Adventure Great Plains


How Mountain Biking the Great Plains taught me to love the region’s history, its landscapes, and its peoples.

By David Vail, Assistant Professor of History, University of Nebraska Kearney

I love the Great Plains, although I’m not originally from here. I grew up in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley where outdoor learning and adventures were part of everyday life. Mountain biking connected my passion for the outdoors and exercise, but it also taught me about interconnectedness. Relationships between wildlife, landscapes, development, and local communities all came into view as I rode the trails. I learned at an early age about the challenges, tensions, and benefits of using landscapes.

As I followed my passions for environmental and agricultural history to the grasslands, first to Kansas State University for my doctorate work and then, to the University of Nebraska Kearney, I found a new joy in teaching, researching, and traversing the grasslands. Kansas’ Flint Hills offered a wealth of trails, beautiful vistas, and bison. Although challenged in elevation, riding paved and gravel roads and dirt trails placed me in the middle of Great Plains life: wind-whipped grasses; scurries of red squirrels; hunting bobcats; occasional red fox; distant humming of agricultural airplanes spraying fields of wheat or corn.

Riding the Great Plains also allowed me to have a more direct relationship with noxious weeds and pests. But poison ivy and loan-star ticks didn’t stop me. Then, at the end of a mountain biking day, the sunsets. To stop and see the sky and land meet in a beautiful array of colors renews my passion for the land even while I’m weary from the ride.

My recent move to my dream job of teaching history at UNK has also led to new dreams about the beauty of Nebraska’s environment, agricultural landscape, and local communities. I am excited to ride Kearney and adventure beyond to other Nebraska places.

Hope to see you out here.