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 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.

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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
985 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.




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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
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The Children's Crusade


99/075 (6809.17A) Cowherd image. 2200dpi 100% from 35mm negative.Back in 1968 I remember standing in line and cheering and stomping my feet at large rallies for Eugene McCarthy.   All things considered, 1968 was a horrible year but the McCarthy campaign was inspiring and energized a lot of young voters and made them work for a candidate. McCarthy was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. Popular mostly among young people, his campaign was dismissed as "The Children's Crusade" by some political pundits. After McCarthy gained 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary it was clear that LBJ was weakened. Robert F. Kennedy, who was expecting McCarthy to be soundly beaten in New Hampshire, entered the presidential race on March 16th and immediately drew some support away from McCarthy. It was hard to compete with a Kennedy in the 1960s.  LBJ announced that he would not run for reelection by the end of March. Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's Vice President entered the race shortly afterward. McCarthy continued  his campaign and had strong support among college students and younger voters and won six primaries.  RFK was more popular in general and especially with minorities -- he was pulling in votes and winning big primaries. Meanwhile, Humphrey worked in non-primary states and gained convention delegates without ever winning a primary.




The California primary in June was hard fought. McCarthy's strength was in college towns and campuses and he focused his attention there. Kennedy visited ghettos and Latino neighborhoods where he was strongest. Robert F. Kennedy ended up winning by only four percentage points -- but was assassinated just minutes after giving a victory speech in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.  At that point the campaign was in chaos. Hubert Humphry already had a lead in delegates by working through state Democratic machines and power blocs and he gained the Democratic nomination at the convention. McCarthy was a distant second.


In the end, at the Chicago convention, the anti-war demonstrations and the "police riot" sucked the air out of whatever little idealism was left among the younger supporters. The 26th amendment lowering the voting age to 18 wasn't passed until 1971 so many of us, me included, could not even vote in 1968. Richard Nixon won the election and became President.  It is still a little painful just remembering that year.




In later years there were few other candidates that had a strong appeal and level of support from younger voters...who could now vote at age 18.  In 1972 McCarthy campaigned again but was up against other popular competitors including Jerry Brown, Edmund Muskie and Shirley Chisholm. George McGovern won the nomination and lost miserably to Richard Nixon --- this was the Watergate election.  In 1976 it was Jimmy Carter who won...with the help of younger voters...against Gerald Ford.  In 1980 Ronald Reagan won against Carter but there was another candidate, John Anderson, who gained some youthful popularity and was gaining votes in Republican primaries as a moderate alternative to Reagan. Anderson received 5.7 million votes in the November election as a third-party candidate.


After Carter, and the Reagan years that followed, there hasn't been all that much for younger voters to get excited about as a group. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama attracted a wider level of support and no one on the Republican side seemed to have much of a youth appeal.


 "It's like déjà vu all over again."  Yogi Berra

Bernie Sanders now has the spotlight among younger voters. I like him and some of his ideas... but...I've been there before.  Sanders supporters are running into a brick wall and threatening to make a scene at the convention. Hillary Clinton is equally popular, has more delegates and has support among the DNC power groups. Our system is un- or non- Constitutional -- meaning there is little guidance or direction coming from the US Constitution or addressing the parties or the nomination process. Good or bad, the parties make their own rules.

As it is, Presidential politics is not child's play....although this year, especially on the GOP side, it seems like a bad day in the schoolyard.  It could get worse.  Presidential campaigns have become very cultish and media-oriented and have little to do with politics or policy.




Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
Thank you, Ken. I don't know too much about US politics, only what it looks like from a distance. The processes may be different, ... Read More
Tuesday, 31 May 2016 12:41
Ken Hartke
Rosie -- It doesn't look any better close up. It is painful to watch, especially when there is a candidate that inspires enthusias... Read More
Tuesday, 31 May 2016 16:13
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Trinity – April 2, 2016


The word “Surreal” comes to mind. It is an absolutely gorgeous day. A man is taking a selfie while standing in front of the rough stone obelisk that marks the spot…the very spot...where the first atomic bomb exploded. This is “ground zero” at the Trinity Site. There are thirty or forty other people waiting patiently for their turn to take a selfie at the same spot or to take pictures of their loved ones standing at the ground zero marker. This is only the beginning of what is to come. While you are there experiencing it, it seems nearly normal but on reflection on what this place is and what it represents it descends into almost a dreamlike experience.




The Trinity Site is open for public visitors for one day only, twice a year (April and October) because it is located on restricted military real estate: that being the White Sands Missile Range. They still blow things up here or shoot things out of the sky. You can’t just drop in and take a gander at where it all began. This is a secure place and you go through a security gate, show identification and follow a precise route and park in a designated spot and walk several hundred yards across the desert to a fenced circular space maybe 100 yards across. You can stop along your walk to purchase a T-shirt.


There isn’t much to see. Ground Zero is just a monument and a piece of desert but if you look closely you will see that you are standing in a shallow depression. It is gradual but the ground you are walking on is a round saucer with a relative depth of about eight feet caused by the tremendous compression from the blast. The surface was once covered, almost paved, with Trinitite, a greenish glass-like stone created from the quartz and feldspar sand exposed to the pressure and extreme heat from the plutonium bomb. Most of the Trinitite is gone but people are walking stooped over like beach comers looking for shells on a beach. There are examples on display. It isn’t a pretty stone…just a novelty. It is illegal to remove any from the site but they look anyway.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPositioned along the eight-foot perimeter fence are a series of official black and white photographs with captions explaining various aspects of the test site, the engineering and construction work, the bunkers used for observation and photos of the actual blast. Visitors walk along the fence and pause at each photograph like the Stations of the Cross. Looking beyond the fence you see only desert and mountains and a slight rise…almost a lip…designating the edge of the depression.





Across the enclosure, parked on its own flat-bed truck, is a full size replica of “Fat Man”, the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Fat Man was over ten feet long and 60 inches in diameter…hence the name. It weighed over 10,000 pounds.




Nagasaki wasn't the primary target on that mission. The flight crew made three bombing run passes over the main target, the city of Kokura, but clouds and smoke from earlier bombings obscured the city so they went to Nagasaki instead.




GadgetAt Trinity “The Gadget”, as the first bomb was called, was assembled largely on site and then hoisted 100 feet up on a steel tower and housed in a small hut-like enclosure. The tower was vaporized and all that remains is part of a concrete footing for one of the tower’s legs. I’m surprised that that managed to survive as everything else was vaporized or blown far beyond recognition. The temperature of the blast was measured at 14,710 degrees Fahrenheit. The sound of the explosion was heard in Gallup, New Mexico, 150 miles away. None of the observation bunkers remain. They survived the blast but have been demolished in more recent years. The main viewing bunker was at 10,000 yards – over five and a half miles away. Robert Oppenheimer watched from there but many others, including General Groves, watched from a point ten miles away.  Edward Teller watched from a hilltop viewpoint twenty miles away. There were a few project scientists at the time that theorized that the blast might be sufficient to ignite the oxygen and hydrogen in the atmosphere…no distance would have been safe in that case.


Once you have made a walking tour of the fenced enclosure and taken your photos while dodging young parents with baby carriages and folks enjoying the bomb site with the family dog, you head back to the parking area. There you board a waiting shuttle bus to carry you over to the George McDonald Ranch, located about two miles from ground zero.




The George McDonald Ranch and the residence (the 1913 Schmidt House) was the site of the actual assembly of the plutonium device. The residence is a 1700 square foot adobe and stone structure that, as fate and geology and location would have it, survived the blast with only the windows blown out. The building was at the very core of activity as the scientists and engineers assembled the bomb…in what was the master bedroom.






Over the decades the building was left to deteriorate until it was “rescued” and stabilized in 1982. The National Park Service restored the residence in 1984 to what it looked like in 1945 but it is now in need of further rehabilitation. A crew of volunteers will work on several restoration projects in the fall of 2016.


This had been a working ranch up until 1942 when the entire area was purchased as a bombing and gunnery range. There was a large livestock tank -- sometimes used as a swiming pool by the bomb assembly crew -- and a bunkhouse.  The windmill tower survives but the stone bunkhouse is in ruins.