Van Drunen describes Gallup's changes from the seat of his bike. On an unusually warm but typically windy March afternoon, we do a couple of laps of the Brickyard's berms and jumps. Then Van Drunen motions me to follow, and we tear across a street, down a trail through a vacant lot, across a gas station parking lot and into Route 66 traffic before leaving a frontage road to climb up a narrow path onto the "Northside" trail.

We stop on a high island of slickrock with an expansive view, and Van Drunen points out and praises all the trails – some for hiking, some for biking – that surround the town. It occurs to me then how odd this whole concept of trail-as-economic-development really is: You take a piece of long-abused land, you establish some paths through it, and you invite people to ride or run or hike. It sounds crazy, yet it seems to work.

A quarter of a century ago, I spent summers living and biking in Cortez, Colo., another reservation border town that resembles a smaller version of Gallup. Back then, the place was downright hostile to bicyclists. Rednecks in pickups thought it was hilarious to lay on their horns at the sight of a skinny lycra-clad guy, and roadside mutts thought I was a tantalizing piece of steak on wheels. But a few years after I left, a little bike shop opened on the main drag, a few renegades started mountain biking on desert hiking trails, and others carved trails on a stretch of public land that had previously been used for dumping and then shooting old appliances.

Today, the local Chamber of Commerce touts the county's trail network as one of its primary draws, along with Mesa Verde and Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. The little bike shop has grown into one of the biggest and best in the region, and a few road and mountain biking pros have even based themselves in Cortez and nearby Dolores. Meanwhile, Cortez's main drag, once a cultural and culinary wasteland, has gained a brewpub, a sushi joint, a farm-to-table restaurant and a few coffee shops. I think my 17-year-old self would have been a lot less lonely there today.

Gallup will never be another Moab, and some say that's just as well: These days, Moab too often resembles a spring-break beach town set amid red rock. Gallup has too much culture and character to become totally sterilized and steamrolled by the industrial recreation machine, and despite its poverty, it has an existing economy. But it may still experience a trail-driven, cultural and economic shift similar to Cortez, only on a larger scale.

"We're on the cusp. It's just a matter of time," says Van Drunen, who makes road and mountain bike excursions with the local team – Rez Dog Racing – deep into the reservation, where he says there are rides on vast slickrock formations that put Moab to shame. "The assets are there. ... The gold is there. ... Someone just needs to dig it up and polish it and market it."

HCN senior editor Jonathan Thompson writes from Durango, Colorado.