Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Road Thrice Traveled.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed "You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you." He probably said a lot of other things but very few of them survived - which makes sense for someone who felt that everything and everyone was constantly changing.

I thought of this predecessor to Socrates last week as I walked alongside the banks of the stream running through Rocky Acre Farm in Mount Joy Pennsylvania. Mars and I were staying there at a Bed and Breakfast located in what used to be the farmhouse. We first visited the farmstead on two one-week vacations in 1981 and 1982 with our now thirty-eight year old son Bram.

The B&B is owned and operated by the Benner family. In the 80's Mr. & Mrs. Benner (Galen and Eileen) were also running the farm. Mr. Benner has since retired from the milking business and sold that enterprise to his son Arlen who along with his brother was a mid-teen farmhand on our earlier visits. Mr. B. now plays "camp Grandfather" to the hordes of children that are guests at the farm. Over those years the B&B has grown in the number of rooms, and notoriety - having appeared in the New York Times and on the NBC Today television program - but otherwise it and the farm have remained pretty much the same as when Mars first discovered it in our local paper's travel section. And coaxed me into giving it a try.

The Benners are Mennonites. In 1982 when Mars first mentioned vacationing on a local farm in Pennsylvania Dutch country my first thought was "What? No electricity! Horses not cars! Is there indoor plumbing?"

I was mistakenly thinking of the Amish "an Anabaptist Christian denomination in the United States and Canada that are known for their plain dress and limited use of modern conveniences such as automobiles and electricity." (according to Wikipedia) - not the Mennonites who, while also Anabaptists, pretty much freely embrace a lot of the technology in the modern world.

I knew the Amish for their distinctive beards (identical in mustache-less configuration to mine which was darker and fuller at that time), and their steadfast adherence to old-world ways in spite of their physical immersion within the perpetually modernizing twentieth century culture. Bearded men, women in long flowing skirts, communities living off of the land, pacifism - it sounded like the ideals of Woodstock come to life - without the music, but with the mud, albeit more fertile soil. I came of age in the sixties and in 1982 was a neophyte gardener. So, while I knew that I couldn't possibly embrace the austere Amish lifestyle, I expected nonetheless that I would ruefully admire some of their time-honored behaviors, in particular their relationship with the land, and wish that I could find a way to incorporate them into my own lifestyle

A little checking with the Pennsylvania state tourist organization assuaged my initial fears and I began to think that the Pennsylvania Dutch lifestyle might be a good one to take part in - as a guest outsider. Although I still did have a few reservations about the strict way of living, and extreme religiosity I feared we might be trapped within.

Not that I was then, or am now, spontaneous. Among other things, at that time, Mars and I were both doing regular recreational running - everyday for me, an occasional day off for her. And I did not intend to slack off in the slightest during our stay at the farm. Shortly after we checked in to the farmhouse apartment I changed into my running togs and went out to determine what our daily route would be.

I trotted down the driveway onto the road in front of the farm, turned left, ran to the top of a hill and checked my time. It was just about seven and one half minutes. I turned back, ran past the farm down the road alongside the stream up another hill and looked gain at my watch. Once again it was seven minutes and thirty seconds. I returned to the farm with an almost perfectly symmetrical running route, which Mars and I faithfully followed just about every day of our two one-week stays. Familiar routines quickly make the unusual into the everyday.

That evening on the front porch we met some others guests who, when they saw my beard, recognized me from my run that afternoon and had, they said, been quite surprised to learn that the Amish jogged. It was the only incident of such confusion on either of our trips, but being mistaken for a native did make me feel a little more like I belonged here.

The Benner farm turned out to be almost as non-Amish as we were. In addition to the electricity and the indoor facilities the cows were milked by machine, John Deere tractors roamed the farmland, Mr. Benner rode a golf cart around the acreage, and the Benner boys turned their mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks into high-speed Harley rides through the cornfields. A boom box blasted rock music from the tool shed/garage in the center of the farm and pick-up basketball games developed with Mr. Benner (on break from his sixteen hour workday) joining in and banging bodies under the boards.

We did come in contact with several bearded or bonnet-capped members of the Amish on our drives through the countryside and at the local outdoor markets. Their farms were easily identified as having no electrical wiring leading up to them. And the people were recognizable by their black horse-drawn buggies, and their black untailored suits with collared shirts (mostly sky blue) for the males, and ankle-length, long sleeved dresses for the women. They do not want to be photographed.

The farms were, at least to my suburban eyes, enormous. As were the men who seemed like muscular outgrowths of the land that they worked - visibly separated from the brown and green landscape by their black and blue clothing yet seemingly attached to the earth by their solid stance. Images of the Muffler Man from the comic strip Zippy or the heads from Easter Island crowd into my mind alongside those of the sturdy, stolid Amish men who gave the strong impression of belonging wherever they were while the rest of the world seemed to float ephemerally around them.

The Benners likewise, while they dressed more like suburbanites on a weekend break (jeans and white tee shirts), seemed at home in all that they did - flowing seamlessly back and forth from their farmer role to their innkeeper role to their family role. Their world was the farm and the farm was their world.

Except for church - which, in addition to Sunday, they went to one week night while we were there and asked us to "please watch the cows". And we did just that as the black and white herd wandered one-by--one out of their pens, across the road, and off into the darkly invisible cornfields. Fortunately they later returned of their own accord, possibly from their own bovine worship-night, well before the Benners did. No harm, no foul.

One morning the veterinarian arrived in his Volvo station wagon to perform an operation on a cow with a badly twisted stomach. He bought with him, in addition to his black leather bag, a wooden and rope block-and-tackle device that was used to hover the ailing bovine a foot or so off the ground inside the July-hot-and-humid barn. Guests excitedly gathered around to watch the doctor reach up into the innards of the animal and mysteriously untangle the cow's digestive disability. Then he sewed her up, let her down, and left.

For the Benners, most of who were off working during the event, it was just another day on the farm. For our son Bram it has proven to be the most memorable vacation event of his lifetime and he still regales friends with the story and his fading photographs of the hoisted Holstein to this day.

At Mars' instigation we decided to revisit the farm last month after an Elderhostel that we attended in nearby Gettysburg. This time we were able to reserve our room via the B & B's own website but payment by credit card was not accepted over the web or in person - cash or check only. There also was no television at the farm. The Elderhostel was pretty busy with attention-requiring activities each day and on several evenings so, much as we were in the 1980's, we were looking for the farm to provide us with a little down time. We wandered the acreage, photographed the cows, and sat on the porch and read.

There are two multiple-story trees in front of the veranda. Each one has multiple trunks and branches, and multiple families of birds establishing their annual nests within them, just as they or their ancestors had done before - possibly for as long as the farm has existed.

We also drove deeper into Amish land on Route 30 which has changed from a relatively busy road into a display case for every chain restaurant and outlet store in America - stacked one top of each other with not even enough room to swing a trans-fatty French Fry without hitting an equally unhealthy thick-shake. We rushed back to the solitude of the farm.

We both still exercise pretty much every day but neither of us runs anymore. We do however walk a lot (along with weights, yoga, elliptical and other health club machines). One day Mars opted to rest and I went for a walk along the second half of our old running route.

Walking the road allowed me to be more consciously aware of the surroundings that twenty-five years earlier had been pretty much background noise to the sounds of running shoes and heavy breathing. But somewhere in my brain the old sights must have registered because, just as I experienced on our drive in through the farmlands to the farm, pictures of what was to come seemed to appear in my mind just nanoseconds before I saw them in real life. And, because (other than tree and bush growth) everything along that part of the route, up to and including the farm, basically remained the same, my precognitions and perceptions were always in sync - giving me the feeling that not only had I been here before but, if I chose to, I could be here again in the future.

Heraclitus also said "The road up and the road down is one and the same." This strikes me as possibly an exception to his more publicized "everything is changing" view of life. Maybe in addition to being a Pre-Socratic philosopher he was also a pre-Mennonite dairy farmer in his day job.

I mean who says that our ideas about him can't change too?

For more photos of the farm and other things, please check out the View From Mars.

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