A path winds toward Mescalero Canyon at Texas’s Hueco Tanks State Park. (Christine Dell'Amore)

Even to a claustrophobe, the narrow cave between two giant boulders felt strangely inviting.

When I squirmed into the dim coolness on my belly and flipped over onto my back, I could see why: This was a sacred place. Two humanoid figures with red-checkered bodies and wide bug eyes stared down at me from the low ceiling. “I found the rain gods!” I shouted gleefully to my boyfriend and his parents, Allan and Diana, who were waiting outside the cave.

Soon we were lying on our backs admiring the ancient paintings of Tlaloc, a deity worshiped by the Jornada Mogollon, an agricultural people who lived in what’s now Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site between 200 and 1450 A.D. Suddenly, a frustrating afternoon of scouring outcroppings and ledges for rock art had taken a lucky turn, and we wondered about the identity of this prehistoric Michelangelo, as Allan called him, who’d left his mark here several centuries before.

Details: Texas’s Hueco Tanks State Park

The Jornada Mogollon were among the first cultures to master corn agriculture, allowing them to live year-round in pit houses amid this jumble of granitelike rocks and boulders in far West Texas. Hueco Tanks formed about 32 million years ago, when magma beneath the surface seeped into overlying layers of rock. Over millennia, the limestone on top eroded, revealing what the Spanish called huecos, or hollows — the bowl-like remnants of trapped gas and other unknown geological processes.

These round depressions can collect water — a rare commodity in the Chihuahuan Desert — for long periods of time. The oasis has drawn people for about 10,000 years, starting with the bison-hunting paleo-Indians and followed by the Archaic Indians (6000 B.C. to 200 A.D.), the Jornada Mogollon, the Apache, Kiowa and Tigua tribes (1500 to 1879), and later, Western settlers, including U.S. postal carriers on the Butterfield Overland Mail Route (1858-1859).

But I’d come here to satisfy a different thirst: As an artist myself, I was keen to see some of the park’s thousands of rock art pieces, whose subjects include animals such as jaguars and horses, geometric shapes, dancing figures and especially abstract faces painted on the rock that archaeologists call masks, a specialty of the Jornada Mogollon. The culture left behind about 200 painted masks, the largest collection known in North America.

But appreciating the 860-acre state park’s pictographs — pictures painted or drawn on rock — isn’t as easy as meandering through a museum. Due to its popularity with tourists and rock climbers, “Hueco Tanks was in fact ‘loved to death’ in the ’60s through the early ’90s,” said park superintendent Wanda Olszewski. Much of the rock art in the state park, which opened in 1970, was damaged, and in 1998 the park instituted a new public-use plan that “dramatically improved the condition of the site and improved visitor awareness,” Olszewski said.

Today, only 70 people at a time can enter Hueco Tanks without a guide, and rock climbing is carefully regulated. Only North Mountain, one of the park’s three peaks, is open to self-guided exploration, but the hiking trails don’t show you exactly where to find the rock art.

So on a clear spring morning after our rain god discovery, Brian, Diana, Allan and I showed up for a rock art tour, which for only $2 each would take us to see pictographs otherwise off-limits to the general public.

Spotting the masks

Our volunteer guide, Joe Barraza, a lifelong resident of nearby El Paso, has been coming to Hueco since the 1970s. “Even if there was not any rock art here, this is a special place,” he told our group.

As we started off down the path toward North Mountain, lizards darting underfoot, Barraza stopped to point out desert plants and some of their traditional uses: The spiky Mormon tea bush soothes asthma, brittlebush burns into a sweet incense, and the fernlike mesquite trees produce tasty beans. For native peoples, “Hueco Tanks [was] like a Super Wal-Mart — anything that you need to survive can be found here,” he said.

Our first stop was Lower Site 17, or, as the Native Americans call it, Shame Cave, because of the centuries of graffiti that have all but covered up a large painting of various figures and animals created by Mescalero Apaches, mounted warriors who hunted and raided in these parts about 500 years ago. Barely visible beneath the etched initials and dates are a long white snake — a symbol of water — and a man on horseback, probably an Apache, which represents European contact, because the Spanish introduced horses to North America.

Although it’s usually possible to tell vandalism from the original pictograph, the only way to date rock art is by carbon dating, a scientific analysis that requires sampling the paint and produces mixed results. But according to antiquities law, if it’s “50 years or older, it’s an artifact,” Barraza said, quipping, “I’m an artifact.”

We entered Mescalero Canyon, where the shadows of circling turkey vultures moved across high rock walls and the descending, melancholy song of the canyon wren echoed overhead. Finally veering off the main trail, we began climbing up a pile of boulders — the porous rock offered great handholds — until we reached an exposed ledge overlooking a wind-whipped valley. Catching my breath, I was excited to see four red Jornada Mogollon masks decorating an even higher ledge; one had a solid red face framed by bangs, with almond white eyes, a teardrop nose, and what looked like earrings.

No two masks are the same, and though their specific meanings are unknown, archaeologists think that they’re probably depictions of ancestral spirits, similar to what modern-day Pueblo Native Americans call kachinas — representations of animate or inanimate objects, such as lightning, buffalo or corn. The Jornada Mogollon may have conducted ceremonies near these masks to ask for good fortune, particularly rain.

The painter may have prayed, fasted and possibly had a vision before he made these special illustrations, Barraza said. The Jornada Mogollon mostly worked in red, black, yellow and white, using various ground minerals (hematite produced red, for instance) and binding agents such as urine or egg yolk to form the paint.

Hidden caves

We left the canyon, and before long we were scrambling over more boulders. (“I felt like a little kid again,” our fellow tourist Tony Marlowe, of San Antonio, told me later.) Barraza led us to a small cave room with high, light-splashed walls, one of which featured a prominent square Tlaloc. The rain god’s missing head puzzled me until Barraza pointed out that his bug eyes were at the bottom. No one knows why he was painted upside down: Too much rain? Not enough? Historians do know that Mesoamerican religious faiths from Mexico and Central America began to influence the Jornada around 450 A.D., as deities such as Tlaloc — originally of Mexican origin — started to appear in their pictographs. We lingered here for a while, in one of Barraza’s favorite spots. “When there’s a breeze, this is just like sitting under an air conditioner,” he said.

After the tour, we cooked lunch at our campsite, mustering energy for our last Hueco adventure: the trek to Cave Kiva, the only rock art site on North Mountain that we hadn’t seen. It’s so named because of its similarities to underground kivas, or ceremonial chambers built by the descendants of the Jornada Mogollon in the U.S. Southwest.

Like most Jornada Mogollon sites, Cave Kiva is well hidden, so we picked up a map at the ranger station and, after some searching, found its small and unassuming entrance. Again I tried to forget my fear of small spaces and shimmied through a cramped opening on my back. I sat up and, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, eight red and orange masks seemed to dance across a large wall; a couple, as Barraza had promised, looked as if they’d been made yesterday. (We joked that one, with its arc of blond hair and bushy red beard, looked just like Brian.)

Two incomplete masks, including one with curved red horns, were drawn close together. I later read that this may reflect the Mesoamerican belief in dualism, or opposing powers, like the sun and the moon.

I studied the art for a long time, soaking up the spiritual vibe, thinking that I’d gladly be stuck between this rock and hard place any day.

Dell’Amore is a freelance writer in Washington. Her Web site is christinedellamore.com.