Famed “El Camino Real” celebrated

Dawn breaks over San Gabriel in the Española Valley, north of where Santa Fe will grow. Several men walk a path. They carry beads, pottery, and turkeyfeather blankets, items they’ve brought from their homes at San Juan Pueblo. Others come from traders to the north, in what will one day be The Four Corners.

The men hope to trade the goods with neighbors. No one has a horse. But in San Gabriel, some strange people do. They also have “sheep”’ “goats” and “cattle.” These people have come up the footpath from some place south. Their carts shriek as wooden wheels grind against wooden axles. People can hear the caravans long before the carts themselves appear.

The men who drive them call the trail “El Camino Real de Tierra Adento.” For them, this “Royal Road of the Interior Land” is new, and starts in a town called “Mexico City.”

EL CAMINO REALThe San Juan Pueblo traders snicker. New! Their ancestors’ ancestors used this trail, long before anybody heard of the newcomers, who jabber in a language like no other.

Oh, they’ve made the road smoother, and easier to walk. Some pueblos have started raising sheep, but still, what good can come of these strangers? Some are nice, but others are cruel.

Reel forward 500 years, to an office in Santa Fe, now a city of 60,000. A man in a suit sits in a chair in front of a tape recorder, talking to a reporter. “The history of El Camino Real is the history of New Mexico,” says Jose Cisneros, director of the New Mexico State Monuments Division of the Museum of New Mexico.

“We still have traces of it,” he grins. “The new Camino is I-25, the highway that parallels (the trail).” He points out that I-25 supports much of the current commerce between Mexico and the United States.

But the history of El Camino Real is more than the history of New Mexico. It’s the history of the American Southwest, both before and after Spanish arrival. From the Camino, Native American traders carried macaw feathers to places like Aztec and Salmon ruins. From the Camino, Conquistadors fanned into the Four Corners, bringing sheep and goats; and introducing new materials, such as silver and wool, to Navajo craftspeople.

Settlers came up the Camino. Some landed in the San Luis Valley of modern Colorado. From there, they drifted south again, into what would become Durango, and Farmington, and Aztec.

To honor the royal road, the New Mexico Monuments Division has opened the El Camino Real International Heritage Center, between Truth or Consequences and Soccoro.

“You might call the center a modernday ‘paraje’,” muses Cisneros, using the Spanish word for the ancient rest stops along the trail.

The 20,000-square-foot building houses a permanent exhibit on trail history. Traveling exhibits will come, too. So will visiting scholars.

Visitors can use Camino Real International Heritage Center to get a “course in New Mexico and Southwest history as complete as one will find on most college campuses,” Cisneros says. Though the Camino begins in Mexico, the International Heritage Center focuses primarily on the portion from El Paso to San Juan Pueblo. That 400 miles has been designated a National Historic Trail.

Individual towns along the road, like Las Cruces, Soccoro, Belin, and Espanola, are developing their own centers that celebrate the highway. “The National Hispanic Heritage Center in Albuquerque is the big one,” says Cisneros.

In addition, Cisneros and his staff have been working with Spain and Mexico to bring those countries’ stories of the Camino to the United States. As part of that project, Cisneros hopes to learn more about archaeological sites along the Mexican portion of the road. In New Mexico, archaeological sites such as forts, wagon ruts, and churches have already taught much about the Camino. “It was a bumpy road,” Cisneros chuckles. “The people who used it took their life in their hands.”

To reach Santa Fe, and San Gabriel from Mexico City, or to find trails leading north, travelers faced bandits, and a long stretch in southern New Mexico called “El Jornada del Muerte.” This “Journey of Death” led travelers through a desert without water or shade. The rough terrain made the trip as hard as the journey pioneers made on the Oregon Trail.

But the trip was worth the danger. Trade caravans brought exotic goods: copper, leather, tobacco, fruit trees, and turquoise. Silver from the mines of northern Mexico made Spain the richest country in the world.

“We have heard about the western expansion and the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock,” says Cisneros. “But people forget that exploration had been coming in from Mexico City (since 1598 when Don Juan de Onate claimed the New Mexico Territory for Spain. That’s) way before Plymouth Rock.”

But the exploration probably goes back further — maybe to antiquity, when the first pueblo travelers created the path that became El Camino. The El Camino Real International Heritage Center will tell their story, and the stories of all the people who have traveled and still travel the great road.

El Camino Real International Heritage Center is off I-25 at Exit 115. After getting off the interstate, go south 1.5 miles from the east side of Highway 1 to the back of the Interstate Rest Stop at Mile Marker 24. There, turn east (left) onto County Road 1598, which leads to the center.

From Arts & Entertainment, March 2006.