The first day they had to evict a timber rattlesnake from the center of their trail. The next morning they woke to see a black bear eating at their campsite. This day they hiked nine miles through a rain cloud that had lost its fight with gravity.
"It's been quite an exciting little jaunt," said Joy Bulger, 29, six weeks pregnant and still wide-eyed from the waterfalls and wildlife in the Shenandoah National Park.
Bulger was in the park, about 100 miles southwest of Washington, for a family reunion of Bulgers and Schlemmers from five states. They were a good-looking group. On a New York subway they would shine like a toothpaste commercial. But in this national park, on a summer weekend, they were just another all-America family in the crowd.
When people want to know whatever happened to traditional values and twilight horseshoe contests, tell them to take a hike. In national parks such as Shenandoah, on any weekend from April to October, you can see a thousand Norman Rockwell paintings on the move.
Here are fathers showing sons how to foul up a supposedly foolproof tent. Behind them mothers are taking the hurt out of bee stings on 8-year-old arms. On steep, rocky trails, three generations of hikers pick their way slowly enough to smell the flowers.
Working hard, getting a little wet and wondering what waits around the next bend are not hardships to endure, they are what the trip is all about.
"I was looking forward to seeing a bear," said Rob McManis, 19, from Oakton, who was halfway through the third day of a four-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail with his father Bob, 44, and a 19-year-old friend.
It was raining when they entered the park at its northern entrance near Front Royal and it never got drier than a damp sponge. For three days, they had carried full backpacks, eaten freeze-dried foods and M&M candies and slept in soggy sleeping bags. And to look at them, even unshaven and more than a bit mussed, they looked the picture of health.
"It's been so foggy we haven't seen the Shenandoah Valley yet," said Bob McManis, a Navy captain and the undisputed trail boss on a hike that normally offers a view panoramic enough to make you dizzy. "But there is always more to look at than you can see."
The Shenandoah is one of the most popular parks in the country. Drivers of 2 million cars a year pay to travel down the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains on Skyline Drive. On fall weekends, when the forest is full of color, the 95 miles of two-lane drive through the park look like a commuter's nightmare.
As pretty as that drive is, the hiking paths are the park's real treasures. There are 32 circuit trails, from one-hour jaunts to nine-hour treks. Peaks, valleys, sheer rock cliffs and quiet pine forests are within five minutes of almost any spot on the drive.
Some of the trails take you through places where mountain people lived before the federal government decided to buy their property and evict them 60 years ago. Indians had been evicted by the white settlers more than a century before that.
As interesting as the park's history is, its visual beauty is its most compelling feature. There are 15 major of waterfalls accessible by trail. Some drop 90 feet.
"These are probably the most popular falls because they are the closest to the road," said Dave Seifert, standing below Dark Hollow Falls, 70 feet of white water falling past boulders into a large pool. Dark Hollow Falls are just 1 1/2 miles from the Big Meadows campground, almost halfway between Front Royal and the park's southern boundary at Afton, Va.
Seifert is the supervisor for 300 miles of trails that are maintained by Appalachian Trail Club volunteers. This weekend he is taking a holiday with his son, daughter and a niece from the Midwest whose idea of a steep hill is one that you don't have to pedal your bike on to keep rolling.
Joy Bulger, her husband Gary and her father Fritz Schlemmer are at the other end of the experience scale. Every two years they get together with like-minded family members in some mountain wilderness. One year they met in Colorado, another year in Maine. They hike, cut wood and enjoy each other's company.
"The only bad thing this year is because I'm pregnant, I'm not drinking any alcohol," said Bulger. "For the last three miles these guys have been talking about drinking a cold beer. It's not fair. They tell me I can have cranberry juice."
"I'm not completely cruel," said Bulger's father, a retired Air Force officer. "I'll drink one for her, too."