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Joyce and Peter Cottrell wave from the trail in Colorado.

Photo courtesy Faye McNabb

Joyce and Peter Cottrell reached the Pacific on August 18, 2003 to finish their historic feat as the first hikers to backpack the entire official route of the American Discovery Trail (ADT). They logged some 5,058 miles backpacking coast to coast on the nation's longest trail.

While others have walked across the country before, no one has followed such a rugged and rewarding route as the one the American Discovery Trail offers. The ADT is America's first Atlantic-to-Pacific trail, linking hiking trails, rail-trails, canal towpaths, and country roads into a "Route 66" for hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. The unique route even takes travelers along greenways through major cities such as Washington, Cincinnati, Denver, and San Francisco.

More than 50 well-wishers greeted them at Limantour Beach in California's Point Reyes National Seashore. ADT Society Vice President Dick Bratton presented them with a plaque hailing their "outstanding achievement."

Joyce Cottrell called it "the adventure of a lifetime."

"I would recommend this trail to anyone," she said. "Even if you can only go for a day or a week or a month."

Joyce and Peter Cottrell are hardly the young adventurers one might expect to tackle such a challenge. Peter Cottrell, 55, is 5 feet 4 inches tall and carried a 55-pound pack. Joyce Cottrell, 51, is 4 feet 11inches and toted a 40-pound pack. They took up hiking when they were in their forties, when Joyce was recovering from surgery and needed to give up smoking.

"Every time I wanted to smoke, I'd go for a walk," she said. "Before I knew it, I was walking from eight to ten miles a day." Hiking became a passion for her, and Peter said she "dragged me along with her."

They left their jobs at Wal-Mart in their home of Whitefield, N.H., to follow their dream of walking coast to coast. They departed from the Atlantic coast at Delaware's Cape Henlopen State Park on March 5, 2002. As they followed the ADT through 13 states, they experienced the most beautiful scenery the country has to offer as well as the most beautiful acts of kindness its citizens have to offer.

"The highlight of the trip has been the wonderful people we have met along the way," Joyce said. "It took us by surprise to know the American people are so generous." People welcomed the Cottrells into their homes and provided help in many ways. Getting to know their fellow citizens and hearing their stories was an unforgettable part of the trip, Joyce said.

"This trail opens you up so much to trust people, to talk to people. It was fantastic," Peter said.

The couple climbed seven Colorado mountain passes over 10,000 feet, endured a sandstorm on the route of the Pony Express in Nevada, were stopped by snow in the Utah mountains, had their tent ripped by a bobcat in Illinois, and had countless other memorable experiences.

"It's been a new adventure every day," Joyce said.

"Many people say they dream about doing an adventure like this," Pete said, "but people get caught up in the daily grind. 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.'"

The American Discovery Trail is the nation's only coast-to-coast, non-motorized trail. Stretching across 6,800 miles and 15 states, the ADT links some of the country's most spectacular natural areas-mountains and prairies, deserts and canyons-with historic forts, small towns, and city greenways, and allows people to hike, bike, or ride horses for an afternoon, a weekend, a month-long vacation across a state, or a coast-to-coast adventure.

The ADT passes through 14 national parks and 16 national forests and connects five national scenic trails, 10 national historic trails, 23 national recreation trails, and many local and regional trails, and passes some 10,000 points of historic, scenic, cultural or natural significance. The route was first scouted on a 14-month expedition in 1990-91 by a three-member team recruited by the American Hiking Society and Backpacker magazine. The ADT was named one of 16 Millennium Trails by the U.S. Department of Transportation and recommended by the National Park Service as the first of a new category of National Discovery Trails.

Coast-to-coast hike background

A day on the trail with the Cottrells

Some quotes from the Cottrells