Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 15, 2017

The Sign of the Beast on the Devil’s Highway; Post #666

This is my 666th blog post. How can I resist? It HAS to be titled “Sign of the Beast.”

As it happens, there’s a true tale related to the number 666 here in the American Southwest. I don’t have to delve into arcana regarding the Book of Revelation or numerology (neither of which I care about or give credence to).

It’s about a highway number.

The Devil’s Highway

Until 2003, there was a U.S. Highway 666. Originally, it ran from the Mexican border in southeastern Arizona, north into western New Mexico, southern Colorado and into eastern Utah.

666 near Cortez Marcy Vincent (640x446)

That’s me, in 2002, at the junction of U.S. routes 160 and 666 in Colorado, south of Cortez, just north of the New Mexico border. The tall volcanic plug is named Chimney Rock*.

There was a logical reason to name a road 666 in the U.S. highway scheme. It was the 6th U.S. route — counting east to west — to cross Route 66, the storied “Mother Road,” hence, 666. When the U.S. decommissioned Route 66 in 1985, the rules required renumbering 666, and it became Route 191 in Arizona.

For a time, the rest of the road remained 666 (I don’t understand why). That section of the highway ran north from Interstate 40 (which replaced Route 66) at Gallup though Shiprock into Colorado.

Route 491 map Google

Albuquerque, NM is at the lower right and Flagstaff, AZ is on the lower left edge, connected by Interstate 40 (which replaced 66). The map encompasses a lot of territory I’ve written about in Under Western Skies, including Chaco Canyon (red circle) and Mesa Verde National Park (red square). Impressive Monument Valley is marked by a red star, and the yellow star marks Shiprock, the spire of a volcanic core visible from Route 666:

Shiprock Brad Nixon 001 (640x429)

666 was rural, full of blind hills and notoriously dangerous. Numerous fatal accidents happened on 666 every year. Because of that combination of the “number of the beast” and the road’s perilousness, Route 666 became known as “The Devil’s Highway.”

A Road Through Two Nations

Much of the land through which 666 passed was also part of the Navajo Nation, and many of the casualties on the road were Navajo citizens. Navajo culture doesn’t share the superstition about the number, but the convergence provided an opportunity to draw attention to the dangerous conditions. Backing the renumbering effort, the Navajo campaigned to reconfigure the road to improve visibility and safety.

Ultimately, with a degree of fanfare, the governor of New Mexico (who was running for reelection) made a splash about eliminating that satanic designation. The route officially became 491 in New Mexico in 2003.

Fortunately, there were also improvements to the road as part of the deal. Sections of the highway that have been converted from two lanes to 4 now have lower casualty rates. Points at which the road remains 2 lanes are still dangerous.

One Problem Solved, Another Arises

As soon as the renumbering was announced, a new problem arose along old #666: the highway signs.

The black on white “666” signs had always attracted a certain amount of theft. Within days of the renumbering announcement, nearly every existing sign was stolen. Authorities observed that they weren’t simply unbolted. Some were cut down with chain saws and at least one driven into with a vehicle to knock it over. Signs appeared on Ebay and elsewhere in short order. If you have one, consider it a collector’s item, although provenance might be an issue.

From Evil Number to Good Medicine

The official renaming ceremony was timed to coincide with beginning of the road reconstruction, a not-always-common demonstration of cooperation between the United States and the Navajo Nation. A Navajo medicine man blessed the road, declaring it “good medicine.” It’s easy to appreciate the irony of “good medicine” from one culture employed to overcome a perception of bad in another.

Some malcontents argued that changing the name equated to “messing with the devil.” Well. I don’t have a reply for that. It’s a road number.

Envoi, 666

The Automobile Association of America no longer publishes its once standard “Indian Country” map of the Four Corners region of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. I still travel with my sole surviving copy, printed in 2000, which shows Route 666 (red arrows):

AAA Indian Country map detail marked (540x640)

I’ll bet there are people yet who refer to it as 666. Or maybe they still call it the Devil’s Highway!

How’s that for Post #666? Perhaps when I get to #777 I’ll write about gambling in Las Vegas. Should take about year, if I keep at it.

*There is at least one other Chimney Rock in Colorado, east of the one pictured, between Durango and Pagosa Springs. That eastern one is in Chimney Rock National Monument, and includes an ancient Puebloan site of the Chaco culture.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Chimney Rock photo © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission. Map at top © Google. Map at bottom © Automobile Association of America.

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Responses

  1. I love this post. Your creativity soared. Thank you.
    Bob Harris

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. That’s generous of you to say.

      Like

  2. Some businesses still had “Highway 666” listed as part of their address; I noticed on some receipts from a McDonald’s or Burger King along the highway. That was just a few years ago. Not sure now.

    Like

    • Interesting. Some may simply be files or signs that haven’t been updated. Others may be people hanging on to the old address out of a certain nostalgia. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for examples. Thanks for the comment.

      Like

  3. Thanks, I was wondering were that highway went. when I was 18 yo in 1984 I remember traveling on it. And they had signs now and then that said (watch out for drunk Indians). I was told back then they would stagger in the HWY at night and get run over sometimes. I haven’t been there since 1984. and in 2017 I made a trip west to California and was watching for HWY 666 but never seen it. Now I know why.

    Like


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