The Shenandoah River was twisting and turning far below them as they made their way through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It was the first time she had ever seen a waterway that deserved the description “serpentine”. She felt that if the loops of the river drew together much more tightly they would be snipped off and form their own pools or ponds and the Shenandoah cease to exist.
“Ox bow lakes!” Milwaukee had shouted as they raced along.
“When the loops get so tight they break away from the main stream they form ox bow lakes. That’s what they’re called.”
She leaned forward and placed her gloved hands on his shoulders so that she could talk into his ear. “How did you know that’s what I was thinking?”
“I know all.”
“You know all?”
“Well. God knows all. But I know what he chooses to tell me.”
The green, blue, and gray of the mountains were a relief after a day spent in and around Washington DC. The traffic, exhaust, and heat had been so bad they’d given up, parked at a motel, rented two separate rooms, then gone walking to see the monuments. Milwaukee had loved the cavernous depths of the Lincoln Memorial and been touched when he read the words of the assassinated President’s Second Inaugural Address. There was so much about forgiveness he wondered aloud why Miss Beachey had not taught them the speech, and recited lines of it in front of Michal and others who stood nearby with their bottles of water and digital cameras.
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Michal had been most moved by the mirrored black wall that listed the American dead of the Vietnam War. She had lingered by the sculpture of women nurses holding a wounded soldier while one of them looked skyward for the helicopter. From the sculpture she watched as people took rubbings of names, or placed flowers, or just squatted down and stared at a particular part of the wall. She and Milwaukee had both seen two older women, once mothers and now, she hoped to God, grandmothers, break down and weep in front of the names etched in stone for 1968. She had leaned her face into Milwaukee’s arm and denim jacket and wept herself.
“Ah, that there is always war and always pain that can’t be healed because of it.”
Milwaukee asked if she would pray with him at the White House. Standing at the black iron fence and looking at the fountain and the wide green front lawn they whispered prayers for the President and their country in Pennsylvania Dutch. Around them people were taking photographs and one small group held signs and protested the war in Afghanistan. Beyond them they saw a man and a boy kneeling and making the Sign of the Cross.
When they returned to the motel they ate some of the food both their families had stuffed into the Honda’s saddlebags, said goodnight, and opened the doors to their separate rooms. They had agreed to get up at four and leave the city before gridlock occurred, but when they started on their way at 4:30 AM after a prayer and a coffee there were already more cars and trucks than either of them liked. Finally they got out of the city on Interstate 95, but the speed and volume of traffic was not much of an improvement from the streets of the capital and twice Michal thought they would be sucked under the tires of heavy rigs. Finally they made their escape onto a secondary roadway Michal had found on the map and entered an entirely different world.
It was one of old trees bending over tea brown creeks, of pink and white cherry blossoms scattering through the air in the short and sudden bursts of showers, one petal pasting itself to the arm of Michal’s jean jacket. There were miles of gray split rail fences and pastures and horses. Time and time again small bronze plaques popped up by bridges and stream and fields as the road twisted south and west. When they stopped for lunch at a turnout near a wooden bridge and laid their jackets out in the sun to dry Michal had a chance to read two of the plaques that were only a few hundred feet apart. One said that Union and Confederate cavalry had clashed at this stream on May 14th, 1862 and the Union troopers put to flight with the cost of several dozen lives on both sides. The other said a platoon of Federal infantry had fought a pitched battle with two platoons of Confederate soldiers on April 27th, 1864 and that there were graves marked by stones further back in the trees.
“This is beautiful old-fashioned countryside,” Milwaukee said as he dangled his bare feet in the swift silver and green water.
“And yet men have died in war right here,” Michal told him with a plaintive look on her face.
“Is that what the plaques said?”
“Yes. Now I wonder if all of the ones I’ve noticed talk about the war to save the Union.”
“If all the signs looked the same they probably did.”
“But these were not even the big battles like Gettysburg or Shiloh. Just little fights. Who could remember all of them? Who was taking notes?”
Milwaukee trailed his fingers in the stream. “I suppose the officers were. And the men whose friends were shot. And the people living on the farms nearby.”
Michal stared at twigs rushing past between the banks. “It seems to me we always commemorate the wars, but never commemorate the times of peace. Why are there no plaques saying Bill and Mary Bishop watered their livestock here for 63 years, were married for 77, raised five children, 12 grandchildren, and 29 great grandchildren, died in their beds a year apart and are buried under an oak tree on the land they cleared?”
Milwaukee tossed several mall stones into the creek. “I suppose because there was no tragedy. No sudden death. If Bill had drowned here watering his thoroughbreds or Mary had been swept away in a flash flood coming back from Lynchburg then there might be plaques up. But no one commemorates the normal, Michal, no one remembers the routine, do they? Even we have a hard time remembering the days and weeks where nothing out of the way happened.”
Dark caught them still in the Blue Ridge Mountains so they parked at a large turnout where a camper had also settled in for the night, locked and chained the bike, took out their sleeping bags, climbed a slope through a belt of trees, and opened the bags at a flat stretch of grass, crawling in with their clothes still on. They were above the treetops and could see lights shining all along the Shenandoah Valley while over their heads the stars put on their own show.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” said Michal. “But am I going to freeze to death up here?”
“I hope not, “ Milwaukee replied. “But it isn’t July yet either. Weren’t you wearing a yellow bandana under your helmet today?”
“So put it back on. Your head will be the one part of your body that gets cold if you don’t.”
“Okay.” He heard her rustling around. “And – what about bears? Are there bears up here?”
“I don’t know. These are mountains. I guess so.”
“You guess so?” Milwaukee heard irritation creep into her voice. “You drag me up a mountainside in the black of night and you guess there might be bears?”
“Hey – what happened to my winged warrior?”
“Well, you’re mine. And we’re out on the open road now. Just you, me, and God. You’re not going to fall apart on Day Four are you? Michal Deborah Troyer? Deborah was a fighter, remember?”
Michal was quiet for several minutes and Milwaukee wasn’t sure if she was silent out of anger and thinking up a retort or whether she was mulling things through. He decided she had fallen asleep when suddenly she spoke up.
“Deborah the Winged Warrior and Savior of Her People needs a bit of help tonight. So why are you lying so far away?”
“I promised your father – ”
“Will you stop that? I know you are not going to take advantage of your winged warrior. How about your promise to me?”
Milwaukee frowned in the dark. “Which promise is that?”
“To protect and defend me. Suppose a bear wanders along and wants a bite of my arm?”
“Michal, this is not Alaska or Montana – ”
“Never mind where it is or isn’t. I need you closer to me. Not too close. Just close enough.”
“What is close enough?” Milwaukee asked her.
“I need to be able to hold your hand. If a bear attacks me I can handle it if I know you’re there. Once it starts to hurt I’ll squeeze your hand more tightly and then I’ll be okay.”
Milwaukee began to laugh quietly, putting his head into his sleeping bag while he did so, but she heard him anyway.
“What’s so funny?” she snapped. “Get over here.”
“But I’m warm.”
“Stay in your bag and wriggle over. I don’t care how you get here – just get here.”
Milwaukee squirmed and used his knees and elbows to slither and slide toward her. Once he rolled completely over and got dirt in his mouth. He began to cough and spit.
“Is that you?” she asked suddenly.
“No,” he growled irritably. “It’s the Killer Bear of Shenandoah Valley.”
“Ha ha,” she said.
“Okay. I’m here.”
He reached out touched her. She screamed.
“Michal!” he said in a harsh whisper. “Stop! It was my hand! My hand still connected to my body!”
There was quiet again. Then he heard giggling.
“Oh, oh, crazy me,” she laughed softly. “The people in the camper are probably calling the state police on their cell phone right now.”
“You have got to calm down, Michal. We’re in Virginia. Not the trackless wilderness of the American West.”
“Not yet anyway. Okay, you’re close enough. Can I have your hand again?”
“Are you sure you’re not going to try another scream?”
“Just don’t touch my face. So where is this hand of yours?”
“Here.” His night vision had improved and he laid it on her stomach.
She latched onto his hand with both of hers. “Good. Good. Well, I’m ready to sleep now. How about you?”
“Did I scream away your sleepy feeling?”
“Something like that.”
“I’m perfectly relaxed myself. Look at how gorgeous the stars are. It’s as if they’re only a hundred feet away.”
“Don’t be cross. God is watching over us. Do you mind if I pray out loud?”
She spoke in High German, thanked God they were safe, and requested the same protection for Tabitha and Nick. Then she began to pray for their parents and the Amish community in Marietta, spending a few moments on each person. After five minutes she began to slow down and suddenly stopped. Milwaukee thought she had decided to pray silently. Then he heard her deep regular breathing and knew she had fallen asleep. Despite that, her hold on his hand was as strong as ever. He wondered if he would be able to get to sleep with his right arm stretched out like that.
Lying on his back and watching the stars his mind wandered back to the people Michal had been praying for and the day of their departure. The talk with the leadership that final morning had surprised him. He expected more discussion and warnings about a young man and woman traveling alone together. Instead they were focused on not bringing Tabitha back prematurely.
“We have Rumspringa for a good reason,” the bishop had told him and Michal as they sat together in the Troyer kitchen. “In the past, too many young people were being baptized and then breaking the Ordnung over and over again, doing things they should have gotten out of their systems long before. So, all right, we decided we needed to keep young men and women back from something so serious as their commitment to Jesus Christ and the Amish faith until they truly felt ready. That is why we permit the “running around” time. The young people who do Rumspringa are far more faithful in keeping their baptismal vows.”
“It is not that we don’t wish young Tabitha back safely within the fold,” Pastor Smucker spoke up. “But if you find her, God willing, and bring her back here against her will, God forbid, not only will you have Sheriff Bueller breathing down your neck, her return will not be of any benefit to the church or her family or herself. She will not wish to take the vows nor will she be ready to take them, do you see? Better she get this all out of her head, this open road and seeing America business, and then come back to us and say, Yes, now I am ready to follow Jesus, now I am ready to be Amish.”
“We only wish to talk with her and persuade her to reconsider this road trip,” Michal responded, hands folded in her lap. “I am her sister. I would never try to bring her back by force.”
“Gute, gute,” smiled Pastor Beachey. “We try to keep both the laws of man and the laws of God. But here is something else I want you to think about. It may be if you were to go out on the roadways and tracks of America looking for your little sister God might have something in store for you yourself, Michal Troyer.”
“What do you mean, pastor?”
“Well, as I have prayed about this matter, some thoughts have come to mind: Suppose God wishes to show the older sister something? Suppose God has a plan to touch Michal Troyer’s heart? After all, you have not yet taken your vows, hm? And you have not indicated any desire to do so. No doubt you are working things through with the Lord. Good, good. But this – open road – may be as much about yourself as it is about your sister. You both have concerns to clear up with the Lord and it may be this is how he intends to help you do it. Open road, open heart – I don’t know. But I wonder if this is your journey, Michal Deborah, not simply your sister’s?”
The bishop grunted. “Pastor Beachey makes a good point. We assume it is all about Tabitha. It may be all about you.” Milwaukee sensed that Michal was not only squirming in her seat as the bishop fixed his gaze on her, but squirming inside. “Or you, young man.” The bishop transferred his gaze to Milwaukee.
He was startled. “Myself? But I was ready to take the vows this month.”
The bishop nodded and hooked his thumbs in his suspender straps. “You think you are ready. We think you are ready. But it may be that God says, No, wait, not just yet, there are two or three things I must show Master Bachman, and I need all of America to do it. Who knows? It may be so.”
The two pastors said amen in quiet voices.
No further words were spoken. Milwaukee listened to the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall. Michal glanced around the table at the three bearded men.
“Is that it?” she asked.
Bishop Eby smiled. “I think so.”
“It sounds like you are giving us permission to take the motorbike and head down the highway.”
“You do not need permission. You are Rumspringa. Do as you wish. Go and run around.”
The two pastors laughed.
“But –” Michal hesitated. “I would like your blessing as well.”
“Thank you. Of course. Perhaps I did not make myself clear.” The bishop leaned forward, his large hands clasped together on the tabletop. “We believe God has a plan in this, yes, even in your sister’s disappearance. You and young Master Bachman are part of that plan. You could not do it if you were not Rumspringa. Taking a motorcycle across the country? It would not be permitted. But, here, look, you are not yet baptized, not yet Amish. You are free to go. So much of Rumspringa is foolishness, and crazy, childish games. But you have an opportunity to do something with your Rumspringa that is more than just wildness or indulgence or – experimentation – ja? Here you have a chance to save a soul, to alter a life. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature, there is a new world. And not just one life, not just Tabitha’s life. Your life, Michal, Nick’s life, Master Bachman’s life – yes, many lives can be made new. Who knows what God is up to? But something like this does not fall into place due to human effort.”
The bishop and pastors stood up.
“Of course you have our blessing, children. Go with God. Please, let us pray for the two of you.”
Their heads bowed, Milwaukee and Michal received 20 minutes of prayer. The rest of the morning and afternoon passed quickly – the loading of the saddlebags, money from his family and the Troyers and even the Amish community, changing into blue jeans and jean jackets at their homes.
“No need to wait until the washroom at Roy’s garage,” Bishop Eby had teased Michal, who had reddened like a rose. “I do not plow in my Sunday best. You do not ride in a cotton dress, no matter how good and plain.”
As they had straddled the bike with dozens of people standing about and wishing them well Milwaukee had heard Mrs. Troyer speaking softly to her daughter.
“Every day, once the boys are in school, I will walk the mile to that telephone hut the church has. I will wait there 15 minutes to see if you will call.”
“But mama,” Michal had protested, “I know I shall not be able to call you each and every day.”
“No, but some days it will be possible, others not. So I will wait and see and spend my time in prayer for you and Tabitha and Milwaukee and Nicholas Ferley. God has a plan, yes, there is always a plan even if we do not recognize it or see clearly how it is working out. So when you can call I will be the one to pick up the phone.”
“What time, mama?”
“Nine o’clock each morning. I will sit in that hut between nine o’clock and nine-fifteen each morning. Even if it takes you a year to find your way home again.”
She had kissed Michal and Michal had thrown her arms around her mother.
Milwaukee’s father had taken his hand. “You are much loved, my boy. Every day there will be prayer and every night.”
“Thank you, papa.”
“Come back to us.”
Then Mr. Troyer stood before him. “I did not ask a small thing, may God forgive me, and what you are doing is not a small thing. My wife and I will always be grateful. No matter what occurs or does not occur.”
“I want to do this, Mr. Troyer. I want to try.”
Mr. Troyer nodded. “I see that. In Christ we live and move and have our being. May it be as God intends. Thank you.” Surprising Milwaukee, Mr. Troyer had wrapped his long arms around him and kissed him on the cheek, his beard scraping Milwaukee’s face. Then he had given Milwaukee a small black leather book. “It is the Bible in German. Luther’s translation. The print is small, but you have a young man’s eyes. I have had the book since I was 15. So may the reading of it bless you.”
“Oh, no, sir, I can’t – ”
Mr. Troyer had continued to press it into Milwaukee’s hand. “So may the reading of it bless you.”
They had rumbled along the road and past the Amish farms where some farmers had begun to take their first cut of hay. Several waved to Milwaukee and Michal as they motored slowly by. At the turnoff that led to the highway out of Marietta a buggy was drawn up by the side of the road. Bishop Eby was standing beside his horse and waiting for them. Milwaukee stopped, but did not switch the engine off. The bishop smiled and put a hand on each of their shoulders.
“So you go, and you go with God,” he said. “No day will pass by without prayers for the two of you and those you seek. In the Lord’s good time may you find them. In the Lord’s good time may you find what is in your own hearts as well. Just remember.” Here he leaned in toward them and dropped his voice. “It is not our world out there. Yes, God is active in all parts of it, I believe that, but it is not a place where what we value is cherished. There is much hate, children, there is much violence. I have heard of the beauty of mountains and deserts and seas, such beauty that overwhelms a man. But the danger, Milwaukee, the danger is also great. Watch. Pray. Be wise. Again and again, turn to God. If you have desperate hours or days of fear, turn to him who turns the earth.”
There was no moon as Milwaukee lay on the slope in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the sky seemed to grow darker and darker and the stars thicker and brighter until the gleaming flow of the Milky Way was obvious. Michal’s grip had not loosened as time passed. Milwaukee wanted to lie on his side, but could only do so by turning carefully and facing her. Michal’s skin was pale in the starlight. Looking at her he thought again that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, on a movie screen or off. He began to get drowsy as he gazed at her quiet features and thought there were a lot worse ways for a man to fall asleep in a strange place.
Thank you, my Lord, for this gift. I hope you have others just as pleasant in store. I’m sure there will be more than enough of the other kind.