It was to be an overnight trip on horseback through the wilds of Northern Virginia, a sojourn in America' frontier past. There would be horses, of course, and dark, strange woods, and a campfire beyond the edge of civilization.

But try as they might, the travelers never left the modern age -- or, for that matter, Fairfax County. As for roughing it, a miniature golf course and giant swimming pool sat minutes from camp, which itself was half an hour from downtown Washington. If things got hot, you could dash to the showers, then re-douse yourself with insect spray. The evening's entertainment: pitching tents and horse shoes, then waiting for supper to be served.

"It's my job," laughed ranger John Kuch, of Pohick Bay Regional Park, as he waved off would-be helpers from the griddle at Camp Wilson, a new site replete with picnic tables and bricked-in grills. Kuch, in his feather-festooned Stetson, looked the model of a modern cowboy, but wasn't riding. Instead, he'd hauled provisions (including Frisbees) in his pickup, and had chopped what seemed a cord of firewood by the time his wards reached camp.

For folks who wanted a pleasant jaunt in the country, this was just the ticket. But for puritans who like the maxim, "no pain, no gain," it was a journey rich in guilt.

The only compensation was the rain.

The Tumbleweed Trail Ride -- this, too, was misleading: no tumbleweed marred the trail -- got started one Saturday at the Tamarack Stables on the regional park's outskirts, where owners Lee and Lois Majewska, along with their son Tim, greeted the adventurers with the grip of people who work with large animals.

Lee Majewska, Pittsburgh-bred, is a barrel-chested chap with a perpetually bemused smile that got bigger as the day wore on. An erstwhile stunt-rider, he bought 38 acres of Virginia countryside 20 years ago and opened the Tamarack Stables and Riding School with his wife Lois. Also from Pittsburgh -- which is actually quite horsey, it turns out -- she is tall and lanky, and sports a T-shirt reading "Nashville."

Nashville, not Pittsburgh, might be nearer the mark, as you'd guess from their country manner. "Why don't you call me Lois instead of Mrs. Majewska and make me think you're talking to my husband's mother," she chided. "I started riding when I was three years old. I've loved horses ever since."

Which doesn't account for Tim. At 13 an accomplished horseman, he's already thinking of giving it up. "I like horses all right, but after 13 years" -- he rolled his eyes -- "you can start to want something different. So I've been saving up for a motorcycle."

Anyhow, the three riding Majewskas (pronounced "Majeskis") introduced the adventurers to ten sturdy trail horses. There were some preliminaries around the ring -- "Try not to trot," Lee counseled, "it makes for a bad ride" -- and off they all clip-clopped into the hot, steamy forest.

The beasts behaved -- discounting the delight they took in the scraping knees against trees. Midst the dogwood and holly, there were hills and streams enough to keep things challenging -- but, as the groups's more experienced riders had it, not too.From a ridge, there was a vista of the bay, with a speedboat or two, plus a sighting of a crane in flight. Bugs buzzed 'round and a wild turkey called. And if you happened to lose a camera or a package of Edam cheese along the trail, one of the Majewskas scurried instantly to retrieve it.

When the route ran to the road, the caravan hoofed it to one side for the occasional oncoming car. Then it was back to the middle again.

"This is a good group," Lee Majewska beamed during a breather and general dismount in a glade. "Usually on these things, you'll get at least one guy who wants to show everybody what a great cowboy he is."

"You look worried," Lois teased a visitor. "Don't let that adrenalin get the better of you now. These horses can feel that, you know."

"What are you talking about?" the visitor replied, affecting shock as he stood beside a brown quarterhorse named Chartan and rubbed his saddle-weary thighs. "No adrenalin here." Lois nodded and grinned, as one would humor the daft.

So a couple of hours after the ride began, the party got to camp. The Majewskas promptly took the horses off everyone's hands, groomed and fed them, while John Kuch did something of the same with the riders: helping them with their tents and proferring cold lemonade. There was a shuttle-truck to the park's swimming pool -- the largest on the East Coast, someone said -- but a few people stayed behind on principle: Let there be no pools in the woods.

"I think I should tell you all," Diana Carter, a telephone company engineer from Reston, said at nightfall. Her fellow travelers, sated on hamburgers and hotdogs, plus poker, gin rummy and a log-splitting contest, looked up from their roasted marshmallows and s'mores -- this last the concoction of graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate bars that was probably invented by a sugar-crazed Scout. "I think I should tell you all," Diana Carter said. "I have never been on a camping trip when it hasn't rained."

The thunder came cracking in from the northwest. First a drizzle, then nothing. Then a downpour. The travelers made for their tents. It went on all night, with rivulets of water swirling under the sleeping bags and streaming down the tent walls. Next morning, when they saddled up again, it was still beating down.

The Majewskas, having slept sensibly at home, showed up in panchos -- a precaution that had escaped some of the riders. No matter. Once everyone accepted that they were wet, and would keep getting wet, things went swimmingly. The horses plodded through mud, and steam came off their flanks. When the rain stopped, there was a game of soak-the-rider-behind-you, which involved smacking at passing trees. "Gotcha," Tim Majewska said after a successfully moist thwack.

"So who wants to take the short way?" Lee Majewska shouted.

But no one answered back.