Peyote: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part III

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Huichol indian yarn painting of peyote cactus

Peyote was a powerful plant helper for ancient people of the Lower Pecos. Like the Huichol indians of Mexico today, ancient people probably considered peyote a sacred plant. Peyote contains the drug mescaline, which brings colorful hallucinations to those who consume it, along with nausea and other uncomfortable side effects.

Peyote has been used for at least 4000 years in the Lower Pecos and other areas for both medicinal and spiritual purposes. Mashed and dried peyote, radiocarbon dated to  4045-3960 B.C., has been found in certain rock shelters near the Rio Grande. Strings of peyote buttons have also been discovered in caves of northern Mexico.

Dried peyote buttons

Dried peyote buttons

Peyote use spread to Native American groups in the Great Plains and Southwest such as the Lipan Apache, Tonkawa, Mescalero Apache, and Pima by the 1880s. Today, only members of the Native American Church may legally consume peyote in the U.S.

Taken in small doses, peyote is a mild stimulant and reduces appetite. Tarahumara indians in Mexico often chew peyote during their foot races to strengthen them as they run 50 miles or more. The cactus also contains substances that possess antiseptic and antibiotic properties against many types of bacteria.  Mashed cactus can be applied to burns or wounds to prevent infection. The Kiowa also used peyote to treat illnesses such as flu and scarlet fever.

This shy little cactus was declared illegal in 1970 by the United States’ Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.  The cactus continues to grows wild in south Texas and northern Mexico , but is under stress from several causes, according to Dr. Martin Terry of Sul Ross State University.Peyote_Cactus

Previous posts about mountain laurel and moon flower round out this short series on plant helpers of the Lower Pecos.

 

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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 http://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.

Moon Flower: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part II

IMG_1401

Moon flower, one of  the triumvirate of powerful helping plants in the ancient Lower Pecos, is known by many names: Jimson weed, loco weed, datura, stink weed, thorne apple and devil’s weed, to mention the most common.  These plants are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which claims over 2,500 species such as potatoes, eggplants, and tomatoes. Datura stramonium, or moon flower, is a fragrant night-blooming plant that grows wild all over the world, including the Lower Pecos, and can cause delirium, anxiety, hallucinations, stupor, coma and death.

The plants contain the tropane alkaloids– atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. These alkaloids have many uses in modern medicine, but also serious side effects. Atropine interferes with activity in the brain stem, ranging from motor impairment to rapid heart beat, to overheating of the body. Internal bleeding and stroke can occur. Scopolamine and hyoscyamine are also sometime known as  “zombie drugs” because of the delirium and unpleasant hallucinations they can cause.

Spiny seed pods

Spiny seed pods

The seeds and leaves are the most potent, but all parts of the plant are toxic.  Uncomfortable effects generally begin 20-30 minutes after ingestion. Effects can  last from eight hours to three days.

Many researchers agree that ancient people of the Lower Pecos used moon flower, or datura, as a plant helper to converse with the ancestors and gods.  Their shaman were undoubtedly familiar with the plant and learned to dose themselves and others carefully to prevent dire reactions.  Some images in rock art have been interpreted as datura seed pods.

Spiny dots could be datura pods

Spiny dots could be datura pods

The Hopi used this plant for divination purposes, and Carlos Castaneda wrote about it in his famous book from 1968 The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. In the European Middle Ages, the  deadly nightshade known as belladonna was often used in magical brews.

A large moon flower plant grew at the base of our back door steps when I was a child. I was fascinated by the aromatic flowers that bloomed as the summer twilight deepened ,  and I wanted to pluck them for my hair.  But my mother always cautioned me strongly not to even touch the plant, and especially never to eat it. (It was not unknown for us kids to eat a little grass with our mud pies, but then, those were simpler days, when kids made up their own games outdoors.)

There must have been a note of truth and urgency in my mother’s voice when she cautioned me, for I obeyed her on this. And I was not known for being obedient.

Once my grandfather and I were riding horseback through a field when we came upon a moon flower plant.  I still remember the sharp distaste my grandfather conveyed as he said, “Don’t let the horse get into that!  That’s loco weed.  Now I have to get out here and get rid of it.”

I asked why he didn’t want the horse to nibble it, and he said, “because it will make him loco, crazy.  Don’t let him get into it, and don’t you touch it!”  And we quickly turned the other way.P1040172

The Center for Disease Control reports a number of datura or moon flower intoxications over the past few years which resulted in trips to  emergency rooms and admission to intensive care units. In one case, a family accidentally ate datura leaves in a stew, thinking it was an edible wild herb. Six members of the family were taken to the hospital, two of them unconscious.

Moon flower is not regulated in any way in the United States, even though it can cause severe reactions. It carries no warning signs in gardens or in the wild. Archaic people knew the power of this plant, after generations of dangerous trial and error.  Modern people should be aware that even one seed is poisonous and can cause severe discomfort.

The ancient people of the Lower Pecos used all parts of their environemnt, including toxic hallucinogenic plants. A  post in January discussed mountain laurel in Part 1 of this series, and an article on peyote is coming in March.  Nature is beautiful and complicated, as we learn over and over again. Four thousand years ago in the canyon lands near the Pecos River and the Rio Grande, the people knew this well.

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.

Mescal Beans: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part I

mt. laurel flowers

These lovely flowers of the Mountain Laurels so familiar in many parts of Texas belie their past ritual usage for  archaic people of the Lower Pecos and many other historic Native American groups. These flowers produce the potent “mescal bean,” which causes nausea, convulsions and even death when ingested. Mountain Laurels are one of three powerful plants abundant in the Lower Pecos that were used ceremonially by ancient peoples to gain visions, talk to ancestors, cure sickness, or fill other important needs.  Articles about datura and peyote,  two other potent plant helpers of the Lower Pecos are planned in the coming months.

Sophora secundiflora grows wild in the dry limestone country of south Texas, and it is often used as an ornamental shrub in urban and suburban settings. The fragrant flowers are a favorite of bees. However the pretty red beans they produce are highly toxic.

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 When eaten, even as little as half a bean can cause  nausea and vomiting, dilation of the pupils, tachycardia [excessive rapidity and irregularity of the heart-beat] followed by dizziness, mental confusion, muscular incoordination and weakness, and convulsions; in addition respiratory paralysis may occur leading to death by paralysis, according to  Martindales Extra Pharmacopoeia p 1746.

Parents and teachers should warn children of the dangers of these tempting beans, which often fall from their pods onto sidewalks and backyards.  If a young child ate even one bean, it could be fatal. Seeds contain the highly toxic narcotic alkaloid sophorine, or cystisine; don’t be fooled–they do not contain mescaline and have no relation whatsoever to the alcoholic drink called mescal.  If you suspect someone has ingested mescal beans or Mountain Laurel, take that person to the hospital emergency room immediately.

Archeologists theorize that ancient people in the Lower Pecos used this drug in ceremonies to cleanse the bodies and souls of the participants (though severe vomiting) before undertaking other trials such as vision quests. Ancient mescal beans  have been found in a number of dry rock shelters that were occupied by people in that area 4000 or more years ago, and the plants are common in the area today. The beans were included in charms and amulets, made into necklaces or other adornments, or used as parts of other shamanistic regalia.P1040501

      In a 1957  issue of American Anthropologist, James Howard described mescal bean cults among the Apache, Comanche, Delaware, Iowa, Kansa, Omaha, Oto, Osage, Pawnee, Ponca, Tonkawa, and Wichita tribes. The bean was regarded as a powerful fetish and used in ceremonies similar to those for peyote. One Apache man said “Go ahead, eat that bean. You can do miracles, jump right up and out the top of the tipi.”  You probably will jump up if you try this–but you will run to the toilet instead of through the smoke hole of the tipi.

Alanson Skinner described the effects of the mescal bean on participants in 1926.  He said that “everything looks red to the drinker for a while, then he vomits, and evacuates the bowels.”   The toxic effect also causes a feeling of stupor, which some have confused with hallucination.  The majority of literature on mescal beans, however, does not indicate much in the way of hallucinations. Many of us have suffered a hangover at some time in our lives.  It is not the same thing as “tripping” back in the 1960s.

Among the Wichita, medicine men used to administer mescal beans to spiritual novices, causing them to throw up and become unconscious.  The sharp jaw of a gar fish was then raked across the novice’s naked body to test his ability to withstand pain. This ceremony also served to ritually remove evil influences and promote good health, long life and general prosperity (Dorsey, 1904).

Native plants were used in many ways by ancient peoples, but this is one plant better admired from afar.

Interview with Scott Walters

WTY Book Cover Photo

My guest today is Scott Walters, author of the young adult novel Woman Too Young of Panther Cave, which is set in the Lower Pecos and available at http://www.archaicindians.us.  More information for teachers and students is available at his companion website  www.archaicindians.net.

Hi Scott.  Tell us a little about Woman Too Young of Panther Cave.

 I wanted the novel to appeal to both boys and girls.  Consequently, the story is told through the eyes of a boy while a girl figures prominently in the decisions he makes.  Had he not met her, his life would have been radically different.

The story begins when Lizard Boy, who is tired of being treated like a child, sets out to prove to his father that he is ready to enter manhood.  At the same time, Woman Too Young, a girl from a rock shelter believed by Lizard Boy’s people to be an evil place, sets out to save her people from starvation.  When their paths collide, Lizard Boy is thrust into a world of chaos and danger.  In this world, he must become a man or die.

In my attempt to make the characters relevant to modern readers, I utilized many elements of human emotion and experience.  Readers of Woman Too Young of Panther Cave will find adventure, mystery, fear, bravery, humor, uncertainty, folly, the sacred, evil, and, of course, love.

The setting is about 3,500 years ago in the Lower Pecos where three surviving paintings provide key components in the plot.

Who is the intended audience?

My initial audience was the class of fifth graders I was teaching at the time I wrote Woman Too Young of Panther Cave.  I wanted to create a compelling story that would engage reluctant readers while including enough depth to challenge the more advanced students.  While writing the novel, however, I decided to set my sights a little higher by crafting a story that would appeal to as many age groups as possible.  Much to my surprise, I have received more comments and notes of appreciation from adults than students.

Why did you decide to write for this age group?

During a time in my life when I had taught at the university level and was about to wrap up my doctoral studies, I developed a passion for teaching children.  Learning to make worthwhile content relevant to young minds turned out to be one of the greatest and most rewarding challenges of my life.  I quickly learned that kids responded with great enthusiasm to truly good stories (not the politically correct stuff in basal readers).  When lessons were accentuated with stories, comprehension and retention went way up.  Over the years, I discovered numerous books that excited kids while teaching them valuable lessons.  While I had written for adults all of my publishing career,  I discovered that stimulating the minds of children intrigued me more.

The writings of Mark Twain served as a model for me and, in turn, had considerable impact on my writing and teaching.  In fact, I used The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to foster a love for reading and to improve comprehension.

Scott and Cassie Walters

Scott and Cassie Walters

What inspired you to write about the people who lived 3,000 to 4,000 years ago in the Lower Pecos?

Thank you for asking, because I love to tell this story.  My wife Cassie has been a catalyst for so many of the pivotal points in my life, including this novel.  In her fourth grade history classes, she used Texas Studies Weekly to make the subject more interesting to her students.  In one of the editions, the Archaic Indians of the Lower Pecos and their paintings were discussed.  One of the articles noted that some of their paintings could still be seen at Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site.  Cassie knew of my interest in Native American culture and history and suggested that we travel to Comstock to take the tour.  Over the years, we had passed by there several times and I never thought of it as anything more than a place to camp in the desert.  How wrong I was!

During our tour of the Fate Bell Shelter I was hooked by what I saw and what I heard from Billie Foster, our tour guide.  As soon as I returned home, I started writing.  In less than a year, the novel had undergone eight rewrites and was completed.

There is a real irony in this story, however.  American Legacy Publishing, the company that publishes Texas Studies Weekly, contacted me because of the novel.  They wanted to update their curriculum and asked that I write their fourth grade lessons.  The publication responsible for introducing Cassie and me to the rock art in the Lower Pecos became my next major writing assignment.

What do you want your readers to learn or feel after reading your book?

Above all, I want them to think that reading my novel was time well spent.  I also hope that my book will help the paintings and archeological discoveries in the Lower Pecos come to life for them.  I think it is vital to remember that the images and artifacts were created by real people who experienced life in ways very familiar to us.

Personally, I think we miss something when our discussion of an ancient people is purely academic.  It’s like reading the label of ingredients on a food product but never bothering to taste it.  In short, the Archaic Indians of the Lower Pecos were much more than the sum total of what they left behind.  While it is impossible to know any of their individual stories, we can easily imagine what life must have been like in their world.  Doing so establishes a commonality that enriches our appreciation for these ancient people and their art.

 How did you go about researching your book?

In addition to reading everything about the Lower Pecos I could find, I spent many hours visiting rock shelters and literally walking the land that serves as the setting for the story.  One moment of tremendous satisfaction came shortly after the book was published.  An archeologist who had worked in the Lower Pecos wrote to tell me that he knew the places I described in many of the scenes and complimented me for my accuracy.  I was humbled, though, when he thanked me for writing a book that appealed to one in his profession.  For that, I have Mark Twain to thank, because his style of writing often appealed to a wide range of ages.

Tell us a little about the workshops you conduct on indigenous archaic life?

Oddly enough, it has been the science community in education that has shown the most interest in my book.  One would naturally expect the social studies teachers to be first in line.  I was initially asked by an innovative consultant at a regional service center if I could introduce teachers to the science employed by ancient people in their quest for survival.  As I prepared for the workshop, I decided to include a discussion of  the science employed by archeologists to learn more about how early people lived.  Consequently, my workshops consist of these two approaches.

Since my first workshop nearly a decade ago, I have made presentations at service centers, school districts, and state-wide conventions.  In the all-day events, we do a lot of activities that teachers can take back to their classrooms.  Some of my workshops include a trip to the Lower Pecos to tour several rock shelters.

What other books have you written?  What is your next project?

My first break in publishing came years ago when I was hired as a television and movie critic for a national journal.  This, however, is where I must admit to a flaw in writing.  When I grew weary of spending hours in movie theaters and on the sofa in front of the television, I began writing novels.  When one was finished, I threw it in the closet and started the next one.  Once again, Cassie saved me from myself by encouraging me to seek a publisher for Woman Too Young of Panther Cave.  To date, it is the only one that has been published.  I received an offer to publish Beyond the Shadow, a time travel novel for young adult readers, but the contract was not a good one, so I turned it down.  My other novels are about the demise of public education in our country.  As for my next project, I am deep into a sequel for Woman Too Young of Panther Cave.  I am also on the verge of seeing if I can find a better contract for Beyond the Shadow.

Thanks for being my guest today, Scott. See you in the desert!

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.

Hands Across Time

Human beings have lived in the Lower Pecos Canyonlands  over 10,000 years, without doubt.    Over 350 generations of people–grandparents, parents, children– lived their lives around  these canyons and created cultures we will never fully understand.

Although handprints are not common in Lower Pecos rock art, a small group of people pressed  their hands on the wall of a limestone cliff to reach out, to communicate in some way.  What do they say to us today?

We can postulate various reasons why someone would smear red ochre on his or her hand and push it against the rock.  Maybe they were just having fun, joshing and joking around.  Maybe they were marking a particular spot that was important to them.  Maybe they were shaking their fists at the gods.  Maybe they were sealing a pact to undertake some serious business.   Maybe they were the only ones left after a catastrophic event: the only survivors. Or maybe they were just saying “Joe was here.” 

As you can see in the picture above, the handprints are much higher up the wall than an average person could reach.  And people were shorter back then as well. So whoever left these images for us had to go to considerable trouble, probably building a scaffold of some kind, to do this.  Perhaps  this is no different from tagging water towers and other impossible places today.  Are they marking territory?  If so, why aren’t there hundreds of handprints throughout the Lower Pecos?  The fact is, there are only a few known.

Yet they do speak to us, on a very emotional, human level. They tell us somebody was here long before us, living in ways we can barely fathom. Joe, or Jose, or Hwaxti, he was here all right.