Robert Kuhlken grew up enveloped in landscapes of the rural South, the Colorado Front Range, and the farmlands of southeastern Pennsylvania. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in English from Clinch Valley College in Virginia, and began graduate studies in 1979 in the Department of Geography at Oregon State University where he conducted research on agricultural land use and pastoral strategies undertaken by the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in central Oregon. He earned the master's degree in 1983, and worked for seven years in local government land use planning agencies in Oregon, feeling at home in both Prineville and Portland. Between jobs, he has traveled extensively throughout South America, Australia and New Zealand, and the islands of the South Pacific.
In 1989 he entered the doctoral program in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University, and in 1992 was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship at the Department of Geography, University of the South Pacific in Suva, where his dissertation research focused on traditional irrigation and agricultural practices in Fiji. After teaching for a year at Clemson University in South Carolina, he joined the CWU faculty in the fall of 1995. As a cultural geographer, his eclectic research interests range from arson to zydeco.