Diversity on the Colorado Trail: Empowerment and Setback While Thru-Hiking

When was the last time that you felt like you didn’t belong? For minority thru-hikers, each day on trail is a reminder that they are different. Last year, I had the privilege to thru-hike the Colorado Trail — a stunning 486-mile footpath that winds through mountains of Colorado starting in Littleton and ending in Durango. I saw just one other hiker of color for the entire 34 days I was on trail. As luck would have it, he and I were headed in opposite directions. 

Being an Indian-American woman, I knew I stood out in the backcountry well before I landed at Denver International Airport. This was not my first rodeo with long-distance hiking. I had thru-hiked before (Wonderland Trail in 2019 and Tahoe Rim Trail in 2020) and had a good idea of what to expect.

I was not blissfully ignorant enough to think that long-distance trails were teeming with folks who looked like me. However, my past experiences with thru-hiking were with my partner, who happens to be a white man. I had no idea how much this had affected my experience during my previous thru-hikes. The CT would be the first time I would be tackling a long-distance trail alone.

READ NEXT — Colorado Trail Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Hike the CT

A Different Experience

I quickly learned that things white hikers did with ease could send me sliding down an emotional scree field of anxiety. Most hikers are ecstatic on town days, and for good reason. Town means a shower, real food that isn’t freeze-dried, and a bed to sleep in. However, I found myself dreading the idea of town days. I would have so many questions racing through my head hiking the final miles before town. When I stand alone on the side of Highway 114 with my thumb out, who do people think I am? What do I look like? I quickly learned to keep my backpack and hiking poles close to signal who I was to all of the cars whizzing by.

The blazing sun turned my brown skin darker as I spent day after day hiking in the intensely exposed alpine above 10,000 feet. The spiraling thoughts continued as I hiked more miles. Would having darker skin make my chances of getting a hitch harder? Could I get a ride at all? Would the driver ask me the dreaded “But where are you really from” question?

It’s easy to have these thoughts become all-consuming when your day-to-day consists of walking alone. Thru-hiking becomes a different experience entirely.

The Dreaded Question

One day I will never forget is when I was in the town of Salida, Colorado. Salida is known to be a hiker favorite and a “must-see” town for both Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers alike. There is good reason for this; Salida is an adorable, picturesque mountain town located about 250 trail miles south of the Colorado Trail Northern Terminus.

After spending the night at the Loyal Duke Lodge (highly recommend), I woke up and made my way onto the main street to indulge in actual coffee and a ginormous vegan breakfast burrito. Waiting in line to order, I shouldered my teal ULA Circuit that was ready to accompany me for the next 75 miles of wilderness. The man behind me in line noticed (certainly did not smell) my backpack and was curious.

This was not the first time someone in town asked what I was doing. I semi-robotically rambled off the answer to yet another stranger’s question: what the Colorado Trail was, how I started at Waterton Canyon on July 1 and was continuing to make my way south to Durango. Something about this explanation impressed this man and he offered to buy me my coffee and breakfast. An act of kindness from a stranger that I was extremely grateful for.

We proceeded to sit outside on the picnic tables on the main street, eating our breakfast, sipping iced lattes, and chatting. I got to know more about this man and his wife. How they lived in Utah but were road-tripping their way south and mountain biking trails along the way. We chatted about the beauty of Colorado wildflowers and the intense monsoons that year.

Then – out of the blue, as always — came the question I had learned to dread: “Are you Indian?” It hit me like a truck. No other context to the question, just blatantly posed like a blank checkbox to be filled in on a race declaration form. I blurted out the same people-pleasing response I had memorized by this point: yes, I was Indian but no, I did not grow up there. I live in Seattle now and grew up in the Midwest.

Finishing what was left of my oat milk latte in record time and wrapping up the conversation with pleasantries, I grabbed my pack and got up. I left feeling uncomfortable, called out for being different, and that my identity was boiled down to what I looked like.

The Impact

Later on trail, the anger came. I was angry for not standing up for myself. I ruminated over the conversation over and over, each time editing it to what the correct snarky comeback should have been. There is so much more to me than what I look like: my love for marmots and protecting public land, my analytical side from being an engineer, and my adventurous bold spirit. I felt like what made me me was stripped away in that moment.

The sad part was the timing of this. Hiking and being away from society’s expectations, I was just starting to feel like my authentic self for the first time in my entire adult life. My self-image and confidence took a huge step back after this interaction. I felt like the hiking community, from whom I was so badly seeking validation, didn’t have room for me.

If you are a white hiker, I’m willing to bet you have never had an experience like mine. The hiking community needs to recognize that never feeling “othered” is a privilege. “Othering”, or when individuals are labeled as not fitting the norms of a group, can have devastating emotional impacts. It makes those who don’t fit in feel unworthy and less than.

What We Need: Leadership From the Top

It is the job of long-distance trail organizations to speak up about diversity and inclusion on trails. In the ever-growing digital age, these organizations have huge outreach and power. Their websites and social media pages need to highlight actionable commitments to being an ally for minorities. Their Instagram pages need to showcase diverse individuals using these trails; not just the same pictures of white hikers on repeat.

In my opinion, the Colorado Trail Foundation is falling significantly behind other trail organizations on the topic of diversity. I personally reached out to them about publishing minority hiker stories in their bi-yearly newsletter. The response I received read “Our mission and focus are around trail building and volunteer crews. If you’d ever be interested in joining one of our volunteer crews, which I imagine would represent a similar level of diversity that you found on the Trail, we would love to have you and to further share your experience afterward.”

I find it quite ironic that the mission statement highlights the “diverse, high mountain, natural environment” but has no mention of diversity with the types of people who use this trail.

Recognition and Action

The hiking community cannot make progress on diversity until we openly admit there is a problem. Thru-hikers are some of the most resilient people around. We push through intense discomfort and commit to huge goals. I would like to see this same spirit put towards the issue of diversity and inclusion.

As for me, I mostly look back at my time on the CT fondly. Eventually, I was able to separate this negative experience from my thru-hike as a whole. I learned to speak up when I felt uncomfortable. I found friends I could trust on trail who listened to me when I wanted to share my experiences. My hope is that minority hikers continue to get out on trail. We deserve to experience these beautiful and wild places when they call to us.

About the Author

Hi! I’m Nisha, and go by Mallard on the trail. My happy place is in alpine meadows filled with whistling marmots. I discovered backpacking when I moved to Washington after college. I hiked the Wonderland Trail in 2019, the Tahoe Rim Trail in 2020, and the Colorado Trail in 2022. When I’m not in the backcountry, I love walking my dog, Cosmo, and shooting 35 mm film.

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Comments 19

  • Wolfed : Sep 25th

    I am always interested in people such as yourself and their perspective. Why do you care if people ask your ethnicity? Thats a serious question. Every single person on this planet is different in some way. Short people are not asked if they are short because its clear to see whether or not they are. When in Europe talking to locals I was asked by many people if I was American because of my accent there. None of this bothered my in the slightest. I didnt go on to write posts or articles calling out people for asking if I was American.

    So my serious question to you is, why do you care? What is the driving aspect behind not being able to simply live your life with these questions occasionally asked of you? It could be people want to know because they are interested in your life experience and what its like to live in a different part of the world. Not that they would know you didnt grow up elsewhere but then again, they would never know unless they asked.

    • Ruth Morley : Sep 25th

      I’m glad that Wolfed commented first because these were the same questions I would have asked. We mean absolutely no disrespect, but why did this person’s question cause you to be upset? I realize we aren’t in the same position as you, but we’d like to hear more from your perspective. During our own 18 years of living overseas on 3 different continents, I was often asked questions about my origins. Now I get asked almost daily my age (it’s 70). They mean no harm. They’re just curious and interested in me. If their question is awkwardly said and could be grounds for offense, I brush it off, since it’s their first time to ask it, even though I’ve heard that question or something like it many times before.

      Again, no offense intended from me. I’m simply presenting my own perspective and experiences in this discussion.

      • Ciaran : Sep 26th

        I obviously cannot speak for the author here, but I think the main issue with asking direct questions about someone’s ethnicity is that you are projecting an identity onto them. Asking a more general question (i.e. “Where are you from”, NOT “Are you Indian”) allows someone to share their own identity with you. It puts the answer fully in the hands of the person answering, not the person asking. While it may be true that the author’s ethnicity is Indian, they may have a stronger identity as an American, or someone from Oregon, or someone from Chicago, etc.

        Another point: the author isn’t hiking abroad! They point out in the second paragraph that they are Indian-American. Someone who lives and works in America, and identifies as American, shouldn’t be questioned like they are a foreigner. Even if you personally found these questions harmless while you were abroad, many minorities in America feel “othered” or singled out by these questions, and just want to feel like they are part of the group.

        Again, I can’t speak for the author, just trying to contribute to the discussion. Thanks for sharing your perspective, and for pointing out others who were less kind/constructive.

    • Jeffrey Doty : Sep 25th

      You’re right, white hikers in the US wouldn’t be asked that question. However white hikers in India or many other countries could expect exactly the same question, where are you from? I’ve been asked myself while abroad. I can’t imagine twisting that into racial/ethnic histrionics.

    • Pamela Bone : Sep 28th

      Hi Mallard, I’ve been asked my whole life “How tall are you?”, which felt disturbing to me. As a child I used to respond with “4’10 & 3/4″ . But as an adult, I thought that’s too childish so I changed it to 4′ 11”. My dream came true then with that 1/4″! Lol Then later, I changed my response to “Do you mean how short am I? ” and ” Im 4’11”. Then I would turn the tables and ask them ” How tall/short are you?”. This would break the stereotype and awkwardness and get us laughing. Often the people who would ask me are either short or over 6′ tall. Why? I think because they would get asked the same question. How tall/short are you? I just found it odd at first, but by nature we judge people and animals by their size. People judge and calculate to make decisions about moving forward. So, we can steer people in the direction we want them to go or to think. Such as in your case, respond with something interesting or funny or a question back to them. Perhaps respond with your history, such as your ancestors are Indian, but you are #? generation American or saying nothing personal and use a distraction. Most people are curious and just want to make conversation. But, if u didnt like that direct question “Are you Indian” then tell them how you want them to ask. Or, “I would prefer you didnt ask me that question its personal”. This is how we make change through awareness. Not by saying its The Trek’s responsibility, but its your responsibility to make the change you want to happen. It will make you happier to respond and boost your self esteem. The article you wrote was a good start, but understand it will rub people and these are the ones that need the most awareness, try not to be offended or nit pick, but be inspired to take the opportunity to share and inspire others with what you want them to know. Nit picking is a sign that something isn’t going your way, that’s ok, but what u do with it is key. Its your awareness and opportunity to make your own changes to make you happy. Humour and smiling helps a lot. ; )

  • Eric W Janson : Sep 25th

    I hiked the thru hiked JMT this past summer. I often asked people where they were from. On more than one occasion the answer was something like “from the valley” or Chicago. I found myself questioning my perceptions because often those answering were of Asian decent and had the accent to go with it. Of course they were “from the valley,” since they thought of themselves as Americans (I assume). I felt bad that I was asking expecting another answer. It was jarring for me, but only in that I felt embarrassed that I was even thinking this way, and hopeful that my face didn’t betray me.

    • Louise : Sep 28th

      I live in a mountain town. There are many cabins or homes that are used by part-timers who live elsewhere or are part time renters, such as Airbnbers. I’ve lived in this mountain town for 40 yrs but I still get asked “Where are you from” daily from both locals and non locals. It’s annoying. Some locals say that you are not a full timer untill you have lived here for three years. I just respond I’ve lived here for forty years and then they look at me in bewilderment. Locals realize they need to change the subject and non locals are in shock. Covid made this issue even worse. I dont think this will ever change… we will always have visitors. I bet this is how the bears feel.

  • Vince : Sep 25th

    Put the race card away and be an adult. We all bleed red.
    Vince aka The Dude, SOBO, A/T

    • Ruth Morley : Sep 25th

      There is no need to be cruel to her in your remark.

  • Drew Boswell : Sep 25th

    Your load is too heavy when you tote around a bundle of identity politics. Leave it at home next time.

    • Ruth Morley : Sep 25th

      I’m shocked and disappointed that readers of the Trek feel they can be mean spirited to someone who has poured out her heart to us. Isn’t the whole point of her post is to treat others the way we would like to be treated?

  • Ronald : Sep 25th

    Ok, can we all just take a minute and think about a few things?

    1. Nisha is a human being who took the time and energy to be vulnerable and try to raise awareness of her experience as a person of color on a thru-hike.

    2. Just because some of us don’t understand her experiences doesn’t make them any less real. And actually, I bet that was part of the point of sharing them anyways: to shed light on things many of us don’t need to think about at all.

    Thank you to Nisha for sharing her experiences, raising awareness, and providing action items for how the thru-hiking community (and broader hiking community) can be better. We’d all do well to listen.

    • Ruth Morley : Sep 25th


  • Rick : Sep 25th

    I would never ask an acquaintance if they are Nigerian, Hmong, Columbian, Norwegian or any other nationality on Trail, on a plane or anywhere upon first meeting. Asking “Where are you from?” is not the question Nisha has learned to dread; it was, “Are you Indian?” That is inappropriate.

  • Larisa Webster : Sep 25th

    Hi, as a Mexican American I heard you.
    Enlightening too.
    Glad though your able to no longer be bothered by that question and able to respond without feeling bad.
    I’m sure that wasn’t their intention. As they felt they were having a genuine conversation with you.
    See it as a opportunity to share. True growth comes when we think outside of ourselves and think of others instead.
    Open heart, open mind.

  • Gustavo M. : Sep 26th

    Personally it sounds like the problem may actually be the author of this article. As someone who has experienced racism because of my name and skin color. I have learned in the last 45+ years and living throughout the United States as well as in foreign countries. I’ve learned that there are actual people who ask about ethnicity out of curiosity. I actually met a young man years ago who was born and raised in the hills of Kentucky. And because of his isolation he had never met anyone of color in person, and his only reference was from TV. So he would always ask question. He never ment to disrespect anyone, he just wanted to learn about other cultures. I still experience being followed by store employees when I enter a store. Just because I don’t care about fashion and I enjoy browsing. Ironicly I make more money than most just from dividends, since I was able to retire at 41. I live in Colorado at this time and I have found the people to be pleasant and welcoming. Sadly yes I have experienced the awkwardness of people pointing and staring when I enter a store, cafe. And ironically I’ve experienced this in progressive cities or states. Like Seattle, San Fransico and even Hawaii. Ots crazy that I have been treated better in Southern states too. The point I am trying to make is that a person should be happy when a person ask about thier culture. It shows they want to learn instead of judging based on a negative stereotypes. So grow up and realize that you are not the protagonist in this thing called life. And instead of going around looking for things to complain about become an ambassador of your culture and create bridges instead of creating walls with a sense of entitlement.

  • Erica : Sep 26th

    To the out of touch commenters on this post asking why the author is so upset by people “just asking an innocent question.” You are the problem. The author has written an entire article explaining what the problem is and still, you act befuddled.

    Let me break it down for you all. When you ask a person “Where are you really from?” you are telling that person that you don’t think they belong here. And you think that because you looked at them and saw that they were different than you. No matter how innocently you meant the question, you are being, at best, really rude, and at worse, just plain old racist.

    And before you bristle at being accused of racism, ask yourself when was the last time you spoke to a white person with an American accent and asked them where they were “really” from? I imagine the answer is never. I, a white woman, have certainly never been asked that question and yet the author, a woman of color, has been asked that question repeatedly.

    Gosh, I wonder why that might be?

    • Maxine : Sep 29th

      The person with whom Nisha shared the meal did NOT ask her “Where are you really from?” He asked her “Are you Indian?” Which I agree is a bit more jarring than “Where are you from?”, but I also think that context matters. If he had asked her this question right as he first encountered her, and with an unfriendly or suspicious tone, then certainly I think most people would probably have reacted as Nisha did, no matter their race or color or national origin. But that does not seem to be the case here: he was pleasant, they had been conversing for a while, with Nisha apparently learning somewhat personal things about the man and his wife . . . in that context, the question seems far less sinister.

  • howard moore : Sep 29th

    My friends, racism is real. Your experiences aren’t universal, your intentions don’t always match up with your impact, and just because someone can say something to you without ruffling your feathers doesn’t mean you can say it to anyone else with out hurting them.


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