In the far northwest corner of Amistad National Recreation Area, near the confluence of the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers, is a rugged and prehistoric art gallery. Four thousand-year old pictographs are hidden within the rocky canyon shelters and overhangs in this desolate region of Texas. The National Park System has partnered with Texas Parks and Wildlife to protect the priceless art. Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site is a Texas state park located within the boundaries of Amistad NRA between Langtry and Comstock, Texas. (Side note: The Texas Visitor Center in Langtry is worth a visit. Many, many brochures for all regions in Texas, a Judge Roy Bean museum with fun, interactive exhibits, Judge Bean’s original saloon, and an outdoor cactus garden are a few of the things to see here.)
A developed campground with flush toilets and hot showers, far, far west Texas seclusion, gorgeous desert sunsets, and views of the Pecos River that brings Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series to life are just a few of Seminole Canyon State Park’s attractions. However, the most unusual and unique attraction is the art work. The Lower Pecos River has the most outstanding collection of ancient rock art in the world. There are hundreds of pictographs (images painted on rock) in the region. Although visitors are prohibited from entering the canyon alone, rangers offer two tours daily to view the pictographs in Fate Bell Shelter. The tour is considered a moderate hike because of the steep, uneven stairs going down and the steep climb back up. I gladly pay the $5 fee and join the 3:00 tour.
As our group of eight wind our way into the canyon, the ranger explains that the people who painted the pictographs were nomadic hunters and gatherers, therefore there was no need to build permanent structures such as those found at Mesa Verde. We arrive at the bottom of the canyon to view human-like, animal-like, and object-like images adorning otherwise plain canyon walls. Various rock minerals were pounded and pounded to be used for paint, and animal fats and even urine were used to bind the paint. Preparing to paint sometimes took longer than the actual artwork itself. Do the primitive red ocher pictographs painted on overhangs and shelters tell a story? Was the rock art in this shallow canyon in such a rugged landscape meant to communicate a message? Not even the research scientists know the meaning of the pictographs. It is very much like looking at modern art in modern galleries in modern cities. We can guess at the artists’ thoughts and mood; we can interpret from our own perspective; and we can spin a tale from what we observe. The meaning of the art is just that: guesses, cultural interpretations, and tales. The true meanings of the artwork have been lost with the artist.
Because of their nomadic nature, no current Native American tribe claims ancestry with the lost ancients of Seminole Canyon and the Lower Pecos River Region. I touch a large boulder that has been touched for thousands of years by hundreds of hands and imagine my own interpretation of the artist’s work. The pictographs tell me that life has always, since Creation, held intrigue and beauty. For thousands of years people have tried to capture their observations and their stories. People from cultures that spent every moment looking for food, shelter, and clothing still took the time to record their story in a primitive art form. It’s easy for me to see that the pictographs are simply a 4000-year-old blog post.