While Gallup, New Mexico is known as the “Heart of Indian Country” because of the many nearby reservations and its sizable presence of Native Americans (who comprise 76 percent of Gallup’s McKinley County), that wasn’t always the case.
Back in the 1970s and 80s, Gallup became notorious for something else: The fact that, each year, police put 30,000 people in the drunk tank. Many of those arrested were Native Americans who flocked to Gallup since it was one of the nearest places where they could purchase alcohol, Jonathan Thompson writes for the High Country News.
But now a group of entrepreneurs, Gallup boosters, and outdoor enthusiasts are working to make the town famous for something much better (and undoubtedly, much healthier) — mountain biking.
Chuck Van Drunen, who lived near a vacant lot known as the Brickyard, contributed to the bike-centered transformation of this gritty town. Until 1960, the Brickyard held kilns for brick-making, but after that, it became a neglected piece of property where drunkards and transients hung out. Van Drunen tired of booze-addled people wandering in the alley behind his house, so he started leading bicycle trail rides over the Brickyard.
It caught on, and Gallup’s mayor Jackie McKinney convinced the owners of the Brickyard to donate or sell the land to the city. Community members hired a bike park designer to plan proper trails and enlisted the Youth Conservation Corps to clean things up. In September, the Gallup Brickyard Bike Park officially opened.
Thompson writes, “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.”
Various bike enthusiasts formed the nonprofit Gallup Trails 2010, working to establish trails throughout Gallup and the nearby Zuni mountains. And while no one thinks Gallup is on track to become the next Moab — Utah’s mountain biking mecca — the town now hosts mountain biking races and is beginning to attract outdoor adventure tourists.
Does the enthusiasm for mountain biking have the ability to turn around Gallup’s tough economic situation? Currently, more than a third of McKinley County’s population live below the poverty line, and its unemployment rate sits at 8.5 percent, substantially higher than New Mexico’s overall rate of 6.8 percent. Still, the bike trails and cycling-centered tourism promotion seem to be moving the city in the right direction.
Lindsay Mapes, the owner of Zia Rides, a Gallup bike-race promoter, said that when she used to tell people where she lived, she’d get a pitying or disgusted “Gallup Look.” “Now it’s like: ‘Oh, yeah, I love it there. The trails are great!’ 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, I see it as a revolution,” she said. “This group is really using the bike as an agent of change.”