Much has been done since those days to smooth the passage of the modern traveler — boardwalks over some of the swampier quagmires, ropes strung across deep river crossings, basic pit toilets at some of the most common camping spots. Still, no two trips along the trail follow exactly the same path, thanks to the constantly shifting coastline and the tides. Picking our way along the route, we started to get a taste of the coastline’s stunning topographical diversity: beaches alternating with rocky inlets, gnarled trees twisting away from the salty wind, columns of water erupting from blowholes at the base of dramatic cliffs.
Partway through our second morning, we reached a set of cliffs that jutted out into the water, blocking the beach we were trying to follow. Skirting the base of these cliffs is “normally easy except at high tide,” our guidebook blithely assured us. Seeing that the tide was still rising, we hurriedly began to pick our way from boulder to boulder, scurrying along the sand between waves.
It turns out that oceans are much less regular and predictable than we, in our landlubbering ignorance, had presumed. Rocks that had been comfortably out of the water during one set of waves were suddenly under two feet of pushy surf in the next set. Soaked to the thighs and clinging to the abrasive cliff face with white knuckles, we eventually made it to the other side with a recalibrated sense of what “normally easy” means.
The challenges intensified the next day, when we were scheduled to climb from sea level to 3,000 feet then back down again to cross the Ironbound Range, the highest point on the trip. This time we woke not to rain but to the rat-a-tat of hail slamming into our tent, and the discovery that a swamp rat (or some similarly destructive rodent) had chewed through Lauren’s pack and at least three layers of plastic to feast on our stash of dried pineapple.
A sturdy trail led us up the western side of the Ironbounds, along grassy slopes bursting with pink, yellow and blue wildflowers, but the weather worsened steadily. By the time we reached the top, after three hours, we were being alternately buffeted by gusts of white-out snow and fusillades of stinging horizontal hail that seemed to intensify every time we stopped for a break. (Our bag of M&Ms soon contained as many ice pellets as pieces of candy.)
And the worst was yet to come. The wind-sheltered eastern side of the range is covered with thick, wet rain forest. Instead of a trail, we faced an endless succession of man-eating sinkholes linked by steep mudslides, choked with razor grass and impenetrable scrub, and barricaded by downed trees the size of SUVs.
It took us twice as long to get down the mountain as it had taken to climb it. The hail turned to rain. I had to move our bag of salt from our food stash to the outer pouch of my pack, ready to peel off the leeches that periodically attached themselves to our arms and legs. By the time we stumbled into our campsite, our mood was existential. Why, on our preciously rationed vacation days, were we here?
Adversity is an inevitable part of wilderness travel; for many, the struggle is part of its allure. But if you’re not also enjoying the moment, then any future pride will seem awfully hollow. And at this point in the trip, we really weren’t having much fun.