Did Deer Cloud Live Before Columbus?

 

Indigenous People of the United States

Indigenous People of the United States

 In my book, Peyote Fire: Shaman of the Canyons, the protagonist Deer Cloud paints stories of his gods on the wall of a rockshelter overlooking a river. The rock art is still there today for people to see. But when exactly was it painted? How old is it? Did that happen before Columbus visited America?

I get asked these questions a lot. In general Americans are pretty foggy on events in North America prior to European settlement. As it turns out, people like Deer Cloud created the Pecos River style rock art in the canyons along the Rio Grande just west of Del Rio, Texas,  about the same time as the Minoans flourished in Crete. That’s about 4,000 years ago, or 2,000 years BC.

Below is a short timeline on human occupation of North America, with some comparative information to add context with the rest of the world. When you look at the timeline, notice what was going on around the world in 2000 BC, or about 4,000 years ago.  What happened before? What happened after?  Please note that all dates are rounded and open to debate and new evidence.

Be watching for a quiz later this spring to win a free copy of my book! I hope you win!

Who, When and Where: Rough Timeline of Human Occupation of North America

Buffalo, the mainstay of North American Plains Indians

Buffalo, the mainstay of North American Plains Indians

1879 Traditional life of the Great Plains Indians is over. Other Native Americans have either moved to reservations or died. The buffalo of the Great Plains are gone, over 65 million destroyed by white hunters.

1875  The last Comanche villages in Palo Duro Canyon (Texas) destroyed by U.S. Army

1776   U.S. Declaration of Independence from England

1730   Founding of San Antonio by Spanish settlers in Texas

1718 Founding of New Orleans by the French

 1700-1875   Comanche, Kiowa and Apache rule the Great Plains of North America

1642 Founding of Montreal, Canada by the French as Ville Marie

1620 Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts

1610   Don Pedro de Peralta establishes Santa Fe in New Mexico as the capital of the province of New Spain

1532 Pizarro begins the defeat of the Incas in Peru

1521 Cortez conquers the Aztecs in Mexico

1492 AD   Christopher Columbus makes landfall in the Caribbean

1000-1400 AD   Navajo and Apache migrate south from present-day Canada

http://newmexicohistory.org/places/navajo-nation-from-prehistory-to-the-twentieth-century, http://www.ihs.gov/navajo/index.cfm?module=nao_navajo_nation, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apache, http://www.indians.org/articles/apache-indians.html

Cahokia, courtesy of Britannica.com

Cahokia, courtesy of Britannica.com

700 AD   Cahokia settlement first established near what is today St. Louis http://cahokiamounds.org, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/01/cahokia/hodges-text, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cahokia

0 The Common Era Begins

44 BC        Death of Julius Caesar

776 BC     First Olympic games

449 BC     Construction begun on Acropolis in Athens

800 BC     Founding of Rome

1,000 BC  Adena culture appears in what is today Ohio http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adena_culture

2,000 BC     Pecos River style polychrome rock art along the Rio Grande

Lower Pecos rock art

Lower Pecos rock art

http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/pecos/art.html, http://www.rockart.org, http://www.shumla.org

  • 1790 BC Code of Hammurabi
  • 2000 BC Maya Pre-Classic period in Central America
  • 2000 BC Minoans worship the mother goddess in Crete
  • 2600 BC Stonehenge begun in Britain
  • 2750 BC First Egyptian pyramid begun at Saqqara

3000 BC Evidence of silk production in China

  • 3114 BC Beginning of the Maya Long Count
  • 3200-2340 BC cities begin in Mesopotamia
  • 3300 BC Bronze Age begins in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and perhaps Britain
  • 3300 BC “Otzi the Iceman” dies in the Alps between today’s Austria and Italy
  • 3700 BC invention of wooden carts in Central Asia
  • 3750 BC First evidence of cotton weaving in India
  • 3761 BC Origin of the modern Hebrew calendar

4,000 BC     Old Copper Complex emerges in what will one day be Wisconsin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Copper_Complex

  • 4000 BC First Egyptian hieroglyphs

6,000 BC     Domestication of corn in Mexico http://teosinte.wisc.edu/questions.html, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maize

The bones of Kenniwick Man, courtesy of the Seattle Times

The bones of Kenniwick Man, courtesy of the Seattle Times

7,500 BC     Kenniwick Man lived on northwest coast http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kennewick_Man http://www.burkemuseum.org/kennewickman

  • 11,000 BC Clovis culture emerges http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clovis_culture

19,000-12,000 BC       Human beings arrive in North America http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buttermilk_Creek_Complex, http://www.gaultschool.org/Home.aspx, http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/gault/, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meadowcroft_Rockshelter

 

Teddy Stickney, Rock Art Pioneer

The intrepid Teddy Stickney

The intrepid Teddy Stickney

I am happy to welcome Teddy Stickney as my guest today.  Teddy has been recording rock art in Texas for almost 25 years and helped develop the early guidelines for this task.

Thanks for being with us today, Teddy.  How did you first become interested in rock art?    I became aware of rock art when I was about 6 years old.  There was a large Navajo kachina incised in the sand stone wall in a canyon across the San Juan river from my Dad’s property in New Mexico.

You are an official archaeology steward for the Texas Historical Commission. 

Teddy recording rock art

Teddy recording rock art

What does that entail?  I’ve been a volunteer steward for my area in West Texas for 21 years. Stewards monitor archaeological resources for the THC.   For example, the THC may want a certain area to be surveyed for archaeological evidence. We volunteer to investigate these sites. We also keep an eye on construction sites that may be near archaeological resources, and try to get to know any arrowhead collectors in the region. We act as additional eyes and eyes for the historical commission. There is so much territory to cover, they just can’t do it all.

I know you’ve been part of a number of field schools and recording projects.  What are some of your most memorable ones?  One of the best ones for me was during the Texas Archeological Society’s field school near Dolan Springs on the Devil’s River in 1989. The survey crews were out finding new rock art, so we concluded that we were going to have many more sessions of recording on this property.  Our group formulated guidelines for recording that we used for at least the next 18 months during these sessions.

Have you done much travelling outside Texas as part of your rock art interest?

Taking exact measurements

Taking exact measurements

Before I got involved in Texas I had worked with Col. James Bain in New Mexico, who was the petroglyph curator for the Museum of New Mexico. I also worked with Jane Kolber who ran rock art field schools in Arizona and did some work in Utah.  So I had had some experience with recording rock art before the field in 1989.  Also Paul Steed, who wrote The Rock Art of Chaco Canyon (1980), was in the rock art crew for the 1989 field school.  Paul had world experience in photographing.

Is there any particular type of rock art you are especially interested in?    I don’t think there is any type of rock art that I like better than another. I think all of it is very important because it is record of the culture. Rock art tells a story of the activities of the culture, the people’s daily routine, the animals around them, and so on.

Tell us about any mishaps or adventures you’ve had in your rock art exploration. 

Teddy examines abstract figures

Teddy examines ancient painting

Well, one time we were camping in the Texas Panhandle in March, and it was so cold the water in the coffee pot froze. Then there was walking the high ledge to Curly Tail Panther shelter overlooking the Devil’s River in the Lower Pecos. The bad part was that once I got there, I realized I had to walk it again to get out!  Then there’s hiking in a rough canyon of Big Bend State Park with heavy backpacks searching for a site in 105 temperatures. Once I walked about six miles on a very worn trail near the Rio Grande and found a recent camp site with a fire pit and modern trash. I figure it was a trail used by illegal immigrants, but I didn’t see anybody.

What are some of the big questions that still interest you about rock art?  I would love to talk with one of the artists that painted or incised art on a wall.  I’d love to hear their thoughts on their art. What did the site location mean to them? I’m interested in how their mixed their paint and managed all the painting. Did one person do it or was it done as a group?

 What advice would you give someone who wanted to get involved in archaeology or learning about rock art?  Join the Texas Archeological Society, participate in a field school, and research rock art on the internet.

Bulls and Stags Meet in Houston

The Stags at Lascaux

The Stags at Lascaux France, are Reproduced for Houston Exhibit

I recently visited the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see the Lascaux cave paintings exhibit ( http://www.hmns.org/index.php?option=com_content&id=651&Itemid=683).  The exhibit remains in Houston until March 23, 2014, so get your tickets online now and plan a trip!

People like these lived near Lascaux 18,000 years ago.

People like these lived near Lascaux, France, 18,000 years ago.

Discovered in 1940 in the limestone cliffs of France, the underground caves at Lascaux are the site of beautiful realistic art showing ancient oxen, horses, stags, and other animals in a rich polychrome tapestry, about 15 meters underground. The paintings were made approximately 18,000 years ago by the Magdalenian people.

About a million people toured the caves from 1940-1963, causing great deterioration of the paintings from the carbon dioxide in visitors’ breath. The caves were then closed while an exact replica was built nearby. It took over 11 years to reproduce the paintings with painstaking accuracy. Craftsmen reproduced every bump and rough spot on the surface of the cave walls before Monique Peytral recreated the paintings, using a variety of methods.  The replica is known as Lascaux 2 and is a major attraction today.

Room of the Bulls at Lascaux

Room of the Bulls at Lascaux

The exhibit in Houston features a fascinating 3D virtual tour of the caves, scale models, and exact replicas of five major panels in the caves.  Various short videos and other materials enhance visitor knowledge.

Tickets cost $20-25.00, can be purchased online, and are timed so that crowds are not too large.  It takes about two hours to see the complete exhibit, reading everything, etc. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to Lascaux. I was thoroughly fascinated by the exhibit, and I hope you get a chance to go if you are in the Houston area.

The Opposite of Dry is Wet

Flood waters near Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon September 20, 2013

Flood waters near Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon September 20, 2013

Seminole Canyon is known for being hot and dry. That dry desert environment leads to wonderful preservation of rock art and delicate artifacts such as basketry, sandals and twisted cordage.  But occasionally Mother Nature creates conditions for beautiful rain in this dry land. And sometimes it is just too much of a good thing.

The weekend of September 20, 2013 saw such conditions arise as a cold front moved down from the north

Weather map for September 20, 2013 from www.accuweather.com

Weather map for September 20, 2013 from www.accuweather.com

to hit warm tropical moisture from the southwest from Hurricane Manuel, which did considerable damage in Acapulco. That combination can create the “perfect storm” in the Chihuahuan Desert.  In the three days from September 19 to 21, 2013,  Seminole Canyon State Park had over five inches of rain, and the weather station Langtry 10.6 W (elevation 1623) on www.theweathercollector.com registered 4.47 inches.  In a region that generally only receives 18 inches or less of rain per year, that’s a lot.

Perhaps more importantly, upstream of Seminole Canyon, areas received from 6 to almost 8 inches of rain in the same period. This created massive run-off, that eventually drained into the canyons.  In addition, the Rio Grande rose quickly, backing more water up into canyons.  Just notice which way the water is rushing in the big picture above.

Fortunately, no damage was done to major rock art, that I know of,  since the water did not get that high.  But tours to Fate Bell Shelter were shut down for several days.

It rained hard the night of July 3, 2010 as well, again due to a stalled out tropical system.

Mile Canyon Pour-off, July 4, 2010. Bonfire Shelter nearby.

Mile Canyon Pour-off, July 4, 2010. Bonfire Shelter nearby.

Pour-offs in Mile Canyon, in Langtry, Texas, home of the famous Bonfire Shelter bison jump, rushed with brown, frothing water. The Rio Grande also rose, backing up in the short canyon and creating very dangerous conditions for wildlife, humans, and ancient debris.

The worst flood in the region in recorded history occurred in 1954, when a hurricane stalled out over the area.  More than 20 inches of rain fell in one night over Mile Canyon. The ground was already saturated from an 8-inch rain a few days before, so the water had no place to go. Catastrophic floods like this occur once or twice a century and cause changes topography of the canyonlands. As the website Texas Beyond History  (http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net) says, “Spring-fed pools become choked with gravels, new springs emerge, and walnut trees are ripped out.”  This flood also moved boulders as large as a small house at least a quarter mile downstream, and damaged rock art in Eagle Cave.  We can only image the artifacts that washed away, never to be seen again.

Mouth of Mile Canyon and Rio Grande, July 4, 2010

Mouth of Mile Canyon and Rio Grande, July 4, 2010 to the Rio Grande.

Raging water in the 1954 flood moved these large boulders at least a quarter mile

Raging water in the 1954 flood moved these large boulders at least a quarter mile.

Related Articles

Peyote Fire: Shaman of the Canyons

The sun which rises every day

The sun which rises every day

Some people have asked me about the novel I claim to be writing. I am happy to say that I have recently completed the first draft–over 86,000 words in about 19 months.  The book is tentatively called Peyote Fire, and is about the first peyote shaman.

The protagonist, Deer Cloud, is painting the stories of the Powerful Ones in a stone alcove high above the

Lower Pecos Canyonlands

Lower Pecos Canyonlands

river. His grandfather Panther Claw consecrated the alcove when Deer Cloud was a boy, especially for him to paint.  The two spent many years tracing designs on the ground to arrive at the best composition to honor the gods and preserve their greatness for generations to come. When Panther Claw dies, Deer Cloud’s life takes a dramatic turn.

The book is set in the Archaic Lower Pecos, or about 4000 years ago in the area of the confluence of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande, bounded on the east by the Devil’s River. The Rain Bringer clan lives in the canyons , river banks, and uplands of this territory. There are many magnificent, brilliantly painted rock shelters that tell the stories of their gods within their lands.

Rock Art from the Archaic Lower Pecos

Rock Art from the Archaic Lower Pecos

I have used archeological reports and treatises written about the people of the Archaic Lower Pecos as a factual base for the story.  I have tried to make descriptions of everyday life as accurate as possible, given what we know.  But we do not fully know the people’s understanding of their world. As a stand-in for their undoubtedly rich religious and philosophical life, I am relying upon ethnographies of the Huichol people of Mexico, whom some suspect may be distantly related.  I’ve had to strip out every  agricultural mention in the Huichol mythologies, and other modern strains, such as cultural changes brought on by contact with the Spanish, in order to seek an Archaic core.

From these core beliefs and descriptions of Huichol ceremonies, I have constructed a fictional world view that pervades the Rain Bringers’ lives.  This world view brings meaning to their lives and explains the natural phenomena that surrounded them; the same mysteries that surround us today.

I have a list of revisions two pages long which I am working through now.  When I get that done, I will start completely over to add characterization and nuance (hopefully) to the manuscript.  I hope to have it finished and ready to shop around by next June. (Which means I’d better get to work!)

I’m not sure how it will be published yet, but I know I want an ebook version.  My son Miles, the composer and computer dude,  is writing music for the electronic book.  I may also add a bit of video of the landscape, just to set the mood.  There will also be plain, unenhanced,  paper copies, whatever publishing route I choose.

Thank you for reading my blog, and I hope you will read the book when it becomes available. Stay tuned for another year to find out.

The Great Transformer, Grandfather Fire

The Great Transformer, Grandfather Fire

Pecos Experience, Days 2 and 3, Part I

Polychrome figure in Cedar Springs shelter near Devil's River

Polychrome figure in Cedar Springs shelter near Devil’s River

We hiked to Cedar Springs shelter and Mystic shelter, both near the Devil’s River, on the second day of the Pecos Experience, thanks to the folks at the Shumla School (see www.shumla.org). This involved crossing the river twice, scrabbling up a pretty steep boulder hill, then bumping over boulder beds in creek drainages to get to the shelters.  At the end of about seven hours, we got our reward by a dip in the cool, clean river, always my favorite part.

The figure above is in polychrome, or many colors, in the Lower Pecos style of painting. Notice the red, yellow, and black colors. White is also used on some figures.  Red and yellow mineral pigments were made from naturally occurring ochres in this area, and black from manganese. The white pigment was probably from kaolin, but that is another story, since there are no naturally occurring deposits in this area. There are in Big Bend, however. Does that mean people perhaps as long 7000 years ago were trading with others from the Big Bend area?  That question is still under investigation, as are many others concerning the rock art and lifeways of the ancient people of the Lower Pecos region.

A cool front blew in last night, and tents were flapping I understand.  For some reason I didn’t hear the wind. I think I finally fell asleep after the moon went down and quit shining in my eyes.  I have always been sensitive to

Figures in Cedar Springs shelter

Figures in Cedar Springs shelter

moonlight-it often wakes me up at home. About dawn today we had a six-inch rain, to use current Austin slang.  For the past several years we have been in severe drought in Austin, so we’ve lately been defining a six-inch rain as six drops of moisture, six inches apart. It has been mercifully cool all day, and I’ve  worn my fleece most of the day.

Today we went to Painted Cave, the type-site for the red monochrome style of painting found in this area. The wall once was covered in polychrome Lower Pecos style, then supposedly repainted in red monochrome. There is a lovely stream under the wall, where the paintings sometimes reflect. But not much reflection today because of the cloud cover.

Painted Cave has seen human occupation from the time of the Lower Pecos style, which could be as old as 7000 years ago, through the red monochrome people who are depicted here with bows and arrows, indicating they came much later, to the old ranch house and sheep herders dwelling within sight of the cave. The stories this wall could tell!

The reason for all this human activity is water. There is a beautiful spring,

Spring at Painted Cave. Ranchers in the 1880s used to draw water from this spring. As well as people thousands of years earlier.

Spring at Painted Cave. Ranchers in the 1880s used to draw water from this spring. As well as people thousands of years earlier.

with a great swimming hole, just up canyon a few yards from the painted wall. It is full of water even in this extreme drought.  The black brush was in bloom around this pool today, and young willows leafing out. Water was here, animals were here, plant resources were here. And people.

Dinner will be soon, so I will share more later. But first I want to mention the culinary experiences we’ve also been having this week!  Monday night was Italian wedding soup and manicotti stuffed with prosciutto (spelling, anyone??) and ricotta, and homemade focaccia. Tuesday night was Chinese beef and broccoli with egg drop soup and almond/green tea cupcakes for dessert. Oh yes, and homemade pot stickers!  Chicken is involved tonight, but I don’t know what yet!  My thanks to the cook, Therese!

More details next week. I hope to put together a slide show of the rock art at these magnificent places, but that takes more time than I have tonight.  We are busy with great stuff every minute!  Love it!

Rock Art Foundation

Rock Art Foundation tour to White Shaman Shelter on the Pecos River

Rock Art Foundation tour to White Shaman Shelter on the Pecos River

My guest today is Greg Williams, Executive Director of the Rock Art Foundation, which promotes conservation and education about the rock art of the Lower Pecos.  The Rock Art Foundation owns the White Shaman Preserve and offers tours there every Saturday.  To learn more, please see their website at www.rockart.org.

Greg Williams, Ex. Director, Rock Art Foundation

Greg Williams, Ex. Director, Rock Art Foundation

Hi Greg, thank you for being with us today. How long have you been with the Rock Art Foundation (RAF)?

It’s been about 20 years.  I first met Jim Zintgraff in 1993 – I had hired him to do a photo shoot in my business – so it’s been almost 20 years since I first became involved with the RAF.

Jim Zintgraff was a photographer, right?

Yes, he was a commercial photographer in San Antonio.  But in the early 1950s he started photographing rock art west of Del Rio, which was mostly unknown by the general public at the time because it was all on private land.  When the state of Texas decided to build Amistad Dam on the Rio Grande around 1963, Jim was commissioned to document many of the ancient pictographs that would be inundated with the filling of the lake. His images preserve this great legacy from the past.  Later Jim organized the Rock Art Foundation to continue this work.

What do you want the general public to understand about the ancient Image 5paintings in the Lower Pecos?

How important the art was to the people that left their stories for us to consider and what they could mean to us. The people who painted them had to be first concerned with survival in a harsh land but they took time from that to paint their mythology which was as important to them as their survival.

What is the biggest thrill you had with RAF?

Every trip I make to West Texas is a thrill. The country, the archaeology, the modern military and settler history, the tour participants – all are thrilling. Each time. It would be impossible to single out only one. I am as excited every time I go – just like the first trip.

Have you had any close encounters with snakes or other creatures of the wild?

Not many – we travel in a group and make a lot of noise. Most critters are long gone before we get there. It’s very hard to sneak up on a desert creature – most are nocturnal. In 30+ years of being in West Texas I’ve probably seen less that 5 rattlesnakes but we did see a mountain lion a few years ago at Meyers Springs. She was most likely tending to a hurt cub or we would have never seen her.

RAF Bunkhouse at White Shaman Preserve

RAF Bunkhouse at White Shaman Preserve

Besides tours of rock art sites in the Lower Pecos, what else does RAF do?

We are currently providing scholarships to the Shumla School in Comstock (associated with Texas State University) and outstanding seniors at the Comstock High School. We work with Landowners assisting in conservation efforts – in a recent example we contracted with Texas Tech University to provide a complete assessment of the prehistoric and historic cultural resources on a West Texas ranch for a new Landowner. The RAF keeps funds in reserve to protect endangered property through acquisition if needed.

We are also involved with restoration efforts on private ranches and are the official “Friends Group” for Seminole Canyon State Park helping them by conducting their weekend tours. The RAF operates a tour guide program with 15 experienced/trained Guides and we work with Landowners to develop access for this program (there is no BLM land in Texas – it’s all private property).

We also assist in research funding helping to defray the cost of field research and assist with publication funding. We have published our own book and CD ROM on Lower Pecos archaeology as well as the development and continued support of our website and have just established an electronic newsletter.

We also stage an annual fundraiser campout, the Rock Art Rendezvous, each October at Image 6the White Shaman Preserve and offer as many tours as possible that weekend. All these efforts are focused toward the preservation through education of the unique world class archaeology in West Texas. Our funding is all provided through private donations. We operate very efficiently – no one in our organization receives a salary.

Any advice for people new to exploring Lower Pecos rock art?

Yes – go to West Texas and listen to the country. Look at what appears around you and sit quietly. Be there at a sunrise, a sunset, sit beside the campfire – it will change you. If you’ve never been there it will introduce you to a part of yourself you didn’t know.

Thanks for being with us today, Greg.

Snake Story: Life and Death in a Bedrock Pool

Bedrock Pool in Seminole Canyon

Bedrock Pool in Seminole Canyon

I’m pleased to introduce my guest blogger today, Jack Johnson, park archeologist for the Amistad National Recreation Area near Del Rio, Texas.

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

Thanks for joining us today Jack.  I’ll bet you run into snakes frequently as you hike the area around Lake Amistad, either in the course of your work or recreationally.   Ever see any rattlesnakes?

Weirdly, most of my rattlesnake stories involve trying to capture and relocate snakes that have placed themselves in the path to a restroom or latrine, and in one case done so repeatedly over several days.

Well, I’m glad that’s your job, not mine. What’s your favorite story about a snake?

Well, those rattlers were not especially big ones, nobody came close to being bitten, and this will not be that story.  The snake that features in my most memorable herpetological happenstance was small, non-venomous, and was not a threat to anybody. In fact, it couldn’t hurt a bug.

Please explain.

One day I was leading a hike in Seminole Canyon State Park, down the dry canyon in the direction of its eventual confluence with the Rio Grande.  We had passed Fate Bell shelter, the impressively large and pictograph-adorned rockshelter visited by the park’s daily tours.  We were on our way to a major side-canyon called Presa Canyon, on an all-day trek that allows park visitors to explore the otherwise off-limits canyon bottoms and to experience more of the striking landscape and ancient rock art of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. We walked over smoothly sculpted bedrock, and past two of the small permanent springs that would have provided Fate Bell shelter’s nomadic inhabitants with fresh drinking water for thousands of years.  These canyon floors also have many other bedrock pools that are not spring fed, but because they are shaded part of the day by high canyon walls they can hold water for weeks after seasonal rains.  The pools are an oasis in this semi-arid land and magnets for wildlife.  They are home to countless insect larvae, tadpoles, and other aquatic critters and are frequented by deer, raccoons, birds, and just about every other animal out here.

Folks on tours often ask me about snakes, and inquisitors generally fall into two very different groups.  The first group asks with trepidation, and if I told them there was a good chance that they would see a rattler during their visit to the park, I think some of them would go straight back to their RVs and drive until they thought it was safe to step outside again. The second group asks eagerly, and often these are snake hunters — either herpetology students or collectors or people in the pet trade — and we have to keep an eye on them as they often try to poach snakes from the park.

I tell the tour that here in the canyon bottoms they are most likely to see ribbon snakes, small and harmless relatives of garter snakes. These are pretty little snakes, almost black with bright orange and yellow stripes running from head to tail. The ones I see are usually about the diameter of a pencil and maybe 18 inches long.  They live in and around the pools, where they eat the tadpoles and such.  I tell people that if they think they are afraid of snakes, it goes the other way too and they should just see the urgency with which a ribbon snake tries to be anywhere else when beset by two-dozen enthralled elementary school kids on a field-trip.  I tell them that if we approach each pool quietly, we may get to see one, and possibly frogs and other critters.

I had just finished so introducing the ribbon when we came around a corner and saw some commotion in the next pool down the canyon. A small snake was writhing furiously, locked in combat with something.   I assumed that a ribbon snake had caught a frog or something that had more fight in it than the snake had bargained for.  I was reminded of that cartoon of the frog with its hands around the neck of the water bird that is trying to eat it, with the caption “Don’t give up!”   I’d never actually seen a ribbon snake feeding before, so I got out my camera and tried to think what David Attenborough would say.

Beetle attacking ribbon snake

Beetle attacking ribbon snake

As we got closer to the pool it became clear that the ribbon snake was not the predator here but the prey.  A diving beetle, perhaps an inch and a half long, had a firm grip behind the unfortunate snake’s head with its pincers.  Whenever the snake struggled to free itself, the beetle’s legs would unfurl and it would ride out the thrashing like a bull-rider, eventually wrestling the snake into submission.  The beetle’s legs then folded back against its body, and it once more looked exactly like a floating brown leaf instead of the terrifying and thankfully small creature that it is.  I had seen pictures before of diving beetles grasping little minnows, but this snake was nearly a foot long! Also, still

Struggle between beetle and ribbon snake

Struggle between beetle and ribbon snake

photos of a diving beetle nibbling on an already dead minnow did nothing to capture the violence of the life and death struggle going on in the pool before us.

Diving beetles grasp and stab their prey with huge, hollow piercing pincers that they also use to suck out their prey’s juices.  When diving, they carry a supply of air with them under their wing covers, like scuba tanks. They can fly.  I thought of Starship Troopers, and was very, VERY glad that diving beetles don’t get big enough to be a threat to people. I would never go near the water again! No thanks, I’ll stick with predators that aren’t so terrifying.  Like big gosh-darned rattlers.

Thanks for telling us this fascinating story, Jack.  And, uh, watch where you step.

Halo Shelter Paintings

I’ve just returned from another wonderful trip to the Lower Pecos region of south Texas where I had the good fortune of seeing these magnificent ancient paintings.  Their color is vivid even now, 4000 years or more since their creation.  The gold anthropomorph struck me as especially well-preserved. My quivering legs were my souvenir of the rugged climb in and out of the canyon where these paintings are located.  I had to climb straight down–and then straight up– hand over hand on a rope. But luckily not too far.  It was only after we had arrived in the shelter that my guide told me of the rattlesnake that had been there a few days before.

Do not attempt to find these paintings yourself.  They are on private land with no roads.  But do find amazement in what the ancient people who came before us thought, created, and left for us to ponder. No doubt these figures express profound stories and understandings of the world that we may never fully comprehend.

Yet they tell us of their lives and dreams, their gods and heroes, their world and ours.

If you do have the privilege  of seeing such rock art with your own eyes, I hope you will do everything you can to protect it as the world treasure it is.

36 Hours in the Lower Pecos

The Lower Pecos region in south Texas doesn’t look like much as you drive west on highway 90 from Del Rio.  Dry, dull grey or brown, nothing but creosote and cactus.  Even Lake Amistad, built by damming the Rio Grande, looks like dry bones after years of severe drought. Long distance trucks fly by without a glance on their way to El Paso or LA.  But with over 300 aboriginal petroglyph sites deep in the canyons, this hidden gem holds wonders topped by nothing else in the world, much less in North America.

Rugged canyons protect world-class rock art from over 4000 years ago.  Most of these treasures of human creation are on private property with no public access.  But several sites are owned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Rock Art Foundation, which offer tours for the adventurous to selected  locations.

Del Rio, Texas, makes a good base for a visit, with plenty of cheap hotels, restaurants, and bars. Just a short drive away a new world opens up, when you take the time to see.

Friday  6 p.m.

1. Fortifying Your Belly

Have dinner  at Wright’s Steak House, a family-owned spot in business more than 30 years.  The bartender/owner will make you a margarita to soothe your soul, or anything else you like from the full bar.  Order the fried onion rings as an appetizer for about $5.95, but don’t bother asking for a half-order.  They just won’t do it.  You’ll be delighted with the towering plate of golden rings anyway, and they are perfect for sharing with four people.  Excellent steaks are $15-25.00, with full salad bar and vegetables of the day. Be sure to see the year-round Christmas tree. It had big pastel bows, silk  flowers,  and colored Easter grass the last time I was there.  Live music on weekends. Wright’s is located about 8 miles west of Del Rio on highway 90.

 Saturday, 9:00 a.m.

2. Prepping Your Senses and Sensibilities

Leave Del Rio about 9:00 and drive about 60 miles west of Del Rio on Highway 90 to Langtry, population 30, clinging to a spectacular golden side canyon on the Rio Grande. Visit the Chihuahuan desert botanical garden at the Texas Highway Department Visitor Center to learn about the many uses of desert plants.  Then wander through the Judge Roy Bean Saloon and Opera House. Judge Roy Bean billed himself as the “Law West of the Pecos” in the 1880s-90s, and was infatuated with the English singer Lily Langtry, thus the name.

The Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway used to stop here to take on more fuel and water.  A small community grew up around the stop to service the train, and a few people took up ranching on the side. Judge Roy Bean ran the saloon and served as Justice of the Peace.  He also sponsored boxing matches and kept a pet bear.

Drive down the streets in Langtry to see the crumbling adobe ruins from over 100 years ago.    The old white school house from the 1920s now serves as the community center.   That and the church where services are held about once every three weeks are all that remain of the village.  Drive to the end of the pavement, and proceed carefully on the gravel road to glimpse the majestic canyon.  You will need four-wheel drive to go very far, so take it easy. Prepare to leave Langtry by 11:15 for the drive back east on highway 90. Just before you cross a little bridge that says “Eagle Nest”, pull off on the wide shoulder.

Take a good look at the canyon in front of you.  Turn your head slightly to the right to see a cleft in the canyon edge across from you, and a big tumbled rock pile.  That is Bonfire shelter, location of several spectacular bison jumps during the past 10,000 years. Do not even think of going down there.  It is private property (patrolled by shotgun) and extremely dangerous. Instead, read all about it at www.texasbeyondhistory.net/bonfire/index.html.

As soon as you cross the Pecos River high bridge, turn left into the White Shaman Preserve. Stop at the gate if it is not open and wait for the guide.

12:00 noon

3. White Shaman Shelter

Arrive White Shaman Preserve gate by noon. Eat the sandwiches and apples you brought and put on your hiking boots, preferably  with two pairs of socks.  Slather on the sunscreen and bug spray. Adjust your hiking sticks.  Get your hat and sunglasses, and pack plenty of water. Tours start promptly at 12:30 every Saturday, no reservations needed.  Donations of $20 cash per person are appropriate.

White Shaman Preserve is owned by the Rock Art Foundation (www.rockart.org), which vigilantly protects the property. The ancient rock art here is world-famous, and justly so. New research is currently on the verge of breaking the iconographic  code to understand what the artists from long ago were telling us in this panel.

An informed guide leads each tour.  The climb down into and up out of the canyon is moderately steep, and it can be very hot.  It is not recommended for those in poor health or with mobility issues.  The tour generally takes about two and one-half hours.

4:00 p.m.

4. Cool off in the Pool

This being hot desert country, almost any Del Rio hotel you stay in will have a pool.  The Ramada Inn’s two pools (indoor and outdoor) and three hot tubs are highly recommended.  Plunge into the cool water to lower your body temperature, then soak your bones in a hot tub.  Your muscles will thank you. Next, time for a nap in your dark air-conditioned room.

7:00 p.m.

5. Dinner Again at Wright’s

This is the best place to eat I have found in Del Rio.  Try the chicken fried steak with real homemade mashed potatoes and gravy or the  16 oz. garlic encrusted ribeye.  Really good. They also have fish, quail, and frog legs.

If it is dark when you come out, and the sky is clear, look up.  The Milky Way spreads out like heaven itself here in the desert. Better yet, drive further out of town and find a side road to park on.  Then stretch out on the hood of your car and drink in the night sky.

Sunday

8:00 a.m.

6. Canyon of the Winged Anthropomorphs

Leave Del Rio by 8:00 a.m. for the 40 mile drive west on highway 90 to Seminole Canyon State Park (432-292-4464). Pay your entrance fee and tour fee of about $8.00 per person.  Wander the small but well done museum that explains human life from the  Paleolithic era to the present in this area. Listen to the explanation of rock art and watch the informative video while overlooking the canyon.  Put on your hiking boots, etc., use the restroom, and meet on the back deck at 9:55 for the tour to Fate Bell Shelter. Entrance to the canyon is by guided tour only.

Tours leave Wednesday-Sunday at 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. from September through May, and 10:00 a.m. only June through August. If you are lucky you will get an informed guide, but sometimes you get an intern that is pretty green, so you never know.  The hike in and especially out is moderately strenuous and very hot. Carry water with you. Do not put your hands and feet anywhere you cannot see, i.e. in rock crevices.  That’s where rattlesnakes like to hang out.

You will see two rock shelters on this tour, the largest of which is named Fate Bell, for the rancher who once owned the property.  Fate Bell is a huge rock shelter where 30 people or more could have lived comfortably.  And live they did, as evidenced by the sotol matting still visible in the disturbed cave dust floor.  Stay on the rubber mats put down by the park service at all times in order to prevent further damage. Flint flakes are everywhere on the floor as well, but do not be tempted to take them with you.  Look but don’t touch.  Please.

Fate Bell shelter is inspiring now, and must have been almost overpowering 4000 years ago.  Notice how the paint goes all the way down below the current floor level.  It probably continues down several feet, but we may never know, as any archeological digging would likely destroy the art that can be seen today.  It’s a real dilemma that frustrates many a concerned person.  The paintings cover the entire expanse in this shelter, so look carefully as you go. 

The brightest and best preserved grouping is the “winged shaman” at the left end of the shelter.  No one really knows their meaning, but they are powerful images, nonetheless.

12:00 noon

7. The Joy of Running Water

When the tour is over, you will likely be covered in sweat, so drive up to the campground and take a shower to cool off.  Hot and cold running, courtesy of the Texas state parks. Put on clean clothes. Believe me, you will feel much better.  Then eat the sandwiches you brought (you did, didn’t you?) and drink plenty of liquid. This is the time for that bottle of Gatorade.

1:00 p.m.

8. Pecos River Overlook

Leave Seminole Canyon State Park and turn left onto, you guessed it, highway 90.  Within about 2 miles you will see a sign for a scenic overlook.  Turn left there and wind around past the old mobile homes.  You will come to a roadside park with a magnificent overlook of the Pecos River.  The view is spectacular.  Look far to the left to see the conjunction of the Pecos and the Rio Grande.  From here, it’s time for the journey home, or to continue on your way.  Happy Highways!

If You Go

The Ramada Inn Del Rio, 2101 Veteran’s Blvd (aka highway 90), 78840, 830-775-1511, www.ramadinndelrio.com is a good hotel with two swimming pools, three hot tubs, an excellent gym, dining room, etc.  A room with two queen beds is about $60.00 per night.  There are many other inexpensive motels along this strip, as well as lots of chain eateries.  The Wal-Mart is one of the best-supplied I’ve ever seen, and is great for that forgotten sunscreen or hat.