BUZZARD CREEK, COLO. -- "Yo," a voice blared at us.
A man wearing camouflage fatigues and green makeup, and carrying a cross-bow was coming toward us at an infantry jog. We could see his muscles rippling from 50 yards up the hill.
Clearly, this was not a man to be trifled with, and here we were, standing around his cabin, having helped ourselves to water from the faucet outside. But for all he knew we might have helped ourselves to the cabin's contents too.
A bad day seemed to be getting worse. We were still 20 miles from our destination -- and camping equipment. It would be dark in less than an hour, gathering clouds threatened rain, and we were tired from riding bicycles all day.
The day had started innocently enough: a cloudless autumn morning on Grand Mesa at the western edge of the Colorado Rockies. Another typical day in the life of the American Discovery Trail Scouting Expedition, a joint project of Backpacker magazine and the American Hiking Society. The mission of the three team members is to map out the route for the ADT, the first coast-to-coast hiking trail.
The ADT is designed to link up existing trails, and where no trails exist, we use little-used roads or whatever we can find to stitch together a route.
Grand Mesa National Forest does not have a highly developed hiking trail system, so today we'd be on jeep roads and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) trails. Sam Carlson and I climbed aboard our mountain bicycles, looking forward to more views of the aspens turning golden.
The third team member, Ellen Dudley, would take a turn shuttling our Chevy Blazer support vehicle around to the evening's campsite, some 40 trail miles away.
Forty miles seemed like a reasonable day's ride, even for two hikers new to mountain biking. Even at 5 mph, eight hours of riding would get us to our destination.
But the dirt road that was to be our route was swallowed by logging operations. When another road disappeared, we found ourselves pushing our bikes along ATV tracks.
Buzzard Creek Cow Camp was the only habitation we saw on the map. We didn't know what a cow camp was, but we figured at least there'd be water there.
No one answered when we knocked at the cow camp door, so we tanked up from a faucet out front.
As we were leaving, the bow hunter hailed us. Ignoring the first impulse to run like hell, we waited as calmly as possible while he double-quicked down the hill.
When he saw us waiting placidly, and with nothing in our hands but a couple of water bottles, his demeanor changed.
His name was Kelby, and he was one of two cowboys who worked out of the Buzzard Creek Camp. We told him about our journey, and learned that there was unused sleeping space inside the two-room cabin. Sam popped the question: "Could we use some of that space?"
Kelby said he'd have to ask Lyle, the head cowboy, and Lyle was still out rounding up some horses. We sat shivering, watching Lyle herd horses down the mountainside. Kelby went up to meet him.
"I understand you fellas have had some bad luck," Lyle said. "We should be able to fix you up."
After taking care of the horses, the cowboys took care of us: spaghetti, corn on the cob and even cherry pie.
Before bedding us down in sleeping bags in the loft, Lyle asked if we wanted bacon, eggs and pancakes for breakfast.
"Lyle, don't put yourself out any more," I said. "There's somebody waiting for us at the other end who'll be worried sick, so we'll be leaving as soon as it's light enough to travel."
"Well, if I start cooking at 5, you should be on the road by daylight, no problem."
As I lay in bed, listening to the rain on the roof, I felt blessed to have found this hospitality, and a little bit guilty knowing we were getting a better night's sleep than Ellen would. High on the windswept mesa, she had set up camp for us.
But this was bow- and muzzle-loading season, and the woods were full of hunters. Rifle shots fired into the woods all night and the anxiety of wondering if we were all right meant a sleepless night.
Despite our protests, at 5 a.m. the smell of bacon began wafting up into the loft. There was Lyle at the stove, making his mother's recipe for pancakes.
Full bellies and the afterglow of cowboy company made the five more hours of hard riding up and down the mesa's flanks to the meeting spot with Ellen much easier.
The ADT is about discovering America, its scenery and its people. And so far, the treasures -- natural and human -- have been even better than we dreamed.
Eric Seaborg is a trail coordinator for the American Discovery Trail Scouting Expedition, a joint project of Backpacker magazine and the American Hiking Society. For updates on the team's progress and to receive a free newsletter, call the ADT Hotline: (703) 754-9008.