Racing Buggies in Amish Country
Shortly after turning onto Township Road 362, we zoomed downhill past a horse-drawn buggy driven by two teenage boys. And, boys being boys, they gave chase. (Or at least we think they did.) We rolled by tranquil green countryside occupied by well-kept farms, and the sound of the horses' hooves pounding the pavement stayed behind us. "I think they are gaining on us!" I shouted to Nance.
We passed fields with proud-looking Belgian draft horses gathered inside roadside fences and in front of stark-white barns. The buggy was still close behind, with the horse in full trot.
“Who are these guys?” I said in mock dismay, not feeling at all like Butch and Sundance, but obviously enjoying the "chase" more than Nance was. We rode past tidy white houses with large front porches (and no power lines leading to them), on seemingly endless rural county and township roads carrying little or no traffic. Still the buggy was behind us, and an exasperated Nance was feeling a bit pushed. With my helmet mirror, however, I could see that the buggy was actually at least a quarter mile back.
Just another Sunday in Amish country.
Nance and I had planned a bike overnight to Berlin (pronounced BER-luhn) in Holmes County, Ohio, in the heart of Amish country for the first weekend in October. It's harvest time, the leaves are starting to turn, the weather is not too cold, and the bikes are ready to roll. Could there be a better time for an overnight bike ride?
Berlin is located in north-central Ohio, about 75 miles south of Cleveland and 90 miles northeast of Columbus. Holmes County has the highest percentage of Amish of any county in the United States. The Amish live a simple life; they farm with draft horses instead of tractors, and they don't own or use cars or trucks. The result is an ideal biking experience: Hundreds of miles of county and township roads that are more travelled by horse-drawn buggies than by cars. Picture biking through farm country in the early 1900s, but with paved roads and modern bikes -- it’s a lot like that.
Our weekend plans were in jeopardy, as it was dark on Saturday morning, after raining through the night and into the morning. The forecast called for more rain and possible thunderstorms later in the day. Despite the forecast, we decided to give it a shot and ride. After all, we were looking for an adventure.
Starting in Orrville, Ohio, we rode south on Kansas Road, easing into farm country. Orrville is in Wayne County, where the hills are gentle rollers, tempered long ago by glaciers.
We warmed up on the rolling hills, only to get rained on after about 10 miles. Because it was warm for an October day, the light rain was not a worry. As we got close to our first planned stop, though, the rain fell harder, and we got soaked. After obtaining directions from an Amish family watching the rain on their front porch (probably wondering why those “English” folks in the brightly colored shirts would be out biking in it), we raced to an Amish store that we had stopped at on other rides. Chocolate milk, sesame sticks, and banana chips were enjoyed on the store's front porch, as we shared small talk with the Amish regulars who arrived in their buggies. Then, just as we hoped, the rain stopped. We rode on.
Heading south into Holmes County, the hills are higher and the grades much steeper. Riding south on Mt. Hope Road, we climbed some challenging hills with 10 percent grades, then enjoyed the vistas and the screaming downhills. After the rain, it seemed that the community all came outside, and because we were on bikes, we were able to witness the Amish up close and become part of the scene. We saw young boys in their traditional clothes playing baseball, fathers and sons working the fields with their horses, mothers with their babies hanging laundry, boys with nets catching crayfish in the rushing streams, a farmer leading a horse from a bike, boys on kick scooters, three giggling teenage girls in pretty traditional dresses on a cart pulled by a pony, dozens of horse-drawn buggies, and boys on horseback. Friendly waves and greetings were shared by all. We were reminded of a similar day biking through rural Albania, where the roads were used by mule-drawn carts and families worked together in the fields.
Winding over to Township Road 362, car traffic was non-existent and the road was more like a dedicated, paved bike and buggy path. After several miles of ups and downs, we finally saw the Berlin water tower high on a hill in the distance. The long hill leading up into Berlin takes you abruptly from quiet countryside into the bustling town center. Once a center of commerce for the local Amish community, Berlin is now a popular tourist destination/tourist trap. Downtown is a mile-long stretch of contradiction: Traditional small-town shops mixed with modern retail; tack shops next to tacky shops. Bumper-to-bumper traffic, tour buses, and crowded sidewalks. What a difference from the quiet, abandoned country roads less than a mile away.
There are several bed and breakfasts in and around Berlin; we stayed at Hannah's House, located about two miles outside of town on County Road 201. Dinner was back in town at Boyd and Wurthmann Restaurant, where coffee costs 75 cents. After dark and after the crowds left town, we ate with the locals. We finished dinner by sharing a piece of elderberry pie.
After breakfast on Sunday morning, we headed back toward home, with an eye on threatening skies to the west. After riding north on County Road 201, we wound our way back to Township Road 362 via County Road 207. I am convinced that all of the county and township roads in Holmes County deliver a perfect bike ride, and CR 207 was no exception. The stores in Amish country are closed on Sunday, making the countryside even more tranquil. With the wind at our back, we shared the road with horse-drawn buggies carrying families in their church clothes to worship.
It was on reaching 362 that we passed the buggy and when the good-natured "chase" started and continued for several miles, up and down hills, until we re-entered Wayne County.
With the groceries closed, there were no breaks on this day, so we were ready for a late lunch when we arrived at home. Our trip was 60 miles round-trip, a good distance given the hills and steep grades that had us gaining more than 3,000 feet of elevation.
Tips for this adventure: Find a local Amish grocery or market that's not advertised; the area is full of them. And please respect the Amish by not taking close-up pictures of them. With horses comes horse manure. Fenders are a good idea when the roads are wet. You can make your trip as long as you like, with a Berlin destination. Come early to Berlin and spend the afternoon with the crowds if you dare; or, you can avoid the crowds completely by staying on the back roads.
Favorite local bike shop: The Edge Outdoors in Medina, Ohio.