Same Same but Different

On cresting the top of a small hill, an Amish horse and cart suddenly pulled out right in front us.

Pausing to enjoy this unusual sight, we swept down the hill behind them. It was easy to catch them up, then cruise past with a wave and a polite nod in return. But the road turned sharply upwards and our legs soon became no match for their horsepower.

Once again we overtook them on the next descent, once again they easily passed us on the next climb. Did we see the hint of a smile? Probably not, the self styled plain people don’t believe in gloating!

We were cycling on the backcountry roads of Lancaster county in Pennsylvania, between the small towns of Oxford and Strasburg. This is the beating heart of Amish country with a community of around 43,000 living and farming here, the largest group in America.

Typical family transport

Horse drawn buggies are the family saloon of the Amish world. They are normally enclosed grey boxes with enough space for mum, dad, a few kids and the weekly shop.

Parked outside the local grocery store

The open cart we tried and failed to race is a traditional 16th birthday present given to a young man to take his sweetheart out for rides through the local covered bridges. Not for nothing are they known as ‘date buggies’ and ‘kissing bridges’.

No chance of a kiss on a bike!

We passed scores of identical farms each with a weatherboard house, a barn, a grain silo or two and a washing line full of simple, old fashioned clothing swaying in the breeze.

Typical Amish farm

No cars, no motorbikes and no other ‘English’ people (all outsiders are known as ‘the English’ to the Amish.)

After a while buggies became so common they were unremarkable. More striking were the traditional single room schoolhouses, a young female teacher bravely managing a single class of 6-14 year olds. As were the horses ploughing the fields or carrying away newly cut corn.

Inside a single room schoolhouse

It was a magical experience. A peep into another world.

Amish wedding dress and faceless doll

Locals tell us the Amish are a happy community, living at peace with themselves and with their ‘English’ neighbours. Few young people are leaving and the population is increasing quickly.

But they do have many idiosyncrasies.

Take their attitude to bicycles!

The Amish are famous for rejecting most forms of modern technology, although it’s a little more nuanced than that. New technological innovations are carefully considered by the elders of each community, both for the value to their way of life and the potential disruption.

Tractors are generally banned, 1950’s style washing machines are allowed, mobile phones are only permitted for business phone calls.

Typical Amish kitchen

On the face of it, bicycles are a perfect low tech mode of transport. Indeed, they are used extensively by Amish communities in Illinois and Indiana. There’s even a group in Ohio who have embraced e-bikes.

But in Lancaster County, bikes are banned. Instead both children and adults get around on specially designed scooters.

It’s difficult to find out why this is …

Some say the decision was made in the late 1800’s when the bicycle was first invented. At the time they were expensive and impractical for the rough 19th century country roads. Once a decision has been made here, it’s hard to get it overturned. Precedent is a powerful thing!

Others say that the bicycle has the potential to take young people too far away from home.

And others that the humble scooter has now become an symbol of Amish life in Lancaster County, together with beards, buggies and bonnets. Much too important to be superseded by bicycles.

We’ve decided to stick with our bikes!

After crossing the estuary from Cape May, we stayed in Rehoboth Beach, home to President Biden’s ‘Summer White House’. We then cycled for three days through the sorghum, sweetcorn and pigeon-pea fields of rural Delaware before heading up to Lancaster. It all felt green and clean, gentle and well organised.

Most of the ride was in delightful early fall weather … sunny days, not too hot, a softness to the air.

But we did get a complete soaking in northern Delaware and had to take cover in a small copse of trees for an hour or so. This also gave Andy an opportunity to try out his new piece of kit … a bright yellow rain cape, ideal for proper American rain.

Clare says he looks like the worst touring cyclist she’s ever seen, especially as the cape inflates like a balloon from behind.

He might look like an idiot … but at least he’s dry!

Andy has also experimented with a major change to his bike … some trekking or butterfly handlebars.

Over the years, he has cast many an envious glance at the proper adventure touring cyclists who often put these handlebars on their proper adventure touring bikes.

Andy thinks they’re a winner … lot’s of different hand positions, easy gear changes and a more upright riding position to enjoy the view.

Trekking or Butterfly Handlebars

Clare thinks they look like antlers!

She’s decided to stick with her drops … and her rain jacket. Once she finds something that works for her she doesn’t much like change (which Andy secretly thinks is just as well.)

Susquehanna River

We left Lancaster and the Amish to cycle up the Susquehanna River into industrial, upcountry Pennsylvania. Close to Harrisburg, we passed the haunting remains of Three Mile Island, the site of America’s worst nuclear accident in 1979. Now closed, the decommissioning process should be completed by 2079!

Three Mile Island

We popped into McCleary’s pub in Marietta, and ended up staying all evening, talking politics at the bar and then dancing to some classic American tunes from a great live band.

New Friends in Marietta

Pennsylvania is a ‘swing state’ often switching back and forth between Republicans and Democrats. The senate race for the upcoming mid-term elections in November could even decide the overall balance of power.

Perhaps because it’s election time, we’ve found that lots of people here are keen to talk about politics and the divisions they see in American society today. Over the last few days we’ve heard the full range of political opinion … from Trump supporters to mainstream Republicans to Democrats and some Independents.

Whilst there’s little agreement on how things should be done, we’ve noticed that what people want is often much the same. The list of things people reel off usually includes fair rewards for hard work, a safe and peaceful place to live, opportunities for their children etc.

But most people here do seem worried that political differences are increasing and becoming more divisive.

Typical Pennsylvania Home

We’ve now arrived in Gettysburg, one of the most famous symbols of the American Civil War. Sometimes called the ‘Brothers War’ (as friends or even family members found themselves on opposite sides), it was a time when political differences led to a brutal, bloody conflict.

Gettysburg was a humbling place from which to watch Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. Amongst her many other virtues, she was known for listening and trying to understand a range of different opinions.


Perhaps the Amish can also teach us something about resolving conflict.

In 2006 an ‘English’ neighbour killed five little girls at an Amish school just a few kilometres east of the area we cycled through, before turning the gun on himself.

It was the Amish community’s response that astonished everyone. Within hours they reached out to the gunman’s family offering forgiveness and compassion, realising that they were suffering too.

So same same but different can be OK, at least in Lancaster County.

Clare and Andy

725km pedalled (450 miles)

3,501m climbed

29 hours in the saddle

Crossing the Delaware

On Christmas night in 1776, George Washington famously led part of his army across the icy Delaware river in a surprise attack against the British.

Coming just six months after the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, it was a bold and desperate act from a desperate general.

After many defeats including the loss of New York, the morale of Washington’s ragged army was at an all time low as the harsh Pennsylvania winter set in. Without food or warm clothing numbers were shrinking fast, he was losing more men to disease and desertion than to battle.

But, in a heavy snowstorm, he surprised the British troops enjoying their Christmas festivities and scored an important victory. His daring raid revitalised the patriot army and gave new life to the American Revolution that would eventually lead to Washington himself being declared the first president of the United States.

We too had to cross the Delaware river to start our American cycling adventure, heading east out of Philadelphia and into New Jersey.

It was perhaps a little easier … we had the huge Benjamin Franklin bridge to carry us across instead of flimsy boats, the weather was a lot better and we weren’t carrying any heavy artillery (not even a hair dryer!)

But it was still a little daunting.

Like the rest of our cycling experience in America so far, it turned out to be much easier than we expected. A path dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists kept us well above the busy road and rail track, and gave us some great views back to the city.

Cycling towards City Hall, Philadelphia

Did we say “cycling”?

It turns out that no one in America understands what that means … so what we really mean is “biking”. In the States we are bikers!

And the biking has been great. There are plenty of quiet roads or bike lanes to choose from. Even on busier roads, motorists are very courteous, waving us across at junctions, letting us go through lights first and giving us a wide berth as they pass. In urban areas cars seem to glide gently along … no horns, no hurry.

In fact American drivers are so polite that they go straight to the top of our ‘Car Courtesy League’ pushing the Irish down into second place. Let’s hope it continues!

We learnt about Washington’s crossing of the Delaware from the Museum of the American Revolution museum, one of many excellent museums and art galleries in Philly. It even features Washington’s perfectly preserved war tent, a tent so famous that it has its own high tech multi-media show.

The Liberty Bell, in front of Independence Hall

Other visitor attractions include important symbols from the struggle for freedom from the British … the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the Benjamin Franklin Museum.

Inside Independence Hall

As the most favourite of favourite sons, you can’t miss Ben in Philly. As well as the bridge there’s a highway, a borough, a park, a science museum, a football stadium, a gentleman’s club and several schools all named after him.

Benjamin Franklin

To be fair he did have quite a life … founding father, printing entrepreneur, newspaper publicist, diplomat and inventor. His many inventions include bifocal glasses, the lightening rod and kite surfing. It’s true … as a keen swimmer, he created a kite that pulled him backwards and forwards across his pond!

The Glass Armonica, a musical instrument invented by Franklin. It uses the same principle as rubbing a finger around the edge of a glass.

Despite these many achievements, Benjamin Franklin was not the highlight of our visit to Philadelphia. The highlight was the Barnes Foundation and its extraordinary collection of impressionist art.

Promenade with Child, Pierre-August Renoir

Having made his money inventing and marketing a disinfectant that became popular for treating venereal disease, Albert C. Barnes started collecting modern art in the 1920’s at a time when Impressionism was nowhere near as popular as it is today.

Le bonheur de vivre, Henri Matisse

Once overhead saying to a friend that … “I am convinced I cannot get too many Renoirs” … he stayed true to his word, eventually hovering up a collection of 181 Renoir paintings. To that extraordinary number he added 69 by Cézanne, 59 by Matisse, 46 by Picasso and several more by Van Gogh, Rousseau, Modigliani and others.

The Postman, Vincent Van Gogh

The Barnes Foundation is unlike any art gallery we’ve ever been to.

We were very lucky. This is a quiet time in the visitor cycle, allowing us to wander through the small, intimate rooms almost alone.

They are left exactly as Albert Barnes arranged them at the time of his death in 1951. The paintings are not displayed chronologically or by artist, but by theme or colour. Interspersed with African masks, native American jewellery or Victorian iron doorknobs, Barnes believed that art, like life, should not be segregated.

The effect is astonishing. Breathtaking.

And for the cheesesteaks!

This famous local delicacy is a long, crusty roll filled with thinly sliced, freshly sautéed ribeye beef and melted cheese … with just the right amount of drip.

As we cycled (sorry … biked) towards Atlantic City we soon came across another slice of Americana. New Jersey is the spiritual home of the great American Diner, with more diners than in any other state. They are perfect places to refuel … sitting at a counter, munching our way through an enormous portion, letting the ketchup run down our chins.

After a lunch or breakfast like that, it’s a wonder that we are able to pedal on at all!

Altlantic City itself was disappointing, much faded from its glory days as the prime East Coast beach resort and city of bootleggers. Today it’s dominated by cheap candy stores, kiss-me-quick arcades and casinos.

At this time of year, we’re expecting a few enforced rest days to shelter from the rain. The first one came sooner than we hoped … after just two days of cycling we were itching to move on.

It doesn’t rain gently here … this is proper rain. Big, strong American rain!

Our mini-storm in Atlantic City

Not having the fortitude of Washington and his men, we were glad to be safely tucked up inside our hotel, watching it pour down across the parking lot.

On the boardwalk

But there was a bonus.

The following day the tail end of the storm created a strong tailwind that swept us down the Jersey Shore to Cape May, a beautiful preserved Victorian seaside resort that boasts one of the top 10 most beautiful beaches in the country.

19th Century House, Cape May

It was as we crossed back over the Delaware by ferry that we heard the Queen had passed away. It was a moment of mixed emotions … joy at her long life well lived, sadness that she’s gone. She has been ever present in all our lives and a such a strong, calming influence.

Knowing that Americans love their flags, we’ve attached a couple of small Union Jacks to the back of our bikes. We were amazed to see how many people flagged us down to ask us if we’d heard the news that our Queen had died and to tell us how sad they were feeling.

So whilst Washington famously crossed the Delaware to score a symbolic victory that led to pushing the British out, we British Bikers have been a lot more fortunate.

We’ve crossed the Delaware to a very warm welcome.

Clare and Andy