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America’s Trails

Ryan Chao: My Story of Life and Leadership in the Outdoors

By: Ryan Chao
March 19, 2021

Missouri Headwaters State Park in Montana | Photo by Scott Stark
Missouri Headwaters State Park in Montana | Photo by Scott Stark

This past year I’ve written often about Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s priorities—including our efforts to be of service during the pandemic alongside our commitment to increasing equity and inclusion in the trails, walking and biking movement. On occasion, I’ve shared my personal views about the importance of solidarity against racism, but I haven’t yet told my own story.

Now seems like the right time.

“Discrimination is sadly an unavoidable part of life for People of Color in America. Spending time outside in nature is one way I get away from it all.”

Progress begins with establishing trust and understanding between people. Each of us is only really the expert of our own story, and building understanding takes sharing. Unlike what I often share with all of you, this is not a call to action or an organizational statement. This is just one person’s experience as a Person of Color in the outdoors and nonprofit leadership.

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in a mixed-race family in Oregon. My father is Chinese; my mother is white, mostly of Swedish descent. We were the only biracial family I knew. Being stared at—and at times unwelcomed—was just part of being in public as a family. Growing up, I didn’t feel closely connected to either side of my heritage. Regardless, I still experienced name calling and bullying because of my race.

I married a Korean American woman, and we have two teenage daughters. We proudly identify as an Asian American family. As an adult, I’ve found myself warmly embraced by the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, in both my personal and civic lives.

I’m deeply passionate about the outdoors—preserving and protecting these spaces, and creating access for recreation. I recognize that my class, gender and able-bodied status afford me greater access to outdoor recreation than many, and it’s why I find it so important to create the same opportunities for more people.

The outdoors is a place where many of us turn for respite and rejuvenation. As an Asian American man, I’ve lived with stigma, othering and stereotypes. Everyone’s experience is different, but discrimination is sadly an unavoidable part of life for People of Color in America. Spending time outside in nature is one way I ‘get away from it all.’

Some of my friends of color question my decisions to go on fishing trips in the remote wilderness or solo bikepacking adventures. The overwhelming majority of these experiences has been safe, joyful and life-affirming, but, in truth, I’ve experienced threats and hostility on multiple occasions. It’s rare, but sobering and troubling when it happens.

As an Asian American in times of rising violence against the AAPI community, it’s hard not to think more cautiously about where I go alone and with my family in public. The three most important people in my life are Asian American women, and I find the murders in Atlanta haunting.

“We are nothing if we don’t care about and care for each other.”

Not many people have the privilege to combine their personal passions with their work, and I’m lucky to spend my days working to create more access to the outdoors for other people. As one of the few People of Color serving in a leadership role in the trails, walking and biking sector, I’ve felt welcomed by the community. At the same time, I recognize that my position carries an added responsibility to represent the people of my heritage well and to provide opportunities for others.

This past year of the pandemic has brought so much suffering and tragedy. I have lost loved ones to COVID-19, and I have seen treasured local businesses and institutions struggle financially or shutter. I’ve heard from so many of you, personally and professionally, about the hardships you’ve endured, but also the optimism you feel. If the pandemic has given us anything, it is the opportunity for reflection on what really matters—like loving family and friends and belonging to a community.

We are nothing if we don’t care about and care for each other.

As I said, this is not a call to action. Perhaps, it’s just a modest appeal for more sharing and more understanding.


Special thanks to RTC President Ryan Chao for this—the latest post in his monthly series on the role of trails in connecting the nation, and creating healthy, thriving communities across America.

Ryan Chao | Photo by Anthony Le
Ryan Chao

Ryan Chao is the president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, responsible for overseeing the organization’s national leadership in trail development, policy advocacy and movement building. He brings to his role a long history in community and economic development and a passion for connecting people to opportunity and the outdoors.

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Everyone deserves access to safe ways to walk, bike, and be active outdoors.