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Just Zip It

She Wanted to See Amish Country, Plain and Simple

Near Leonardtown, a sign reflects some residents' religious commitment to living a simple life.
Near Leonardtown, a sign reflects some residents' religious commitment to living a simple life. (Christina Talcott - The Washington Post)
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By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008; Page C02

Pity the carless urbanite. Relying on the subway to get to the mall, the bus to get to the bars, the bike to get to work, feet and friends to get anywhere else. But what happens when the subway line ends or you can't persuade anyone to chauffeur?

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I live in the District and am carless by choice -- and proud of it. So when I wanted to do a little market-hopping in Amish country recently, I turned to Zipcar. The car-share program has locations scattered around the city; for a set price, it provides insurance and gas and gives drivers 180 miles per day. (Go farther and you pay extra.)

Turns out that's a rather short tether. I had to nix plans to visit Lancaster County, Pa., which is 130 miles one way. But the Amish community in St. Mary's County? I could drive the whole length of the county, down to Point Lookout, and I'd be only 77 miles from home.

Bingo.

But substituting St. Mary's for Lancaster was hardly a tragedy. As it happens, St. Mary's County was the birthplace of religious freedom in the United States. In 1634, colonists from England set up St. Mary's City, the capital of Lord Baltimore's new colony and the first to trumpet religious freedom for all. Back in the days of England's bloody religious wars, a place promoting peace between Protestants and Catholics was a big deal.

Almost 400 years later, St. Mary's is still home to plenty of mainline Protestants and Catholics. There are bathtub Madonnas in front yards in Clements, tiny Episcopal churches near Leonardtown and three giant wooden crosses next to a trampoline in someone's yard right on Route 5. Interesting variety, all of it, but it's when you see the first buggy-crossing sign that you know you're not in D.C. anymore.

Starting in the 1930s, Mennonites and Amish from Pennsylvania started buying farms in Southern Maryland, with the Amish in the north near Thompson Corner Road and the Mennonites in the south around Loveville. The Amish and Mennonites are Anabaptist, a type of Protestantism dating from the early 1600s. They are known as "plain people" because they largely avoid modern technology (hence the horse-and-buggy transport of the Amish), preferring to live apart from the outside world. Mostly.

But as in Lancaster County, where Amish crafters peddle their goods to tourists, the Anabaptists in Southern Maryland open their doors, too, to shoppers from outside the community. And St. Mary's County conveniently publishes a brochure listing its Amish- and Mennonite-owned businesses. Perfect for a curious day-tripper.

My first stop was the historic hamlet of Charlotte Hall, 15 miles south of Waldorf, where a twice-weekly market draws big crowds in the summertime. It has seven acres of covered stalls, in which vendors sell fresh produce, canned peppers, knockoff purses, body piercing, ATVs and silk-screen tees. The Amish sellers are clustered around the "Buggy Parking" sign on the south end of the market, near the used furniture dealers (perfect for the Ikea-weary). Across the parking lot, a stony-faced man was selling cakes, breads and honey. I asked about the jar labeled "chow-chow," and he silently handed me a laminated sheet of paper listing the ingredients, which included corn, melon and turmeric. I bought it to try on a braver day. Then I opted for a cup of chili from Rudy's Cake & Steak cart, over by the cellphone chargers, rhinestone-studded boots and gospel CDs.

Afterward, while I meandered down Thompson Corner Road, the views were dotted with telltale signs of Amish farms: windmills, clotheslines strung with muted garments and hand-painted signs for crafts or eggs, all marked "closed on Sundays."

Zipping along in my Zipcar, I'd slow down to stare whenever a horse and buggy crossed my path, and craned my neck when I glimpsed a farmer in his field with a team of horses. The longer I looked, the more sheepish I felt, as though I was intruding on people who only wish to live simply.

I felt the most culpable when I pulled over to take a picture of my Zipcar next to a buggy-crossing sign. Across the street, a woman in a bonnet strolling across a field saw me and ducked into a shed, perhaps afraid I was trying to snap a photo of her. (Most Amish and Mennonites prefer not to be photographed. And, P.S., I wasn't.) Of course, I could have just been paranoid; maybe she was going to the shed anyway. But when I got back in the car and started the engine, I saw her leave the shed and keep walking across the field.

As I drove back home, I kept checking the odometer, and I could almost hear it going click click as the miles added up. I'd come close to running through my allowance of 180 miles, having crisscrossed St. Mary's County, cruising down to St. Clement's Island Museum (site of the colonists' first landing), up to Leonardtown (good eats!) and Thompson Corner Road (twice). There were restaurants I wanted to try and more shops I wanted to visit, though I'd be relieved to get rid of the car and stop worrying about speed limits, seat belts and parking spaces.

Till the next time I get a Zipcar. Unless someone invents Zipbuggy. I'd be all over that.


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