On the Trail of Signs and Wonders

By Patricia Lee Lewis.
Published by the LA Times.

Visiting with the spirits of people whose 5,000-year-old rock paintings survive in preserves along the Rio Grande

COMSTOCK, Texas — Where three rivers come together, spirits must abound. I think this as I leave Big Bend National Park and head east toward los tres rios, the confluence of the Rio Grande, the Pecos and the Devils on the Texas-Mexico border.

The cliffs and canyons above these rivers are alive with paintings of fantastic figures, part human, part animal, part bird. They are believed to be ceremonial images 4,000 to 5,000 years old.

It is an April day at the end of the 20th century, and I am searching for holy places. I am here on a journey to honor the life of my eldest son, to make peace with his death by his own hand and to lay down, in the stark and sacred land of the state where we were born, my 20-year burden of guilt and sorrow.


Members of the Rock Art Foundation, which has been instrumental in preserving the images, or pictographs, have offered to guide me. I meet Greg Williams and Patrick McCaffrey at a gas station outside this wide spot in the road called Comstock. As we drive the mile or so to the foundation’s private preserve, my eyes focus on a white statue elevated on rocks. At this half-mile distance, it looks for all the world like Jesus. As we draw closer across the flat desert, I see that it is an abstract shape of a man, pierced by an empty space.

Greg says the recently erected statue commemorates “the spirit of oneness” of the Lower Pecos River people, who lived here for 10,000 years, until the 2nd century. It’s in the shape of the White Shaman–the shaman being both religious and community leader–painted on a nearby rock shelter wall, and it is oriented to mark the sun’s first rays on the summer solstice.

There are some 300 documented rock art locations where the Lower Pecos people lived, an area that stretched from the northern Mexico state of Coahuila to about 60 miles north of the Rio Grande in Texas. One-third of the sites were destroyed by rising waters when the three rivers were impounded in 1968 to form the Lake Amistad National Recreation Area. Others have been defaced by vandals, pollution and weather. Shelter floors containing thousands of years of artifacts have been looted with pickax and shovel.

Photographer Jim Zintgraff of San Antonio came upon some of the paintings while hunting with his father in the 1950s and proceeded to photograph every piece of rock art he could find. Ten years later, he almost literally stumbled upon a University of Texas archeologist, Solveig Turpin, who was documenting pictographs in one of the canyons. They teamed up and eventually produced a photographic essay, “Pecos River Rock Art,” which inspired the creation of Seminole Canyon State Historical Park and the Rock Art Foundation.

I first stopped at the park just to spend the night. I’d heard about the rock art there, and I’d made arrangements to meet up with Greg and Patrick on my way back from Big Bend and to “camp out” in a primitive cabin in the foundation’s Galloway White Shaman Preserve. Now this unimaginable world was about to reveal itself.

We set out on foot down crumbling limestone cliffs until we reach a path of tailings. Tailings are pieces of limestone burned and cracked into small pieces in cooking or ritual fires and tossed out of caves and shelters. Many thousands of fires created this path, which leads to the shallow cave. We walk up stone steps, recently mortared, and are immediately in the presence of the White Shaman.

I seem unable to stand. This is a place for kneeling or lying on your belly on the rocks, or putting your face down and weeping. This is a place where a mother’s grief is at home.

On the rear wall, facing out over the Pecos, figures of life and death are inseparable. A monster of fear undulates like a giant centipede across the rock, faced unflinchingly by the great shaman and his smaller dark, mortal self. Spirits dive and rise all around. An atlatl, a hunting weapon, throws a stone into the air, releases earth to sky, body into spirit.

This clearly is a place of worship; I see the pictographs as color and lines, but I also see the narrative of living souls.

The solid stone floor bears dozens of holes, created perhaps by hands twirling sticks or grinding pebbles for hundreds of centuries. My palm fits perfectly on the edge of a hole six inches deep. I feel the patina of silky-smooth stone and wonder: How many times did hands like mine touch this stone in ceremony? How many heads bowed to the powers represented on the wall?

Across the river canyon is a cliff from which you can hear everything said in this shelter. Was that where the “congregation” watched and listened?

There are many types of rock art in North America. Pecos River rock art is not only among the oldest; it is also distinctive for being primarily spiritual. It is centered on the experience of the shaman as the one who, on behalf of the people, overcomes death to communicate with the spirits of nature. The paintings, perhaps drawn by the shaman, are powerful images of what he experienced.

Some story lines are obvious. Images and symbols are repeated again and again in the same order, and a language, a mythology, emanates from the ancients across the eons. Greg says the paintings in the White Shaman Shelter are like the Rosetta Stone for the Lower Pecos River people: the key to a symbolic language everyone understood and shared.

“There’s big secrets out here,” Greg says. “They’re written on the walls.” And then he adds, quietly, “You can learn a lot about yourself.”

I am learning something. It has to do with the perspective of time and the cycles of the natural world; it has to do with letting go, with gratitude.

Later in the day we are in the state park’s Seminole Canyon, looking up at a huge panther spitting what appears to be blood.

“Trying to figure out what this all means?” the park guide asks. “Well, everybody’s theory is good.”

Today, “everybody” means Greg and Patrick and me, plus a young couple from Oregon, a Texan here to climb rocks, and two children with their father and nearly blind mother. She stands near the paintings, listening, as if to hear from them what they mean. “This is a very sacred place,” she says, to no one in particular.

We leave Spitting Panther and move along the nearly dry stone riverbed to the Fate Bell Shelter. We climb up to a huge stage carved into the limestone cliff, set back, safe from flash floods, above the high-water mark.

Unlike the White Shaman Shelter, which seems to have been used only for ceremonial purposes, people lived in Fate Bell. The walls are scarred with soot, and the floor is a 35-foot-deep midden of ash and rock fragments. From where I stand behind a rope, I can see the layered remains of housekeeping: woven mats of plant fibers to cover the dusty ash floor; flakes of flint from making tools and weapon points; metate stones for grinding food; charred snail shells and animal bone fragments, perhaps the scraps of dinners; hundreds of snail shells with holes drilled in them, to be strung together into necklaces–all of this I can see without moving a particle of dust.

Unfortunately, before these shelters were protected by the state of Texas, scores of artifact hunters moved more than a few particles. Great gaping holes descend through the top layers of the floor, disturbing for all time the fragile history recorded there. The art has survived largely because the Lower Pecos painters used a deeply penetrating mixture of animal blood, bone marrow and fat, yucca plant juices and iron oxide from ground pebbles.

The images in Fate Bell Shelter are on ceilings so high the painters must have built scaffolding. Ten stick figures line up on the rear walls, flanked by red handprints. I think of Egyptian tomb friezes and the Minoan wall paintings at Knossos. Are there graves here, too? One winged shaman wears deer antlers. Other red figures, in what look like ceremonial robes draped from extended arms, float and fly and dream, perhaps in a trance, among snakes.

The next day we head for the Curly Tail Panther Shelter, on private land about 20 miles east, above the Devils River. To reach the panther, we have to climb over the canyon’s edge and along a narrow ledge in the red limestone cliff. It is a cool, overcast morning, and the wind is almost too strong for this–almost but not quite.

“It’s important not to look down,” Patrick advises. So I don’t, but I wish I could be like the ocotillo we passed on the trail, firmly rooted, free to wave its arms in the wind.

Curly Tail Panther Shelter was never home to humans. With its high, vaulted ceiling, curving rock forms, smooth limestone floor and graceful, rounded mouth, it feels like a miniature cathedral.

We sit cross-legged or sprawled on the sloping floor, which seems to welcome our bodies, and watch the sinuous river 250 feet below for a long time. Behind us, a vibrant shaman connects the powers of life and death, making them one, and a fierce panther holds us and the spirit of this place in the powerful curl of its huge red tail.

When I reluctantly take my leave of los tres rios, I stop again at the White Shaman solstice marker, where I notice for the first time the commemorative bricks paving the area surrounding it. I arrange to have one laid in memory of my son. The desert-red brick is there now in the sun and dust and blooming cactus, above the Pecos River canyon. It reads “William Jack, 1955-1976, in Celebration.” My heart, and perhaps his, rests.

GUIDEBOOK

Reading Rocks in Very Old Texas

Getting there: Continental and Southwest fly nonstop from Los Angeles to San Antonio, Texas; United has a direct flight (one stop). Restricted round-trip fares start at $296.

Touring: Seminole Canyon State Historical Park, telephone (915) 292-4464, is about 180 miles west of San Antonio on U.S. 90. The park is open year-round. Admission is $2 per person. Tours ($3 extra) are twice a day from February into June (check for exact dates); no tours Monday and Tuesday in other months.

The Rock Art Foundation conducts day tours by appointment, $10 per person; tel. (888) 525-9907.

Where to stay: I camped in the park; reservations are advised, tel. (512) 389-8900.

Rock art hounds recommend two hotels on U.S. 90 (Avenue F) in Del Rio, 40 miles southeast: La Quinta, tel. (830) 775-7591, has doubles with breakfast for $55-$68; Ramada, tel. (830) 775-1511, has doubles for $69.

For more information: Texas Department of Economic Development, Tourism Division, P.O. Box 12728, Austin, TX 78711-2728; tel. (800) 888-8TEX, Internet http://www.traveltex.com.

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