NEAR CARVER'S, NEV. -- "I don't see any trail," I said, peering into a thicket of willows and alders, looking down at the map, and back again at the thicket. "Maybe a deer or cow walked through there once. But no hiking trail."

It had all seemed easy when the U.S. Forest Service official had drawn his highlighter over the map, "Just follow this trail over Mount Jefferson."

So here we were, in the middle of the central Nevada desert, trying to find our way over one of the countless mountain ranges nobody outside of Nevada even knows exists.

The national forest map clearly showed the trail starting at the end of this road. The map showed trails but no roads. In reality, drill roads that had been cut out of the mountainsides for mining exploration crisscrossed the national forest.

Welcome to another typical day on the American Discovery Trail Scouting Expedition, a joint project of the American Hiking Society and Backpacker magazine. We never thought it would be easy scouting the route for the first coast-to-coast hiking trail. But at least the process seemed straightforward.

We would contact groups in each state. Local people would pick the best route through their area and pass their expertise along to us. Then we'd walk and bicycle the trail and write up a guidebook. The country would be on its way to having a missing link in the national trail system, an east-west trail connecting the major north-south national scenic trails, such as the Appalachian.

But, like the trail on the Forest Service map, everything's much simpler on paper.

We can't say we weren't warned about the Toiyabe National Forest trails. "The trails up there are unmarked and unmaintained," said one ranger. "But. . . . you should be able to find them."

Unmarked and unmaintained trails are becoming more common in America today, and one reason we're out scouting the ADT is to bring attention to that problem. America's national forests have a trail maintenance backlog of $200 million, and hundreds of miles of trails are disappearing each year because the Forest Service budget won't stretch far enough to maintain them.

We encountered some of the trails behind these numbers in central Nevada.

Stymied by the lack of trails, we decided to see if one of the roads might lead us the direction we wanted. While we're going to walk or bicycle every inch of the ADT route that we'll propose, vehicle-supported scouting is within the rules.

So we hopped into the S-10 Blazer that project-sponsor Chevy donated for just that purpose and cruised the roads: up and down the mountain, to drilling sites, to dead ends, to everywhere imaginable. Everywhere except where we wanted to go, that is. But even using the car, there were just too many roads to scout.

In search of local knowledge, we sought out a spot in the nearby Big Smoky Valley marked on our map as a Forest Service "facility" and rousted out a man who'd been working on a car engine.

Judging from the size of the belly pushing out against his overalls, the man was not a hiker. But Nevadans of all shapes seem to ride horseback, and he allowed, "I've been on a few of the trails around here."

"There's no trail up there," he said when we showed him where we'd tried to go. "But there is a road if you know how to find it. It's got low clearance through those willows, though, so you'd never make it in that Blazer with the bikes on it."

He looked at me like he couldn't quite believe his ears when I told him we didn't have to drive it, just walk it. Still undaunted, we pointed to a trail that supposedly approaches the mountain from the north. "That's the Moores Crick Trail," he said. "Everybody goes up that way. You can't miss it."

"How hard could it be to find if 'everybody' goes up that way?" I asked as we pulled away.

"I'll believe it when I see it," said fellow scout Ellen Dudley. "One of the first principles of scouting is, the larger the beer belly, the less reliable the information when it comes to hiking."

Sure enough, there were trails heading up Moores Creek -- elk trails, deer trails, cattle trails, and horse trails. We had our pick. And they'd all go for a pretty good ways before disappearing into the sagebrush.

In fact, we found as many trails that day as we'd found roads the day before. But between the trails map, compass, and the open nature of the country, we were making progress.

The top beckoned -- at almost 12,000 feet, Mount Jefferson is one of the highest points for miles. It is reputedly the highest Native American hunting found in North America, with ancient hunting blinds and arrowheads on top.

But by lunchtime, thunderheads were rolling across the desert. From a sheltered spot we watched lightning strike the nearby mountains.

We still had a 1,500-foot climb and several miles of exposed ridge to cross. A hiker had been killed by lightning on California's Mount Whitney just weeks before.

"The mountain will still be here tomorrow. I'd like the same to be said for me," we agreed, and headed back down the relatively sheltered way we'd come up. Another day, another delay, for the ADT Scouting Expedition.

And the days add up. Sometimes it seems the hurrieder we go, the behinder we get on the schedule someone sitting behind a desk last winter drew up for us.

It's frustrating to feel always behind. But then, the only person I can remember who told me being a professional hiker would be easy had this huge beer belly. . . . Eric Seaborg is trail coordinator for the American Discovery Trail Scouting Expedition, a joint project of Backpacker magazine and the American Hiking Society. For updates on the progress of the scouting team, call the ADT Hotline: (703) 754-9008.