“Whoa ... whoa,” the buggy driver said, stopping his horse on a country road where it meets Route 30, the main east-west highway in eastern Lancaster County.
The driver leaned forward and looked for a gap in the mid-morning traffic on the three-lane artery.
He was headed Wednesday to a discount grocery store six miles to the west. The left turn against traffic posed the trickiest moment.
The driver’s head swiveled left and right. Vehicles roared past in the near lane, mere feet from the horse’s blinkered head.
“It feels like forever if you have an antsy horse that knows what’s about to happen,” said the driver, 33, a member of the inwardly devout, publicity-shy Old Order Amish Church who asked to be identified only by his last name of Stoltzfus.
This is the story of Stoltzfus’ monthly trip to restock the pantry. A reporter rode along to experience the view from behind a Standardbred named Sparky and to describe the challenge of controlling a half-ton animal on a busy road in a rattling shell of a carriage.
Stoltzfus, of Paradise Township, considers a trip on Route 30 a reasonable risk. He brought along two of his six children, ages 5 and almost 3, and the boys chattered in the back in Pennsylvania Dutch.
An organic farmer and farrier, or one who shoes horses and provides hoof care, Stoltzfus has never been in a crash but has had scares.
“There’s always stuff like, ‘Wow! Are my wheels still both on?’” he said, referring to near misses. “Obviously, if you keep on thinking about that, you’d stay in bed.”
On Route 30
Stoltzfus waited at the T-intersection longer than he expected. One hand held the reins. The other cradled his bearded jaw as he looked this way and that.
He was on a crest that shrunk the view of vehicles coming from both directions. To turn, he would have to spur Sparky into a trot up a slight rise.
“Obviously, he’s just setting there thinking, Why in the world don’t we go?” Stoltzfus said.
Nearly two minutes passed before Stoltzfus took his shot.
“Tch-ch,” he said, releasing his grip on the reins after an eastbound tanker whizzed by.
Sparky pulled the buggy across the eastbound lane even as a westbound pickup was coming fast. Stoltzfus judged that his best chance was to start rolling into the center turn lane and ease across the westbound lane just after the pickup flew by.
He made the turn smoothly and continued partly on the berm, Sparky’s left hooves hammering the white line. The horse settled into an 11-mph pace.
Stoltzfus is amused when he’s in a car stopped at that intersection and the driver becomes impatient.
“I tell them, ‘Hey, at least the thing is going to go if you hit the pedal,’” he said.
A buggy wasn’t designed with sightseeing in mind. It’s an enclosed, low-roofed carriage, and a front-bench passenger, who always sits at the driver’s left, must gaze at side-mounted mirrors to see cars gaining from behind.
At one intersection, Stoltzfus had a fright. Sparky, trotting along the berm, had a green light and started to cross Ronks Road. Suddenly, a car heading in the same direction flew past on the left and abruptly turned right, directly in the horse’s path. The car sped north on Ronks Road.
It happened so fast Stoltzfus could only flinch. Sparky never broke stride.
“Some people don’t think,” Stoltzfus said.
Stoltzfus grew up working teams of mules in his father’s fields. When he turned 15, his father bought him a horse and started teaching him to drive a carriage.
“It was really different,” he recalled. By 16, Stoltzfus was driving a horse on his own.
Route 30, west of Hartman Bridge Road, is not horse friendly. It’s a commercial strip accommodating outlet shoppers and through-drivers with two lanes in each direction, a center turn lane and traffic lights in close proximity. The berm all but disappears.
Stoltzfus pressed on with vigilance.
“I guess it kind of irritates some people to find a slow horse in their lane,” he said. Then a car passed uncomfortably close.
“Two feet is not enough to pass a carriage,” Stoltzfus said. “It might be a good idea to wait if there’s not enough room.”
His destination, Aldi grocery store in Mill Creek Square on his left, came into sight. From the far right lane the buggy needed to cross another lane to get into one of the two left turn lanes.
“Sometimes you have to play chicken,” he said, explaining that he was going to move left, but only slightly. If that subtle encroachment, with turn signal flashing, encouraged the car behind him to yield, he’d complete the move.
Stoltzfus moved over to the outermost left turn lane and easily entered the shopping center. He secured Sparky to a hitching rail behind the store. The seven-mile trip had taken 50 minutes.
Consulting his wife’s list, Stoltzfus filled a grocery cart with food not grown on the farm. The load included eight boxes of cereal, three bunches of bananas and four mangos. The bill came to $104.45. He filled six cloth bags and secured them on a rear rack.
The return trip lacked any turns against traffic and proved to be devoid of thrills and angst. There was just a steady clip-clop and scenery passing at a sedate pace. The buggy had no radio.
“I realize I’m on the road at a much higher risk that you are,” Stoltzfus said of motorists, “but I don’t expect any favors. We go by the same rules that you guys do.”
He hates, for example, when a motorist with the right of way slows and motions for him to proceed from a stop sign. Other drivers might not see what’s happening. A crash could result.
It was a delightful, blue-sky morning in the upper 60s, and Sparky had broken a sweat. The horse, a harness racer years ago, was fine.
“He’s alert. His ears are forward. The road noises aren’t bothering him,” Stoltzfus said.
At home, Stoltzfus unhitched Sparky and hosed him down. The farmer anticipated no trips for the rest of the week.
“This one has been very uneventful,” he said. “That’s what I call a good trip.”