ST. PAUL, Minn. — To the uninitiated, the weathered saloon doors leading into the Dry Gulch cantina might as well be a doorway to biker hell. But they open into a world where private struggles for redemption exert an uncommon sway.
Past a leviathan row of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, bikers with matted beards and arms the width of cordwood hunker over a bar piled high with street hog badges, decals and shirts. As cigarette smoke curls in the dimly lit room and Z. Z. Top's brain-fried anthem, "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers," pounds from a jukebox, owner Greg Miller, a member of the Dry Riders cycle club, takes his swigs from a bottle of lime mineral water.
"It's all I drink," he said.
It is all anyone drinks at the Dry Gulch, a "dry bar" that serves only sodas and juices to a grizzled clientele of recovering addicts and alcoholic bikers. "Just because we sit on bar stools, man," said Miller, an ex-drinker who sports a black scorpion tattoo on one arm and a pale spider on the other, "doesn't mean we're drunks."
Appearances deceive at the Dry Gulch as they deceive throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the nation's most extensive system of detoxification centers, substance abuse clinics, halfway houses and recovery clubs has spawned an influential culture of sobriety. At least 60 recovery care facilities are based in the Twin Cities, more clinics per population--640,000--than in any other American city.
The battle to stay clean is no less stigmatizing here than elsewhere in the nation.
But in a region where access to treatment is a virtual right and success stories abound, former addicts emerging from recovery find themselves embraced by a self-sustaining society that extends far beyond the usual 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The 13th step, a stale local joke goes, is moving to Minnesota.
"You can't go very far in this town without running into someone who's either been in recovery, is related to someone in recovery or works in the recovery industry," said Dr. Stephen Firestone, 42, a general practitioner who once led the harrowing life of a strung-out Greenwich Village heroin user.
There is little anonymity in a recovery community that patronizes dry bars and coffeehouses, supports its own high school, newspaper and softball leagues, socializes at all-sober weddings and at New Year's bashes attended by more than 7,000 clear-eyed celebrants. There are rock bands for cleaned-up head-bangers, a theater troupe for abstinent aesthetes and, for the temperate country club set, dry golf tournaments.
"It's practically chic to be in recovery here," said Barbara Carlson, a popular radio talk show host and an ex-wife of Gov. Arne Carlson. "It's like getting into Woodhill (an exclusive local country club). If you haven't had an intervention, you just haven't lived."
Carlson, who took the cure and relives it regularly on her show, becomes breathless reciting the names of corporate officers, legislators and news anchors--all acquaintances who have come through recovery. Some still cling to their confidentiality, but many have gone public, secure that in their Minnesota circles, at least, they are in good company.
"The level of acceptance and understanding here is more than I've seen in Washington or anywhere," said U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, a suburban Republican who overcame years of blackouts and binge drinking. "There are networks in every profession, every congregation. It makes it a lot easier to be candid."
A former Minnesota state senator who was once arrested after a drunken brawl in a South Dakota coffee shop, Ramstad joins a weekly caucus with five recovering congressional colleagues. A hard-liner on crime issues, Ramstad worked against many in his own party to save $380 million in government funding for sobriety prison programs during last year's fight over the crime bill.
"People don't understand the importance of recovery as much in Congress as they do in the Minnesota Legislature," he said.
But the battle over social service funding looms even in the state Capitol here, where clinic officials expect a push this year to limit access to recovery programs, a move that will test their political clout.
Lobbyists at the Hazelden Foundation and St. Mary's Chemical Dependency Services, two of the state's oldest and most influential clinics, are bracing for deep cuts they fear would discourage indigent alcoholics and addicts from seeking help. Recovery experts say Minnesota is the nation's test case--if public funding is slashed here, it likely will dry up everywhere.
"We're nervous about what's ahead," said Jay L. Hauge, executive director of St. Mary's clinic. "The emphasis on managed care has already forced us to move our recovery patients away from hospitalization into outpatient treatment. The more state funding we lose, the less diverse a population we can serve."