In a chilly twilight, I exited the interstate in Gallup, New Mexico, and, as the Stones’s rendition of the Bobby Troup song played in my head, motored down the city’s stretch of the former Route 66, which seemed as long as the western New Mexico horizon was wide. In what I presumed was the city’s center, the traffic on the five-lane blacktop was considerable, yet its businesses, primarily Indian merchandise stores and pawn shops on the south side of the thoroughfare, were all closed, with many storefronts obscured behind drawn scissor gates. Immediately on the north side of 66, the Santa Fe Railroad, heretofore consisting of merely two tracks, now appeared to swell to ten, with many of the tracks loaded with long, dark strings of freight cars. Except for one string crawling westward, all were at rest.
Just a handful of pedestrians appeared on this stretch of 66. A small group of men, each lean, broad-shouldered, and bearing a waterfall of raven hair―Navajos likely―wandered through some brush beyond a chain-link fence that partially cordoned off an Amtrak railroad station. A woman in a tee-shirt emblazoned with “GEORGE STRAIT” staggered east down the south sidewalk, her forward progress only slightly more than her lateral.
By now, I knew―from conversations with long-time New Mexicans, stories in Albuquerque newspapers, and Abbey’s musings in Desert Solitaire―of Gallup’s history of rampant alcoholism among its visitors from the vast Navajo reservation immediately to the north. On this Friday evening, I tried to imagine the bars of Gallup. Were they joyous places? Was that “cowboy,” George Strait, crooning on their jukeboxes, the Indian wars now obviously over, differences now reconciled, all forgiven, and “let’s drink to that”? Surely some of the bars were profoundly grim venues where sipping and light repartee was dispensed with because the object was to get hammered as quickly and cheaply as possible. In any event, I imagined them beginning to fill up. Fifteen years earlier, had I been in Gallup, perhaps on route to Tucson or Phoenix to visit friends or relatives, I would very likely have entered one or more of them, slumming, getting buzzed, as I occasionally did on Denver’s skid row. Now I was grateful to be free of that scene, as well as the regular patronizing of bars of any repute.
Yet, in my imagination, there was still a stubborn, attractive romanticism to all of it. For there was a time when bars offered me laughter, music, male companionship, female companionship, and one fight (which I lost). For years, I thought such authors as Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski, sodden alcoholics both, understood and harnessed such romanticism to their benefit (Bukowski maintaining wine was his best accompaniment to writing). I thought Malcolm Lowry, English chronicler of Cuernavaca, Mexico, and arguably literature’s most ruinous drunk, did as well; indeed, of him, film critic Pauline Kael seductively wrote: “[H]e somehow got himself to believe that alcoholic self-destruction would give him access to the states of mind necessary to set words on fire.” I didn’t seek self-destruction in alcohol, but I often found comfort.
Today, I acknowledge the enormous complexity of alcoholism, including and especially Native American alcoholism; that Friday evening, I simply felt smug that I had managed to avoid the predation of places like Gallup, although I was still fascinated by the city’s tragic nature. Even Bob Dylan, although no alkie, fell prey to Gallup’s romance, once, when he was 20, falsely telling an interviewer that he was “raised” in the city.
I continued through Gallup, past its cold, dark brick and sandstone buildings, without stopping. The last thing I noticed, while negotiating a bridge over the Santa Fe tracks, were two pairs of rails leading westward. Above their grime, the crowns of the rails, cleaned and polished by the wheels of millions of freight cars, held an eerie glow that seemed to defy the diminishing twilight: silver ribbons afloat on a black sea of desert that spread to eastern Arizona.