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Fall Equinox at Crack Cave, Picture Canyon

It’s quiet – and still dark. Sitting with my back against the stone canyon wall in the cool of a late September morning, I hear the sounds of the night that’s slipping away: a rustling in the grass close by, a pack of coyotes giving voice a few hundred yards down the canyon, a bird flutters overhead to land on an outcrop.

I’ve been up since 5:00 AM; it’s now about 6:30. It’s Tuesday, September 22, 2020. I had driven from Pueblo yesterday afternoon, arriving just before the sun sank below the western rim of Picture

Canyon, southwest of Springfield, hard on the border with Oklahoma. The trip was to view a phenomenon remarkable in this part of the state: Equinox sun rise at Crack Cave in Picture Canyon. Considered by some to be an archeoastronomy site, the cave is a narrow cleft in the west rim of the shallow Picture Canyon. On the morning of the fall and spring equinoxes, light from the rising sun the cave all the way to its back, about 20 feet deep. There are incised vertical lines on both sides of the cave that are, themselves, lit by the sun on those mornings. The Cave is closed to general entry by a steel gate and wire, but it’s possible to see into the its depths from the entrance.

After arriving Monday evening, I set up a simple camp with tent, stove and water in one of the three picnic shelter campsites operated by Comanche National Grasslands of the US Forest Service. I dined on a Lithuanian military MRE. Tuesday morning, I was up and broke camp, allowing plenty of time to make the walk out to the Cave, a bit under a mile, in the dark with a head lamp. Fortunately, I was familiar with the route, so had no trouble finding the landmarks: the stone ruins of a homestead house and barn that flank the Cave and a couple scraggly willows. Now to wait for sunrise.

The sky begins to brighten. The velvety dark gives way to objects becoming visible and clear. Now the canyon walls march away on both sides to the south. About 7:30, a point of more intense light marks where the sun will rise over the eastern canyon wall. A slim red crescent appears suddenly. The sun swims up over the horizon with surprising speed. It’s a ‘red rubber ball’, due to the effect of smoke from wildfires in California and Colorado. When it clears the horizon, I look into the cave. Sure enough, red-gold light strikes the tumble of rocks at the back. If I crane my neck just right, I can glimpse the carvings on the sides, a series of short vertical lines.

Picture Canyon holds other remarkable things. To the north of the cave under an overhang here’s a pictograph in blue of a buffalo, about three feet long. Sadly, near to it, some modern jokers have used charcoal to draw crude stick figures of humans hunting a ‘mammoth’. Across the canyon from the Cave on the sandstone on the east side there are a series of petroglyphs, pictographs and ‘hybrids’: petroglyphs incised into the rock, then limned in paint.

The petroglyphs include some that surpass many I’ve seen: The ‘Spotted Woman’, an almost life-sized figure of a woman with a head dress. Her body is covered with rings, or spots. There’s a small red painted buffalo; enigmatic lines and circles. One stone on the ground has a number of lines and marks, along with a depression. It has been titled the ‘Birthing Stone’. Farther around the curving canyon wall, one encounters a blue incised horse, it’s neck in a graceful curve. There seems to be something, probably a ‘rider’ astride its back, but is now too faint to discern. A coyote stands on all fours, his head turned back to one side as though he’s about to give voice. Holding a spear pointed downward in each hand, a warrior wearing a garment or harness crossing his chest is carved, then painted blue.

In a shallow, broad cave or overhang suspended about 5 feet over the canyon wall there’s another series of vertical incised lines that are crossed by a single long line. At least one theorist claims that these, and the lines in the Cave, are evidence of ancient Celtic Ogham writing, a script that employed vertical lines extending above or below a base line. Possible? Who knows?

After returning to the parking lot/picnic area, I drove out toward the entrance to the Canyon area. I stopped to climb up to a forest of mushroom shaped rock formations on the canyon wall, then took a forest service road that branched into many tracks that took me to less explored areas of the site. I found a large rock arch and a small cemetery that held a handful of graves from the 19th century.