture, so Peter agreed, with a big laugh, to look away while I captured a few shots with my mobile. The Amish woman of the New Order, sitting right behind him, was struggling not to laugh out loudly.
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Next on the Trans-American Railroad: The Color-Blind Passenger
This is the eighth part of The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron, a travel diary. Please see the previous stories below: