By Rick Schwertfeger, Captain, Frontier Partisans Southern Command
Austin, Texas, May 2018
The trail begins down a gentle slope. You’re walking easily, strolling. After a quarter mile the footing gets tougher, with looser rock. The trail descends more sharply. You’re picking your way down unstable rocks, stepping very carefully. Steeper, jumbled footing. Then a chain railing appears. You’re glad; this is serious down climbing now. Ahead an older gent takes a big tumble and hits his head. After a five-minute rest, he continues. More railings. Finally, at the bottom of the canyon, you face a set of very steep steps up to a sheltered spot.
Struggling up, as you enter the shelter you see it: Five spacey, ethereal, mystical, other-worldly figures almost shimmer off the rock surfaces. In the center: The White Shaman. And, in a clear application of the ashes to ashes, dust to dust reality of earthly life, the figures are fading, disappearing, and will be gone to the ages.
The Lower Pecos Peoples are not so well known to us. Having lived in remote, stark desert canyons in the region of the present day Texas–Mexico borderlands where the Pecos River flows into the Rio Grande, they left no written records. Well, except for their extraordinary rock paintings! What we do know is the result of dedicated archeologists drawn to studying their mysterious rock art! Researchers have spent years recording these images for posterity as they fade away. It’s a noble effort to go back 2,000 to over 4,500 years into an obscure human past aiming to capture just what these paintings might have meant to those peoples.
Along with being in remote, sometimes almost inaccessible canyons, the sites are on private lands. These paintings are accessible to us regular folks through two sources: Seminole Canyon State Park; and the San Antonio-based Rock Art Foundation. The State of Texas bought land from private owners and opened the Park in 1980. It is way off the beaten track, and is one of my favorites due in no small measure to the Fate Bell rock art site in Seminole Canyon. These large, awesome paintings are the ones most visited due to easy access in the State Park. (Thank you, Texas!)
The Rock Art Foundation was formed by University of Texas archeologist Solveig Turpin, Ph.D., and photographer Jim Lintgraff, both committed to studying the many other rock art sites in the region. They negotiated with landowners to allow limited tours on their private properties — mainly ranches. Access is only on Rock Art Foundation tours. Depending on the site, they are available from a couple of times a year to rather frequently. Except, my friends, no tours June through August.
For the sake of survival, one is advised not to hike into a microwave running on High!
The Lower Pecos Peoples were hunter-gatherers. Many of their paintings are indicative of shamanistic ritual.
Shamans are found primarily within Native American societies that rely heavily on hunting and gathering or fishing … In these societies, the shaman serves a crucial role as diviner, seer, magician, healer of bodily and spiritual ills, keeper of traditions, and artist. Acting as the guardian of the physical and psychic equilibrium of the society, the shaman, through altered states of consciousness, journeys to the spirit world where he will personally confront the supernatural forces on behalf of his group.
As an example of one of these roles, the White Shaman panel is believed to be a creation story. The altered states of consciousness were achieved by ingestion of plant substances. There is “evidence of peyote, mountain laurel beans (seeds), and datura (jimson weed) found in the rock art and cave deposits of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands.”
My wife Marcia Desy and I have visited two other rock art sites in addition to the White Shaman. The Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park is massive, stretching over 150 yards. It was lived in, was a cooking place, a burial place, and a rock art gallery. There is evidence of occupation from about 7000 B.C. to A.D. 1500.
“The images may communicate important elements of the culture’s belief system, such as a symbolic relationship between deer and peyote.” (Seminole Canyon State Park brochure)
The Painted Shelter is in a side canyon on a private ranch to the east. It requires an 11 mile drive over rough caliche roads, and a relatively short, challenging hike/climb down to the Shelter. It is in a pretty little canyon with water downstream from the paintings. This, too, is a large shelter with many images that are quite breathtaking. Our guide emphasized the same roles of the painters/shamans as mentioned above: to explain their cosmology, visions, and the nature of their world. And, perhaps, instructions on how to live.
Apart from what I’ve learned from the guides, I have yet to study this art in depth. The adventure of getting to the sites and experiencing the mystical awe of being right where these artists painted their cosmic, mythic stories has been enough for me so far. Marcia and I also visited the Rock Art Section of the Witte Museum in San Antonio, which took the Rock Art Foundation under its wing in 2017 to assure continuation of its work. The display is quite impressive, including a fine short video in a space that mimics a painted shelter. There also are actual material relics of the Lower Pecos Peoples in the display; something no longer present at the sites themselves.
Visiting the Fate Bell site, and touring some of the others, is recommended highly. It will take effort. The San Antonio airport is a four-hour drive from the Park. Del Rio, about 35 miles away, has an international airport. Flying into there may be more pricey, but saves the drive from San Antonio. There is camping in the Park — though frequently it is very windy in the camping area. There is a reasonable motel in nearby Comstock and good accommodations and Tex-Mex restaurants in Del Rio.
Anyone really wanting to go should feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love to go there and Marcia and I intend to go again next autumn.
Photos © Marcia Desy, Austin, Texas. Used by permission.
Text © Rick Schwertfeger, Captain, Frontier Partisans Southern Command
Austin, Texas, May 2018. Used by permission.