I write to you from a small, sleepy cowboy town on the edge of Navajo Nation, the largest reservation among more than 300 across the US. Gallup, New Mexico, is home to about 20,000 people; its population hasn’t fluctuated in years. Historic Route 66 runs right through our tiny, quaint downtown. We’re four exits along Interstate-40 that eventually takes travelers to the Grand Canyon and onto LA, but if you blinked you might miss us.
Why are you here? That’s the question we’ve fielded from many fellow Gallupians. Most of the population is Native American, given Gallup’s proximity to the reservation.
Generally speaking, non-natives are part of the medical community in this part of the country. There are good number of Indian Health Service supported health care facilities on and near the reservation and thus a major incentive for clinicians to live and work here.
Two words: loan repayment.
We’re not doctors. We’re also not driving through on a summer road trip across America, though sometimes I still feel like a visitor.
Two years ago, our family moved here from Washington, DC. My husband got re-assigned here for a three-year work commitment, and he spends 100% of his time on the reservation for his job. I took mine on the road.
At about 6,500 feet above sea level, we live in what’s considered the high desert. Our nights are cold and in the afternoon the sun can beat its fierce, unfiltered heat. I still can’t go for a run without needing to stop to catch my breath. It’s a pathetic scene of suffering to bear witness to.
The unfamiliar might describe Gallup as a giant truck stop, and they wouldn’t be wrong. We have an Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel and Walmart, and we’re two hours from any major city and airport. There is, however a quiet, rich, oft-overlooked culture and history woven into the social fabric of Gallup, and I admit even after living here for two years, I know very little about it. I’m merely an outsider looking in, trying my best to keep my eyes and ears open.
Gallup is also affectionately known as the Turquoise Capital of the US. Trading posts and pawn shops here are as ubiquitous as Starbucks in Seattle. My personal favorite is Perry Null. Inside, it’s always bustling with traders, wholesalers, and people like me just looking for a turquoise fix. If you’re lucky, the local celeb jeweler, Tony, will walk you through every intricate inch of his jewelry cases telling you about the artists behind each stone and silver setting.
Every Saturday, rain or shine, the city hosts a flea market on an empty expanse of land on the the north side of town. Like most typical flea markets, it is a collection of tents, tables and the backs of trucks boasting a funky assortment of goods. It’s unlike most flea markets, however, because of what you can find there: beautiful handmade Navajo and Zuni jewelry, fry bread, bales of hay, guns (yep), Piccadillys (a snow cone with sweet pickles). Everyone shows up on Saturdays to catch up with friends and family, feast on a turkey leg, and admire the best Native American jewelry money can buy. From onyx to turquoise to opal and coral, merchants come to town to offer their most beautiful artistry.
Today, I bought three pairs of earrings for $80 total. At a fancy brick and mortar store in Sante Fe, NM, or Scottsdale, AZ, they’d retail for $100+ each. You can really hit the jackpot here.
We’re at the very beginning of hatch green chile pepper season (read: fall). The green pepper is to Gallup what the grape is to Bordeaux. It is serious business (and best flame-roasted). Again, I can’t pretend to be an expert. But, you can buy whole boxes of these puppies and have them roasted for you. Catching a whiff of that deep, rustic, smoky aroma is like wrapping yourself in a blanket. It’s soul food here, and it’s delicious.
Immediately beyond Gallup is Navajo Nation. There’s no sign on the highway that says “Welcome to the Reservation” denoting the lines of demarcation. You’d only know it by the desolate nothingness, the wide open spaces, and unfortunately, the poverty.
I wish I knew more about life on the reservation. But, alas, my full-time job keeps me home-bound. I only know what I observe from the roadside and what my husband shares with me. Modern living on the reservation is hard and heartbreaking. There is a lack of infrastructure, very few jobs, and limited hope for social mobility, which fuel an endemic substance abuse problem, which then fuels unthinkable violence. There isn’t real sovereignty here. Instead, it is a human rights crisis that no one pays attention to.
Navajos need a lot of help, but I don’t believe they feel forlorn. They are soft-spoken and kind people who have an unparalleled pride in their culture, kinship with their land, and loyalty to their families.
Before moving out here my eyes never captured so much land in one glance.
You can see initial storm clouds gathering to the east and rain dissipating to the west.
There is a reason why New Mexico was coined the Land of Enchantment.
Two years in and I still feel like an outsider – a foreigner in my own country.
Our time here has offered me an education of its own and newfound awareness of and appreciation for what makes us intrinsically American. The sacrifices whole populations have made – and continue to make – to ensure our freedom are most visible here. We owe so much to Native Americans and yet they’ve become so badly forgotten.
Out here, these roads are less traveled –
but more importantly, they are beautiful, sacred, and worthy of our attention.
Sunset over trading posts and pawn shops in downtown Gallup.