Two-wheel revolution in Gallup

by Jonathan Thompson

GALLUP, NEW MEXICO

If you doubt the power of bikes to transform a place, consider the saga of the Brickyard, a sunken, vacant lot spanning nearly three blocks east of downtown in a mostly residential district of this small New Mexico city. Up until about 1960, it was home to the kilns that cooked the bricks for Gallup's historic homes and businesses. After it shut down, time and neglect claimed the few remaining structures, and weeds and scraggly trees moved in, followed by drinkers and vagrants. Local legend held that some of them barbecued stray cats in a camp on the edge of the lot, next to the Junker Bridge, which was named after a former mayor.

Chuck Van Drunen hated the Brickyard. He lives just a few doors down from the lot with his wife, Jenny, and their two young kids, and he grew tired of the Brickyard's tenants wandering through the alley behind his house. So, Van Drunen, who co-owns Gallup Journey, a monthly alternative magazine, made a video blog in which he sports an Abe Lincoln-style beard and expresses his frustration. After his house was broken into, he complained to the Brickyard's owner. And when that went nowhere, he phoned his spandex-clad biking buddies, flagged some of the older trails that had been worn through the overgrown shrubbery, and started leading afternoon group rides through the lot in hopes of driving out the riff-raff. Call it Occupy The Brickyard, with bikes.

To Van Drunen's surprise, the city soon got involved. Behind the scenes, Mayor Jackie McKinney convinced two of the Brickyard's three property owners to donate their share of the five-acre lot, and then got another local to buy out the third owner, and donate that piece. Other community members, with the city's backing, solicited donations to commission nationally known park designer Nat Lopes to draw up plans. The local Youth Conservation Corps then went to work, clearing out brush and garbage and building trails.

Last September, the Gallup Brickyard Bike Park celebrated its grand opening, with Levi Leipheimer, a former pro-cyclist, officiating. The park now sports a pumptrack, jumps, whoop-de-doos and walking trails with interpretive signs – not to mention swarms of kids having a blast on their bikes.

Van Drunen, an avid cyclist with a laconic manner and wry wit, is delighted with the change. As he wrote in the Gallup Journey: "The Junker Bridge Bed and Breakfast club has officially closed its cat-cooking kitchen to overnight guests."

The park is just the latest step in a long-running effort to re-create Gallup as a mountain-biking hub. Over the last 15 years, local bike-advocates have built and designated dozens of miles of trails in the nearby desert and forests and spiffed up the old downtown. Gallup now hosts several mountain bike races each year, including the 24-hour national championships. In 2011, the state Legislature even formally designated the city as the Adventure Capital of New Mexico.

To Westerners who haven't visited recently, the moniker sounds more ironic than anything else. The Gallup in most peoples' mind – with its lingering reputation for public drunkenness, economic inequality, exploitation of Native Americans and just general all-round roughness – bears little resemblance to, say, Moab, Utah. And it's still not clear how far the two-wheeled revolution can go in turning things around.

 

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.

Then, in 1986, Ed Muñoz ran for mayor, promising to tackle the alcohol problem. He wanted to put up billboards declaring Gallup "the drunk-driving capital of the world," a suggestion that enraged local businesses anxious about tourism. The billboards weren't necessary, though: The town had caught the attention of the media. In 1988, the Albuquerque Tribune published a six-part series entitled "Gallup: The Town Drunk." ABC News' 20/20 followed with a feature called "Drunk Town, USA," a name that stuck for years. Mother Teresa even put Gallup on her list of "forsaken places," along with Calcutta.

Finally, in early 1989, a drunk driver slammed into a car on the highway to Zuni and killed four of its five occupants, including an infant. That inspired dozens of community activists to march from Gallup to Santa Fe to force the Legislature to wake up to the problem. By the time it reached the State Capitol, the procession was 2,000 strong.

State lawmakers finally listened. They helped fund a rehabilitation center in Gallup (since taken over by the Navajo Nation) that included traditional Native American healing methods; banned open containers in the front seat of vehicles; and passed a law to shut down drive-up liquor windows. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave nearly $5 million in grants to fund various efforts combating alcohol abuse. Eventually, Gallup banned package liquor sales in the downtown commercial area. Some of the worst bars have shut down.

By the late 1990s, the situation had improved markedly. It was about then that some locals figured it was time for Gallup to get a reputation for something new.

 

Bob Rosebrough's handshake is startlingly gentle. Perhaps it's from spending a lifetime among Navajos, who are known for diffident handshakes, or maybe it's because he's 6-and-a-half-feet tall with the paws of a basketball player and enough strength for a bone-breaking grip. He grew up in Farmington, went to college and law school in Albuquerque and has practiced law in Gallup since 1979.

In the 1990s, Rosebrough started mountain biking. He and his friend, Peter Tempest, a Gallup native and now a local surgeon, would seek out established trails in Colorado or Utah to ride. While on one such outing in Telluride, they picked up a guidebook that described local trails and rides. It occurred to them then that the Gallup area, with its high mesas, towering red rock fins and ponderosa-covered plateaus, was just as rich in recreational opportunity. Someone just needed to publicize the trails. It would be worth it, even if it just encouraged locals to ride closer to home.

Rosebrough, who wrote the definitive climbing guide to the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, was up to the task. In 1999, he and Tempest published The Gallup Guide: Outdoor Routes in Red Rock Country, which featured not only climbing routes, but also road biking, hiking and a few mountain biking trails.

The book was hardly the first of its kind for the Southwest. Moab, Utah, had transformed itself from busted-down uranium-mining burg to industrial-grade recreational tourism desert mini-metropolis, thanks largely to two brothers who opened a bike shop there in the early 1980s. Telluride and Durango had long banked on trails and mountain-biking terrain to supplement their tourism industries. And in 1995, Troy Rarick opened a bike shop in the farming and oil and gas town of Fruita, Colo. Simply by building trails and marketing them, Rarick changed his town into a hip recreation destination. Rosebrough and Tempest's little book opened up many Gallupians' eyes to new possibilities.

Gallup had long been famous as a gateway to Indian Country. But by the 1990s, the tourist industry and the lodging taxes it generated were stagnant, the coal mines were dying and the uranium boom had busted. In 1999 Patty Lundstrom, then executive director of the Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments, held a forum to figure out how to "use existing assets as an economic driver for the region." Adventure tourism "floated to the top," she says. Moab was the obvious role model and Lundstrom visited there often, hoping to learn how to draw the same number of visitors without provoking tension between old-timers and pedaling newcomers. Unlike Moab, though, Gallup had no bike shop or other private enterprise to encourage the effort. Adventure Gallup & Beyond, the campaign's umbrella organization, would have to rely on volunteers and the public sector to get started.

The first step was legitimizing the spider web of "social trails" that wandered around the sagebrush and sandstone, mostly on land owned by Gamerco, a coal company. The task turned out to be tougher than anticipated. Rosebrough got so frustrated with the lack of progress that he successfully ran for mayor in 2003. He then helped get an easement across Gamerco's land northwest of town to provide public access to the 26-mile-long High Desert Trail, the flagship of the local trail system.

Meanwhile, Lundstrom was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2001. From there, she was able to help secure funding to buy a nearby rock-climbing crag, to upgrade Red Rock State Park and its associated trails and to design, build and market trails to the outside world. Another longtime local, Karl Lohmann, formed a local chapter of the Youth Conservation Corps to turn the rutted paths into a world-class trail system.

This loose-knit group of trail builders and cyclists eventually coalesced into Trails 2010, a nonprofit based on Durango's wildly successful Trails 2000. The organization worked with the U.S. Forest Service to designate existing single-track trails in the Zuni Mountains, some 15 miles from town, as mountain-bike-friendly. Now, the group is working with the agency to vastly expand – by as much as 250 miles – the mountain biking trail network. Today, when you cross the state line from Colorado, you see a huge state tourism billboard sporting a photo of a mountain biker on Gallup's trails.

The immediate Gallup area now has two major networks of buffed-out, fast single-track trails that rival those in Fruita or Durango. Several races are held on them each year – more than in any other community in the state. In 2012, the Department of Interior designated the High Desert system as a national recreation trail, and the community is urging the International Mountain Biking Association to designate it as a "Ride Center," one of just a dozen or so worldwide. Supporters say that would help Gallup capture a decent piece of the billion-dollar bike tourism industry.

 

When Lindsay Mapes walks into Gallup's downtown coffee joint and introduces herself, I'm momentarily taken aback. In her form-fitting black-and-white dress and high heels, she looks more like someone who strolled off the streets of Manhattan than a resident of Gallup. Before even sitting down, Mapes announces: "I'm the success story."

What she means is that, in her role as owner of Zia Rides, Mapes is the only private enterprise making a direct, quantifiable profit from Gallup's newfound status as an adventure hub. Mapes came to Gallup in 2003 as a volunteer with AmeriCorps/VISTA, which had sent a crew to work on promoting "entrepreneurship through adventure tourism." She got a job with the Chamber of Commerce to manage mountain biking and running races and other events, then broke off on her own to start Zia Rides. She now runs and promotes two endurance races in Gallup, including Nationals, as well as rides in El Paso, Texas, and Ruidoso, N.M. As if that doesn't keep her busy enough, Mapes is also the executive director of the Business Improvement District and just received her master's degree in public administration in December.

Cycling is already giving an economic boost to Gallup, Mapes says. Last year's Nationals attracted 500 racers from all over the nation, along with support crews and spectators, and the biking and trail-running events of the Squash Blossom Classic draw around 300 participants. Adventure Gallup figures that the racers and their families and friends spend around $30,000 locally on food, lodging, gas and merchandise over the course of each event.

That's less important, say Mapes and others, than the event's power as a marketing tool. The races introduce the trails to the kind of people most likely to plan a hiking-and-biking vacation in Gallup, bringing still more money to town. A 2011 University of Wyoming study, for example, found that the Teton County trail system around Jackson Hole generated $18 million for the local economy in just one year. In Oregon, bicycle tourists spent $400 million in 2012, according to a study done last year by a marketing research firm. And an extensive Arizona Department of Transportation study found that out-of-state bike-related travelers there spend an average of $263 per person per day on lodging, food, gas and bike parts.

That can mean a lot in an economically challenged place. When Moab's uranium industry, which employed some 25 percent of the area's workers, busted in the 1980s, it left a shell of an economy and community. But as the masses started flocking to the Slickrock Trail, as well as the area's rock-climbing, rafting and jeeping opportunities, the place experienced an abrupt turnaround. Between 1990 and 2000, employment grew by 65 percent, according to a Headwaters Economics study. There are now more than 3,000 service and retail jobs in the county, quadruple the total number of mining jobs when that industry was at its peak.

In Gallup, lodging tax revenues have increased by almost 70 percent since 1999, when the adventure tourism push began, and two new hotels, one along I-40 and another downtown, are currently under construction, adding to a handful of other lodging establishments built in the last several years. It's impossible to say exactly how much of this is attributable to adventure tourism, but the estimated 15,000 people who ride, run or hike the High Desert Trail each year are certainly having an impact.

But a lot of cycling money bypasses the city. Trail riders who do no more than fill up their gas tank, grab a fast-food bite, even stay a night in a hotel, contribute little more to the economy than random interstate travelers. But when they slow down and spend time downtown, they tend to drop more cash. The problem is that Gallup largely lacks the sorts of establishments that would draw bikers, such as a brewpub – one of the prerequisites for being a "real" bike town and for getting IMBA Ride Center designation – or even a downtown bike shop. And would-be entrepreneurs are not likely to risk opening a business until they're convinced the bikers will venture into town. It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing.

Van Drunen puts it bluntly: "To really have a tourist economy, we'll have to overcome the shitty aesthetics. We need a legit downtown."

Progress is slowly being made. During Rosebrough's time as mayor, the city refurbished infrastructure, spruced up parks, gave land and money to affordable housing initiatives, and generally spiffed up the historic downtown by planting trees, fixing up the old El Morro theatre and having local artists paint murals on graffiti-covered walls. It also passed a quality-of-life bond measure to fund such improvements, along with trails and the like. The local Business Improvement District is trying to attract businesses to downtown by touting the cheap rent, round-the-clock security guards and various other incentives.

Gallup now boasts a popular weekend farmer's market and a couple downtown art galleries with a broader range of wares than the usual Southwestern kitsch. There's even a monthly, well-attended Arts Crawl, "where people are drinking cappuccinos," says Lundstrom, "and they actually know what that is. It's just really cool. Who would've ever thought Gallup would attract that kind of attention?" And yet, for all that, the problem remains: To most outsiders, Gallup is, well, still Gallup.

"It's a real remarkable community," says Rosebrough. "It's disproportionately wonderful and disproportionately terrible at the same time."

 

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."

 

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.

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