Putting Love for the Outdoors to Test: Every Day on a Trail

by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

Annette at the Jackrabbit Trails near Hayesville, NC

When I was a teenager, the otherwise sunflower-speckled walls of my bedroom were covered in neon sticky notes that read: WIN STATE. All I wanted was for my basketball team, high school or AAU, to win a state championship before graduation. Back then, I didn’t really know how to set goals—at least not in a way that actually led to accomplishing them. Which is to say, I didn’t consider the action steps or the support network needed, nor how to mine meaningful value from the process of goal-seeking. And while my AAU team did eventually win a state championship, I missed the whole purpose goal setting. I missed the essential pieces that lead to tangible, sustainable growth.

Annette and family out on the trail.

When The Great Trails State Coalition announced 2023 would be the Year of the Trail, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to put my love of the outdoors to the test. Now at the age of forty-two, I also needed a new challenge. My goal became to simply be on some kind of trail every day in 2023; which is, turns out, about as useful as a sticky note that urges a seventeen-year-old to win a state basketball championship alone. 

I still had not considered what the task would demand: research, preparation, a community of support, and the refusal to fail regardless of obstacles. It didn’t take long until I realized those demands and the action steps to address them are truly where my aim should be focused. They became trophies along the way. I have learned that goal setting has very little to do with reaching a terminal point. After all, termination is death and goals, when done right, invite intention into our lives. 

Day 178
Day 200

I track every trail experience with my Strava app and at least one photograph. Additionally, I have a dedicated journal where I keep notes on the takeaways and turn all this information into a blog post on my website each month. I found that these three methods of tracking help me to establish a community (which is another form of accountability) and capture the essence of each day in real time. More importantly, they have become a well from which to draw revitalizing waters. If I took those trail segments, those pictures, and those memories and spread them out in front of me, they would become a trail all their own—with peaks and valleys, twists and turns. They are the landscape of life that reminds us that nothing stays the same forever. Not even a well-marked trail.

 Because I travel quite a bit, I must research the environments of places I have never been, ensuring I can find a trail easily during my stay. Instead of Googling the local eateries and amusements like I used to before, I now look for the green and blue spaces on maps. In this pursuit, I come to know places in a more intimate, authentic way. I learn the natural landscapes that make a place a home and that, in turn, tells me what these communities value, what is worth protecting. My intention leads to an intimacy with a place no matter how foreign the travel.

I have been on a trail in just about every kind of weather. Rain, snow, high winds, and intense heat all change even the most familiar trails into completely novel experiences. Though I do have a “box to check,” there is no way to predict how that box will grow or shrink or move once I step onto a trail. I have found the most inspiration on the days I have to force myself onto a trail to meet my goal. Layering up clothes and trudging through a couple feet of snow rewards me with a light show of shadows and silhouettes that I never experience on clear summer days. Whether it be witnessing unexpected wildlife, unique flora, meeting someone new, or gaining a new understanding of the world around us, I find that extraordinary efforts truly do reap rewards. Goals require balance, a negotiation of willpower, aspiration, and possibility. While preparation is essential to goal attainment, flexibility is paramount. 

For Annette, mountain biking is a giving way to the natural world.

I began mountain biking about seven years ago. At the time, I was approaching middle-age, had two children, was teaching fulltime and trying to finish my first novel. Seems like a great time to start an adventure sport, right? Friends, unfamiliar with mountain biking, assume I take great risk every time my tires hit a trail. However, what they may see as death-defying is actually more so a giving way to the natural world, folding into it. Inside feels far more threatening to me these days. But outside, amidst rain, wind, lightning, and even fire, is a place to lay down the armor.

Bringing others along on this journey helps to amplify the outcome. Both my children help to ensure I have not forgotten to “get a trail in” each day and their enthusiasm, as well as that of friends and other family, reinvigorates my passion for this pursuit. New energy is essential to keep goals alive. Conversely, taking to a trail with someone who knows it better  or sees it from a different angle verges on a spiritual experience. I find that people are excited to help others accomplish their goals and when we take the time to include them, the outcomes generate greater impact.

No matter the weather, it’s a day for a trail!
You never know who you’ll see on the trail! Ed Sutton designed and built many of the trails in Cherokee, NC.

As far as I know, I won’t get a medal when I step off my last trail on December 31st. For the life of me, I can’t figure out where to put the accomplishment on my resume. There is no cheer squad waiting to release confetti or parade through downtown. However, I will have come to know towns, cities, and rural communities across the country in nuanced ways I never would have before. I will have written stronger lines of prose through this reflective time. I will have problem-solved in unexpected ways. I will have a new relationship with the weather. I will have strengthened my relationship with my own home and those who have traveled these trails with me. And none of these accomplishments ever need to end. I’ll never graduate out of loving these trails. The season of trails never ends.

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle is a renowned writer, educator, and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. She lives in Qualla, NC with her family. Annette’s work has appeared in Yes! Magazine, Lit Hub, Smoky Mountain Living Magazine, South Writ Large, Our State Magazine, and The Atlantic. After serving as executive director of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, Annette returned to teaching at Swain County High School for over a dozen years. She is the former co-editor of the Journal of Cherokee Studies and serves on the Board of Directors for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and is the President of the Board of Trustees for the North Carolina Writers Network. Clapsaddle established Bird Words, LLC in 2022 and works as an independent contractor and consultant.

To learn more about Annette and her work, visit her website at asaunookeclapsaddle.com