Horse-drawn buggies — a common sight in Indiana’s Amish country. (Photo: Erica Bray)
These days it seems the Amish culture has come to the forefront of pop culture — think handcrafted wood fireplaces and TLC’s reality show Breaking Amish. But, in fact, when you go to Amish country, you experience the past mingling with the present — it’s the beauty of an Indiana Amish country adventure.
Indiana is home to America’s third-largest Amish settlement, and the community, roughly two hours from Chicago, lives a simple and pious life that avoids most modern technology.
The first obvious throwback for visitors? Probably also the most famous: horse-drawn buggies. They click-clack-click-clack alongside modern cars on farmland roads, inspiring photo ops. The town of Shipshewana, which has built a tourism industry around experiencing the Amish lifestyle, welcomes the visitor’s interest.
A horse-and-buggy road sign (Photo: Erica Bray)
As Indiana’s only mention in the best-selling book “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” the one-stoplight town attracts more than half a million visitors each year, thanks to a popular auction and flea market along with its horse-and-buggy tours, furniture shops, quilt shops, and homestyle Amish cuisine. It even has a small theater currently featuring a musical called “Josiah for President.” (The Amish may be pious, but they do have a sense of humor.)
While most visitors make a beeline for these tourist-friendly attractions, they’re not my thing. On my recent overnight visit from Chicago, I wanted something less cookie cutter, more do-it-yourself.
A quiet road in Amish country (Photo: Erica Bray)
My solution: Rent a bike to venture away from “downtown” Shipshewana and explore true Amish farmland. Biking, after all, fosters an intimacy with a setting that a car, even a horse-drawn buggy, cannot provide.
A friendly local named Kenny set me up with a bicycle for the day. The owner of Buggy Lane Tours, Kenny features his bikes for rent next to a hitching post that advertises horse-and-buggy rides. It’s essentially the Amish version of a Hertz dealership.
The author’s transportation for the day: a pink and yellow Huffy. (Photo: Erica Bray)
After selecting my bike (a pink and yellow Huffy), I realized it had no basket to carry my things. No biggie for me, but this concerned Kenny. Really concerned him. He insisted I have one, so he and I headed to the local hardware store, where he found a tiny basket and fastened it to the bike with MacGyver-like finesse. His kindness touched me, especially because in Chicago, my “oh, don’t worry about it” response likely would have been met with a shrug and a “suit yourself” reply. In Amish country, locals thrust kindness upon you.
Kenny recommended that I ride the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, a 17-mile paved path that strings together agricultural communities and several small towns within Indiana’s Amish country. It’s part of a larger network of routes spanning 100 miles throughout the region.
Kenny, fixing the author’s bike (Photo: Erica Bray)
The trail sounded like the ideal place to start, since I didn’t want to be tied to a map. This path would at least provide a landmark that would lead me safely back to town.
The Pumpkinvine Nature Trail wound up giving perfect guidance. Rarely did I pedal away from it.
The paved trail picks up along a rural side street about a three-minute ride from Shipshewana’s only traffic light. From there, I found myself biking beneath a canopy of tall trees. It was quiet. So quiet that I thought I could hear the flapping of the butterflies’ wings as they escorted me along the way. Magical.
A perfect day for a bike ride on the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail. (Photo: Erica Bray)
The forested parts of the trail opened into expansive stretches that wound through farmland dotted with barns and windmills. It was like pedaling through a living painting of everyday Amish life: Farmers sporting beards and wide-brimmed hats manually worked the fields. Wives wearing white bonnets hung out clothes to dry near farmhouses. Horses grazed in green meadows. An Amish schoolhouse and playground sat silent, patiently awaiting the start of the next school year.
It was a simple, beautiful setting, with the silence occasionally punctuated by the chirping of birds and mooing of cows. The soundtrack was a far cry from the honking traffic, blaring sirens, and construction noise of Chicago.
Horses grazing, wildflowers — riding through an idyllic scene (Photo: Erica Bray)
For long stretches, I had the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail to myself. When I did meet another person on the path, it was often a lone Amish bicyclist or an entire Amish family biking together. The path is a connector of communities, but also a place for family time. Family, after all, is extremely important among the Amish and is part of the reason they shun most technology, which they believe takes the emphasis off family. (Just take a look at kids and parents on iPads and smartphones.)
The Amish are very generous (Photo: Erica Bray)
When the path crossed country roads, I’d veer off the trail for a bit to see where those roads led. In those moments, I felt the strongest connection to this quiet community, as the brief detours took me past more farmhouses, white picket fences, and the occasional horse and buggy. I’d always wave and receive a wave in return.
I didn’t get very far on the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, mainly because of my extremely slow pace and consistent stopping. I pedaled just eight miles to the next town, Middlebury, where I lingered for hours. I visited a farmers’ market selling sweet corn and “quilt gardens,” where bright fresh flowers are turned into patchwork designs. For an early dinner, I feasted on Amish fried chicken at a local restaurant named Das Dutchman Essenhaus before I biked back to Shipshewana.
Local entertainment (Photo: Erica Bray)
My journey by bike was perfect because it unfolded organically — without an agenda, without a map. Sometimes it’s not just about what you see and do but also about how a place makes you feel. It was as though Indiana’s Amish country was giving me a big hug and encouraging me to slow down. So I listened.
I met up with Kenny later that evening at a small gospel music jamboree to which I’d been invited — another example of the kindness of Shipshewana locals. Amid toe-tapping songs about God and Jesus, he asked me how the bike ride was.
“Perfect,” I said. And I meant it.
WATCH: Tourism vs Reality TV: Exploiting the Amish