A narrow road unspooled ahead, winding through wooded clefts upward into the woolly mist. Tentacles of frost hung in the trees like lace trimmings, and invisible birds cooed and twittered among winter-dark branches. A subtle touch of spring was in the air -- bursts of expectancy on the ends of twigs -- but the shaggy clumps of old snow and bent flitches of browned ferns were reminders that the season was still on the cusp of change. It had been a long hard winter. The snow crunched as I strolled into the fringe of a wood, its thin ice-sheen snapping. A gray squirrel, puffed to a fat furball, approached hesitantly and then bolted for the nearest pine, where it chittered warnings. I was about to climb up through tight little hills somewhere in central Pennsylvania, into one of the strangest valleys -- sociologically speaking -- in America. "Real odd place, the Kishacoquillas Valley -- Big Valley some call it," I'd been told the previous evening in a restaurant on the outskirts of Huntingdon, a compact Georgian-flavored town at the northern end of 20-mile-long Raystown Lake. "It's all Amish and Mennonite. Hundreds of 'em. Been around for 200 years or more. But they're not like your Lancaster Amish. There's not much of that touristy stuff. These people here are real 'shunners' -- keep to themselves -- and they're all different types. Peacheys, Bylers, Nebraskans, Zooks, Bean Soupers -- you name it -- each bunch does things their own way. Don't have much to do with each other -- and all in a little valley most folks have never heard of!" I'd done some homework, and my informant seemed to know what he was talking about. According to John Hostetler in his book, "Amish Society," the Kishacoquillas Valley possesses "the most divergent expression of Amish culture anywhere in North America... . Here there are five distinct Amish groups and five additional Mennonite groups who occupy the same oval-shaped valley about 30 miles long. All originate in whole or in part from a single group of Amish who came to this region as early as 1791 from southeastern Pennsylvania around Lancaster. They rank themselves in the order of their assimilation into the prevailing American culture, or from 'high' to 'low' church. A low church is one that has retained old traditions while a high church is one that is more like 'the world.' " I remembered the old Amish adage that "we are in the world but not of the world" and wondered just what forms these divergent types of "separateness" would take in this mysterious place, right in the heart of Pennsylvania, between Williamsport and Harrisburg. At first, though, things didn't seem strange at all. I drove up through the wooded cleft and emerged at the narrow end of a beautiful plain that broadened out between the two long ranges of Jacks Mountain and Stone Mountain. There was little traffic on the main road -- Route 655 -- through the valley. A hodgepodge of country music, gospel stomp, roaring preachers and "Trading Post" offerings blared from the car radio. Great swaths of melting snow covered the neat fields dotted with farms, barns and silos. Mists were lifting from the ridges, and the early sun made everything sparkle. Sibiland trickles of streams ran alongside the road between clumps of emerging grasses. Then the signs began, crudely painted on small signboards: "The Eyes of the Lord are in Every Place"; "The Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth"; "Be Thou an Ambassador for Christ." A pitch-black buggy pulled by two brown horses passed by, heading toward the narrow end of the valley. A man, most of his face covered with a huge gray beard, sat in the shadowy box-like cab and studiously ignored my good-morning wave. A rather nervous woman on the radio put out a "Trading Post" plea for a used mattress, queen-size please, cracked aquariums, spare knitting yarn and a set of plastic mixing bowls. A few minutes later a gruff respondent called in -- "I got her yarn for her. She can have a pile of it. Wife died last month, I was goin' to throw it out." The host of the show seemed delighted. Another sign, more somber this time -- "After death, the Judgement" -- next to a brightly colored poster advertising "All Night Singing -- featuring The Galilans, Blessed Promise, Gospel Harmony and the Ambassadors of Hope." I stopped for coffee in a roadside cafe, the Country Village Restaurant in Allensville, a rather dowdy straggle of Victorian-era homes and stores along the main road. The place was larger than it looked from the outside. A new salad bar stood shining like an altar in the main dining room. A young girl in a white cap was writing the menu of the day on a chalkboard -- ham pot pie, country fried steak, roast chicken, crab cakes, pork and sauerkraut -- all complete dinners for around $ 6. "Valley folk love to eat," said a young man in a John Deere cap, as he wolfed down an enormous breakfast of ham, scrapple, fried eggs, a mountain of golden hash browns and a bowl of sliced red beets. ("Beets are real popular 'round these parts," the waitress told me later. "T'aint a meal without beets.") "Good food -- not fancy, cheap and served early," the young man said. "That's how they like it. Most places close up 'round 8." The other men around the breakfast bar were eating from equally enormous platters and wore almost identical outfits of logo-stamped caps, lumberjack jackets, tartan wool shirts and huge mud-splattered boots. The waitress was having a hard time keeping up with the constant demand for fresh coffee. The men all seemed to want to talk, competing with one another to answer my questions about the local Amish sub-sects. A picture emerged of a culture caught and preserved in amber in this lovely valley, where isolation from external influences enabled early religious settlers to preserve their unique lifestyles. They celebrated their Sunday evening "singings" in the homes of members of the faith, churches at that time being considered superfluous. They dressed in simple, buttonless clothes, avoided mechanical devices of all kinds, rode in plain buggies drawn by horses, painted their homes white (although blue-painted gates were said to indicate the presence of a marriageable daughter in the family), unofficially condoned the custom of "bundling," made use of their own doctors or "pow-wowers," and ate gigantic multiplatter meals that included such delicacies as "sweet-sours" (pickled vegetables), kalbs skopt (mock turtle soup), spanjerkel (stuffed and roasted suckling pig), hinkelpie (chicken pot pie), kalbsbraten (roast veal) and even kuttleflick (soused spiced tripe) -- not to mention a vast array of cold meats, vegetables, apple butter, cracker pudding, pies ... and beets. Always the beets. "But what about today -- what about all these different groups?" I asked. Once again came a barrage of responses, from which I discerned that the distinctions are infinitely subtle. The "Old School" (Nebraska) Amish males, I was told, don't wear suspenders, have shoulder-length hair, ride white-top buggies and don't paint their barns, whereas the slightly less conservative Bean Souper ("Old Church") males have shorter hair, wear one suspender, ride yellow buggies and paint their barns. The Zooks go one step further. The men are allowed two suspenders, short hair, painted barns and such luxuries as carpets, electrical appliances and even "wall mottoes" in their homes. The more contemporary groups, as one might expect, place even less restriction on clothes and use of electrical equipment, although the Locust Grove Mennonites do have strict taboos on sleeveless dresses and makeup for women. All very confusing! I left the main road and went rambling on the valley's byways, which laced between neat fields and crisp white farms. In some parts, just as I'd been told in the cafe, the buggies were white-topped, in others yellow and, in one remote corner, all black. The churches I passed were generally large and prosperous-looking, but apparently a number of the groups (the "House Amish") still conduct their three-hour Sunday worship in the homes of members, followed by lavish social lunches. "I've lived here most of my life," said the hostess at the Brookmere Winery at the northern end of the valley, "and I still don't understand all the things that go on with the Old Order Amish." She poured me another tasting of one of the winery's 21 wines in the old red barn used as a roadside salesroom. "They don't talk much to the 'English' -- the non-Amish. It's not that they're unfriendly. It's almost like -- well, like they don't really see you. Like you just don't exist." (I was beginning to understand what she meant. After my fourth wave of greeting had gone unacknowledged on the back roads, I'd given up and accepted my "invisible" status.) "I saw more than a hundred buggies pass by my house the other day. They all parked in a farmyard and then crowded into the house. I could see them. It was packed solid. Middle of the week, I've no idea what was going on." She poured me another tasting. I was begining to enjoy my research. "It's been a bad time for them, though. Especially the barn burnings in '92. Seven barns gone in an hour. They say a Peachey did it -- one of their own. Made everybody real nervous." I took a winding road up to the crest of Jacks Mountain and sat overlooking the broad, tranquil valley cocooned between two arcs of high wooded ridges. Far below, the sun etched the tall domed silos in gold, cattle nibbled the fresh grass shoots between melting sheets of snow, long lines of washing blew in the breeze and horse-drawn open wagons moved along the muddy farm tracks at an all-the-time-in-the-world pace. I'd only been in the valley a few hours, and yet I felt I'd been transported to a different era. "We're not like the Lancaster Amish," Annie Zook told me when I'd descended from my mountain aerie and spotted a sign for "Annie's Handmade Quilts and Crafts." After a couple of wrong turns I'd ended up in the basement of her tiny home on the edge of Belleville. "We like it small, just the way it is. No big tourist places." Proudly she showed me her collection of intricately handsewn quits and described the styles -- Country Bride, Sunbonnet Sue, Boston Common, Wedding Ring, Pioneer Log Cabin, Irish Chain, Lancaster Rose. "I don't sell cheater's quilts -- these are all hand done. Sold my last Tree of Life recent. That was my favorite. Not many people make it now. Too difficult I suppose. Young ones don't have the patience." I wondered if the valley was losing its youngsters to the enticements of the cities. "Not so much -- much of 'em stay on. It's a good life -- good farms. Fathers are supposed to buy a farm for each of their sons. But we've lost some of our watchfulness. Some of the young ones don't understand the real fundamentals of the faith -- they get more English, more worldly than's right. That's why this is my last year sellin' these quilts and things. I need to spend more time with my grandkids. They get old so fast. Need watchin' and helpin'." I asked if business had been bad because of the recession. "No -- quilts are always good sellers. But business is only business -- it's got nothin' to do with the way you live. And that's the important thing. The way you live." I heard the same message many times during my wanderings here. Caleb Peachey, host of the valley's Hickory Grove bed-and-breakfast, gave me a hand-rolled sweet pretzel and said, "Community is what it's all about. A Peachey can marry a Yoder or a Byler -- Zooks marry Peacheys -- valley's full of Peacheys. But they just don't want to marry English. It'd be like losing an arm or a leg. You'd manage, but it would be harder. We still need each other. Especially nowadays." At the Wednesday Belleville Livestock Auction (just around the corner from the old town bank, which houses the tiny Mennonite Heritage Center), I wandered among the neat lines of parked Amish buggies and flea market stalls. A young man selling a delectable array of fresh fruit pies, herbs, spices, beans and homemade "pudding mixes" admired the cigar I was smoking. I gave him one, apologizing for the fact that it wasn't Cuban. "What's a Cuban?" he asked. "You know -- from Cuba. Castro's island in the Caribbean." He looked blank. "Fidel Castro -- big guy with a beard almost as big as yours." He looked blanker. "Don't know about him," he said. There was a pause. He could tell I was surprised. "Didn't do much schooling," he explained without embarrassment. "Too much work on the farm. Know plenty about farmin', though!" He gave me a bag of aromatic dried tarragon as a return gift. "You cook with that. I growed it. You won't get better." (Testing in a chicken casserole back home proved him right.) After Reedsville -- a small town with a Wild-West look and packs of live fishing bait for sale from vending machines -- the valley narrows and winding roads lead up Jacks Mountain into the wild pine-covered hills of Bald Eagle State Forest. I had the place all to myself and paused near the summit to look back toward the Kishacoquillas Valley, now bathed in a silvered afternoon haze. Ahead I could see the next valley curving northeasterly between broad mountain arms and dotted once again with neat, well-organized Mennonite farms. Streams bubbled down through the forest, flashing in lances of sun that pierced the high branches of Douglas firs. The sighs of soft breezes were the only sounds in these silent hills, once the home of bears, wolves and wildcats, which, along with notoriously fierce local tribes, made the pioneering life so difficult for early 18th-century settlers. The scene now is one of benign and benevolent rurality, so different from the days during the American Revolution, the era of the "Great Runaway," when English and Indian invasions sent settlers fleeing for their lives down the nearby Susquehanna River. Many of the charming towns of this region have their own tales of that era. Sunbury's Hunter House displays documents and relics of Fort Augusta, built by the British as a defensive stronghold against French and Indian incursions and later used by the Americans to protect early settlers. And Northumberland, slumbering contentedly around its long, tree-shaded green, has the sedate appearance of a once-prosperous riverside market town and is particularly proud of its Joseph Priestley House, where the English philosopher-theologian-chemist lived from 1794 until his death in 1804. Priestley was described by his friend Thomas Jefferson as "one of the few lives precious to mankind." But Priestley's contributions to mankind, which included the discovery of oxygen (and the invention of soda water following experiments in a brewery), were overshadowed by his unorthodox views. Such views, which included support for the American and French Revolutions, led to the destruction of his English home and laboratory in 1791 by a mob in Birmingham. He soon emigrated to America and planned to settle with a colony of English refugees in Northumberland. Although the colony itself never materialized, he lived comfortably on the banks of the Susquehanna and continued his experiments and writing until his death. Close to the house, an excellent little exhibit provides an informative overview of his achievements. My favorite town -- and the northern end point of my ramble -- was Lewisburg, home of Bucknell University and among the most charming and well-preserved historic towns in the east. Recent acclaim as one of the top 10 "Best Small Towns in America" (a Prentice Hall book by Norman Crampton) has given the town perhaps a little more limelight than some of its residents want. "We were an 'undiscovered gem' until that silly book came out," said a rather irate elderly lady trimming her already-immaculate privet hedge outside a perfectly restored Victorian carpenter-gothic cottage on Third Street. "Now we're becoming a distinctly discovered undiscovered gem and I'm not sure I approve -- not sure at all." The main street -- a delightful mixture of Victorian, Georgian and Colonial homes and stores -- flows seamlessly from the broad curve of the Susquehanna down a gentle slope barely touched by contemporary intrusions. Horses and carriages would seem more appropriate here than cars and trucks, especially along the tree-lined side streets. Here, architectural extravagances abound: ornate cupolas, mansards, oriole windows, elaborate chimney pots, rare "lie-on-your-stomach" windows in the architraves of Greek Revival homes -- even an enormous and exquisitely detailed canary yellow "Tuscan Villa." "All the recent hoopla about the book has certainly improved trade," said Charlie North, owner with his wife, Deborah, of Lewisburg's Pineapple Inn on Market Street. "But this is a resilient little town. We like what we have and what we are and things will stay pretty much the way they are." The inn is a treasure trove of trinkets, antiques, meticulously "themed" bedrooms and a lounge so graceful it feels like a film set for some high-Victorian drama. Other establishments of similar quality outside the town make this a little nirvana for harried city dwellers, and the town's two house-museums, each reflecting different nuances of late Victorian life, provide appealing diversions. And yet, after a day of all those riches (including a splendid six-course French gourmet dinner at the enchanting Lewisburg Inn), something sent me searching once again for simpler things. I blame my restlessness on the Amish of the Kishacoquillas Valley; their rejection of frills in favor of enduring values and strong community bonds had struck a chord. So off I wandered, southward from town, back among the open fields and farms, the waving washing and horse-drawn buggies. I paused at Zimmerman's Harness Shop outside Vicksburg -- a crusty gas-lit store -- to talk with bonneted women behind the counter and listen to the guttural German dialect of the bearded, behatted workers in the blacksmithy and leather workshop, beyond the dusty mounds of worn saddles, bridles and reins. It looked old and enduring, it smelled old and enduring, and the bright eyes of the women suggested that their joy in life came from the very permanence of the place -- that and the resilience of their ancient "Ordnung" Anabaptist traditions brought two centuries ago from Germany and Holland and planted firmly in the rich limestone soil of these quiet valleys. I saw the same look, that same clear purpose and intent in life, behind the eyes of Isaac Reiff, owner of the Vicksburg Buggy Shop, a couple of miles south of the delightfully time-warped Victorian town of Mifflinburg. Here, housed in a large white shed on a side road, Isaac and his four assistants build and restore square and upright Amish buggies and graceful "winter carriages" full of art nouveau curves and set on skids. "Well, around here things are not so complex," Isaac said of these less-than-plain carriages. "We're New Order, we're more understanding of things like that. But the Old Order in Big Valley -- they keep the traditions from years ago. They're very proud of that." I saw no ridicule in Isaac's eyes. He spoke of his Kishacoquillas brethren with affection and respect. "There's a man down there -- a Peachey I think -- who still makes the real Big Valley buggies. They're a very plain design -- but very beautiful." Plain and beautiful -- a beauty that springs from simplicity and a reverence for tradition, order and continuity. These are the things I bring back from this little-known part of central Pennsylvania. Oh, and one more thing -- a celebration of nature's bountifulness. The Amish are renowned for their appetites and their groaning-board farmhouse repasts. It seemed only fitting to end my journey at Yoder's Family Restaurant, famous for its Pennsylvania Dutch cooking (ham pot pies, pigs stomach, smoked chicken, pork and sauerkraut). Here -- just down the road a few miles from the buggy shop -- the splendid, eat-all-you-wish Friday seafood buffet lunch was in full swing when I arrived. When I staggered from the table an hour and a half later, I vowed to return forever to plainer things, to abhor hedonism and focus on the less indulgent delights of life. The Amish are hard-working farmers and need a hearty firing of solid food every day. The same cannot be said for this wandering writer, and I remembered that somber sign I'd seen when I first entered the Kishacoquillas Valley: "The Eyes of the Lord are in Every Place." I accepted the rebuke meekly and moved on, offering a final wave to a bearded Amish chopping wood outside his neat white farmhouse. He paused for a moment, studying me -- and then, surprise of surprises, returned my wave with a smile. A smile that stayed with me for the next hundred miles.
David Yeadon is author and illustrator of many travel books, including "The Back of Beyond -- Travels to the Wild Places of the Earth" (HarperCollins), "New York's Nooks and Crannies" (Scribner's) and "Lost Worlds -- Exploring the Earth's Remotest Places" (HarperCollins).