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Monday, April 28, 2014

Gallup, bikes and a reservation border town revolution

A few days after we moved back to Durango after many years away, my wife and I drove down south to Farmington to look for a new car. On the way, we passed a big New Mexico tourism department billboard. On it was a person mountain biking in the desert, near Gallup, "The Adventure Capital of New Mexico." I may have let out a guffaw.

Most of those of us who grew up in the Four Corners Country had a certain image of Gallup seared into our brains, and mountain biking and "adventure" had nothing to do with it, unless adventure means dodging empties of Tokay wine while stopping to get gas or a quick bite on the way to or from somewhere. Of all the reservation border towns, Gallup was always considered the worst: The most racist, the most exploitative, the most drunk.

And it was all true.
Abandoned hotel on the west side of Gallup.

Route 66 west of Gallup, with morning fog.

But that's not all there was to this western New Mexico town of 20,000. My father, who knew this region so well, always had a fondness for Gallup. It was a lot more diverse than, say, Durango (which back then had a much larger and stronger Hispanic community than it does now) -- it's oddly cosmopolitan, my dad would say. It was even called Little Chicago for a long time, due to the mix of immigrants who had come to work in the mines. Cross-country rail travelers and Route 66 motorists stopped here, and as the El Rancho motel will remind you, movie stars stayed there during the golden era of Hollywood Westerns. And if you stop and look around, and see beyond the kitsch and the Interstate junk, you'll see that Gallup is in a remarkable setting, with both dramatic and subtle beauty all around.

And unlike Farmington -- another border town with a history of racism and violence towards Navajos -- Gallup spawned a strong resistance movement. Back in the late 1960s and early 70s, a group of Native American activists, many of them students, rose up in response to racism and exploitation. They continued to be active for years, helping to lead the march on Santa Fe meant to hold the state legislature, and the liquor industry that controlled them, accountable for the alcohol problems in the town.

Gallup, mostly its dark side, has also featured in literature. Leslie Marmon Silko bases a lot of her novel, Ceremony, in it. Simon Ortiz, a renowned poet from Acoma Pueblo, east of Gallup, often mentions it. "Being in Gallup is always pretty much the same feeling," he wrote. "It is a feeling of something not balanced well in the belly." In "Grants to Gallup, New Mexico" Ortiz writes:
Gallup, Indian Capital of the World,
shit geesus, the heat is impossible,
the cops wear riot helmets,
357 magnums and smirks, you better
not get into trouble and you better
not be Indian.
 And in "For Those Sisters and Brothers in Gallup,"
O my god, I know what is my name:
she stumbled like a stuffed dummy 
against me, looked into my mouth
with her opaque remorseful eyes
and asked me for a drink.


Be kind, sister, be kind;
it shall come cleansing again.
It shall rain and your eyes
will shine and look so deeply
into me into me into me into me. 
How this place could become a mountain bike mecca was beyond me, but I had to find out. I pitched a broader concept to my colleagues at High Country News: Can economic and community development really be as simple and cheap as cutting a few trails across land that had long been ignored? It worked for Fruita, Colo., and, to a lesser extent, Cortez. Would it work in Gallup, too?

They went for it, as a shorter, straight up trails-as-economic-development story. In the midst of last September's crazy monsoons, I drove the three hours across the reservation to Gallup, thinking I'd stay a couple of days, then crank out a straightforward story. It would not be. What I found was so much richer than that. The trails are fabulous, but the effort was more complicated than I had imagined, and the town, well, the town was far more interesting still. While it had shed many of the problems from its earlier days, it's still a deeply troubled place. Liquor is still a serious problem, as is poverty, racism, exploitation.

Bob Rosebrough is a former Gallup mayor, an attorney and occasional writer of guidebooks (who was featured, by name, as a character in a Tony Hillerman novel who fetches the climber's register from the top of Shiprock). He summed it up nicely: “It’s a real remarkable community,” he says. “It’s disproportionately wonderful and disproportionately terrible at the same time.”

Now, go read my story about Gallup, bikes, trails and more. Then, go ride the trails. They are really great.