I've always liked the idea of a bike tour: socializing, fresh air, exercise. I just don't like biking that much.
In-line skating, on the other hand, is all the good stuff of my childhood rolled into one: ice skating, skiing, skateboarding and roller rinks. So when a friend mailed me his Zephyr Skate Tours catalogue last winter, my heart beat fast. The idea of in-line skating through the Netherlands and Sonoma wine country for several days sounded delicious, but I decided to start with a three-day weekend in Amish country. It was a short drive, required taking only one day off--and, if I found I couldn't keep up, humiliation would at least be brief.
Besides, who could resist the irony of skating past horse-drawn buggies? I share the national curiosity about the Pennsylvania Dutch, and this would be an intimate look.
One thing worried me. "Isn't Lancaster hilly?" I asked Allan Wright, the 33-year-old founder of Zephyr, over the phone. It was, he said, but they had chosen fairly level routes. "I'm going to learn to skate hills on this trip," I wrote in my journal.
On a sunny, breezy Friday afternoon, I pulled into Doneker's Guesthouse in Ephrata, our quaint crash pad for the next two nights, and fell in with another lone female, Kim Wolckenhauer, a 45-year-old schoolteacher who had left her non-skating husband and children at home in Upstate New York. She wasn't the only wayward mom, it turned out. Our speed-skater guide, Isabelle, had three grade-schoolers at home, and three other women arrived with prepubescent sons--who bonded quickly and spent most of the weekend riding in the van playing a Gameboy. Of the 19 adults, six were men, including a couple from Capitol Hill who were on their third Zephyr tour.
Fitness-wise, I was well matched. Though there were longer and shorter routes to choose from, we all favored the "medium" ones. The afternoon we arrived, this meant 12.8 miles, the "least hilly" skate of the tour, we were told. Somewhere into the third hill, that idea became alarming. After another long, upward pump and wobbly, heart-racing plummet, we turned to each other, wide-eyed. We were in for it. A woman from Florida removed her skates, rode the van back to town and rented a bike for the rest of the weekend. The rest of us muscled on and began to get the hang of it. We were mostly urban professionals--from New York, Philadelphia and Washington, and as far away as Texas, New Orleans and Orlando. That first day, the smell of manure almost knocked us over, and the quiet was so intense our skates seemed to be screaming.
Sitting around the inn's restaurant that night, we began a three-day routine of giving our ringleader grief about the hills. Wright, who founded the company two years ago, is as wiry and electric as any 17-year-old, and his spirit of fun is contagious. "You call those hills?" was his standard reply.
Next morning before breakfast--skates began around 10 a.m.--our guides commandeered the inn's parking lot to lead us through the basics. Turns out you can snowplow on in-line skates, or crouch and splay your feet for control. By Saturday afternoon, we were braking like pros. On Sunday, we abandoned our brakes and went for speed. This helped on the hills that followed.
Hills always followed.
Early on in the 20.6-mile route of our last day, our guide, Bill, gathered four of us into a row and taught us drafting, a hill-defying maneuver. I had learned on long bike rides that getting close behind the biker ahead reduces wind resistance. After we mastered that, he showed us the downhill version, a sort of crouching conga line with hands on shoulders that required synchronizing all moves. "Gravel ahead!" Kim would yell from the front. "Brake!"
We were thus speeding, single file and cocky, toward a covered bridge where the van waited. "Rough spot ahead!" Kim yelled. We split apart and braked, but were still zooming toward what I mistook for a break in the road. With a $500 camera around my neck and only a second to decide, I did what I did as a child to stop on a ski slope. I sat down. This method works better on snow than on asphalt. When I rose, shaking, I had severe posterior road rash but no bone damage, and I was determined to finish the last 17 miles. Skating proved far easier than sitting down would be later.
The rest of the route was the most beautiful of the weekend--and, at 90 degrees, the hottest. We passed many buggies taking Mennonites to and from church. (The Amish worship at home.) As Wright told us more than once, Amish country is one place where you go more to see the people than the place. This was usually a lead-in to Ways to Observe the Amish Without Invading Their Privacy (no frontal picture-taking, for example--something about "graven images"). Unlike past visits, though, the curiosity seemed mutual. Aproned children stood bug-eyed as we skated by, and for every skater who turned to watch a buggy pass, I spotted two Amish heads craning for a second look at passing skaters.
How strange we roller-skating adults must look to the shrouded, duty-bound Amish, as we grimly panted up the hills. And who knows what they thought when, cruising downhill, we would give in to the urge to yell or hold out our arms.
Just as I would begin to think myself an object of disapproval, a buggy full of Mennonites would canter by, waving and calling out a greeting. An Amish woman and child once invited Wright and a tour member to grab their wagon for a ride up a steep hill. The more time I spent among these people, the more I wanted to stop and chat. Other skaters said the same, but we were usually too busy getting from A to B while puzzling over the Plain People. Amish can ride in cars but not drive them; Mennonites can drive--but only black cars. Mennonites can ride bikes but only old-fashioned ones with fenders. Amish can't ride bikes but in-line skating is okay--but only up to a certain age. And these rules seemed to vary between communities.
On Saturday, Matthew, an Amish 16-year-old, joined us--Wright invites a local skater on every tour--and we riddled him with questions. Skating in suspenders and hot-looking black trousers, he answered politely--then zoomed ahead, out-skating us all. In general, he conveyed an awareness of the modern world, but an acceptance of his separation from it. Having finished school at 13, like all Amish, he seemed far more self-possessed than the awkward teens of my experience.
On the last day, we came to a footbridge over a creek. In every direction, a picture postcard was waiting to happen. I wanted to soak it up, but the group was speeding away. Snapping photos frantically, I heard a boy call out, "How many miles do you go?" and turned to see a group of Amish standing by a farmhouse, straw hats silhouetted against the sky. We had passed too quickly to notice we were being watched. I called out an answer but was already striding double-time to catch up to the group. My one skate-tour complaint was that you can't afford to linger and explore, lest you lose the group.
All the same, I can't think of a better way to see the countryside and make friends at the same time. By the end, I'd logged 55 miles on-skate with nary a blister or strained muscle--just a mighty sore tail. I'm already dreaming of the next skate tour--Sonoma, perhaps?--and, as soon as I get this ice pack off my butt, I'm taking my skates to the biggest hill I can find.
Shepherd College hosts the ninth annual Contemporary American Theater Festival starting this Friday in Shepherdstown, W.Va. While possibly West Virginia's hippest town, Shepherdstown is also a picturesque and fully functional small town on the upper Potomac--with decent restaurants, art, craft and antique galleries and a pretty good mix of places to stay. The festival, through Aug. 1, adds in the labors of four playwrights, three directors, six designers and 18 Equity actors for repertory performances of "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" by Jeffrey Hatcher, "The Water Children" by Wendy MacLeod, "Tatiana in Color" by Julia Jordan and "Coyote on a Fence" by Bruce Graham. Contact CATF at 1-800-999-2283 or www.catf.org.
WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: Lancaster, Pa., is about three hours from the Beltway via I-95 past Baltimore to I-83 north to Route 30 east into town. Take Route 272 (or U.S. 222) to Ephrata.
BEING THERE: On Friday, the van dropped us at the Pinetown covered bridge (1867). Along the 12.8-mile route, we passed two one-room schoolhouses typical of the area, with outhouses and hand pumps. On Saturday, the medium, 21.4-mile route took us from the hotel through Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse and over Eberly's Mill covered bridge. On Sunday, we skated 20.6 miles, from the hotel to Martindale and the Red Cay Picnic Grove. Most of the churches we passed were Mennonite.
Skaters stay two nights at Doneker's, a comfortable B&B in Ephrata. (In May, we ate our buffet breakfasts under an arbor outside, surrounded by potted impatiens.) Friday night, after dinner at the restaurant at Doneker's, tour director Allan Wright required everyone stand and introduce themselves with one quirky personal fact before they could have dessert (cheesecake). Saturday, we stopped at Bird-in-Hand Amish Bakery, followed by Diane's Deli, where subs and rhubarb bars are served by Amish women. We also stopped at the Bird-in-Hand farmer's market for fresh strawberries (so tangy-sweet they hurt) and canned jellies to load in the van. Saturday night, we had a family-style Pennsylvania Dutch dinner at Stoltzfus Farm Restaurant in Intercourse. Our grandmomlike waitress brought bowls of fried chicken, candied yams, canned corn and string beans (vegetables weren't being harvested from the farm yet), bland sausage and a meat dish that seemed to involve Spam. After 21 miles of skating, just about anything tastes good, but especially German chocolate cake.
DETAILS: Zephyr Inline Skate Tours' three-day Amish trip costs $495, breakfasts and dinners included, and $100 extra for a single room. The next scheduled tours start Sept. 10 and Oct. 1. Contact Zephyr in Minneapolis at 1-888-758-8687, www.skatetour.com.
CAPTION: Skaters and farmers check out each other's wheels in Lancaster, Pa.