COMANCHE NATIONAL GRASSLAND • In this corner of Colorado, so far south and east you can see cows grazing in Oklahoma, the smooth swells of the prairie suddenly break on the rocks of unexpected canyon lands.
The landscape is a Georgia O'Keeffe painting: arid sandstone pastels backed up against distant blue mesas, immense, empty sky, no people anywhere.
It is here, in a narrow sandstone crevice called Crack Cave that one of the region's oldest, most mysterious messages is pecked. On the cave wall, 15 feet from the mouth, a small lump of stone juts into the passage. Dozens of hand-pecked lines cover the lump at odd angles.
No one knows who made the marks, or when, or why. Theories abound.
A few amateur rock-art devotees think the lines are an ancient astrological calendar with letters spelling out in ancient script, "On the day of the equinox, the sun shines here."
Sure enough, twice a year, on the equinox, the first rays of dawn fall directly into the cave, lighting up the lump and the ancient markings.
But that hasn't shed light on the question of who wrote on the lump, and what was said.
Most experts don't believe the glyphs spell anything. They think the scratchings may be nothing more than another layer of graffiti left by waves of peoples who have used the area as a campsite for more than 1,000 years.
"There's a lot of questions," said Michelle Stevens, a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist in the region. "We don't know what these glyphs are really about."
Now is one of the best chances to see for yourself, because most of the year the cave is locked to protect the glyphs. For two days next week, including the equinox Monday, the cave will be open to visitors.
Picture Canyon gets its name from the marks successive cultures have left on the smooth rock walls. There are bighorn sheep and bison pecked by pre-Columbian people. There are graceful horses pecked by plains tribes. There are also brands scratched by old cowboys, signatures from homesteaders 100 years ago and the destructive scrawl of recent vandals.
In interpreting the site, it's not just a matter of separating ancient from modern. It's a matter of separating ancient from really ancient.
"That's one of the things that is so challenging about this place - all the layers of graffiti. It's hard to know what is what," Stevens said recently as she paced through the prairie grass on her way to Crack Cave.
The cave is guarded by a sturdy metal door with a lock. Stevens inserted a key and pulled open the creaking door to reveal a dark passage as wide as a man and about twice as high.
A few steps into the darkness, she crouched down next to the lump.
It was covered with short hash marks - some vertical, some diagonal - making it look a bit like the wall of a prison cell.
"It's not much to look at, but this is what all the attention is about," she said. "It certainly could be a type of calendar. We don't know."
Most archaeologists agree the hash marks were made between A.D. 1500 and 1800, she said.
But not everyone concurs.
In the 1970s a retired engineer named Bill McGlone made it his pursuit to determine the significance of the marks.
McGlone, who died in 1999, spent years cataloging and documenting the rock art near his La Junta home.
He was puzzled by Picture Canyon.
He and a few others started trying to catalogue and decipher them. Were they a type of calendar? A tally of the hunt? He thought the strings of lines looked a lot like an ancient, vowelless Celtic form of writing called ogham, used in Ireland between about A.D. 400 and 700.
It was a stretch. To say the rocks showed ogham was to imply that everything we accept about the history of contact with the New World is wrong.
McGlone was undeterred. He taught himself the ancient script, and made what he thought was a startling discovery in Crack Cave: that the glyphs on the lump spelled "B-M L H B-L," or, in his interpretation, "Beim La a Bel" - "Sun strikes here on Bel" (the first day of spring).
"There are many aspects of this that I am still, in my own mind, evaluating and coming to conclusions about," McGlone told a PBS documentary crew in 1985. "But I do believe that there's enough of it true that it should be working its way into the disciplines of archaeology and linguistics today."
It never did. No one in established archaeology circles would go near it.
If Celts had been here, many argued, there would be physical evidence - tools left behind, campsite remains, something. There wasn't.
In the end, McGlone self-published two books on it in the mid-1990s. Both are out of print.
There still has never been an extensive, professional study of the hash marks.
"For archaeologists, the question is settled," Stevens said. "There's not support for the idea of ogham writing."
The idea has found more resonance in the imagination of locals. The nearest town, Springfield, holds a festival each fall on the equinox, centered around Crack Cave's mysterious glyphs.
Laneha Everette, a tour guide specializing in historical sites, includes McGlone's theory when she leads hikes in the canyon.
On a recent morning, she led a reporter through the tall dry, grass on the canyon bottom. Next to Crack Cave, she pointed out another alcove. Across the canyon was another. Each was layered with graffiti: red ochre animal paintings, cowboy signatures, and long lines of the mysterious hash marks.
She paced along a panel where a fierce warrior and a graceful horse stood pecked in the walls.
"This is one of my favorite places," said Everette, 27, who lives on a nearby ranch. "And part of the reason is the mystery of it. What is all that ogham writing? Is it ogham writing at all?"
She said she knows that trained archaeologists don't put much stock in the idea that Europeans made it here centuries before the first documented contact by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in 1541, but Everette said she also knows how this corner of the world has the power to change widely held assumptions about the past.
She likes to use the example of Folsom man.
For a long time, archaeologists were in almost total agreement that humans had not been in North America more than about 4,000 years.
"There's a town called Folsom not too far from here, in New Mexico, where they found a spear point in a mammoth that was 11,000 years old. And that changed everything. You never know where else something like that can happen."
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PICTURE CANYON UP CLOSE
The U.S. Forest Service will unlock Crack Cave before dawn Sunday and Monday (the equinox) for viewing. For maps and information, visit www.fs.fed.us/r2/psicc/recreation/ camping/coma_picture_picnic.shtml.
From Colorado Springs, drive south on I-25 to Pueblo, then east on U.S. Highway 50 to La Junta. Turn south (right) onto Colorado Highway 109. Drive 58 miles. Turn east (left) on U.S. Highway 160 for 25 miles. When the highway turns left, go straight on County Road W. In 3 miles, turn right on County Road 13. Drive 12 miles to County Road J. Turn left and drive 5 miles. Turn right (south) at County Road 18 and drive 4.8 miles. Turn right (south) at the Picture Canyon sign and continue for 2 miles to the parking lot.
Picture Canyon is just one canyon in the area with rock art. Heritage Journey Tours offers tours of the area: www.heritagejourneytours.com
Springfield, 25 miles from Picture Canyon, will hold its Fall Equinox festival Saturday. Festivities include a craft fair on the courthouse lawn, free entertainment, and a cowboy dinner. For details call 1-719-523-4061.