Good company and a good night's rest

A global network of rural hosts invites travelers to stay awhile.

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    On the farm: A Mennonite family works in their field in Martindale, Pa.
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More than 30 years ago in rural Pennsylvania, our car turned onto Blue Schoolhouse Road. My husband, John, and I studied the cut limestone houses, so different from the round fieldstone foundation of the Michigan farmhouses back home. We drove up a gravel driveway and met Ruth Stoltzfus, our Mennonite Your Way host for the night.

"We're not Mennonites," I told her. "But we like meeting people. And you sound like us."

"Then, I'm sure we'll have lots to talk about," Ruth replied, and invited us into her home.

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John and I had stumbled upon a Mennonite Your Way directory (www.mennoniteyourway.com) that listed a network of people offering hospitality to travelers. The listings described what the hosts offered: a spare bed, for instance, or a place to set up a tent. Plus, the families mentioned their interests and the ages of their children, so guests could locate families with common bonds.

After depositing our luggage, we toured Ruth's herb gardens and u-pick strawberry field and viewed the family's solar hot-water system. We met their 8-year-old daughter, Sarah, who insisted on playing the piano for us. When Sarah discovered that John also played the piano, she dragged out a book of folk songs and requested her favorites.

"Could you watch Sarah for a few minutes?" Ruth asked us. "I need to pick up our son, Jacob, and I want to get some scrapple for breakfast."

John and I marveled how after only spending an hour together, Ruth trusted us with the care of her daughter. We realized that this form of travel welcomed guests into a family's life and treated them as friends. Soon Ruth returned with Jacob. When her husband, Mark, arrived home, the six of us shared supper. After the children's bedtime, we four adults discussed regional and cultural differences, such as the scrapple to be served for breakfast. Because of the directory's listings, we knew that Ruth and Mark were fellow rockhounds, so John and I displayed the rocks we had collected on our trip and they brought our their fossil collection. To our amazement, they presented us with a fine specimen of a leaf imprinted between thin layers of shale that smelled faintly of petroleum.

"We rarely find people interested in fossils," Mark said. "A real treat to meet you folks."

"We feel the same way," John said.

Before we drove away, Ruth gave us an application to be a host family in the Mennonite Your Way network, and soon afterward we listed our family in the directory. We also began to milk goats, and keeping dairy animals limited our travels. Yet we learned that the inverse of traveling is receiving guests and learning about their worlds through sharing meals and conversations.

Over the years, we've had visitors from England, Australia, and many states. Their children rode with us to Lake Michigan's beaches for a swim and played with our sons while we parents looked at the gardens or woodworking projects. Usually, guests brought us a small gift from home – chowchow from Indiana, salsa from Texas, ginger cookies from Nebraska. Retired folks told stories to our sons, and a few pitched in with chores.

Most travelers have arrived in cars, but many have biked up our long driveway and welcomed a bowl of soup. Friends tell us of other travelers' networks on the Web, but we still prefer this small community that nurtures a spirit of simplicity. And although our goats restrict our wanderings, we've traveled distances through space and cultures by sharing our home with guests who enriched our lives.

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