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South Texas

A look at prehistoric artwork is worth every sweaty step

I went to the Lower Pecos River on a quest to see graffiti. No, not the spray-can variety you might see in a back alley. This paint was laid down about 4,000 years ago by tribes of hunter-gatherers that populated the region near current-day Seminole Canyon State Park, 45 miles northwest of Del Rio.

Surviving remains of the prehistoric artwork can be found in shelters where overhanging rock protected the painted depictions of people and animals from centuries of the elements. The Fate Bell Shelter is the easiest to reach, but seeing its rich rock-art tapestry still involves descending into the canyon. Stairs ease the way, but it’s a strenuous two-mile round trip.

My journey on this early spring day would be more rugged—a seven-mile, round-trip hike across the rugged canyon bottom to the adjoining Presa Canyon, where vibrant examples of the art survive.

Hikers into the canyon, whether to Fate Bell or beyond, must have a chaperone—either park personnel or volunteers from the Texas Rock Art Foundation—who provide a wealth of information about the artists and their work.

Seeing the art deep in the canyon required scrambling up steep slopes and standing at awkward angles, but witnessing a human artifact created about the same time as the Egyptian pyramids was worth every sweaty step.

By the time I’d slogged back to my car, my thoughts were firmly fixed on the hot shower waiting for me back in Del Rio.

After I’d rinsed away the trail dust, I was ready to explore. I dropped by the Whitehead Memorial Museum, which offers an eclectic collection of artifacts and displays, including an eye-popping 1,287-piece lighted nativity scene and the gravesite of Judge Roy Bean.

Just a few blocks down the road sit the vineyards and production facility of the Val Verde Winery, Texas’ oldest. Its fourth-generation winemakers produce several varieties you can sample or buy onsite.

Not far away is downtown, where The Herald, a restaurant and bar in a converted newspaper office, offers steak and seafood. For lunch, try the homemade soups and sandwiches at The Brown Bag deli.

About 180 miles south of Del Rio, I found history of a different era reflected in the streets of Laredo. The streets in the San Agustin de Laredo Historic District, in fact, are paved in historic style, with brick instead of asphalt.

There, on the north bank of the Rio Grande, history is concentrated at San Agustin Plaza. Zaragoza Street borders the plaza on the south, and along it rests the Museum of the Republic of the Rio Grande. The museum building once was the capitol of the republic, which was founded in 1840 and lasted only 283 days.

Today, the museum building is cradled in the east wing of the La Posada hotel. The block-long hotel is itself rich in history. La Posada’s lobby incorporates the structure of Laredo’s first public school, and the Tack Room, the hotel’s renowned chophouse-style restaurant, is housed in the 1800s-era structure that once held the city’s first telephone exchange.

Across Zaragoza Street, the Gothic revival-style cathedral of the 250-year-old San Agustin Catholic Church, built in 1872, towers over the plaza.

For a further historic exploration, I drove across town to the Fort McIntosh Historic District, where the modern buildings of Laredo Community College are interspersed among the historic ones from the fort, established in 1849. Many of the old fort structures are used as campus offices.

One campus attraction is the kid-friendly Lamar Bruni Vergara Environmental Science Center, which houses a variety of regional flora and fauna and serves as the city’s unofficial zoo.

So much history takes some digesting. At the La India Packing Company, a spice packaging business founded in 1924, I mulled the sights of the morning over a rich chicken molé at its Tasting Room Café. The aroma of fresh spices from the downstairs packing operation filled the room, adding savor to my visit to one of Texas’ oldest cities.

Kevin Hargis is Texas Co-op Power’s food editor.