Ken Hartke

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I'm retired and living solo "out west" in the New Mexico desert. I've been an observer and blogger for years and usually have four or five blogs going but wrote for myself or for friends. A lot of it was travel stories or daily random postings -- but it was a good experience. Red Room allowed me to share things on a wider scale and with its demise, I (maybe) found a more public voice.

A Chance Meeting on a Train


The chance meetings or random coincidences always intrigue me. I’m travelling cross country by train and I‘ve met two writers already just as table-mates in the dining car. One, age nineteen, has two published books (what was I doing with my time at nineteen?). The other is a ghost writer and mostly now does short stories. The nineteen-year-old just started a university writing program so, who knows, she may never write again – or maybe be a great success.  I knew her when…


I had lunch in the dining car yesterday with a lady from the island of Hawaii travelling to St. Louis, which happens to be my destination. As we talked, she shared some of her experiences of moving to Hawaii and what her immediate surroundings were like…plants and animals. There was also another lady sitting at a table across the aisle who was glancing over from time to time. It turned out that she also was also from the “Big Island” and they were, in fact, near neighbors. They lived in adjoining communities. So what are the odds of two people starting off on separate journeys from the same general place at different times and meeting in a dining car in New Mexico on an east-bound train? How many different things had to fall into place for that to happen?   I suppose someone could figure out the odds with enough information but I’ve learned just to accept it.


My life is full of similar random coincidences that defy explanation. My late wife’s birthdate matches exactly with my brother’s wife’s birthdate…same day and year. They were born in the same state but not the same city.  Also, totally unknown until later, my wife once worked for my sister-in-law’s mother when she was starting her career before I met her.


About a twenty years into my work life I was living in a small town and employed in government as a program manager. I had to hire a new secretary so I interviewed maybe a half dozen candidates. I hired a local woman from the small town and never really thought much about her background or family. In small towns one doesn’t pry into family connections unless the topic is initiated by the other person. My experience was that many people were related to each other either directly or by marriage and it was best not to express opinions or comments about someone. Now, realize that I was born and raised 150 miles away and had no connection to this town. That is what I thought until a chance conversation with my secretary revealed that we were both cousins to the same person. Somehow one of my cousins married her cousin and we were commonly related to their children.  It was a second marriage for both of these cousins; both being divorced in different localities.     


I also have two insurance agents, both living in that same small town that I moved to at age 27, and both of these agents share my birthday. One is exactly the same — day and year – and the other a few years later.  They don’t know each other and work for different companies. There are other date-related coincidences:  my dad died ten years, to the hour, before the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.  I could list almost a dozen other odd, seemingly random occurrences but you get the idea. 


I was recently reading a short passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace in which he questions how things happen. Often we see things as planned and managed by a talented leader (in this case, Napoleon) but maybe that is an illusion. Maybe things are set in motion in another way. Maybe a peculiar string of random events led Napoleon to Moscow with a huge army.  Maybe he was just along for the ride. We plan things and sometimes the plans work out and sometimes they don’t.  “Serendipity” is one English language concept – to find something good by accident without seeking it.  In history, one person’s serendipity is sometimes another person’s catastrophe. I suspect that concept is not unique to English speakers.


At any rate, things have an odd tendency to fall into place in ways that, while seemingly random, also give a hint that something else is in control. My daughter says that it is the angels at work. She got that idea from my wife who attributed certain happenings to an un-seen hand…”Let it be – marvel but don’t question” was her philosophy. Maybe so.  Maybe the angels are bored and play these games to keep busy.








Recent Comments
Katherine Gregor
Aah... Synchronicity :–)
Friday, 02 September 2016 21:11
Ken Hartke
Monday, 05 September 2016 01:20
Rosy Cole
Like your wife and daughter, I've come to the conclusion that the angels are best left to do their thing, so prevalent is this syn... Read More
Wednesday, 07 September 2016 15:57
1240 Hits



It’s not easy being a parent. My house is on a large piece of land, over an acre, and I generally let it grow up with native plants that are suited to the desert climate. This year I have four, maybe five, covies of Gambel’s quail patrolling the yard. It has been a successful year and each set of parents have twelve or fifteen (or more) chicks so I have somewhere around sixty baby quail in the yard. This is in addition to the dozen or more desert cottontail rabbits.


Every day there are little dramas played out in the yard.  I’ve taken to throwing seed out because there are so many chicks. The rabbits, who spend their day lounging in the shade under my pick-up truck, have acquired a taste for the birdseed so the venture out and then there are a few confrontations  with mom and dad quail — all peaceful but this is BIRDseed, after all.




There are so many chicks to keep track of that sometimes the parents lose count. Somebody goes missing and one of the parents, a male in this instance, is tasked with finding the little wanderer. They like to do this from an elevated place…it’s easier to see junior from above. The chicks know to hide in tall grass if they are separated so the parent makes a sound to attract the chick’s attention.  They do this same low-key chatter when they lead the covey out to feed so it is a common and understood sound for the chick. It might take a few minutes but eventually the errant son or daughter is brought home.




I have a walled courtyard in the front of my house with a large goldfish pond that serves as the local watering hole for my local wildlife.  The quail families will parade in through the gate and spread out to forage. A couple days ago one chick was missed in the headcount as they were going back out the gate. Two chicks ran out together and mom miscounted. She was sure there was one missing. She stayed and searched for several minutes until she was satisfied, or maybe dad called to her, and then ran to catch up.  Parenthood is hard enough with one or two but with twelve or fifteen all the same age it must be exhausting.


Recent Comments
Orna Raz
This is lovely dear Ken: to observe like you do, to record wth such great photos and to write so well about nature.
Wednesday, 27 July 2016 21:18
Katherine Gregor
Short and sweet... and speaks volumes. I love it. How fortunate you are to have wildlife in your garden, Ken.
Thursday, 28 July 2016 10:50
Rosy Cole
Utterly delightful, Ken :-). A breath of fresh air. New Mexico continues to enthrall. But I hope, if you have any restaurateur fri... Read More
Thursday, 28 July 2016 14:02
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A Monster of a Man

One of the things I like most about travelling on Amtrak is the dining car seating arrangement. They have an open seating policy. You make your way through the train to the dining car, present yourself and wait to be seated. The attendant will seat you at an open place at a table that is often occupied by strangers who may or may not be familiar with each other. There are usually immediate introductions followed by an hour of conversation as the food is ordered, prepared and served. Food on the train is one-hundred times better than on a plane and much more memorable. I still remember a few of my dining car meals.

I've met some very interesting people in this fashion. One was a National Park guide who was stationed ar Hyde Park, Franklin D. Roosevelt's home and at Val-Kill, Eleanor Rossevelt's cottage retreat. She entertained us with stories about FDR and some of the visitors to the house. Having been there I could easily appreciate what she had to say. Another time there was an endearing elderly couple travelling from Los Angeles to New York for a wedding. Another couple talked about their pioneering families who came north out of New Spain in the 1600s to settle in New Mexico. They were on their way to Austria (by train?) to visit some long lost relatives. It is all very interesting and at least you will all have the travel experience in common.

I most often travel alone and always get a private Roomette so I can work or read without too much distraction and stretch out to sleep. Normally a Roomette will accomodate two people...albeit quite snuggly. Your meals are included in the price of the Roomette and if travelling alone you should eat as much as you can because you are buying meals for two people.

On one such trip, going from Albuquerque to Kansas City, I went to the dining car and was seated at an empty table. Most of the other tables were fully occupied but there were a number of vacant spots. I was a little disappointed as I sat there by myself. Then a person appeared in the doorway at the far end of the dining car. A huge black man -- both tall and wide -- who was probably somewhat over three-hundred pounds in weight. He was more casually dressed than most of the travellers in the dining car and his appearrance demanded attention. Heads turned as people eyed the newcomer. There was a noticable change in the conversational noise.  Body language seemed to shout "Not here!!".

The attendant greeted him and turned to assess the seating options. Everyone looked away but it seemed as though they expanded their personal space in a subtle way. The attendant led him down the long aisle to my table. "This was going to be interesting", I thought. We had to reposition the table so he could sit down and he was still wedged in and looked a little uncomfortable.

We introduced ourselves and talked a little while looking over the menu. He was on his way back to his home in Fort Worth, Texas, after helping a friend move from Texas to a teaching position at the University in Albuquerque. They had a one-way truck rental and he had to find own his way back home. The train route between those two places is long and arduous -- the first leg was an overnight trip to Kansas City followed by a second shorter leg to St. Louis. Then there was another long overnight trip from St. Louis to Fort Worth. Such is the state of rail travel in the United States. If I wanted to take the train from Albuquerque to Denver I would have to go through Chicago....but I digress.

My fellow passenger was carrying a substantial laptop computer...larger and a little thicker than mine or most others that I've seen. As we talked he explained that he was an independant film producer and was taking advantage of the train trip to interview his fellow passengers on video as part of a future project. He was traveling in coach and had a lot of people to choose from. Our food arrived and we ate while continuing our conversation. He was also a theater director in Fort Worth and produced and directed live theater productions several times a year. When he returned to Fort Worth he would be starting on a new production. We had a most enjoyable visit. Later in the trip, on the second day,  he interviewed me for his film project. I'm afraid I wasn't very witty or informative. He would ask questions but my answers were dull and not very animated. I'm probably not independant film material. 

We made it to Kansas City on time and there was a short layover before I could catch my next train going to my final stop in Jefferson City. This was also the train to St. Louis so my new acquaintance also had to board that second train.  We were sent to different cars based on our final destination so I didn't see him again. This train often carries newly released inmates from the state penitentiary and I suspect there might have been a few interesting interviews. If I ever spend time in Fort Worth I'll try to look him up.

     *     *     *    


Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
Thanks Ken - I really enjoyed this. I have great (if vague) memories of traveling across country by train. I think I was around 5 ... Read More
Wednesday, 29 June 2016 01:20
Ken Hartke
Stephen -- Thanks for stopping by. My dad worked for the old Wabash Railroad...of Cannonball I've always had an attachme... Read More
Wednesday, 29 June 2016 03:04
Rosy Cole
Yes, I much enjoyed it too, thank you. And sorry you didn't get a film contract! I used to love the old-style train travel here... Read More
Saturday, 02 July 2016 22:55
1030 Hits

Wandering Toward the Outlaw Mountains






If you take a look at the preceding image you will see a huge expanse of New Mexico desert, green from a rare period of frequent rains, and in the distance a shadowy hulk of a mountain. The mountain is a cluster of mountains called the Sierra Ladrones, the Outlaw Mountains, and they are about forty miles off in the distance from the camera.


These mountains are isolated from any other mountain range and are considered a “massif” in geologic terms. They sit like an island, complete unto themselves. Unlike many of the other local mountains, the Sierra Ladrones are not volcanic but are an up-thrust of Precambrian rock that somehow, through ancient tectonic movements, managed to rise above the surrounding surface and withstood erosional forces over the eons of time. Ladron Peak reaches 9,176 feet in elevation, some 4,000 feet higher than the Rio Grande valley to the east. Monte Negro, a secondary peak, rises to 7,572 feet. Most of this is Bureau of Land Manage land but Sevillita National Wildlife Refuge includes part of the southeastern slope. They are isolated -- that was probably great for the thieves and renegade Apache Indians who took refuge there generations ago.




I have been fascinated by the Sierra Ladrones and always look for them when I venture south from Albuquerque. They play hide and seek. Now you see them — now you don’t. That’s because of the terrain and the Interstate 25 highway route that follows the Rio Grande south to Socorro and Truth or Consequences…that’s where the people live, after all. Not many people live up near the Sierra Ladrones; only a few isolated ranches and a few ranchers running cattle on open range. It would be a hard place to raise a family, albeit a beautiful place.  It seems to be a place where you finds “something” where there should be “nothing”.


On a whim, I decided to see if I could get close to the mountains and maybe find a way to get up into them…just the foothills. I’m no mountain climber or even an endurance hiker so it would depend on finding a road. After a little searching on Google and my highway map I found that Socorro County Road 12 would be the way to get close. There are a few webpage accounts of hikers and climbers venturing up into the mountains and there is a wilderness study area described on one webpage — CR 12 seemed to be the preferred route. This is an unpaved road running from Bernardo, past the “ghost” town of Riley to Magdalena, on US 60. The sign says it all.




The route out of Bernardo follows a portion of “old” Highway 60, or maybe “old” Highway 84 depending on the map. There’s not much there — a KOA campground and a rickety bridge over the Rio Puerco.  This is the paved part…okay, mostly paved…but the pavement runs out just past the bridge where you take a hard right onto CR 12. You are pretty much on your own from here. I think I saw three ranch trucks all day until I got back close to the interstate.






The road is certainly unpaved and for much of the early portion it has a jarring wash-board surface that almost makes you want to turn around. Maybe that’s intentional to keep the faint-hearted folks out. After that it gets better and turns into a bumpy but reasonably well maintained dirt and gravel road.






This is mostly Bureau of Land Management public land. Some of it is fenced and some is just open range. I didn’t keep track of my mileage but after about five miles or so you encounter power lines.   I lost track of the number of cattle guards I crossed but there were plenty. If you do see an approaching rancher’s truck you will see the dust long before you see the vehicle.  There was always a wave.        


I’ve said often enough that I have the curiosity of a fourth grader even though I’m almost sixty-seven. I can’t remember the last time I took a walk and didn’t find something that caught my interest. A lot of times my pockets are full of rocks or seeds or something that warrants closer attention. Sometimes I carry a small pocket-sized microscope. When I’m out walking I’m looking at plants and the geology, mostly. There are animal tracks and burrows and places where some unseen miniature life and death drama took place. Luckily, I’ve not yet encountered a rattlesnake…not yet.  Mostly there were lizards, a few birds and a desert cottontail. The ground was desert sand and dust. It made me think of decomposed tuff or volcanic ash, probably blown in over the centuries from the ample number of ancient eruptions; New Mexico is full of old volcanoes. There is an active magma body under Socorro and Truth or Consequences that fuels the local hot springs. TorC is a spa town.


I paused at a dry arroyo but there was no exposed bedrock. About a third of the rocks I saw strewn around on the surface was milky quartz — sometimes an indicator of a nearby vein of some type of ore. Where I’m from I’ve seen that with a little silver and tungsten ore. There were also some nice examples of reddish feldspar-rich granite. I always wonder how these fist-sized rocks appear out of nowhere.






Some of the plants I know, like the Apache Plume growing wild through the area. They sell that as a popular ornamental and out here, left all alone; it looks healthier than in my yard. There was a woody, yellow-flowered bush that I didn’t recognize. It seemed to be full-grown at about three feet tall.  Most prominent is the cholla forest stretching all the way to the mountain. Some were in bright red bloom and being visited by bees…who manage to survive out here somehow.




There doesn’t seem to be much available for cattle to eat or enough water to keep them alive. They seem to do quite well, anyway. I saw several young calves running through the cholla and a small “herd” staring at me on one of the tracks leading off of the county road.




As I said, I was out here wandering with no particular agenda or goal. I had no expectation of actually getting up into the mountains but was just looking for a possible route. I got a late start and it was well into the afternoon and I was twenty-some miles out on an unpaved road. It was a gorgeous day and it lifted my spirits…I’ve been a little glum lately.








From the higher elevation you can look back towards the Rio Grande valley and see the dark colors of the river-side bosque forest  and the wetlands and across to Black Butte and the mountains beyond the valley. Cloud shadows are always changing the landscape. This part of the Rio Grande valley is a rift valley, originally several thousand feet deep but filled in by the encroaching desert sand.




Clouds were building by the late afternoon and it was time to head back home. The danger is more from lightning than from rain but there are some arroyos that would be subject to flash flooding. I’m satisfied that I’ll be able to continue this trip at a future date. There will probably be a part two at some point.




*     *     *




Recent Comments
Katherine Gregor
What wonderful mountains! The first time I ever went up a mountain was in the Basque Country, a few years ago, and it was a revela... Read More
Saturday, 11 June 2016 15:03
Ken Hartke
Katherine -- Thanks for stopping by. I am drawn to some of these out of the way places. A few days after my trip out to these mou... Read More
Saturday, 11 June 2016 18:04
Rosy Cole
A spectacular post, Ken, and an informative read about a part of the globe that would otherwise be hearsay to many of us. It's so ... Read More
Tuesday, 14 June 2016 17:29
1829 Hits

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