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Bordering on Bliss

Destination - Del Rio

By Larry D. Hodge

Travel time from:

  • Amarillo - 8 hours /
  • Austin - 4 hours /
  • Brownsville - 7 hours /
  • Dallas - 7 hours /
  • El Paso - 7.5 hours /
  • Houston - 6 hours /
  • San Antonio - 3 hours

Three successive casts into Lake Amistad hook me up with black bass, each larger than the last.

We're anchored in a smooth slick produced by the thousand-gallon-per-second flow of Goodenough Spring some 90 feet below, and every bass in the lake seems to be feeding at the line where spring and lake water meet.

Guide Charlie Rumfield is catching bass, too. He apologizes, but not because his fish are bigger than mine. We've come for white bass and stripers, and while we catch an occasional white bass by fishing straight down instead of casting to the edge of the upwelling spring water, Charlie decides that we can find the fish we're after elsewhere - away from those pesky black bass.

Forster's terns and ring-billed gulls are circling a short distance away. Each time one swoops low, it comes up with a wriggling shad in its beak. Charlie hauls in the anchor, and we join the party. Fish feeding below are forcing bait to the surface, and the water boils as white bass snap up shad around the boat. We drop slab lures into the water, and before they've sunk six feet, white bass hit them. Every time we drop a line into the water, a fish hits it. This is one of those fishing trips you hear about but seldom experience. We catch fish until we are tired. Even though we stop far short of the limit of 25 each, we have enough fillets for many a fish fry.

That afternoon I join a guided tour of the White Shaman Preserve, a prehistoric rock art site on the Pecos River just above its junction with the Rio Grande. This 300-acre preserve, which is owned by the nonprofit Rock Art Foundation, contains four pictograph sites with hundreds of polychromatic images.

The tour begins at a reconstruction of an archaic Indian summer camp, showing how the people lived here 4,000 years ago. From there we follow our Rock Art Foundation guide down, down, and down some more into the canyon where the White Shaman decorates the wall of an overhang. A single panel of art some 8 feet tall and 20 feet wide depicts how, according to the religious beliefs of prehistoric people who lived here, shamans traveled from the natural world into the spirit world and back while in a trance or dream state that may have been induced by eating hallucinogenic plants. The transformation is shown quite graphically by a white, headless figure - the shaman's spirit - rising above a black mirror image representing his body. Above them is the red, curving body of a giant monster resembling a millipede, which symbolizes the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead. Small, black, inverted human figures beside the shaman represent his symbolic death.

Most of the colors in the ancient artist's palette - red, black, yellow, orange and white - are present in the painting. Colors were made by grinding minerals such as iron oxide; paints were created by blending the pigments with animal fat or urine. Very serviceable brushes were made from fibers from plants such as the sotol.

Considering that it was painted between 2000 and 1000 B.C., the art is in good condition. However, Greg Williams, president of the Rock Art Foundation, says there is concern that increased humidity from Lake Amistad and air pollution from automobiles and power plants may cause the colors to fade. Some paintings have been degraded over the last 50 years, while others show no change.

Much Texas rock art was copied during the 1930s and 1940s by Forrest and Lula Kirkland, commercial artists from Dallas. You can see the Kirklands' paintings online at www.tmm.utexas.edu/anthro/Olexhibits.html. Photographs of the art at the White Shaman Preserve and other sites can also be seen at www.rockart.org.

The site paintings are colorful and, considering their age, in good condition. The guide gives a detailed explanation of the symbolism used by ancient painters to tell the shaman's story.

As we come and go, there's a lively discussion of rocks and plants and bugs and birds we see. One visitor puzzles over a bright green plant we see in profusion until we put two and two together and realize that recent heavy rains have goaded resurrection plants to life. I've seen these many times in their desiccated, black, dormant state, but this is my first look at these feathery survivors in their full glory. Throughout our visit, monarch butterflies heading south on their annual migration compete for our attention. The butterflies, the resurrection plants and the pictographs all pointedly remind me of how transient we are - and how dependent on nature.

Late that afternoon I visit some sites in Del Rio on TPWD's new Heart of Texas Wildlife Trail. San Felipe Creek is fed by a spring of the same name, and although the city gets its water supply from the spring, the 90-million-gallon-per-day flow furnishes plenty of water for both. Squirrels abound along the banks, and I learn that even grackles can be cute when bathing on a gravel bar. The great kiskadee and golden-fronted woodpeckers I see are no surprise, and there is a bonus: clinging to trees along the creek are hundreds and hundreds of monarchs. These butterflies spend their winter roosting in trees in a humid forest in Mexico, and the limbs overhanging the creek provide a preview of where they'll spend the next few months.

A short distance away, the Paseo de los Nios Nature Trail winds through a totally different environment, typical Chihuahuan Desert scrub. A loggerhead shrike perches on a utility line as I enter. Within minutes I've spotted a house finch, a common nighthawk and two white-tailed deer whose tracks are everywhere.

Next morning I continue my rock art education with a trip to Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site. Fate Bell Shelter, open to guided tours Wednesday through Sunday, contains paintings not only of shamans but also animals found in the area, such as deer, turtles and desert bighorn sheep. A tour guide from the Rock Art Foundation reveals that archeologists believe they understand the symbolism of many of the images, but others remain a mystery. These ancient artists depicted hunters at work, holding a spear and spear thrower in the right hand and a bag dangling from the left arm. A box on legs might represent a fish trap. No explanation seems necessary for the handprints; apparently artists signed their work even thousands of years ago. Looking out over the magnificent landscape visible from the rock shelter, I am reminded that we share another similarity with these ancient peoples - an appreciation for beauty. I never saw rock art painted in a place with an ugly view.

A fierce north wind scrubs an overnight houseboating adventure, but there's still plenty to do. Despite the weather, the birding is good. Canyon wrens and monarchs add spice to Seminole Canyon, and mourning doves, black vultures and turkey vultures enliven the drive back toward Lake Amistad. In the ranch country north of Comstock we find scaled quail, a red-tailed hawk, a scissor-tailed flycatcher, a vesper sparrow and a prairie falcon. In the evening, sandhill cranes riding the north wind make their haunting cries.

Before heading home the next day, I spend a few hours around Lake Amistad, visiting sites on the Heart of Texas Wildlife Trail. American coots clog the waters where Spur 406 ends at the lake. An American kestrel sits atop a willow like a feathered jewel, and barn swallows and red-winged blackbirds flit by in bunches. A red-tailed hawk observes them all from a rocky crag.

As I pull up to the entrance of Hunt Area 1 on Amistad National Recreation Area, a flight of mourning doves passes overhead. White-throated swifts dart by head-high while a cottontail speeds away through the brush. I turn over a rock to reveal a gecko hiding underneath. The wildlife-viewing guide cites the possibility of seeing the tiny verdin, but that seems unlikely - until a bright yellow head appears in a persimmon bush no more than 15 feet away. The verdin lingers long enough for me to get a good look, and while I'm still feeling fortunate, a blue-gray gnatcatcher lands on a branch even closer.

On my journey home I reflect on what I've seen. Four millennia ago, people we call Indians walked the same paths I've just traveled, seeing the same birds and butterflies. Their art is a clue that they, too, found much to wonder at in their world. And while some might wish to know all the secrets of the birds and the bugs and the ancient painters, I am content to, in the words of an Iris DeMent song, "Let the mystery be."

Delving into Del Rio

For general information on Del Rio and the surrounding area, visit www.drchamber.com or call (800) 889-8149. The chamber also maintains a list of Lake Amistad fishing guides. For information on houseboating on Lake Amistad, visit www.foreverresorts.com/amistad.html or call (830) 774-4157.

Extensive information from the Rock Art Foundation on area rock art and guided tours of sites can be found at www.rockart.org. Volunteers from the Rock Art Foundation lead tours at a number of locations, including Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site. For park information call (915) 292-4464 or visit Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site.

Maps for the Heart of Texas Wildlife Trail are available online, or by calling (888) 892-4737. or by e-mailing birdingtrails@tpwd.state.tx.us.

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