Two-Wheel Revolution in Gallup

Can a bunch of trails and bikes transform this down-and-out New Mexico town?

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.

Photo by Andrew Cullen/High Country News


This seven-part story first appeared on High Country News, continue reading here.

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