Cornudas Cave Men Revisited
Guadalupe Mountain caver, Robert Nymeyer, found more than just caves in the little-known Cornudas Mountain range of Southeastern New Mexico.
It's been nearly sixty years since Robert Nymeyer's article "Cave Men of the Cornudas" was published in New Mexico magazine. An icon of cavers in the Guadalupe Mountains, Nymeyer's forty-five years of caving inspired him to put pen to paper for the entire world to read. Currently known to contain over 350 caves including the majestic Carlsbad Cavern, the Guadalupe Mountains of Southeastern New Mexico were a vast playground for Nymeyer. In fact, his autobiography Carlsbad, Caves, and a Camera is a prevailing reference for cavers. So when he ventured thirty miles west of his cherished Guadalupe Mountains to the Cornudas Mountains, it's not surprising that he would find a covey of caves, a smattering of adventure, and a pretty interesting story.
The Texas-New Mexico border splits the little known Cornudas Mountains, Spanish for "horned," with the majority of the peaks rising from the Land of Enchantment. They're massive sills of syenite, a granular igneous rock, which intruded through the limestone to create enormous pyramids that Nymeyer described as "blue cones rising above the level horizon." Comprised of nine separate summits, the sharp peaks of San Antonio Mountain, Wind Mountain, and Black Mountain catch the eye of travelers who motor down U.S. 62/180 from Carlsbad to El Paso.
Just as difficult to reach today, as they were sixty years ago when Nymeyer bounced along a rutted road from Salt Flat, the Cornudas have remained virtually untouched by vandals. Most visitors coming from Carlsbad depart from Dell City where a maze of unnamed dirt roads eventually lead to the distant peaks. Driving west on County Road 2249 and turning north to County Road F17 roughly takes visitors through the heart of the Cornudas. But, travelers coming from El Paso on U.S. 62/180 have an easier time of finding the Cornudas by exiting the highway north to County Road F1. Regardless, it's a hit and miss kind of trip and topographic maps are necessary. Many of the roads end with windmills and locked gates and may require a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Overseen mostly by the Bureau of Land Management, these remote mountains attract the attention of desert hikers in search of a greater prize. The BLM's reaction to this popularity is to gate roads, post signs, and designate camping areas in an effort to protect the lure of the Cornudas. The attraction is not just nature's enchanting hills, towering yuccas, or prancing pronghorns but it is traveling back in time as Nymeyer discovered to the ancient past of Native America.
Nymeyer's article began with the exploration of Butterfield Trail station ruins at the foot of the westernmost Alamo Mountain. The Butterfield Trail was established in 1858 to provide faster mail and passenger service between St. Louis and San Francisco. Covering 2,795 miles, the trail dipped to El Paso to satisfy the postmaster general. After a day's ride from the Pine Springs station in the Guadalupes, weary stagecoach passengers quenched their thirsts at the Alamo Spring station then stayed overnight before continuing their three-week ordeal. Wandering among the ruins, it seems the whinny of horses and the voices of travelers still linger in the wind. But dust devils and desert heat remind visitors how difficult the journey must have been.
Nymeyer described the ruins as "a length or two of stone wall, crumbling and forlorn but still holding out against time" and the spring as "dry and barren." A recent visit to Alamo Mountain proved a few of Nymeyer's words are just as true as ever. Stacks of stone walls three to five feet tall still stand but ranching in the area has added water canals and pipes, cement slabs, and cattle tanks to the scenery. Shrubs of creosote have replaced the "wild grape vines" and thorny branches of catclaw choked the "gnarled peach tree still vigorous and active." Sadly, time and an unforgiving desert have claimed many of the memories of another era although relics like a mysterious stone marker-grave or trail-still remain.
As Nymeyer wrote, "Reports had come to us in Carlsbad of 'thousands of Indian paintings on the cliffs of the Cornudas," he revealed the real reason for his journey. It's impossible to know for sure whether the directions Nymeyer had given were for Alamo Mountain or one of the many others. A search of many mountain slabs failed to expose any of Nymeyer's red pictographs or blackened caves but racers and centipedes keep the skittish hopping from boulder to boulder so they could've been missed.
Exploring the northwest flank of Alamo Mountain, most persistent hikers discover the thousands of petroglyphs and a few historic signatures that cover the igneous rocks. Petroglyphs, which are often confused with pictographs, are drawings etched in the outer layer of a rock. Pictographs are drawings that are painted on rocks. Upon first glance, these antique petroglyphs appear like modern graffiti but closer inspection reveals the incredible beauty of Native American rock art. Apparently, Nymeyer had been fooled by this misnomer and realized that he was not searching for "Indian paintings" but Indian carvings.
Once Nymeyer realized his error, he combed the mountainside documenting many geometrical shapes and curious figures pecked in the weathered porphyry by his "cave men." Many of the petroglyphs at Alamo Mountain have been identified as those of the Mescalero Apaches whose territory was near the area in the mid-1800s. Drawings of horses suggest that most of the etchings date after 1600 AD. However, aboriginal pottery shards and stone artifacts indicate that humans have inhabited the area for thousands of years.
Motifs of horned characters and zigzagging lines believed to symbolize the Apache deities of wind, rain, thunder, and lightning are abundant around Alamo Mountain. In fact, there are so many of these depictions that Alamo Mountain could have been holy. But none is more impressive than those of the Wind God subsite located half of a mile northeast of the Butterfield Trail station. Here the Apache God of Wind is honored with several tall, horned images that can only be described as breathtaking. Their diamond shaped bodies and sticklike limbs stand sovereignly among rows of dancing crooked lines. This collection of engravings is more evocative and inherently intriguing than any other site.
Standing in the faded footprints of the natives and staring into the chiseled eyes of these intricate creations sparks the imagination to dream of a time when land tamed men. Even Nymeyer's imagination was sparked when he speculated that the artist of a "war canoe" traveled over barren land to a distant coast only to return with peculiar "stories of navigators."
As nature takes her toll on the old Butterfield Trail station and as the petroglyphs fade with time, the Cornudas Mountains will remain. While they collect a wealth of interesting stories and hint about the lives of prehistoric men, these mighty towers of earth may stand forever. Nothing can keep the curious like Robert Nymeyer from wandering down a few dirt roads searching for the one that leads him there. Hopefully when he finds his way, he will respect the mountains that compel him and help protect what is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets in all of New Mexico.