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SOCORRO, N.M. - The busy interstate highway is just a few miles away, the glint of truck tops visible in the afternoon sun.

But spreading out in front of you is vast, open country where brown expanses of desert scrub give way to the rich rusts and golds of the bosque, the swath of trees along the Rio Grande.

Pause a moment and savor the stillness. You can almost see the dust raised by a centuries-ago caravan of wooden ox carts, footsore travelers and livestock on their way north along the river to the new world.

The convoy, moving at the speed of its slowest animal, would make about 20 miles a day.

''How fast a pig could go is how fast the main party could go,'' said Tim McElroy, director of New Mexico's newest state monument, El Camino Real International Heritage Center.

The center tells the story of the 1,500-mile-long ''royal road'' that stretched from Mexico City to just north of Santa Fe.

Along this trade route, indigenous peoples transported feathers and shells to the north and turquoise to the south; explorers led expeditions to claim land and riches for the king of Spain; missionaries and settlers brought a culture that forever changed the north.

''The truth is, it was the major highway into and out of the new world, starting in 1598 and until it got put out of business by the railroad in the late 1880s,'' says local historian Paul Harden.

With dirt paths and then highways tracking portions of the historic trail - Interstate 25 parallels its western branch - it is one of the oldest continuously used roads in North America.

The new museum in south-central New Mexico is located near a popular national wildlife refuge that straddles the Rio Grande.

The Bosque del Apache is the winter home to thousands of sandhill cranes, Canada geese, snow geese and ducks. The 57,000-acre refuge's farm fields and marshes resound with their chatter, and bird-watchers delight in the sight of wave after wave of them landing in the marshes at dusk.

Visitors can easily see the new heritage center and the Bosque del Apache in a day trip of about 110 miles south from Albuquerque or about 120 miles north from Las Cruces.

El Camino Real International Heritage Center is at the northern edge of the Jornada del Muerto, or Deadman's Journey - a waterless, 90-mile shortcut on the trail that provided smooth but perilous going for wagons.

From the patio behind the building, visitors can gaze a couple of miles east to an area of the bosque where there was a paraje, or camp site. Beyond the bosque - and as far as you can see to the north and south - is the huge Armendaris Ranch, where owner Ted Turner grazes buffalo.

The heritage center's east-facing facade is designed to evoke a ship, with a bow-like walkway, steel mast and rigging, and a rectangular concrete slab that brings to mind a sail.

From below, ''it looks like a ship cresting a wave,'' McElroy said.

A ship in the desert?

''Many people that traveled the trail had traveled the Atlantic Ocean,'' from Spain to Mexico, McElroy explained. ''They wrote in their journals that crossing the desert was like crossing an ocean of land.''

Inside the 20,000-square-foot museum, the journey starts in Zacatecas, the Mexican silver mining town that was home to Don Juan de Onate, who led a caravan of settlers, soldiers and missionaries north in 1598.

Exhibits lead visitors northward along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, or the Royal Road to the Interior Land, through Durango and Chihuahua to El Paso del Norte - where the trail met the Rio Grande - and then into present-day New Mexico.

Onate established the first Spanish colony and the first capital of New Mexico north of Santa Fe at the pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh, which he named San Juan de los Caballeros. The name stuck for more than four centuries, until tribal members decided recently to reclaim the pueblo's original name.

The heritage center is a joint project with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which also operates nearby Fort Craig, a national historic site. The fort, now in ruins, was built in 1854 to control Navajo and Apache raiding and protect the Camino Real.