Two-wheel revolution in Gallup

Can a bunch of trails and bikes transform this down-and-out New Mexico town?

  • Gallup resident Jeremy Martinez at the top of the drop in at Gallup's new bike park. Trying to shed its rough reputation, the city has adopted cycling in various forms as a development tool.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Old Route 66 through downtown Gallup, New Mexico.

    Andrew Cullen
  • An aluminum can collector makes rounds on a Sunday morning. The city continues to struggle with economic and social problems.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Bikes for sale at the Gallup Flea Market, above, where locals buy and sell everything from fry bread to horses.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Dirk Holenbeek, a cyclist who moved to Gallup from Michigan in 1998 to work as a teacher, now runs a bike repair shop out of his garage.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Jeremy Martinez takes a breather at the Gallup Brickyard Bike Park, where he often comes to take a break from his duties as a new dad.

    Andrew Cullen
  • A mural in downtown Gallup reflects the town's Native heritage.

    Andrew Cullen
  • A rider on the High Desert Trail, a series of single-track "stacked loops" that range in difficulty from beginner to technical.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Cyclist and Gallup-area guidebook author Peter Tempest on the singletrack High Desert Trail outside Gallup, New Mexico.

    Andrew Cullen
  • "To really have a tourist economy, we'll have to overcome the shitty aesthetics. We need a legit downtown." –Chuck Van Drunen, who was instrumental in creating the Gallup Brickyard Bike Park

    Andrew Cullen
  • "I love it when I see locals interacting with someone in the outdoor community, boasting about the assets we have." –Lindsay Mapes, owner of Zia Rides, a Gallup-based bike race promoter.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Gallup is "disproportionately wonderful and disproportionately terrible at the same time." –Bob Rosebrough, who co-authored The Gallup Guide, which shows climbing routes as well as road biking, hiking and a few mountain biking trails

    Andrew Cullen
  • Gallup's downtown, where coffee shops and art galleries have come in among the payday lenders.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Teens gather at the Gallup Brickyard Bike Park, an area formerly used by vagrants. It's one of several outdoor recreation venues that have helped put Gallup on the map as the Adventure Capital of New Mexico.

    Andrew Cullen

 

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Driving into Gallup on Highway 491 from the north can be an overwhelming experience, and not in an aesthetically inspiring way. After a couple of hours of wide-open road, where smog-tinged vistas stretch out for miles, you crest a hill only to be bludgeoned by traffic, far too thick for a city of 20,000. And every block or so, nestled in the strip malls, next to window-tinting places and garishly-colored fast food joints, are dozens of small loan companies, the kind that promise quick cash via payday loans, tax refund anticipation loans or car title loans.

These places congregate where cash is in short supply and regular banking services are either unavailable or out of reach. They offer customers short-term loans in exchange for exorbitantly high interest rates, averaging more than 300 percent. Of New Mexico's 618 active "small loan company" licenses, 46 are in Gallup –– twice as many as in Santa Fe, which has more than triple the population. Cash Cow, one of the major local lenders, calls itself "The Home of the Loan Ranger" and boasts: "We speak Navajo." In one strip mall on the east side of town, next to a Dominos Pizza and a dentist, three loan outlets are lined up in a row. Gallup is like the Wall Street of high-interest short-term loans.

The proliferation of payday lenders is a reminder of the desperate poverty that persists here. More than a quarter of all families in McKinley County live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is among the highest in the economically challenged state. The loan companies indicate that the old exploitation economy still grinds on. "If there is some kind of abusive lending practice happening," says Nick Mattison, an attorney at Feferman & Warren, a consumer rights law firm in Albuquerque, "it's happening in Gallup."

"It's still a racist border town," says Redhouse, the longtime activist. At best, he says, Gallup has gone "from terrible to bad." The Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, which draws some 50,000 people, is similarly still problematic from his perspective: "Aspects of our culture continue to be commercially exploited."

And though it has done a great deal to shed the old "Drunk Town" label, Gallup still has a drinking problem. McKinley County is consistently second in the state, and among the top in the nation, in alcohol-related deaths and injuries. Though involuntary protective custody admissions have been slashed dramatically since the '80s, the police continue to haul 19,000 or more annually to the detox center, which in recent years has struggled to get adequate funding to stay open. In an effort to allow police time to focus on other problems, the city last year asked 50 liquor merchants to shut their doors from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. All but eight ignored the request. Earl Tulley, one of the leaders of the 1989 march on Santa Fe, says the problems of the past simply have been adopted by a younger generation – a young friend of his recently froze to death while on a drinking binge. "Maybe we need another march," he says.

McKinley County's diabetes death rate is the state's highest, nearly three times that of the U.S. The city's crime statistics look like they came out of Natural Born Killers, the 1994 ultra-violent flick that was partly filmed in Gallup. There were seven murders and 36 rapes in 2012, and the violent crime rate was about five times the nationwide rate, on par with Oakland, Calif., and not too far below Detroit's.

There are those among the Gallup adventure movement who see the development of trails and the cycling scene in an admittedly selfish light, merely wanting to improve their own quality of life. Still others believe it can be a tool to improve a troubled town. "We want to create a physically healthier, financially healthier and fair community," says Mapes, "and outdoor adventure is the way to go." Adventure tourism doesn't rely on exploiting or commodifying Native Americans or their culture in any way. Though it does impact the landscape, it's nothing compared to the older energy economy: In 1979, a dam at a uranium mine not far from Gallup collapsed, sending millions of gallons of acidic and radioactive water into a tributary of the Rio Puerco.

Though tribes were brought into the Adventure Gallup planning process, the trail-boosters' community is notably void of Native Americans. "Cycling is still seen as an outside, transplant, Anglo activity," says Dirk Holenbeek,  a cyclist who moved to Gallup from Michigan in 1998 to work as a teacher at the Christian High School just outside of town.

And critics see a racist tinge in some efforts to improve the town's "aesthetics" for tourism's sake. This spring, a local group launched a campaign to rid the city of panhandlers by convincing residents to donate money to charities rather than to the solicitors. Local veterans will also be posted to provide a "safe" atmosphere for shoppers, and police presence stepped up to enforce the anti-panhandling ordinances. But Jennifer Rose Denetdale, a Navajo Human Rights Commissioner and associate professor of American studies at University of New Mexico, calls this organized harassment of mostly Native transients. "I am incensed at this targeting of the most vulnerable population who cannot protect themselves," she says. The eviction of the Brickyard's previous occupants in order to make way for a bike park might be seen in a similar light.

At the same time, the bike park may be the very thing that connects the adventure movement with the Native American community. "I wish the bike park would have been there when I was there," says Ryan Tsosie, a Navajo and competitive cyclist who moved from Virginia to the Gallup area as a teen in the '90s. He was part of the budding Gallup cycling scene, and even opened a bike shop that eventually failed. Now he lives and helps run a bike shop in Albuquerque. He's tried to pull other Native Americans – including his family – into cycling, without much success. But the bike park might help. On most school-day afternoons, the place teems with a mix of local Hispanic, Native American and Anglo kids.

The majority of the YCC trail builders are Native Americans. And the local affordable housing nonprofit, Care 66, which is building a colorful, modern mixed-income housing project downtown, even held a bike ride fundraiser last year.

A decade ago, when Mapes told people where she lived, she'd get what she calls the "Gallup Look" – an expression of exaggerated pity or disgust. "Now it's like: 'Oh, yeah, I love it there. The trails are great!' " she says. "I love it when I see locals interacting with someone in the outdoor community, boasting about the assets we have. There's a lot of community pride.

"Sometimes," says Mapes, "I see it as a revolution. This group is really using the bike as an agent of change."