Remote as they are, the Lower Pecos Canyonlands of the US-Mexico border have a strangely magnetic pull. That may sound like a wild assertion, but the evidence comprises over 200 shamanistic rock art sites, many of them thousands of years old, and the fact that dozens of rock art enthusiasts, including myself, find themselves returning again and again.
It was on a meltingly hot August day in 2014 that I made my first foray into the canyonlands for the Rock Art Foundation’s visit to Meyers Spring, A speck of an oasis tucked into the vast desert just west of the Pecos, Meyers Spring’s limestone overhang is vibrant with petrographs, both ancient, but very faded, and of Plains Indians works including a brave on a galloping horse, an eagle, a sun, and what appears to be a missionary and his church.
MEYERS SPRING, AUGUST 2014
Because I am writing a book about Far West Texas and I must travel all the way from Mexico City via San Antonio, I had figured that this visit, plus an interview with the foundation’s executive director, Greg Williams, would suffice for such a little-known corner of my subject.
I took home the realization that with Meyers Spring I had taken one nibble of the richest of banquets. In addition the rock art of the Plains Indians—Apaches and Comanches— of historic times, the Lower Pecos Canyonlands are filled with prehistoric art, principally Pecos River, Red Linear, and Red Monochrome. Of the three, Pecos River is comparable to the best known Paleolithic rock in the world, the caves of Lascaux in France.
I would have to return to the canyonlands— alas for my book’s time and travel budget! Not that the Rock Art Foundation charges more than a nominal sum for its tours. The individual tour to Meyers Spring, which lasted four hours, cost a mere 30 dollars. Everyone involved, including the guides, works for the foundation for free.
By December of 2014 I was back for another Rock Art Foundation tour, this one down into Eagle Nest Canyon in Langtry. Apart from rock shelters with their ancient and badly faded petrographs, cooking debris, tools, and even a mummy who—scientists have determined— died of chagas, Eagle Nest Canyon is the site of Bonfire Shelter, the earliest and the second biggest bison jump, after Canada’s Head Bashed-In, in North America. Some 10,000 years ago hunters drove hundreds of prehistoric bison—larger than today’s bison—over the cliff. And in 800 BC, hunters drove a herd of modern bison over the same cliff, so many animals that the decaying mass of unbutchered and partially butchered carcasses spontaneously combusted. In deeper layers dated to 14,000 years, archaeologists have found bones of camel, horse, and mammoth, among other megafauna of the Pleistocene.
DESCENT INTO EAGLE NEST CANYON, DECEMBER 2014
Then in the spring of this year I visited the Lewis Canyon site on the shore of the Pecos, with its mesmerizing petroglyphs of bear claws, atlatls, and stars, and, behind a morass of boulders, an agate mirror of a tinaja encircled by petrographs.
LEWIS CANYON PETROGLYPHS, MAY 2015
Not all but most of the Lower Pecos Canyonland rock art sites— and this includes Meyers Spring, Eagle Nest Canyon and Lewis Canyon— are on private property. Furthermore, visits to Meyers Spring, Lewis Canyon, and many other sites require a high clearance vehicle for a tire-whumping, paint-scraping, bone-jarring drive in. So I was beginning to appreciate the magnitude of the privilege it is to visit on these sites. At Lewis Canyon, as I stood on the limestone shore of the sparkling Pecos in utter silence but for the crunch of the boots of my fellow tour members, I learned that less than 50 people a year venture to float down its length.
This October I once again traveled to the Lower Pecos, this time for the Rock Art Foundation’s annual three day Rock Art Rendezvous. Offered this year were the three sites I had already visited, plus a delectable menu that included White Shaman, Fate Bell, and—not for those prone to vertigo— Curly Tail Panther.
WHITE SHAMAN, OCTOBER 2015
Just off Highway 90 near its Pecos River crossing, the White Shaman Preserve serves as the headquarters for Rock Art Rendezvous. After a winding drive on dirt road, I parked near the shade structure. From there, the White Shaman rock art site was a brief but rugged hike down one side of cactus-studded canyon, then up the other. I was glad to have brought a hiking pole and leather gloves. No knee surgery on the horizon, either. When I arrived at White Shaman, named after the central luminous figure, the sun was low in the sky, bathing the shelter’s wall and its reddish drawings in gold and turning the Pecos, far below, where an occasional truck droned by, deep silver.
The next morning, at the Rock Art Foundation’s tour of the Shumla Archaeological and Research Center in nearby Comstock, I heard Dr. Carolyn Boyd’s stunning talk about her book, The White Shaman Mural: An Enduring Creation Narrative in the Rock Art of the Lower Pecos, which is forthcoming in 2016 from University of Texas Press. Dr. Boyd, whose work is based on 25 years of archaeological research in the Lower Pecos and a meticulous study of Mexican anthropology, argues that White Shaman, which is many thousands of years old, may represent the oldest known creation story in North America. (See Mary S. Black’s interview with Dr. Boyd, “Deciphering the Oldest American ‘Book.’”)
FATE BELL, OCTOBER 2015
From the White Shaman Preserve, Fate Bell is a few minutes down highway 90 in Seminole Canyon State Park. More than any other site, this shelter in the cake-like layers of the limestone walls of a canyon, reminded me of the cave art I had seen in Baja California’s Sierra de San Francisco. Inhabited on and off for some 9,000 years, Fate Bell is one of the largest sites in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. It has various styles of petrograph, including a spectacular group of anthropomorphs with what appear to be antlers and wings.
CURLY TAIL PANTHER, OCTOBER 2015
Curly Tail Panther is a scoop of a cave about the size of a walk-in closet, but as if for Superman to whoosh in, set dizzyingly high on a cliff-side overlooking the Devils River. The back wall has an array of petrographs: red mountain lion, anthropomorphic figures, and geometric designs. The only access to Curly Tail Panther is by way of a narrow ledge. Drop your hiking pole or your sunglasses from here, and you won’t see them again. You might lose a character, too—in the opening of Mary Black’s novel, Peyote Fire, a shaman stumbles to his death from this very ledge. The Rock Art Foundation’s website made it clear, Curly Tail Panther is not for anyone who has a fear of heights. But who doesn’t? My strategy was to take a deep breath and, like the running shoes ad says, Just do it.