Joyce and Peter Cottrell began their trip on March 5, 2002, at Cape Henlopen State Park on the Atlantic Ocean in Delaware. They finished on August 18, 2003, at Point Reyes National Seashore on the Pacific Ocean in California.

In 2002, the Cottrells crossed Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C., West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and most of Colorado. They followed the trail as far as Grand Junction, Colo., and spent the winter in Pueblo, Colo., working at Wal-Mart. They were off the trail for four and a half months during the winter in Pueblo and another month and a half farther west, waiting for snow in the high mountains of Utah and Nevada to melt.

Work on the American Discovery Trail began in 1990 as a joint project of the American Hiking Society and Backpacker magazine. The route of the ADT was selected through the efforts of citizens working with local, state, and federal land managers in the localities through which the trail passes, and a three-person scouting team went on a 14-month hiking and biking expedition to explore and map this route. Over the ensuing decade, the route has steadily improved. 

The Cottrells are the first to backpack coast to coast on the official route of the ADT, but they are not the first to cross the country on the ADT. Noteworthy milestones of ADT travel include the trip of Bill and Laurie Foot, who in 1997 went coast-to-coast on the southern route of the ADT in a combination of bicycling and hiking. They returned in 1998 to bicycle the northern route through the Midwest.

In 1998, Brian Stark ran from coast-to-coast for eight months, carrying all he needed to camp out along the way in a 10-pound hip pack.

Both the Foots and Stark, however, deviated substantially from the official route through much of Utah and Nevada, where the vast, unpopulated open spaces and desert were a great challenge. Much of the route through these areas still needed refining to be practical for travelers, and, inspired by the determination of the Cottrells to follow the official ADT route, ADT Society volunteers made a major effort to iron out the difficulties and confirm a usable route this year. 

Joyce and Peter Cottrell are not the young, lifelong adventurers one might expect to make such a trip. Joyce is 51, Peter is 55, and they discovered hiking just a few years ago, when they were well into their 40s. Joyce had some health problems, including lung disease that required surgery, and she needed to give up smoking. She replaced smoking with walking. 

“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. I then started going to the mountains and going on hikes.” 

Hiking became a passion for her, and Peter said she “dragged me along with her.”

Joyce left a job of 25 years as an electronics inspector at Sylvania and Peter left a longtime position as an auto parts store clerk to hike the Appalachian Trail in 1998. After that trip, they took jobs at Wal-Mart while looking for another adventure. When they saw a special section of Backpacker magazine about the American Discovery Trail, the dream of hiking across the country captured their imaginations.

They financed their trip through retirement funds. Peter said that they are using the money now to enjoy a trip that they might not be able to do when they are older. “Many people say they dream about doing an adventure like this, 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,” Peter said. So they are took their dream trip while they could.

They stopped and worked twice along the way at Wal-Marts, once during the winter in Pueblo, Colo., and once in Carson City, Nev., in the spring while waiting for winter snows to melt. 

“There is life after cigarettes,” Joyce said. “So many people that we know our age are in poor physical shape and can hardly get in and out of their cars. We are very healthy and never get sick. I guess all the walking we do has a good effect on us. It isn’t too late to change. We are in our 50s, and if we can do it, so can you.”

The two have been married 32 years and have two grown sons. “Our oldest son thought we were crazy, but he’s come around,” said Joyce. 

They generally covered 15 to 20 or more miles a day, and stopped about once a week to take a day off and freshen up in a motel.

Some of the highlights-and lowlights-of the trip included:

In Colorado, they crossed seven mountain passes over 10,000 feet in elevation, including 13,207-foot Argentine Pass. In central Nevada, there’s a 120-mile stretch where the trail climbs over 9,000 feet four times, including one trip to 11,600 feet.

In western Utah, they used a hand cart to carry water through a 100-mile waterless stretch of desert. In other parts of Utah and Nevada, volunteers from the American Discovery Trail Society left water drops. 

In southern Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest, a bobcat that ripped their tent in the middle of the night. Peter fought the cat off with a cooking pan.

Often, adversity turned into opportunities for cherished memories. When Pete sprained an ankle in the Colorado Rockies, the ADT state coordinator welcomed them at his home for a few days of recuperation. When they were both stricken with a flu-like illness in Utah’s red-rock country, the owners of a resort that features camels put them up for free for five days. When Joyce was suffering from the heat of the Nevada desert, a resident of a Shoshone Indian reservation invited them in for the night. They ate at the tribe’s senior center, where everyone took the time to talk with them like they were old friends, Joyce said.

During a sandstorm in Nevada, the wind was so strong they couldn’t pour water from one bottle to another. 

They wandered into Tincup, Colo., on the night of the annual community church potluck supper. They were invited in, welcomed, and treated like members of the community. “That was my favorite day of the whole trip,” Joyce said.

In areas where camping facilities were few, they would often knock on doors and ask permission to camp in someone’s yard. The residents would often invite them in for dinner, as well.

Through it all, they were amazed at the unexpected beauty. Joyce said: “Kansas was fantastic, walking along the Santa Fe Trail and imagining going back in time and being in a wagon. The people there were wonderful, they all knew about their history and wanted to share it with us. And the land took us by surprise, it was not flat, it was beautiful with rolling hills. “It’s been beautiful. There’s a lot to see if you open your eyes and look at it.”

Pete said that he had no idea what lay ahead as he climbed the ridge that would open onto a view of Lake Tahoe, and when they reached it he was astounded by the view: “The first time we looked down on Lake Tahoe. It was so beautiful. I didn’t have a clue when I was going to see. And then we went down to meet the people.” They met some local trails people on the Tahoe Rim Trail, who invited the Cottrells to join them in Tahoe City, have dinner with the local trails club, and talk about their journey.

A day on the trail with the Cottrells
Some quotes from the Cottrells
Trail Tales