I decided to take the back roads on the return trip from my college reunion in Decorah, Iowa. A simple tap of Directions on Google Maps set up a route through Lancaster and Platteville in southwest Wisconsin.
My childhood was actually spent in the city and county of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Those were delightfully formative years. I even attended school with children from Mennonite and Amish families. They’d sometimes come to school smelling like cow manure or some other earthy odor, but we didn’t mind. Well, we said we didn’t anyway.
The Amish children all seemed to disappear from school by the time they hit the seventh grade. Perhaps they stopped going to public schools and got the rest of their education at home.
In a tradition called Rumspringa, the Amish send their teenagers out into the world for a year or so to live it up before making a choice about whether they want to stay in the tradition. Trusty old Wikipedia describes it this way. “Rumspringa normally begins around the ages of 14–16 and ends when a youth either chooses to be baptized within the Amish church or to leave the community. For Wenger Mennonites, Rumspringa occurs between ages of 17 and 21.”
The Amish call it Rumspringa. The secular world calls it a college, or a Gap Year. Whatever the case, it is an acknowledgement that not everyone is ready to begin adulting at the same prescribed time.
I was thinking about all that growing up stuff while driving through southwest Wisconsin. I’ve been driving through the region for forty-plus years since I started at Luther College as a freshman. Along the way I’ve had my share of Rumspringas. Those college years of running 100 miles a week and drinking until I felt like a zombie were an intense way to experience the world.
As I drove through southwest Wisconsin where a number of Amish families now settled, I observed that the Driftless Region looks quite a bit like the land around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where I grew up. As I crested a hill just after dawn I spied an Amish buggy on the road ahead. It’s a courtesy to slow down when passing the Amish, so I slowed my Subaru to a crawl in the dawn’s early light and waited for an opportunity to pass.
Into the murky gloom
But I got a creepy sensation as I wheeled up behind the gray Amish cart. The spot on the back of the buggy where there’s normally an orange triangle to indicate a slow-moving vehicle was missing. That made me slow down even more. I waited to clear the hill and began to pull my Subaru around the buggy to move past. Rolling along at only ten miles an hour in the murky gloom of early day, I blinked at what appeared to be a foggy wall in the steep little valley below.
I’m quite used to the fogs and mists of southwestern Wisconsin in early autumn. But this fog was something else. It seemed to be composed of an impenetrably thick substance beyond the range of any fog I’d seen. I pressed my foot on the brakes and fell even in pace with the buggy as I passed. Then I looked over at the family and realized they were a band of living dead Amish.
Not a fan of zombies
Not being a fan of zombie shows, as I find them insufferable and fake, it seemed at first that the carriage full of zombie Amish was some elaborate Halloween prank being played by some Wisconsin locals. I laughed aloud as the fog around my car grew thicker and the windshield misted over. “Did I just see that?” I asked.
The road was hardly visible ahead. I had not even made it back into the lane of traffic for fear of cutting off the Amish buggy behind me. Then I heard a whip crack the back of my car. The massive black horse reared up and smashed the side windows with its hooves. At that moment I jerked the car to a halt and lurched out of the vehicle to protest that the prank had just gone too far.
The moment I got out of the vehicle a group of bony hands grabbed me on all parts of my body. I was lifted in the air and carried through a thick cornfield with the sharp edges of unharvested shocks tearing away shreds of my clothing. I let out a scream of sorts but my voice clung near to my face in the thickening fog. The noise of my captors stumbling through the fields was deafening, haunting and surreal.
Finally I got a glimpse at the creatures carrying me. I could see the flapping chins of two zombie Amish. Shards of thin beard were flapping about. They chattered away in a broken German tongue that was slivered by time itself. One of them glanced up at me and gave a sharp flex of its stinking hand into my shoulder. That forced a wince of pain. From then on I resigned myself to wherever they were carrying me, hoping to escape and outrun them if I could.
Soon we burst into an open field where they tossed me on the ground. I popped my head up to find an entire congregation of Amish zombies standing stolid and severe in the dew-covered grass. An area of pale light opened above us on the field. I could see a flock of crows that had risen from the trees. They were flapping silently overhead. It made me sad to think how many times I’d seen crows in the sky and taken them for granted. I wondered if these were the last crows I’d ever see alive.
The next moment a circle of Amish zombies was closing in on me. “Well, if this is how it ends,” I told myself. “I’m going to go down fighting.”
Then the Amish zombies stopped. One of them raised a ragged hand above his head. The entire mass of haggard souls began muttering one word… “Rumspringa,” they howled in wild German unison. They repeated it again. “Rumspringa!” Then louder, more insistently. “Rumspringa!!”
It all held a demanding tone. I reasoned I should do or say something. So I answered them in English. The words came out in a strange yet familiar tongue. I was speaking the same broken German I’d learned along with other kids in that little elementary school south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
That made the Amish zombies all jump back and begin talking to one another in soe form of the same broken language I had just used. The only difference was that their language was an equally broken version of English that they’d likely learned at the same age.
It appeared to be an Amish zombie standoff. Then one of them quietly stepped forward and extended a terribly mangled hand. With a questioning voice it repeated the same word again. “Rumspringa?”
Familiar face. Sort of.
Something in me recognized the tone and nature of that voice. I’d made one actual Amish friend in all my childhood days. He’d actually invited me out to play at their farm south of Lancaster one sunny Sunday afternoon. He was a bright kid, filled with curiosity and with such bright blue eyes it made me uncomfortable at times even to look at him.
The dim glow of those bright blue eyes was now shaded in cloudy grey tones that looked like cataracts had covered them over. He chuckled a low, throaty growl and said in a mocking tone, “Rum-springa.”
Was this a choice to become one of the living dead?
I stood up tall and tried to look very much alive. Then I chuckled back. “This… is Rumspringa? To you?”
“To you…,” the Amish zombie muttered back. “Kehre jetzt zurück… oder nicht…”
Which meant, “Now return, or not…”
“I’m sorry,” I told my long lost mostly dead zombie Amish friend. “I’ve actually got places to go. A life to live,” I shrugged. “Plus I’m entered in a half-ironman triathlon next spring and I’ve already paid the $600 entry fee.”
Zombies are not stupid. Even Amish ones.
“That sounds steep,” one of the zombies responded in broken German-English. “
Was ist triathlon??”
“It’s this sport where you swim and then you bike and then…” I heard myself saying those words and realized how amazingly stupid they must have sounded to a band of half-dead Luddites stuck between worlds. “It’s an English thing, you know. We do a lot of stupid stuff.”
At those words all the zombies nodded their heads in approval. “Yes,” one of the bearded old zombies retorted. “Sie Englisch tun…” one of the elder zombies intoned. You English do.” one of them translated.
Off they go
And in that moment the zombie Amish tribe dispersed into the cornfields. A harsh silence fell. Then a hissing noise accompanied the rising of the fog from the bottomlands. I was standing in a completely normal lawn with a fence leading back toward the barn. An Amish family was boarding its buggy wearing clothes and in a manner that looked like they were headed for Sunday services. One of the little boys looked up and waved, but the mother ushered him quickly into the carriage.
I walked back toward a road that looked like it headed in a direction that might lead me to my car. My senses were right. I’d found my Subaru with one wheel slightly down in the ditch. But the windows were intact. Everything else seemed fine.
Climbing into my car, I found the iPhone asleep on the seat. Taking it in my hands, I tapped the screen and entered the code to access Google Maps. Instead I heard the voice of Siri blurting out a question I did not want to hear.
“Do you want to go to Rumspringa?”