PEACH BOTTOM, Pa. — As my car passed horse-drawn plows and farms in an untouched corner of Amish country, the Log Cabin finally came into view. It was the home of an old friend. A Drexel Hill boy who used to play hoops at St. Dot’s but ditched the hustle and bustle of Philly and its suburbs to raise a family in the middle of nowhere.
Chris McDougall and his wife, Mika, put a fork into Philly 17 years ago to take a stab at life far from the noise and madness of modernity. For years, I’d been wondering: Why?
The Born to Run author hilariously captured this sense of WTF on a page of his soon-to-be-released newest book, Running With Sherman. It came as McDougall, whom I worked with years ago at the Associated Press, described an early brush with one of his Amish neighbors and a ride to a local butcher.
“How, out of all of life’s paths," wrote the Delco native son, "did I end up cruising around with a trunk full of discarded cow and a guy who speaks ancient German and doesn’t believe in zippers?”
It was with the same curiosity that I pulled into his five-acre farm one recent morning. A sunny September day on a plot otherwise populated by chickens, donkeys, goats — and the occasional boar interloper. The daughter of a Greek farmer myself, I often think about how tech-world shackles have hijacked our humanity. The world turned still as Chris, Mika, and I sat on their porch, fashioned from local cedar with help from an Amish friend.
“The five words that define Amish life," Chris writes in Running With Sherman: "Slow Down. Savor your world.” In this book, McDougall, a guy with equal parts intellect and Delaware County attitude, tries to persuade an on-death’s-doorstep donkey to partner with him for a ridiculously challenging pack burro race in Colorado. He is forced to realize that to win over the donkey he must slow down — and meet the inscrutable creature on its own terms.
Commune with animals and humans may rediscover their own humanity.
Chris pushes a similarly seductive message in his bestselling tome to barefoot running (Born): Humans are most powerful when we strip down to the basics.
“Moving out here has helped us make a lot of use of our time,” Mika said of their 2002 move.
They had crappy internet -- and kept it that way. Chris hand-chopped wood and welcomed intensely physical chores. And there was no need to over-schedule their two daughters. “Our kids were happy stepping outside and playing," Mika said. “I didn’t have to take them out on play dates. They were happy just walking out the front door.”
When we worked together two decades ago, it was clear that Chris was wired to spurn convention and corporate cookie-cutterism. Here was a terrific writer who would find his own path, his way — and then tell you everything he had learned along the way.
But he also was enamored with physical movement in ways that, today, would go way beyond running miles on Kelly Drive.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1996, the day after medics removed my late mother’s cancer-ravaged body from her Upper Darby house, Chris appeared on our doorstep, sweaty from a six-mile run from his Philly apartment in Fairmount. He handed me a container of homemade food that he had brought along. In a flash, Chris again sped off on foot, a 6-foot-4 gazelle with dark, curly hair, tackling another three miles west to his parents’ house for turkey in Drexel Hill.
Growing up around Aronimink Elementary School near Burmont and Township Line Roads in the ’60s and ’70s meant being outside all the time, he recalled as we talked the other day. It was a concrete jungle in inner-ring suburbia. But still.
“There was always a pack of little mongrel kids in the street and we were all running around in each other’s backyards, climbing fences and all kind of stuff in people’s backyards,” he said. “There was a quarry near Springfield Mall. I used to ride my bike out there to go fishing. And that was at least five or six miles.”
His dad, the late storied Delaware County defense lawyer John McDougall, may have served as an example. He regained his Marine Corps form by starting to run each morning, day after day, when Chris, the second oldest of five, was just 6 or 7 years old.
“My dad was such a disciplined dude that it was every day, clockwork, 6 o’clock in the morning,” Chris recalled.
He doesn’t exactly know why he moved. But he’s sure of this: It has brought contentment. Even the time when an unwelcome pig showed up as guests from Philly looked on with bewilderment. Chris remembered spotting it from the road and calling Mika.
“There’s a pig out front,” he said. “Get it.”
Mika came out and opened the gate to a paddock. Chris blocked the driveway with a car. Somehow, Mika herded the sucker.
“I remember thinking to myself,” Chris said as we all laughed, “you know what, you finally transitioned. This is not the girl I met 20 years ago.”
So then Mika, I suggested jokingly, was now Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies?
“If she were,” the Delco boy said, not missing a beat, “that pig would be in our freezer right now.”