June 5, 2017
It was already dark when the first vans full of Amish runners pulled into my driveway. I’d tied up the donkeys right next to the parking spot, which was probably my second mistake. The first was thinking it would be fun to take our pet donkeys out for a moonlight run with Vella Shpringa, our local Amish running club.
“This could be a looong night,” said my friend and neighbor Tanya McKean, as she tried to settle Flower, her big riding donkey. “But it won’t be boring.”
Vella Shpringa means “gotta run” in Pennsylvania Dutch, and for the last few years, I’ve joined the gang for full-moon runs out here in Lancaster County, Pa. Each month, a different Vella Shpringa runner plays host, mapping out two routes — five and 10 miles — on the country roads around the family farm.
Twenty to 30 of us get together after work, and as the moon rises, we head off. No flashlights are needed; our eyes gradually adjust as daylight fades, until all you see are stars, the glow of oil lamps in farmhouse windows, and the silhouette of ancient barns.
It’s silent except for the murmur of voices and the patter of feet, and there’s no recovery food on the planet you’ll enjoy more than the cold glass of chocolate milk and homemade peach ice cream you’ll find waiting at the finish.
Both men and women are members, and, holy smokes, are they fast. The Vella Shpringa runner Leroy Stoltzfus briefly became famous when he appeared in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” for finishing third in the Harrisburg marathon despite wearing his usual black pants, long sleeve button-down and suspenders. During a trail run one steaming July afternoon, I was struggling up a steep climb when I was caught by Liz, a young Amish woman.
“This hill is a killer,” I panted.
“I can tell,” Liz said, patting me on the back before scrambling past in her full-length dress, apron and bonnet.
When it was my turn to host the full-moon run, I had an idea: Why not include Sherman, the rescue donkey I was trying to make my marathon partner?
We’d taken Sherman in a few months earlier. For years, the little gray donkey had been kept in a cramped and rancid stall by a neglectful owner. He was finally freed, but it looked as if his time had run out.
Sherman’s hooves were in such awful shape, he could barely walk, and his sore mouth and rotten teeth made it hard for him to eat. We thought at least we could make his last days comfortable, but he soon fooled us all by not dying.
Tanya lives a few farms over from us with three donkeys of her own. She made saving Sherman her personal mission, which was a huge relief to my wife and me. We’d been lifelong city folk, and moved from Philadelphia to the heart of Amish farmland in 2002 mostly on a whim.
We loved the romance of a Laura Ingalls Wilder life, but neither of us had ever raised an animal or lived more than a few miles from at least a million other people. Could we cut it on our own as semi-homesteaders out there in horse-and-buggy country?
We began with Buddy and Grandma, two Katahdin sheep, which shed instead of needing to be sheared. We soon stepped up our game with a four-pack of fainting goats, which aren’t the best milkers but are big favorites with the goat-racing crowd out here in the Susquehanna Valley.
As our herd grew, something weird happened. I realized what I liked most was the crappy stuff — like trudging in snowshoes to the creek at six in the morning to haul five-gallon buckets of water, or chasing wriggling goats every few months to give them a squirt in the mouth of deworming medicine. Is there anything more gratifying, any better use of your mind and muscle, than to understand another creature so well that you know what they need before they ask?
But with Sherman, we were in uncharted territory. I didn’t know how lost we were until Tanya mentioned it was time for a sheath cleaning.
“O.K.,” I said. “What’s a sheath?”
“We’ve got to clean his penis?”
“Not we — you. You better learn now because if he lives, you’ll be doing it every three or four months.”
“Seriously?” I’d devoured horse books as a kid, and nowhere in “Misty of Chincoteague” was there any mention of Grandpa Clarence working on Stormy with a bucket of soapy water.
But Sherman had been neutered, Tanya explained, which made his dormant penis susceptible to waxy buildup. The only way to get the job done is to ease your fingers into the donkey’s abdomen and pull the penis down, then swab it while taking care not to get kicked into outer space.
“Last thing, you stick a finger in the hole —” Tanya continued.
“Of what? The penis?”
“Right up in there. You’ve got to pull out the wax ball. That’s the ‘bean.’ The bean is a killer. Totally wrecks his bladder.” Apparently if Sherman had a new life ahead, so would I: Every three months, I’d be reminding myself to file quarterly taxes and degrease my donkey’s downspout.
At least there was some good news: Within a few months, Sherman’s feet had healed enough for him to join us for walks, and then jogs. Tanya began saddling up Flower so she could ride along, which was great until Sherman and Flower became so attached that neither wanted to lead anymore. They liked following each other around so much, all our runs began with 20 minutes of spinning in circles before we could straighten the lovebirds out and get going.
“We’d better get a head start for the full-moon run,” Tanya suggested. “Or your friends are going to be finished before we get out of the driveway.”
Sherman had never run with a crowd, or at night, so I knew he’d deploy all two million years of his stubborn donkey DNA to resist mingling in the dark with a mob of strangers. Our best chance, we figured, was to have the donkeys roped to my pickup truck and ready in advance. Then we could set off before anyone else, giving Sherman and Flower enough time to finish their spin cycle. Once they locked into a running groove, maybe they wouldn’t be too freaked when the other runners caught up to us.
But I forgot about the lights. Amish generally don’t drive, but they can hire vans to taxi them around. And as the first two pulled in, the beams were so bright even I was a little blinded.
Tanya and I yanked the ropes to free the squirming donkeys from the truck bumper as fast as we could. Sherman escaped the commotion by trotting into the road. And then, amazingly, he kept right on trotting. He wasn’t bolting; he looked more like a thoroughbred on parade.
I sprinted after him while Tanya swung aboard Flower. Together, the four of us jogged on into the night. We cruised along for a half-mile, then hit a long climb. Sherman plowed into it smoothly, but I was huffing hard to keep up.
We were nearly at mile two when I saw Sherman’s ears rotate back.
Uh-oh. The dream run was about to end.
“Finally!” someone shouted from the darkness, as the lead pack of Amish runners closed in on us from behind. I tightened my grip on Sherman’s rope, but oddly, he wasn’t the least bit startled.
“You guys are flying,” said Jake Beiler, one of the runners. “Mind if I try?”
I opened my mouth to explain why that was a bad idea, then shut it and handed over the rope. Jake had been handling horses since he was kindergarten age. He’d never run with a donkey, but his animal intuition was much keener than mine.
Sure enough, he expertly coiled the rope in his left hand and, with the right, gave Sherman a reassuring pat. The rest of the crew formed a wedge around us, swallowing us into the group as they would any fellow runner.
“Get up there, fella,” Jake said as we hit a downhill. Sherman obeyed, easing into a canter.
We breezed through mile three together, hooves and feet all pattering in unison, before we hit another uphill. No way I could keep pace with Jake on a climb like that, so he handed me back the rope and was off, surging away with the rest of his crew.
As soon as they were gone, Sherman and Flower suddenly remembered they were donkeys. They began futzing around, veering onto the grass for snacks and taking playful nips at each other. In 20 seconds, they seemed to forget the beautiful flow they had when they were running with the herd.
But I didn’t. That night under the full moon, I saw my mistake.
When my family and I first arrived here, we were as out of place as Sherman, living alone in a sea of Amish and Mennonite farmers. We knew no one and had no clue how to connect with people who, we assumed, preferred to keep apart.
But from our first day, we’ve been helped and welcomed. I’ll see the same neighbor rumble past seven or eight times a day on his tractor, and seven or eight times I’ll get the same hearty wave. When it snows, his grandson is outside by sunup to plow our driveway and is gone without letting me open my wallet.
One evening, I was out for a run when an Amish neighbor waved me over. Did I want some raw cream left over from the milk pickup? He suggested I carry it in two half-empty jars, so by the time I jogged home, I’d have butter.
While we were talking, his brother from across the road came over to offer some venison; he’d shot three deer and wanted to spread the wealth. As I shoved the haunch into my shorts and knotted the drawstring tight, he explained exactly how to cook it.
Raw meat was dripping down my legs and two quarts were sloshing in my hands when I came through the door, but we’d received so much odd generosity over the years, my family didn’t even seem to notice.
I should have remembered that when we first got Sherman. I’d been afraid he was too damaged to handle a lot of commotion, but a big herd was just what he needed. The day after the full-moon run, we began to build one for him. Tanya opened her big heart once again and donated Flower and her mini-donkey, Matilda, as Sherman’s permanent stablemates. We invited all kinds of runners, from 20-year-old Ruby Rublesky to 71-year-old Steve Farrah, to join our donkey trio on the trails.
Before long, we had a crew of volunteers who’d throw their running shoes into the car and drive as much as an hour to our house, all to make sure Sherman would never be on his own again. Faster than I did, Sherman had figured out that the bigger the herd, the better.