Hot on the Trail of the Red Panther

Muller is a free-lance writer/photographer living in Pittsburgh

The coal-black interior of the flooded 19th-Century railroad tunnel at Lake Amistad was eerily quiet, except for the lap of tiny river waves. We had paddled our boat in through a ventilation shaft, now at water level.

The only other entrance was a small semicircle of sunshine at the tunnel's end. Vampire bats darted back and forth in front of the boat, silhouetted against the opening.

"This is the only place on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande where vampire bats are found," said our archeologist-guide, Joe Labadie.

Lucky us. The bats almost made me forget the ache in my left foot. I had broken it an hour earlier at our first stop at Coyote Cave, on the Pecos River.

My husband, daughter and I were in a 16-foot flat-bottom boat, accompanied by the Amistad National Recreation Area archeologist, on our way to what many scientists believe to be the oldest rock art in North America.

A Panther Pictograph

These little-known pictographs, or paintings, were created by the Pecos people who populated the Rio Grande, lower Pecos and Devils River canyon areas for 9,000 years.

There are 500 archeological sites in the park's jurisdiction, most 2,000 to 6,000 years old. The largest and best-preserved pictographs, probably painted by shamans, are within a 60-square-mile area around the confluence of the three rivers.

Although visitors can walk to fine examples in Seminole Canyon, some of the most spectacular, including drawings of a red-orange, 22-foot panther or mountain lion, can be reached only by boat.

We boarded on the Pecos in the early morning chill, exhilarated by the fresh air and long shadows. Labadie steered us toward the mouth of the river and pulled up at a shallow rock shelter called Coyote or "Hands Cave" because of its handprints in red ocher.

Reboarding, I missed my footing and fell, taking most of my weight on my left foot. I was almost sure it broke, but on the trail of the red panther, an injured foot wasn't going to stop me.

As we motored deeper into the "biotic paradise," as Labadie describes the river system, we were surprised by the abundant wildlife on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Labadie pointed out trees felled by nutria rodents, and cliff-swallow nests plastered to the vertical rock.

Close to the Mexican side we drifted silently below three Great Blue Heron nests clinging to the canyon wall. The males, with wing spans of six feet, took off and circled. The females stayed with their chirping young.

It was April and the desert was blooming in a riot of reds against the brilliant blue sky. In Painted Canyon, claret-cup cactus blossomed against the black manganese, a mineral used as paint by ancient artists.

Signs of Ages Past

Parida Cave was a typical rock shelter, where generations of Pecos people lived. The hanging cave is filled with their layered debris. Archeologists found burial sites, earth ovens where tough roots were baked for days, grass-lined beds, grinding stones, freshwater mussel shells, painted pebbles, clothing and sandals.

As we motored into Seminole Canyon, the pier at the base of Panther Cave came into view. The cave, guarded by a chain link fence, is a short walk up and along the cliff. The red-orange panther stalks through eternity high on the cave wall.

An entire culture may be recorded at Panther Cave. The curved wall, about 75 feet by 20 feet, is covered with strange figures.

Black and red shamans, guardians of sacred traditions, tower above figures with atlatls (throwing sticks). A turtle-like figure and characters decorated with feathers and geometric patterns defy explanation.

Experts believe the murals are separate motifs drawn over thousands of years when the cave was used for rituals, and that the paintings are probably forms of communication.

To reach Panther Cave, boats must be launched at the Pecos boat ramp. Boats can be rented at three marinas on Lake Amistad, but you need a boat trailer to get to the Pecos.

For an easier introduction to rock art of the Pecos people, landlocked visitors can take a guided tour to Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Historical Park, which abuts the Amistad Recreation Area.

The park is at the head of Seminole Canyon just off U.S. 90, 45 miles west of Del Rio. Walking tours, which leave at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day, descend 300 feet to the canyon floor, through purple sage and cat's claw.

The ceiling at Fate Bell is black from the fires of centuries, and along the front of the shelter are depressions in the limestone used for grinding seeds. Like an ancient butcher block, a flat rock is laminated with solidified fat, where thousands of animals were cut up.

Four shaman pictographs, one with orange antlers, look out at Seminole Canyon. Our guide said they were 6,000 years old.

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The Amistad Recreation Area and Seminole Canyon are about 150 miles west of San Antonio via U.S. 90.

Water skiing, swimming and scuba diving are big attractions nine months of the year on Lake Amistad, which has a shoreline of 850 miles. Fishing is good all year, especially for bass, catfish, crappie and sunfish.

Del Rio, population 30,000, 30 miles from Seminole Canyon and 10 miles from the Diablo East boat ramp on Lake Amistad, has 16 motels ranging from the Del Rio Motor Lodge, with rooms starting at $17.95, to the Laguna Diablo Resort on Lake Amistad, which has one-bedroom cabins with equipped kitchens for $54.50.

For reservations: Del Rio Motor Lodge, 1300 Avenue F, Del Rio, Tex. 78840, (512) 775-2486, and Laguna Diablo Resort on Lake Amistad, Box 420608, Del Rio, Tex. 78842, (512) 774-2422.

Near Del Rio are seven RV campgrounds and there are six primitive campsites in the Amistad Recreation Area. Camping from boats also is permitted. There is one campsite with 31 spaces in Seminole Canyon State Historical Park.

Down-Home Cooking

Del Rio's restaurants offer what's best on the border--barbecue, Mexican food and grilled steaks. For smoky, first-rate Texas-style beef and ribs, try the Hot Pit at the corner of Avenue 5 and East Second.

Betty's Ranch House Cafe on Avenue F is popular for big breakfasts of grits and biscuits, and lunch specials such as chicken fried steak with cream gravy for $3.99. The wood-paneled cafe is a storehouse of Southwestern memorabilia, with Remington prints, old maps and collections of ceramic horses.

It's easy to cross the Rio Grande into Ciudad Acuna, Mexico. You can drive in without a permit, but if you don't want to take your car, leave it in a lot at the bridge and walk across, or take a taxi or bus. The bus also leaves from downtown Del Rio.

The most popular and picturesque restaurant in Ciudad Acuna is Mrs. Crosby's on Calle Hidalgo among the curio stores. We also enjoyed La Macarena, near the corner of Madero and Juarez.

What to See

Attractions in Del Rio include the Whitehead Memorial Museum, 1308 S. Main St., which occupies seven buildings, one from the 1870s.

There is a replica of the Jersey Lily saloon and court, Judge Roy Bean's grave and memorabilia, a collection of early farming and transportation equipment and displays explaining Seminole scout activities.

The Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center and Jersey Lily are in Langtry, 59 miles west of Del Rio, across the Pecos.

The Val Verde Winery, the oldest wine-making facility in Texas, is at 139 Qualia Drive. The building and surroundings are beautiful and the tours are free.

For more information on Del Rio, contact the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce, 1915 Avenue F, Del Rio, Tex. 78840, (512) 775-3551. You can request a motel and campground guide.

For information on the Amistad Recreation Area, contact Superintendent, Amistad Recreation Area, National Park Service, P.O. Box 420367, Del Rio, Tex. 78842-0367, (512) 775-9714.

For information on Seminole park, contact Park Superintendent, Seminole Canyon State Historical Park, P.O. Box 820, Comstock, Tex. 78837, (915) 292-4464.

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