Gallup, population 20,000, sits along Interstate 40, Route 66, the major cross-country rail line and at the terminus of Highway 491, née 666. The railroad came in 1881, coal mining shortly thereafter, and an often boisterous little city sprouted on the sandstone slopes above the dusty trickle of the Rio Puerco. Over time, Gallup became a supply center for the region, known for brickmaking and uranium and coal mining.

But Gallup is probably better known for Native Americans and its complicated relationship with them. The town itself is not on a reservation, but it sits in the heart of Indian Country. Zuni's just down the road to the south, Laguna and Acoma Pueblos aren't far to the east, Hopi's a few hours west, and the massive Navajo Nation wraps around the city – the Navajo capital of Window Rock is just a half hour's drive. By 1900, Gallup was a major trading center for Indian jewelry. It's long been the place where Native Americans come to visit Wal-Mart and get a bit of an urban experience; the regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs is here, as well as a major Indian hospital. One of Gallup's nicknames is "The Indian Capital of the World."

Gallup's cultural quilt also includes a strong Hispanic community and the descendants of Italian and Croatian immigrants who came to mine coal. There's even a Palestinian community – a mosque sits along old Route 66 – that is mostly involved in the Indian jewelry trade. Squeezed into that demographic stew are doctors, teachers, bureaucrats, missionaries and AmeriCorps/VISTA volunteers, many of whom come from elsewhere and end up staying; they're the major force behind the recent cycling push. The town's historic character hasn't been diluted by postwar sprawl; the kitschy/cool Route 66 storefronts mostly endure and the old brick homes are still stacked closely along steep streets. It all gives Gallup a gritty, diverse, even cosmopolitan feel, very different from the placeless suburbia that has gobbled up so many Western cities.

Yet Gallup is also notorious for its dark side: It's not only the unofficial Indian capital, but also the epicenter of Indian exploitation, a place whose very identity and economy were built on taking advantage of the local Native Americans. The jewelry business, for example, has occasionally been tainted by fraud, with machine-made and imported goods pawned off as handmade by Indians. Nor is it uncommon for the traders to offer the jewelry makers – often unskilled in business dealings – a pittance for their product. One of Gallup's biggest tourist draws since the 1920s has been the annual Indian Ceremonial. In the early 1970s, Native American activists regularly protested the event, saying it appropriated their culture, then commodified it for the profit of white businessmen. "Colonialism has a lot to do with it," says John Redhouse, a Navajo and one of those early activists, who has spent much of his life fighting for Native rights. "Gallup is a border town, and the tribes around it constitute economic colonies."

And then there's alcohol. In 1953, the federal government lifted the ban on selling alcohol to Native Americans. Tribes, however, continued to prohibit its sale on the reservations. That created a vast, new, thirsty market for Gallup's liquor peddlers: During the following decades, as many as five dozen different drinking establishments flourished at one time in town, far more than allowed under state law. Garden De Luxe, a sweet, fortified Tokay wine, was shipped in from California in rail tanker cars and bottled in Gallup to be sold for a buck or less per bottle. An entire economic sector grew up to feed the epidemic, including dozens of pawnshops, a blood-for-cash place and bustling bottle- and can-recycling centers.

During the 1970s and '80s, police hauled more than 30,000 people each year to the drunk tank, which was little more than a cage where people could sleep it off before being released to get drunk again. Cirrhosis killed many, but hundreds of others each year died more quickly – killed when they passed out and froze to death on long winter nights, or staggered out in front of traffic or the freight trains that rumble through town. Inebriated people were beaten up for sport, or raped. It got so bad that, in 1973, Larry Casuse, a Navajo college student and activist, kidnapped the Gallup mayor and part-owner of the Navajo Inn – the most profitable liquor store in the state – which was perched cynically right on the edge of the reservation. The mayor escaped, and Casuse was killed in an ensuing firefight.