Late last September, after a shoot in Harrisburg, I decided to take the long way home through Pennsylvania’s Amish country. Despite having lived in PA on and off since 2001, I hadn’t visited this storied step back in time since I was a kid. With no real frame of reference, I typed the one restaurant I remembered from when I was ten into my GPS and set out for the Good and Plenty. The 45-mile journey would take me through the heart of Lancaster County and into the warm and welcoming past.
I never did make it to the Good and Plenty. The landscape was so inviting and accessible, I decided to pull off the highway and ramble through the farmland. Like John Muir supposedly once said, “Throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” While I may not always live by this philosophy, when the opportunity presents itself, I go for it.
I came across all you would expect to see in Amish country: children innocently riding scooters (they’re not allowed to ride bikes), horses pulling families slowly and deliberately down a country road and livestock lazily grazing in the late summer sun. I wandered through fields of corn that were indeed as high as an elephants eye, came to a clearing that was swarming with more bugs than there are stars in the sky and watched a hot air balloon softly sink below the distant tree line. The one oddity that caught my eye was the horse and buggy only section at the gas station. Although It was fully equipped with a garbage can and shovel.
It was nearing dusk and I had no idea how far I was from home so I hopped into my car and set the GPS for Philly. Turns out I was only 68 miles away. After about five miles on this single lane “highway” I was met with a road closed sign and was forced to reroute. I circled around to investigate and discovered the reason for the closure of this bustling thoroughfare was a parade. Guess John Muir was calling again. It took a few more loops but I finally found a parking space next to a few horses tied to a fence.
I walked the few blocks down the road towards main street and tried to blend in. This was no easy task with a giant camera dangling from my neck. I was clearly an outsider there acting as a voyeur. I’m usually not shy or apprehensive when it comes to shooting strangers in a strange place but I didn’t want to come off as if I was on Amish safari. I was genuinely excited for this parade and just wanted to document the experience. That however can easily be construed as exploitation.
The crowd was about twenty percent Amish, five percent minority and seventy-five percent civilian white (as in not Amish.) I posted up near a family who clearly claimed their spots much earlier in the day. I’m pretty sure they had eaten breakfast and lunch there and were just moving on to dinner. A friendly gentleman wearing an Eagles hat to my right who was not with the group pointed out that I was facing the wrong way and to get my camera ready because the parade was set to kick off any minute. He asked where I was from and when I told him Philadelphia he gasped. He’d lived in this town his entire life and had never been. Need I remind you I was less than seventy miles away? He asked if it was difficult to park downtown and what Reading Terminal Market was like. I told him he should come see for himself. This he took as an invitation to meet up. We exchanged emails then a parting handshake. I’m still waiting to hear from him.
The parade finally began. The Grand Marshall’s Dick and Jean Risk kicked off the festivities followed by generations of tractor drivers and the Lancaster County Alternate Dairy Princess. The last glints of sunshine were fading fast so I turned my camera on the crowd for a few final shots before heading home. As the golden hour turned to dusk I drove off but not before stopping to get a few more shots to properly close out my day. I guess the beauty of living in Pennsylvania can be summed up by the fact that you can spend the day shooting portraits in the middle of a “city” then stumble upon an Amish farmer plowing a field by horse at sunset.