Eric Seaborg and Ellen Dudley would be the last to compare their trek with that of Lewis and Clark.
After all, they note, they enjoyed decent maps, a trailer in tow behind a Chevy Blazer, and what they call the "safety net" of civilization as they hiked and biked 4,835 miles from Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California to Cape Henlopen on the Delaware coast.
Yet if the two odysseys are separated by nearly 200 years of evolving history and hardware, they share a common trait: They opened fresh windows on a geographically and culturally diverse continent.
Next Tuesday - seven years to the month when Ms. Dudley and Mr. Seaborg left Point Reyes on their 14-month adventure - the US House of Representatives is set to hold hearings on a bill to add the route they scouted to the country's national trail system.
Known as the American Discovery Trail, the route represents the first transcontinental path connecting popular north-south hike-ways such as the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest Trails. If the bill passes, the ADT also would represent the first in a new category of national hiking and biking trails designed to pass through cities and towns, as well as through the nation's back country.
"The greatest value of this trail is the fact that it is a way to meet people that you would never ordinarily meet," says Dudley, who along with Seaborg published a book last year about their saga. "It does go through incredible wilderness - canyons and mountains and desert. But it also - on purpose - goes through everything from little tiny settlements where there's just a crossroads and a couple of human beings clinging to civilization, all the way to wonderful little towns that are like living museums, and on through major cities."
Nor is the ADT alone in that goal. Along the East Coast, the East Coast Greenway trail links Boston with Washington D.C. Over the next few years, planners hope to extend the greenway from Maine to Key West, Fla. In the Midwest, trail enthusiasts are looking at the possibility of turning the 63-mile Great River Trail in the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois into a multi-use pathway running along the Mississippi from Minneapolis to New Orleans. And in the West, enthusiasts are working toward a West Coast Trail running from the northwestern tip of Washington's Olympic Peninsula to the Mexican border. Taken together, these trails are beginning to approximate an "interstate highway system" for muscle-powered travel.
Like the ADT, these trails represent a fresh approach to long-distance trail building: using secondary roads to connect existing greenways and foot trails, rather than getting bogged down in long legal battles over passage through private property. The responsibility for maintaining the various segments of the trail rests with the state, local, or nonprofit organization that owns it.
Two broad trends and a critical piece of legislation have fueled the increase in trail blazing, notes Tom Ross, program manager for the US National Park Service's trails and greenway division.
"Since the mid to late '80s, there's been an explosion of interest in trails in this country," he says. "People see a growing value to trails beyond recreation - for alternative transportation, as a way to visit places of historic interest, and for exploring an area's natural history."
Meanwhile, during the past 20 years, some 10,000 miles of abandoned rail lines have been converted to trails and bike paths. And in 1991, Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which requires states to spend 10 percent of the surface-transportation money they get from Washington on enhancement projects in any of 13 categories, including walkways and bike paths. Since the measure passed, roughly $1 billion has been spent on bike and pedestrian improvements, Mr. Ross says.
Against this backdrop, representatives from Backpacker magazine and the American Hiking Society met in 1989 and "cooked up the idea," for the ADT recalls Peter Spiers, the magazine's publisher.
"There were three well-known north-south trails," he says, referring to the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest Trails. "Their logic is geographic and geological - they follow major mountain chains. We thought it would be useful to build an east-west trail to connect them, one that also allows you to recapitulate American history" if you travel it from east to west.
Just as Bill and Laurie Foot are. The Lynchburg, Va., couple began their ADT odyssey New Year's weekend with a 40-mile backpack trip along an ADT segment in West Virginia. On March 1, they took on a 210-mile segment in Ohio. Then on March 25, they left Delaware on bikes, hoping to arrive in California in time for Mrs. Foot's birthday in late September.
Mr. Foot, who took early retirement last year from a job as a factory manager, says he and his wife wanted to tackle a new challenge after hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail in 1987 and had thought about biking across the country. At the same time, the nonprofit association overseeing the ADT was looking for someone to travel the trail, updating maps and route information on the continuously evolving pathway. So far, about 3,500 miles of the now 6,300-mile trail have been marked.
Interviewed by phone during a stop in Garden City, Kan., Wednesday morning, Foot said that while there have been some rough spots, the trail so far "has been pretty darn good."
And as Seaborg and Dudley found before them, much of what makes the trail memorable is the people they meet along the way.
The Foots post weekly entries about travels to their journal on the Internet(www.inmind.com/nbatc/adt1_page.html).
NATIONAL TRAILS DAY - JUNE 7
National Trails Day began in 1993 to promote a plan to bring trails to within 15 minutes of every American. More than 3,000 events are scheduled, including trail dedications, maintenance projects, and festivals. For details on events in your area, call 888-766-HIKE or visit the American Hiking Society's web site at www.outdoorlink.com/ahs/index.html