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.


Laying bricks is honest work. Hard, straight forward work.
It is repetitive. You do one thing and then the next and so on.
It can almost rely on muscle memory. Almost like a rosary
or working prayer beads. That’s honest work too.
Thoughtful work. Your mind can be exploring other things.

Brick, mortar, brick, mortar, brick, mortar, repeat…
Or – mortar, mortar, mortar, brick, brick, brick…
Thoughts and ideas come and go. Worries, too.
Some are considered and rejected like misbegotten bricks
too broken or misshaped to fit the allotted place.


I once lived in an old brick house in an old brick city.
Almost everything was laid brick as far as you could see.
Think of all the thoughts and worries sealed up in the mortar
and the brickwork. Plans made or discarded. Acres, no, miles
of bricks and thoughts and worries all laid out in rows.

My brick house was over 100 years old. It was an honest
house built to last. A lot of thought went into that house.
It could easily stand for 100 years more on Main Street.
Built for a German family in 1904. It was solid, no frills.
Modern for its day with a cistern, wood stoves. No fireplace.


This was the trolley man’s family. He drove the trolley
up Main Street, many times a day. First horse drawn and
later motorized (Wonder of wonders!) He probably glanced
at his house at each passing – thinking, in German, no doubt,
of the future and the past. His wife. His kids His good fortune.

The family spoke German much of the time at home. On Sunday
they went to the German Evangelical Church and worshipped,
also, in German. The school was four doors down the street
where the kids spoke English. They were a bit rambunctious.
Their initials are still carved on the cellar joists. Ah, immortality!

The old man stayed with the trolley company. He liked doing
some mechanic work when needed. He bought an automobile,
a "machine", and built a sturdy garage for it off the back alley.
His wife made room for it among the sweet peas and the grapes.
It was a good life. He smoked his cigars, had some wine, read books.


My tenure in the house came much later. Even those kids had likely
turned to dust. In all those years there were only three owners.
I moved on so now another young family lives there, with a baby.
Living alone, I can remember on quiet nights, reading in the old parlor,
I would sometimes be aware of a faint hint of the trolley man’s cigar.

The trolley man might still be there - bound up somehow in the
old bricks and mortar. If he's a happy spirit I would not be surprised.
He has a new family. Somethings change but somethings never do.
Some months before I moved away, a city crew was digging in the
street by the house and found relics of the old trolley line.

JC Trolley





     *     *     *


Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
The trolley man’s cigar - wonderful image.
Sunday, 03 November 2019 01:06
Ken Hartke
It caught me by surprise the first time I noticed it. After the trolley man, the house was owned by the state Governor's cook so ... Read More
Tuesday, 05 November 2019 17:36
113 Hits

Travel Notes: The Great American Desert


The Plains had always been peopled by nomadic groups going back to the Clovis hunters. The Indians still lived out there and seemed to be successful. Vázquez de Coronado and his Conquistadors were probably the first Europeans to fully experience the Great Plains. He and his expedition were on a fool’s errand looking for fabled cities of gold. He and his people marched from Mexico well into eastern Kansas before he gave up and went back. An early explorer, Edwin Thomas with Major Stephen Long’s 1820 expedition, labeled the Great Plains as the Great American Desert in his published account of their trek across this empty space. For years that description stayed in the public perception. Mountain Men and fur trappers would venture out onto the plains and into the mountains but not many others. Long’s expedition concluded that the plains were "unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture."  Free Enterprise turned a blind eye toward Long’s and others’ admonitions and in 1821, William Becknell pioneered the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri across the plains and through the mountain passes into Santa Fe, in what was then just becoming independent Mexico. The Santa Fe Trail turned out to be the interstate highway of its day. It became a military road in 1846 when the US Army marched down the Santa Fe Trail to occupy New Mexico during the Mexican-American War. New Mexico (actually named after the Aztec empire, not the country) became part of the United States officially in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. 

While I could not happily live on the Great Plains, I have always been fascinated by the tree-less and seemingly empty expanse. In April 2019, I struck out on my own expedition to follow the Santa Fe Trail across the Great American Desert. This account is just a small part of the story. The full story of the trip is HERE and my description and experience at three historic hotels I stayed at along the way is HERE. (My travel hobby is “collecting” historic hotels.) 

I left home travelling north and east from Bernalillo (founded c. 1620 and reestablished 1694 after the Pueblo Revolt) following the old Royal road from Mexico City to Santa Fe – El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro – and picked up the Santa Fe Trail about forty miles along the way. 

Going east across the plains, my route was mostly on two-lane, black-top roads and I tried to avoid interstate highways as much as possible.  This was the high plains. If you ever wondered what was out there on the horizon as you crossed the plains on the Interstate highway or by train, I can tell you now that there is practically nothing out there. That being said, for a photographer or an artist, it has a stark beauty and a lonesome appeal.

The few hills that one sees at first as the road leads away from the mountains soon change to an incredible flat canvas where the sky takes over as the most prominent feature.

I could not live here but I am struck by the mighty presence of absolutely nothing. There are ranches out on the plains scattered every twenty miles or so and there is occasional traffic on the highway, but one has the notion of being entirely and utterly alone.

On earlier trips across the plains by train I have talked with travelers from Los Angeles and New York and Chicago -- people who have no problem navigating and experiencing city life –- and they have a sense of awe and almost bewilderment at the endless expanse of emptiness stretching to the horizon.

There are several interesting stops along the way. Two of my favorites are the US Cavalry forts that guarded the trail and imposed an illusion of order and control.

Fort Union – New Mexico

A few miles east of Las Vegas, in New Mexico, was at Fort Union – an important military post and supply depot on the Santa Fe Trail. At one time there were 4,000 people residing at the fort working in a military capacity or as outfitters and suppliers for the Santa Fe traders. The officers’ families were also in residence.

Fort Union is a grim and ghostly ruin today. Built of mud-brick adobe, it has slowly given way to the elements. There were actually three forts here. The first was a temporary outpost. During the Civil War a second earthen fort was built in the starburst shape equipped with artillery that never saw defensive action. There was a significant Civil War battle fought about thirty miles west at Glorieta Pass where the Santa Fe Trail begins to descend toward the town of Santa Fe. What exists here now is the haunting relic of the third and largest fort, built after the Civil War.

When I visited it was even more ghostly due to the fog and April snow showers. It was cold and miserable, and I imagine the soldiers stationed there were pretty miserable at times. The fort kept two crews working in the nearby mountains just cutting firewood for heat and cooking fires.


The Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts are still visible at Fort Union. Unlike the popular idea of single file wagon trains, the freight wagons usually went four or five abreast, so the ruts are spread out over a wider area.

Fort Union exists today as a National Monument with two park rangers on duty. The weather was miserable, and they were not very busy when I visited, so I had the place to myself. The fort is huge and was complete with warehouses and repair shops. There were enlisted men’s barracks, officers’ quarters, a large hospital, and (of course) a jail.

I could spend much more time at Fort Union. It is a photographer’s dream and seeing it like this in a spectral fog only made it more enticing.  I’m sure I’ll be back on a more pleasant day.

I was really just starting out on my trip. I crossed into Colorado at Raton Pass near Trinidad and continued on along the base of the Rockies to the old coal-mining town of Walsenburg where I spent the night at the La Plaza Inn, sort of a cowboy/workingman’s hotel from 1907.  The next day I was truly on the plains. I eventually reached the Arkansas River and followed it and the trail eastward.

Fort Larned

I hurried on my way through the Arkansas River towns and stopped at Fort Larned, another old cavalry fort about halfway across Kansas. This was a military post established to protect the middle portion of the Santa Fe Trail. Instead of adobe, Fort Larned was built of local sandstone and survives very nicely today - probably one of the best original examples of a US Cavalry fort.

One easily gets a feel for what military life was like in the mid-1800s at Fort Larned. Not much happened so it was a bit tedious with the usual daily tasks. Kansas in the summer is hot and humid and cold and windswept in the winter. The freight wagons came and went. There were no real “hostile” Indians by this time and the fort didn’t have a wall or even visible defenses. Unlike the much larger Fort Union, this was a trail-side outpost and waystation.

The Officers’ quarters were reasonably pleasant, and many had their families living with them. 


Life in the barracks was not as grand and the enlisted soldiers had plenty of tasks to keep them occupied. There was a hospital and repair shops and livestock that needed to be tended.


The fort was decommissioned in the late 1800s and became a cattle ranch for a while before coming under the authority of the National Parks as a historic site. Being made of sandstone, the fort’s buildings provided a ready tablet for early visitors to carve their names or messages in stone. Once the fort closed it was too tempting. People wanted to leave their names to show that they were there. I guess we are always seeking immortality. Some examples show some real dedication to the effort.



There’s even a cryptic reference to Kaiser Wilhelm in a couple examples. The fort closed before WW-I so it must have been a visitor (or a spy?).

I took a lot of pictures and spent enough time at Fort Larned that I was running far behind schedule. The rest of my day's trip across Kansas is something of a blur. I stayed in Marion, Kansas, at the 1886 Elgin Hotel – an amazingly restored three-story stone structure that offered a great stay. I slept soundly in the Dwight Eisenhower Suite.  

The next morning, I continued on my way to Columbia, Missouri, and eventually spent most of a week in St.Louis with friends and relatives.


The trip home was fairly uneventful. I was getting a bit tired of Kansas, so I made few stops and was glad to get back into New Mexico to see a few hills again. I spent my last night of the trip in Cimarron, New Mexico, at the St. James Hotel (1872) and stayed in Jesse James’ favorite room. With twenty-six murders or killings in or around the St. James, the place was the epicenter for the Wild West. Almost everyone from Buffalo Bill to Zane Gray spent time in the St. James and it seems some never left. One room is sealed off -- the spirit wants to be alone.

*     *     *


Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
It feels as though that wind is still driving you through this fascinating whirlwind tour of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. For ... Read More
Sunday, 26 May 2019 15:42
Ken Hartke
I'm glad you enjoyed it and I enjoy taking people along on these journeys. When I reached over twenty pages I realized that my nar... Read More
Sunday, 26 May 2019 23:19
1457 Hits

The Wind Takes No Prisoners

I"m getting ready for a long road trip -- heading east along the old Santa Fe Trail. Eastward, a thousand miles across Dorothy's Kansas with the wind at my back. Yesterday it was blowing at about 40 mph so today's 25 mph feels like a reprieve but it is still gusting. There is a blizzard warning posted for areas north of where I'm travelling and it should be played out by the time I get out on the high plains.  At least I hope so.

I'm heading "home" in a sense, to the Midwest. The big river valleys and the centerlands between the four compass points still carry a sense of place and personal history for me even though I cannot live there any more. I'm a full-fledged bird of the desert but I still need these occasional migratory excursions. My home place is now in the New Mexico desert in view of five mountain ranges and starry skies. ...But that doesn't mean that I don't miss my roots. I can only eat so much green or red chile pepper sauce before I need some kind of comfort food of the Midwest. I'm planning on hauling back a treasure trove of St. Louis food -- if I don't eat it all on the road back.

We can complain about the wind and the blowing dust or snow but there is no recourse. No court of appeals. There were twenty-four severe weather warnings posted for New Mexico yesterday for high winds, blowing dust and extreme fire danger. If a fire gets started in the dry grass it will cover fifty miles before anyone can even try to stop it.

I'm thinking about those hearty pioneers and muleskinners who struck out toward the horizon with the incredible wind blowing them raw.  They had huge, unwieldy cargo wagons laden with supplies and material for sale in Santa Fe. The deep wagon ruts are still there in many places in central Kansas. Santa Fe was a foreign country but it was closer to Missouri than it was to Mexico City so the trail wagons were tolerated at first and then welcomed.  One of my wife's ancestors made the trip at least once. There is a large 100 foot sandstone rock part way across Kansas -- known as Pawnee Rock. It was one of many important trail landmarks and described as the "The greatest sight ever beheld by man".  If you have been watching the hind-end of a team of mules or oxen for three-hundred miles, it was a welcome diversion. 

I will have a better view -- no mules or oxen -- but the wind will give me a little push from behind. I think I probably shared the following poem once before. It gives an idea of the power of the wind on the land and people born to it.

So now comes the wind.
Our winter’s downhill neighbor
testing the hinges.

From beyond, somewhere
in a distant mountain place,
it comes to life.

It finds its power.
it scours the dead and dying;
it tries to take you.

But you bow your head.
You divert your reddened eyes.
It passes over.

A born acrobat,
Tumbleweed pulls up her skirts
and scatters her seeds.

It takes what it wants,
leaving man and beast behind
tumbling into Spring.

Recent Comments
Katherine Gregor
I love your piece, Ken. Your writing made me feel as though I were there.
Sunday, 14 April 2019 16:28
Stephen Evans
A fascinating part of the country - enjoy your trip!
Thursday, 18 April 2019 02:38
Ken Hartke
It has been a good trip. I will be back home in three days -- probably close to 3,000 miles from the start. I have one more histor... Read More
Thursday, 25 April 2019 06:07
1470 Hits

Found Objects

I found myself walking along the sea.
We are all part sea water and perhaps
I'm on a pilgrimage to the call of the tides.


Living so far away from the ocean, the
beach is unfamiliar and holds secrets.
The water is cold. The sand is soft.



Landlocked, I see the beach and the ocean
with different eyes. I lock away the smallest details.
It could be years before I return -- or never.



That's probably me with my head looking down.
That’s how I walk on a beach. Or I scan the horizon.
I see a few others my age doing much the same.


The gulls call out. They gather and squabble.
The shorebirds taunt the spent waves.
A lone jogger passes by without a word.


This sand is decorated with polished stones.
Washed by each gentle wave, they shine
and leave patterns from the receding flow.



Sand Dollars are plentiful -- maybe half dollars.
They are small and lie flat, awaiting discovery
among the rivulets and tracks in the sand.



I find things that others may not see.
And once again, on this brisk December day,
I found myself walking along the sea.



* * *


Recent Comments
Monika Schott
Sunday, 23 December 2018 21:56
Ken Hartke
Glad you liked it. Thanks for stoppingby...
Monday, 24 December 2018 04:35
Rosy Cole
This is so lovely, Ken. The concept of 'mindfulness' is hackneyed nowadays, but this is truly what Life is about, what makes it wo... Read More
Monday, 31 December 2018 13:34
673 Hits

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Latest Comments

Ken Hartke Brickwork
05 November 2019
It caught me by surprise the first time I noticed it. After the trolley man, the house was owned by...
Katherine Gregor Queuing Outside la Comédie Française
03 November 2019
I wish British mothers did, too. Although I suspect that in Paris, too, this is a relatively rare o...
Katherine Gregor Queuing Outside la Comédie Française
03 November 2019
I don't know Congreve well enough to compare. I'm afraid Restauration theatre somewhat escapes me. ...
Stephen Evans Brickwork
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The trolley man’s cigar - wonderful image.
Stephen Evans Queuing Outside la Comédie Française
03 November 2019
So evocative - I wish American mothers would take their children to Moliere.