Standing in line at Zimmerman's grocery store in Intercourse, Pa., one of the many small towns amid the cornfields of Lancaster County, I chatted with the man in front of me, a middle-aged Amish father with a long salt-and-pepper beard.
Like other Amish, he shunned many aspects of modern life. His horse and buggy waited outside, and he spoke to his sons in the German dialect still used by his people.
But hearing a beeping sound, I noticed another detail about the man: He was wearing an electronic pager on his waist. The pager is one more indication that the world of the Lancaster Amish is changing.
Facing a shortage of farmland and encroaching development, many Amish farmers are abandoning agriculture for commerce, a decision that often necessitates using modern devices to deal with non-Amish.
As a result, visitors have more opportunities to interact with the Amish than ever before. But just as the Amish are changing, so too is the experience for tourists.
While it's now possible to arrange dinner with an Amish family in their home, for example, it's also likely that visitors will encounter less-than-genuine Amish kitsch. Recently, I set out to find an authentic Amish experience in Lancaster County.
The Amish have lived in the Lancaster area since the early 1700s, when Anabaptists -- Christians believing in adult baptism, such as the Amish and their less strict cousins, the Mennonites -- fled religious persecution in Europe and landed in William Penn's new colony, which promised tolerance.
In the past 20 years, however, as the Philadelphia suburbs have extended, property values in Lancaster County have skyrocketed, and so have property taxes.
According to Randolph Harris, executive director of the county's Historic Preservation Trust, Lancaster land today fetches the highest prices of any Pennsylvania farmland. Meanwhile, the Amish have seen their population double during the past two decades.
Consequently, many Lan-caster Amish have had little choice but to go into business. According to Donald Kraybill, author of The Riddle of Amish Culture, though 95 percent of Amish were farmers 50 years ago, today more than half of Lan-caster Amish work in nonfarm occupations, mainly crafts shops targeting tourists and small businesses serving the Amish community.
Others have sold their land to developers. As a result, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named Lancaster County farmland one of the Top 10 most endangered historic sites in the country.
My first day in Amish Country started at a place few tourists seem to visit, the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau just outside Lancaster. (When Anabaptists first came to America, they were mistakenly called "Dutch"; the name stuck.)
Many tourists visit the area on bus tours or just drive along the central thoroughfares of Route 30 and Route 222. The visitors bureau is located just off Route 30. The knowledgeable staff offered detailed recommendations about the best places to interact with the Amish without offending them.
As I headed east from the visitors bureau along Route 30, I was soon confronted by the commercialization of Amish Country.
Once a rural road, Route 30 teems with strip malls, fast-food joints, housing developments, retirement communities and fake Amish attractions that seem to give the impression that the Amish are there for outsiders' amusement.
"Though they are humble people, many Amish are angry. ...They feel they have been exploited for tourism," says Kraybill. "They want to sell some products to visitors, but they get nothing from many attractions and from media attention."
I stopped at Dutch Wonder-land. Heavily advertised throughout central Pennsylvania, Dutch Wonderland is a theme park complete with Pennsylvania Dutch-oriented rides and miniature golf.
I saw no Amish at the park -- not a surprise, given that most Amish believe recreation should take place near the home, to keep the family closer together.
Farther on Route 30, I stopped at another attraction that claimed to be more authentic. The Amish Farm and House, an 1805 structure, promised a tour through a working Amish farm and a glimpse into the Anabaptist lifestyle. But the tour proved to be a buggy ride led by non-Amish around a tiny farm, where I saw no Pennsylvania Dutch and heard only honking on nearby Route 30.
I drove on, stopping at the Mennonite Information Center and Biblical Tabernacle Repro-duction, said to be an authoritative store and museum focusing on the Pennsylvania Dutch. The museum shop contained primarily books on Christian philosophy and little background on the Amish.
I had heard that the staff there could arrange visits to Amish homes, but the attendant on duty said it would be better for me to try Amish families directly, a strategy that seemed unwise. What Amish family would welcome a random visitor walking in for dinner? (Later, I learned that Mennonite B&Bs in the area are best at arranging visits.)