Like a flat rock skipped across a smooth pond, we skimmed over the first 400 miles of Texas, heading west on our pilgrimage to here. We spent one night in the piney woods of east Texas (Brazos Bend State Park) and then one in the hill country (Garner State Park) before dropping south to the Rio Grande at Seminole Canyon State Park. It felt like a homecoming to us, as we returned to the desert of the American southwest.
This one is the Chihuahan desert, the largest in North America. It ignores the international borders and just unfolds its low, shrubby vegetation; vistas; limestone outcroppings and honey-colored light across this part of Texas.
Seminole Canyon is a treasure. The Visitor’s Center offers up a brief human history of the area, no small undertaking since humans have been in the area for over 12,000 years.The accolades that one reads on TripAdvisor about the land and the canyon are not exaggerations. The greatest treasure in this canyon is the wealth of pictographs (paintings on rock), done over 4,000 years ago by the indigenous hunters and gatherers who lived in this region. There are hundreds and hundreds in select locations in the canyon.
The experts don’t really know why the paintings were created here (the people traveled to this site to create them, they did not live here) but it’s not hard to imagine they were connected to the spirit-filled world. Human figures appear with headdresses of deer antlers. Snakes encircle some of the figures. Panther and birds and something that looks like crawfish are depicted. Mysterious horseshoe shapes (this was long before horses ever appeared in North America), crosses, arches, and clusters of dots can be seen. Figures appear on top of each other, as we saw in Lascaux in France, and appear to be actually emerging from the rock in places. And as at Lascaux, one sees handprints in red paint alongside some of the tableaux.
We were the only two on the guided tour down to Fate Bell Shelter (you can not hike down to the cave without a guide) and it was a remarkable morning. We asked lots of questions and learned so much about what is known about the site. The canyon has fresh water year round and this appears to have been true 4,000 years ago and may in part explain why this site was chosen for the site for the sacred drawings.
The people who created these pictographs traveled with very little and made what they needed when they got here, grinding specific rocks to powder in order to make the red, yellow, and black pigments used in the pictographs. Archeology reveals they pounded roots of one plant and baked it in earth ovens made on the spot, to extract another ingredient for the paint. They crushed deer bone to access the fat, which held the paint together. Some of the largest and flattest rocks at the open side of the cave exhibit indentations and cut marks from the thousands of years of pounding and scraping that was done here.
They made mats from local plants, tiny remnants of which are still visible in the dry and dusty dirt, to keep the area where they were painting clean. They made sandals to protect their feet on the climbs up and around the caves and made the baskets they needed in order to carry items up from the canyon floor.
Standing in the caves looking at the paintings, we were moved by their beauty and their power. We were in a place of sacred prayers and rituals. Perhaps there was drumming, or chanting done here, the sounds of which echoed along the sinuous canyon, which leads to the Rio Grande. Philip Cousineau could be describing Seminole Canyon when he writes, “Sacred places are those that eternity shines through, like sunlight through a rose window”.
With our 21st century minds, we cannot know the stories these old ones were telling with these pictographs, but when we open our hearts, we can feel something stir and this is what our pilgrimage is about: listening to that stirring.
When we paused in this canyon to listen, the voices of these old ones reached out to us, ever so gently, over the millennia. As our Yaqui shaman friend, Lench, would say, “A ho”… Amen.
Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here, visiting sacred places like Seminole Canyon, as they travel the U.S. in their Airstream.