CHADRON – When Chadron State College associate history professor Kurt Kinbacher, a long-time bicycle enthusiast who doesn’t own an automobile, wants to go somewhere in town, he usually hops on his bike.
And Kinbacher, a board member of the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society, plans to get to the society’s June 22-23 board meeting in Kearney the same way – by pedaling the 300 plus miles across the Nebraska Sandhills on his 1980s vintage touring cycle.
It won’t be the first time that Kinbacher has taken to the open road on a bicycle.
“I’ve been touring since 1985 when I bought that bike,” he said, pointing to the 21-gear touring bike he recently spruced up with rebuilt wheels, new cables and fresh grease in all the bearings. “I bought a set of panniers (baskets) and just started biking.”
Kinbacher earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, with thoughts of becoming a lawyer. However, he said a stint as a paralegal convinced him otherwise and there wasn’t much demand at the time for his other prospective career as a high school history teacher.
“I went into youth work and as a bicycle messenger,” he said.
The jobs were flexible enough that Kinbacher could take time off for travel, and he did-by bike.
“I started small, biking across Wisconsin, and it got bigger and bigger and bigger,” he said.
Kinbacher’s bicycle treks included riding some 4,000 miles from Minnesota to New England and back, a two-month, 3,500 mile coast-to-coast journey, a winter tour in the desert southwest of America and a trip in northern Europe. Carrying all his gear on the bike, he slept in campgrounds, farmhouses and hostels. He ate in local restaurants, and had lots of opportunities to learn about the areas he visited.
“It’s a really nice way to see the countryside,” he said.
Kinbacher didn’t tire of the riding, but eventually decided it was time to find more stable work.
“Some people call it a year off, but in my case it was decades, just working to finance my travels,” he said. “In my late 30s I decided I better get a career and went back to grad school.”
Still nurturing an interest in history, Kinbacher earned a master’s degree in the subject from the University of Alabama in 2000, and completed his PhD at UNL in 2006. Trained in the history of the American West, he arrived at Chadron State College three years ago, lured in part by the college’s connection to the Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center, and its hosting of the annual Sandoz Conference.
“Sandoz was a historian and a fiction writer,” said Kinbacher. “That’s admirable. I’d like to be both.”
Kinbacher presented a paper at the Sandoz Conference two years ago. Now, as a Sandoz Society board member, he chairs the committee that selects the keynote speaker for the annual Pilster Great Plains Lecture Series.
Already a published author of numerous historical articles and a book about immigrant communities in Nebraska, Kinbacher said he has attended the Sandoz Society’s Story Catcher Summer Writing Workshop, also at CSC, and wants to explore writing essays, and possibly works of fiction. He’s also kept journals of his bike trips and is interested in using them in his writing.
After a five year break from bicycle touring, Kinbacher got back in the saddle last year with a trip across Nebraska on Highway 20 that inspired him to hit the road again.
“I remembered how much fun it is,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to do a whole lot more of this.’”
For the trip to Kearney, Kinbacher estimated that he will be carrying 30 to 40 pounds of equipment and supplies on his bike, including a sleeping bag and tent, a gas stove, a few food items, clothes, and an entertainment section consisting of a banjo and a fly fishing rod.
The equipment he carries now is lighter and better quality than what he used years ago, Kinbacher said.
“They might have made (better gear) then, but I couldn’t afford it,” he said. “I think it’s more affordable now, but I also have more money. If I want to stay in hotels, I can. I remember when I would start a trip across country with $600.”
Bike technology has improved over the years too, but Kinbacher still rides his original Trek touring bike, which he maintains himself. He carries a smartphone now, but said he doesn’t use it to listen to music as some riders do.
The Kearney trip will take about five days each way, Kinbacher said. He figures an average pace of about 75 miles per day, but said he thinks of it as a series of one-hour rides broken up by breaks for food, water and rest.
He is planning to write a blog about his trip, but won’t be posting while on the road.
“There will be a forthcoming blog about some of this nonsense,” he said. “I’m not sure what it will look like. It’s a new side of my written voice.”
Though bicycle touring seems like a solitary pastime, Kinbacher said he meets lots of other riders on his trips.
“I start out alone usually, but you are kind of one big community (with other bikers),” he said. “There’s always somebody out there, especially in summer.”
Nebraska is a good place for bicycle touring, with wide shoulders on most roads, and many small towns where a rider can get a meal or find a place to camp, according to Kinbacher.
And traveling the country by bike is a pleasurable experience if you like to ride, he said.
“It’s kind of sublime. You poke along at a not very fast pace, see the countryside, chat with people and get an idea of the culture,” Kinbacher said.