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Rock Art Rendezvous

Destination: Del Rio

Travel time from:
Austin – 3.5 hours
Brownsville – 6 hours
Dallas – 6 hours
Houston – 5 hours
San Antonio – 2.5 hours
Lubbock – 5 hours

Del Rio trip leads to North America’s ‘oldest book.'

By Tom Harvey

Midway between the iconic Big Bend region and big Texas cities to the east lies a fascinating place of rugged beauty, world-class hunting, hiking and camping, river paddling, the state’s oldest winery and a priceless Texas treasure — ancient Native American rock art. This area surrounds Del Rio on the Rio Grande and is accessed via U.S. Highway 90, the more interesting alternative to Interstate 10 for those heading west.

We timed our trip to coincide with the annual Rock Art Foundation Rendezvous, a cornucopia of prehistoric art tours to intriguing places you can’t reach otherwise. The San Antonio-based nonprofit foundation of about 800 members maintains relations with private ranchers to encourage rock art stewardship and provide public access to archeological sites. The foundation leads regular tours to about 10 sites, all on private land, including the marvelous Galloway White Shaman Preserve. It also serves as the volunteer friends group for Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, leading tours to several outstanding archeological sites in the park, including the Fate Bell Shelter.

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In this panoramic shot, the U.S. Highway 90 bridge spans the Pecos River near its confluence with the Rio Grande, an area rich in rock art.

On a crisp October morning, we file down a rocky path into Seminole Canyon, our first tour of the trip. With me is my daughter Roma Bard, a college history major with a keen interest in prehistoric art, sparked in part by her fascination with French rock art sites like Chauvet Cave, with its beautiful images of galloping horses.

The day is stunningly fresh and sublime: brilliant sunlight, a cloudless sky and cool, dry air. Rain the week before has left the desert landscape green and blooming. As our troupe of 15 or so gathers down in the canyon around park Superintendent Randy Rosales, clear water pools on the flat limestone next to us, trickling down toward the Rio Grande, just a mile or two away. Water in the desert -— the source of life and the reason prehistoric tribes gathered here for shelter in an arid land.

Rosales tells us the story of the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts, descendants of African American slaves, named for their connection with the native Seminoles in Florida. They later fled to Mexico to escape persecution before returning to serve as U.S. military scouts in the Texas “Indian Wars” of the mid-1800s. The park has a new exhibit telling their story, along with other exhibits about the area’s natural and human history and prehistory.

Filing into the Fate Bell Shelter, we see a multitude of pictographs painted on walls under the overhanging cliff, including human figures with arms raised like flying birds. Thousands of visitors and scholars have puzzled over their meanings. The tour moves into the main living area where ancient people prepared meals around cook fires. The fibrous remains of woven materials and cooking materials are still there, lying around on the ground, preserved in the dry air for centuries.

“To me, it is one of the great things to be involved with in life,” says a man with a strong French accent, taking photos of the rock art with a nice camera on a tripod. Francois Gohier tells us he volunteered to document the caves at Lascaux as a college student in the late 1950s. He now lives in California and, like us, is here for the Rendezvous.

Later, Roma and I take time for a little side visit with Carolyn Boyd, a fine art painter turned archeologist, who founded the Shumla School in Comstock in 1998.

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Visitors check out a cliff covered with pictographs at the Meyers Spring Ranch in Southwest Texas.

“We needed a place where students of all ages could be immersed in the natural and cultural environment here,” Boyd says. “I came out in 1997 with a group from [Texas] A&M, and I watched them transform before my eyes from students who were mediocre in class and had trouble with concepts to students who came to life and excelled.”

Shumla hosts summer programs for college students and organizes volunteers for its Border Canyonlands Archaeological Project to document regional rock art sites. The Shumla Scholars Program engages young Comstock students in hands-on learning, like mapping the Comstock cemetery using 3D imagery. (Information about internships and volunteer opportunities is on the school’s website at www.shumla.org.)

At the time of our visit, Boyd was hard at work on a new book about the White Shaman site, inspired in part by a breakthrough visit by a Huichol shaman from Mexico in 2010.

“He was saying, ‘They’re all here. Our grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfathers. They’re all here,’” Boyd tells us. “He started pointing to certain figures. He confirmed what I had been suspecting, that the White Shaman images depict not the peyote hunt ritual, but the myth that informs the ritual, the creation story.”

That afternoon, Roma and I join a group and file down a rocky path to the White Shaman — city penitents on another tourist pilgrimage to a 4,000-year-old mystery. As we enter the steep side canyon, brilliant sun sparkles on the Pecos River below, and the Highway 90 bridge spans the river elegantly in the distance. I am reminded of something Boyd had observed.

“Most drivers cross the bridge and never know they are within a stone’s throw of perhaps the oldest known book in North America,” she writes in her new book.

We arrive in late afternoon, and though the light is not best for viewing the piece, we are nonetheless entranced and take turns snapping photos of the complex swirl of images, including the pale human figure with upraised arms — the White Shaman.

That night, we share a campfire at the White Shaman preserve, a treat for Rendezvous weekenders who get to camp there. Rising early, we meet the Rendezvous caravan in Dryden, west of Comstock. Soon, 20 vehicles are bumping along ranch roads north to Camp Meyers, a Seminole Indian Scout camp on the Meyers Spring Ranch.

Ranch owner Thad Steele of El Paso greets us at his headquarters compound. For years, Steele, the Rock Art Foundation and the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross University collaborated to restore an 1882 stone building on the ranch used by the Seminole scouts.

Our group walks up to the spring, and the scene changes from arid desert to green oasis. Water from the spring flows down a small canyon, and on the other side of the stream we see a 30-foot cliff covered with rock art.

This fascinating private site, accessible only through Rock Art Foundation tours, has both 500-year-old historic rock art by Comanches and Apaches and older Pecos River-style art dating back 2,750 to 4,000 years. The later art shows horses, clearly marking it from the era after the Spanish arrival, and in places this is painted right over the ancient art, like historical vandalism. I’m struck by an image that looks familiar — it turns out to be the cross-like sun symbol that adorns the New Mexico state flag.

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The White Shaman pictograph is the focal point of the Galloway White Shaman Preserve outside Del Rio.

After lunch we visit the restored stone structure and linger inside, hearing more lore of the Seminole scouts.

“We did it for their memory,” says Steele, looking proudly at the building’s stout walls.

He tells us that hunting helps sustain the ranch enterprise. Last year the ranch was issued TPWD Managed Lands Deer Permits for 187 whitetails and three mule deer, and also hosted a three-day Texas Youth Hunting Program hunt.

We camp at Devils River State Natural Area north of Del Rio, where the original Del Norte Unit offers primitive camping and hiking in outdoor solitude. The pristine river is fed by numerous crystal-clear springs. Several of these are located at the state natural area, which provides visitors the chance to enjoy a truly peaceful wilderness river experience. Paddlers interested in exploring the river by boat should see the park’s Web page for a wealth of information, including how to obtain a $10 Devils River Access Permit. The permit gives paddlers access to both Del Norte and the newer Big Satan Unit, which is in the process of planning and development for increased public use in the future.

On the way in to Devils River, we pass a vehicle carrying Texas Tech University archeologist Tamra Walter and Alistair Burton of Gracy International Volunteer Expeditions. They are partnering to study and conserve San Bushmen rock art in Zimbabwe, and Burton has come to see how things are done in Texas. We share a quick, excited conversation with them through the truck window before rolling on.

On Sunday, we at last turn toward home, leaving a list of unexplored local attractions. I’d hoped to stop at the beautiful Amistad National Recreation Area, a multi-armed reservoir on the Rio Grande with great fishing, hiking and rock art viewing. I’d also wanted to see the Whitehead Memorial Museum, with exhibits interpreting the area’s history and ranching heritage, and the Val Verde Winery, said to be the oldest bonded winery in Texas, established in 1883 by Italian immigrant Frank Qualia.

Thank heaven for missed opportunities — that’s what next time is for!

 

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