Not many people know that Texas has one of the best preserved, largest, and most important collections of prehistoric cave paintings in the world. It does. The paintings are found (mostly) within limestone caves in Seminole Canyon. These caves are pretty remote, hard to travel to, and not many people get to see them. Its that remoteness that has kept them so well preserved but its also kept them from getting the fame they deserve.
I’ve personally seen most of them. I’ve been to all the major caves. I’ve collected and inventoried artifacts associated with those sites. I and even got credit for discovering one very tiny, completely unimportant site of historic occupation (aka cave people lived in). I did all that when I was a snot-nosed high school kid and the experience really shaped me as a person. That’s the summer I became a real Texan.
This is where I have to admit that I am not, in fact, a real Texan. My mom, herself a native born Texican, has always been quick to point that out. Here is a conversation that she and I have had several times:
Mom: Don’t be calling yourself a Texan. You can’t do that. You were not born in Texas.
Jenn: You know Mom, that’s really your fault.
Mom: Also, your father (insert dramatic pause here) was a yankee.
Jenn: Mom, that is also your fault.
In the summer before my sophomore year of high school, I was a volunteer for the National Park Service at Amistad Lake. Now there is no park of any kind anywhere near Amistad Lake. Amistad Lake looks like this:
Its very, very rugged country. Its not a natural lake and its only there because of the United Sates and Mexican governments built a dam on the Rio Grande River. There are no towns around the lake and very few roads. Most of the shore is only accessible by boat. The NPS owns/manages the lake “shore” on the US side and the lands that extends up the Pecos River. The caves with the prehistoric paintings are in huge limestone walls of the Pecos River and its tributaries.
I volunteered with the NPS because my mother expected me to do something useful with myself during summer vacations. That was fine. I like being useful and I was willing to do anything. I ended up assigned to the brand new Archaeologist moving down from Massachusetts to take over for the old and retiring Naturalist. The new Archaeologist was named Joe and the old Naturalist probably had a real name but no one ever told me what it was. Everyone just called him Smokey. Smokey had a waxed, dyed black, handle bar mustache. Yes, just like a villain in an old movie.
Smokey was supposed to work the whole summer with Joe as some sort of transitional period. But three days after Joe started his new job, Smokey cashed in three months of sick and vacation days and walked out leaving his entire office, paper work, accounts, unfinished reports, etc. behind him. That’s when some administrator assigned me to Joe. I was his assistant to fetch and carry and be a local guide of sorts and that would some how make up Smokey leaving him in the lurch.
Joe was not too happy about getting stuck with me. Maybe he just didn’t like kids. He put up with me and he never said nasty things to me, but he didn’t really enjoy my company. He did, however, need me. No one, even people with plenty of field experience, should work out in that country alone. People die out in that part of Texas with frightening regularity because its so rough and so unforgiving. You never go out alone.
Joe didn’t seem to understand that. He didn’t want me out in the field with him. He wanted to leave me behind. So I threw a fit; I insisted on getting to do field work; I threatened to quit if I didn’t get want I wanted. Then I went home and told my mommy. (Hey, I was fifteen.)
Jenn: Mom!! He expects me to stay in the office and answer the phone or something! I’m not a little kid!
Mom: Joe doesn’t want you out there because you’re a girl. He’d have no problems with it if you were a boy. It’s called sexism, you dweeb.
Huh. Sexism. That hadn’t happened to me before. I had been raised to believe I could accomplish whatever I wanted to accomplish. I didn’t quite know what to make of sexism so I ignored it. I still do that today.
Our first time out in the field did not go well at all. Maybe I should explain that Seminole Canyon (and all of west Texas) is in the Chihuahuan Desert. In the Chihuahuan Desert everything will stick you, sting you, or bite you. The animals are all armed with stingers and fangs. The plants all have spines. The rocks are all broken limestone. And there is no dirt, just sand and gavel. To go out there I wore boots and heavy jeans. I also wore a big hat and long sleeve cotton shirt because no amount of sunscreen can protect a white girl like me from the Chihuahuan desert sun.
That first day Joe showed up in birkenstocks, shorts, and T-shirt. No hat. He wouldn’t change. He wouldn’t listen to me. He wouldn’t stay off the trails and in the boat. He nearly died.
Did you laugh at that? Its okay. It is kind of funny. But he really did nearly die. By the time I got us back he was acting strange (heat exhaustion), blistered with a very bad sunburn, and he had taken so many cactus spines in his feet that he couldn’t walk. He went to the emergency room that evening.
Jenn: Mom! He wore open toed sandals out there! And was surprised when he got hurt!
Mom: That’s why cowboys call a clueless newcomer a Tenderfoot. Duh.
So then we had a week so two in the office (no field work) while Joe recovered his health and his dignity. Part of recovering his dignity seemed involve lecturing to me about the rock paintings and prehistoric aboriginal culture. I love that stuff. I learned TONS. But Joe was always talking to me like I was dumb. He knew his field and he explained it well but he acted like he didn’t expect me to understand any of it. I’d never had a teacher treat me like I was a dummy before.
One day Joe decided to point out all the artwork in the caves that some people thought looked like aliens. Yes, outer space aliens. Apparently enthusiasts had decided that some of the Seminole Canyon paintings was proof of alien visitations. Joe had a picture of this one particular painting of a human-ish figure with “antenna” on its head. I told him that was a man with an antler headdress on. Then he shown me this crude painting (drawn like a stick figure) of a man with a very large third appendage between his legs. Joe said people thought that was a tail. I told him it was a boy bragging about the size of his wiener. (Hey, I was fifteen.)
Jenn: Mom! Like I’m really supposed to believe that’s an alien when its clearly a stupid drawing of a stupid boy and his stupid –
Mom: Joe was teasing you.
Jenn: He was insulting me! He thinks I’m stupid!
Mom: No, he’s just a condensing jerk.
Huh. I guess no one had ever condescended to me before. I didn’t like it. At all. It made me so angry I couldn’t see straight. I still get that way when someone condescends to me. I never have learned how to blow that off.
Things did get better after that. Joe and I figured out how to work together but we were never comfortable around each other. He never respected me because I was young and female and didn’t have a college education (yet). I didn’t respect him because he was a stinky-face jerk.
One time we were in the boat and we saw a small cave up in the side of the river canyon. It was high up and the canyon wall was steep but I saw a way I thought we could go. So we parked the boat, tied off, and started climbing. I went first. I always did because that was my job. Joe was following below. Along the way up to the cave, I pulled myself up over a small ledge and there was a rattle snake about two feet from my face.
So I told Joe (very, very softly) there is a rattler up here and he had to go back down. He went down lickity split all a-scramble. He was back in the boat within 30 seconds I think. I eased down off that little ledge at the rate of molasses. I mean I moved so slow it took me five entire minutes to ease down three feet cuz that snake was pissed and hissing and making all kinds of threats at me. By the time I got back to the boat my hands were shaking from fear and adrenaline. But I had my pride. I looked Joe right in the eye and lied my ass off. I told him it was no big deal. I’d been around snakes my whole life. (I had been around snakes a lot but only because my mom was always catching them in pillow cases and letting my little brother play with them. I never did that crazy stuff myself. But we did usually have a pet snake around.)
That’s the moment I became a real Texan. Texans don’t have to be fearless. They don’t have to know everything. They don’t even have to like snakes. But they do have to be able to lie to over-educated dork from Massachusetts and get away with it. And I did. Joe so so freaking impressed he never doubted me or my advice again. Ha.
I did a lot of interesting work that summer and went places most people never get to go. Panther Cave was the most amazing. In that cave is an ENORMOUS painting of a panther leaping over a shaman. Its one of the most important pieces of prehistoric art in the world. Its so big you can see it when you stand at the top of the other side of the canyon. That’s how most people see it. I got to see it from inside the cave. Trust me when I say putting up with Joe and his crappy attitude was worth it.
At the end of the summer I got to meet Jim Zintgraff, the photographer for Ancient Texans. He was a real Texan and a very nice man, as well as an amazing photographer. He was an expert on Seminole Canyon cave paintings and just thrilled to meet someone that was interested in his life’s work. There was no sexism, no condescension. He was impressed with me for being me and I didn’t have tell any lies. Lol.
He autographed my copy of Ancient Texans and its now my most treasured book. I’d show you his autograph but that book lives at my mom’s house. She says she is holding on to it and I can have it back when she dies. Something about me not being a real Texan. But I am a real Texan and I’ve proved it to one person at least.
And next time I go visit mom I’m getting my book back.