Disappearing Rio Grande

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Why Follow the Rio Grande

by Colin McDonald | Feb. 11, 2015

The Rio Grande is disappearing. Demand for water is growing as snow packs shrink, rain patterns shift and average temperatures rise faster than they ever have in the past 11,000 years.

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Old books, Day 152

A detail from the rock art of the White Shaman cave shows what is believed to be a man and a small boat, possibly a canoe. Photo by: Colin McDonald

A labyrinth of canyons, cliffs and caves surrounds the confluence of the Pecos, Devils and Rio Grande rivers. It is a sprawling mess of natural subdivisions providing protection from the cold wind and scorching sun with springs that run year-round scattered throughout. 

For more than 10,000 years, this protection has allowed people to survive in the inhospitable desert. The work they left behind is everywhere.  

We spent the day with Carolyn Boyd, the executive director and founder of the Shumla School, which specializes in the research of and education about the rock art found along the three rivers.  

Boyd was an artist in 1989 when she first saw the rock art in the caves of the Pecos River. She knew she was looking at murals, but for anyone to take her seriously, she would need a Ph.D. in anthropology.     

So she got one from Texas A&M, founded the Shumla School and has dedicated the last 20 years of her life to trying to understand what the murals mean.  

“I’m not kidding when I say these are the oldest known books in North America,” she said. 

Boyd took us to the White Shaman cave, which is protected by the Rock Art Foundation, to show us what she meant.  

At first glance, the 20-foot-long mural looks like a jumble of competing images. But to Boyd it is the long, complicated story of the creation myth for people who lived 2,000 years ago, people who were ancestors of the Aztecs.  

She explains how the paint of the entire mural was applied in layers of a single color at a time. All the black was painted first, followed by the red, yellow and then the white.  It would have taken planning and careful preparation. It was not a compilation of haphazard doodles. 

The end piece is the creation story of the journey to find the sun, the sacrifices it took to make it rise and travel across the sky and then return via the underworld as a deer to do it all again. 

It is a relatively new theory that a creation story that is still told today in Central Mexico would be depicted on a rock wall in Texas. But after 20 years of study, Boyd is convinced.   

If true, it proves the people who were once thought to be simple hunters and gatherers were sophisticated people and focused on more than basic survival. Like us, they wanted to understand the world and have an explanation for why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.  

Boyd kept going with the details, showing how the painting would have served as a calendar to mark the solstices and equinoxes. 

Maybe she had a feeling that we were a skeptical lot. So she pointed to one detail at the bottom of the mural.   

It was about the size of a street sign, but there was no doubt in my mind that it represented the height of sophisticated travel.  

In red was the depiction of a man and a canoe.

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While making his way to the Gulf of Mexico, Colin will be periodically activating a device that uses satellite technology to share his current location. Use this map to see where he traveled on this day.

Check-In Time of Check-In (CST) Latitude Longitude
#1 11:40 p.m. 29.68661 -101.17438


To report on and understand the haphazard irrigation system the Rio Grande has become and the changes it is going through, Colin decided the best approach would be to travel the length of the Rio Grande by foot and small boat.

He knew it would give him a unique perspective on a river that few understand. It did require many long days of moving slowly and camping on muddy riverbanks, but Colin likes that sort of thing.

The benefit was it provided access to people who wanted to share their stories and experiences with the Rio Grande. Via Facebook and chance encounters, Colin made instant friends who opened their homes. They provided help from loaning their trucks to their cell phone contact lists to help tell the story of the Rio Grande.

The trip would not have been possible without their help, along with the dedicated assistance of David Lozano, Jason Jones and Daniel Dibona, who drove thousands of miles to get people and boats in place.


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