VIRGINIA CITY, Nev. On a sunny, windy morning on March 5, 2002, Joyce and Pete Cottrell waved goodbye to the Atlantic Ocean in Delaware and began a walk from sea to shining sea.
Twelve states, 3,900 miles and 16 pairs of shoes later, the Whitefield, N.H., couple are still hoofing it, only now, they're finally in the West.
With 900 miles to go before reaching the Pacific Ocean, they're facing their most daunting challenge in a bid to become the first people to backpack the entire official route of the transcontinental American Discovery Trail: the Nevada desert.
The Cottrells stress they set out on the trek for adventure, not records. They wanted a new challenge after hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail through 14 Eastern states in 1998.
''Our oldest son thought we were crazy, but he's come around,'' Joyce Cottrell, 51, said. ''What better way to see the country? You really get to know our country and people up close on a daily basis. You can't get it in Winnebagos.''
She and her 55-year-old husband have had to deal with urban sprawl in the East, stifling humidity in the Midwest, a bobcat that tore a hole in their tent in Illinois and scarce water sources in the West.
But they rave about the history along the Potomac River, the grandeur of the Colorado Rockies and above all the kindness of strangers who have opened hearts and homes to them.
Memorable characters include a retired blue-collar worker in his late 70s who treated them to breakfast and his homespun philosophy in Herington, Kan., and a former Navy band trombonist who invited them to join his family for dinner in Annapolis, Md.
Because the trail passes through so many residential areas until reaching the West, a third of their camps have been pitched on yards of private homes.
''People are the best part of the hike, more so than the journey and scenery,'' Joyce Cottrell said. ''It took us by surprise to know the American people are so generous.''
The hiking, biking and horse trail hits 10,000 points of interest in 15 states from Cape Henlopen in Delaware to Point Reyes in California. Billed as the ''Route 66 of American Recreation,'' it passes through cities and towns, as well as mountains and desert.
The cities include Cincinnati, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Sacramento and San Francisco. The trail also traverses 14 national parks and 16 national forests.
The trail officially opened in 2000 11 years after it was proposed by hiking enthusiasts as the first coast-to-coast footpath connecting the popular north-south Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails.
Last year, the Cottrells tramped to Grand Junction, Colo., before spending the winter in Pueblo, Colo. They resumed their hike March 1, but skipped snow-covered stretches in Utah and Nevada before reaching the historic mining town of Virginia City, 20 miles southeast of Reno, in mid-April.
Now, they plan to return to those empty desert sections before pushing over the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific.
In June, they'll hike a dry swath of Utah from Canyonlands National Park to Beaver. Then, they'll face an even tougher challenge in central Nevada: a 225-mile stretch over a series of high ranges and valleys well south of U.S. 50, dubbed ''The Loneliest Road in America.''
They hope to complete the hike by September.
American Discovery Trail Society officials acknowledge they're not even sure the route over Nevada's 10,000-foot-plus Hot Creek, Monitor, Toquima and Toiyabe ranges is feasible for long-distance hikers.
Water sources are few and far apart; half of the section is without a town or telephone. And the couple will walk the stretch in July, the hottest time of the year.
Since the American Discovery Trail was scouted in the early 1990s, fewer than a dozen people have gone the distance by foot or bike, said Eric Seaborg, society president. But they bypassed the official route in Nevada, using U.S. 50 instead.
''In Nevada we haven't had a route we've felt comfortable telling people just go do it,'' Seaborg said. ''It's definitely the most challenging part of the entire trail because it's so remote and dry.
''If the Cottrells can hike the official route in Nevada, people will be able to say it's feasible. If it's not feasible, we'll have to refine the route. The trail is still a work in progress,'' Seaborg said.
The Cottrells are banking on water drops and other support from trail coordinators to get them across the central Nevada desert.
The 5-foot-4, 140-pound Pete Cottrell carries up to 60 pounds of supplies on his back. His 4-foot-11, 105-pound wife carries up to 40 pounds. They hike 12 to 20 miles a day.
Pete Cottrell was an auto parts store employee and his wife an electronics firm inspector before they quit their jobs to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Since then, more flexible jobs at Wal-Mart have allowed them to pursue their dreams on the American Discovery Trail. They have two adult sons.
''Many people say they dream about doing an adventure like this, but people get caught up in the daily grind,'' Pete Cottrell said. ''A lot of people live to work, but they don't work to live and enjoy life. We tell people, 'Just go out and do it and don't have any regrets.'''
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