Feeling unexpectedly at home in Amish Country

From Cleveland, we planned to hire a car and head south into Wayne and Holmes Counties, better known as Amish Country. This rural area of Ohio has the highest concentration of Amish people in the United States, and we were curious to visit and see a different side of American life. However, our day didn’t start on the most auspicious note when we arrived at the rental car centre to find that our reserved car was nowhere to be seen. There wasn’t much we could do but wait while the chap behind the counter offered us various enormous SUVs and trucks as they were returned and there was still no sign of our little car 🚗.

Eventually, our car did turn up, and Oli decided to liven up the atmosphere in the office (we weren’t the only people waiting by this point) by posting his credit card down a gap between the counter and the rental car chap’s desk. Now, you might think that this would be easily fixed by reaching under the desk to pick it up from the floor, but the back office was filled with more boxes and piles of paperwork than I’ve ever seen in my life. So instead, what followed over the next ten minutes involved the hire car chap, a mop handle (actually, I’m not sure why, but the chap seemed to think it was helping), several other members of the public and Oli’s very long arms to eventually retrieve the card as the others held the tall counter at a precarious angle.

Note the crucial mop handle

While Oli was reaching into the ecosystem under the desk, the hire car chap saw his opportunity and asked Oli to pick out a few other things that had also descended into the ether but that he’d obviously thought were lost forever. I probably should have helped, but I was actually too busy laughing. I suspect that Oli was inspired by Dad’s credit card antics a few weeks ago and wanted to outdo him. I think he just about managed it!

Anyway, we eventually got on our way and headed south towards Amish Country, which we planned to spend the day exploring. Almost as soon as we entered the area and saw our first horse-drawn buggy on the road, it struck us that this place felt like home, which wasn’t at all our expected reaction! But we were surrounded by rolling hills, people getting around on bicycles (the modern alternative to horse and cart, perhaps?), and washing hung out to dry in the breeze. The latter in particular is such an unusual sight in the United States but so common elsewhere that it took us a moment to work out what was different!

Our first stop was Lehman’s (alternative link for non-US readers), an institution that has been selling non-electric appliances, such as indoor gas lighting and hand-cranked washing machines, to the Amish community and those who live off-grid since 1955. The whole shop felt bit like going back in time but with QR codes everywhere encouraging you to follow them on social media! We really liked their emphasis on longevity, though – many of the displays sold the individual components of items so that it was possible to repair things piecemeal rather than replacing them entirely, which is obviously more sustainable but not always easy to do. It was a pretty fascinating place – and I really will use any excuse to go homewares shopping, even when we don’t currently have a home to live in…

Our next stop was lunch, and for this we headed to another long-running institution, Boyd & Wurthmann Restaurant. But first, we had to park up, and I loved that there was both a regular carpark and a horsepark! The horses had a nice spot in the shade with snacks to keep them busy while their owners were in town.

Lunch itself was a triumph. We’d read that the restaurant specialised in Amish country-style cooking and luckily we’d really brought our appetites (as it was well after our usual lunchtime – nothing to do with Oli’s credit card debacle).

We went halves on two of their best-known dishes. The first was a roast beef sandwich, which was incredibly deep-fill and arrived smothered in gravy (I come from a family of gravy fanatics, so this was an unexpected bonus), and the second was a country fried steak, which was essentially hamburger meat covered in crispy fried-chicken coating (and more gravy). I know these aren’t exactly health food, but please do give us some credit that we chose green beans as our side – another of the options was jello! Jello with meat and gravy??!! We were actually quite tempted to try it out of sheer curiosity and bafflement. While writing this post, I’ve just noticed that it was also included as an option on the salad menu and I am now overcome with regret that I didn’t order myself a lovely healthy ‘salad’.

Boyd & Wurthmann is also known for its pies, of which there are usually a choice of around 15-20 each day. For obvious reasons, we didn’t manage to eat any as lunch pudding, but we each took a slice away (pecan for me and ‘black raspberry’ – I think this is just a blackberry! – for Oli) as we didn’t want to miss out on this essential component of Amish cuisine. They were pretty good, although it took us an awfully long time to build up an appetite for them and I’m not sure they quite beat the huckleberry pie from Montana.

Our final stop of the day was the small town of Sugarcreek, which the Lonely Planet described as channeling “a slice of Switzerland with alpine-style architecture and giant cuckoo clocks”. I thought this sounded rather nice but I wish we’d read between the lines that they weren’t actually recommending the town as much as saying that it existed – without a doubt, this was the least convincing of the three ‘Switzerlands’ we’ve visited on this trip so far! (See also Dilijan, Armenia and Glacier National Park, Montana). As well as the world’s largest cuckoo clock, the town had speakers playing yodelling music onto the streets. In a near-deserted town, this was pretty eerie and reminded us less of Switzerland and more of the public-service speakers in Laos, which broadcast patriotic messages (or propaganda, depending on your viewpoint) to the local population every day at 6am. Sugarcreek was obviously rather less sinister but weird nonetheless! We did quite enjoy watching the cuckoo clock strike the half-hour while we ate our Boyd & Wurthmann pies, though – the definition of ‘gentle entertainment’.

This concluded our day in Amish Country, which had been an unexpected antidote to any homesickness we might have been feeling. Next up, we were headed for something totally different: Pittsburgh, the steel capital of the United States.

Overnight on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited to Cleveland 💺

When we crossed Turkey last year, we took a couple of overnight trains and buses in upright seats and promised ourselves: never again. We were so tired that we repeatedly wrote off the following day and we may as well have travelled during the daytime! Anyway, I’m sure you can see where this is going: obviously we got tempted into doing it again.

Having taken a couple of very comfortable but extremely expensive Amtrak journeys in sleeper compartments (on the Empire Builder from Seattle to Whitefish and then Whitefish to Minneapolis), it was time to claw some budget back. So, after a brilliant couple of days exploring Chicago, we hopped on the Lake Shore Limited in coach class for an overnight train east to Cleveland, OH.

Chicago’s Union Station, and the famous staircase that appeared in The Untouchables

Amtrak’s coach seats give a decent amount of room (more akin to a business class seat on an aircraft), but still, there was plenty of noise and action on the packed train so we were very glad of our eye masks and noise-cancelling headphones. All too soon, we rolled into Cleveland at 05.30 to a beautiful sunrise.

We’d moved from central to eastern time overnight, so 05.30 felt like 04.30 and I was in no mood to enjoy the scenery! With check in to our apartment at 15.00 and having found nowhere to store our big backpacks (we’d considered asking at the station until we realised it is only open between midnight and 07.30 each day – seriously, you read that right!) we loitered in the station for as long as we could before moving on into the city to find somewhere else to wait. It seems bizarre that a city of 1.7 million people could have only four passenger trains passing each day, but it starts to make sense when we consider the number of people we’ve met who have responded with, “Oh yes, I took a train once…” when we mention that we’re crossing the country by rail.

Our next stop was a traditional diner, where we took our time over our breakfast but were still finished by 8.30. Six and a half hours to go until check in!

Finally, we hit the jackpot when we settled down in the corner of a Starbucks that was upstairs in a huge casino. Yes, it was a very dingy place to be on a beautiful sunny morning and the casino’s security staff were definitely confused by our strange accents and big bags, but we bought coffees and weren’t causing trouble, so we were left unbothered for the next four hours (!) until it was time for lunch. Lunch, of course, was at Dave’s Cosmic Subs (what a name). I liked mine so much that I decided to wear it – it was high time to check in.

We were only really in Cleveland as it was a convenient stopping point on our way to Amish Country, and I’d expected it to feel either quite bland or very industrial – it is, after all, a Rust Belt city – but it was neither. Instead, we found an attractive and walkable small city, with shopping arcades, arts venues and outdoor spaces aplenty. The downtown area had a nice buzz and was hosting a series of free live music events over the summer months.

The city has a couple of star attractions, including the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but it was another beautiful day so having spent so long inside the previous day, we instead headed to the western neighbourhood of Ohio City for some al fresco exploration. In fact, our first stop was the West Side Market, which was actually indoors, but we bought ourselves a huge lunch and ate in the adjacent Market Square.

Next, we headed for a walk but soon got distracted again when Oli saw a barber college offering $6 haircuts. He’s been looking increasingly shaggy, so in he went and spent the next two hours waiting in a line that was much longer than it looked and then making friends with his student barber and the chap who was supposed to be supervising (but who mostly wanted a chat). He emerged with mostly neat hair and full of local recommendations, so we headed off for Mitchell’s Ice Cream and then to Great Lakes Brewing Company so he could try their Vibacious Double IPA (“Strong, hoppy and delicious: 4.5 ⭐️,” I am told).

That concluded our brief visit to Cleveland, and the next morning, we headed south into rural Ohio to explore Amish Country.