The Devil’s Highway was a road to God’s Country

Changing the number won’t change the fortunes of small towns strung across the dusty Southwest ... where the future offers little more hope than dry thunderclouds promise rain.

  • STEPHEN OSMAN PHOTO, LOS ANGELES TIMES
 

Route 666 is headed toward oblivion. That’s a shame, because for me — as for plenty of pavement pilgrims who arrived in the West over the last half-century in RVs, SUVs or astride Harleys — the Devil’s Highway was the road into God’s Country.

U.S. Route 666 was a lonely stretch of asphalt, running 194 miles from dusty Gallup, N.M., across the rugged Navajo Reservation, through southwestern Colorado into Utah, where it ended at Monticello. The stretch of asphalt is still there, but it has shed the number of the beast in favor of less ominous numerology. Exit Route 666; hop on Route 491.

Last spring, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson led politicians from the highway’s three states in petitioning the federal government to change the highway’s numbers. They argued that the biblical link between 666 and Satan was bedeviling the economic well-being of the towns along the sickle-shaped highway.

But according to the book of Revelation, a ram-horned, dragon-talking beast is supposed to stamp 666 on our heads and hands, not on our highways. I can’t believe that the three sixes are to blame for the struggles of the communities along that desert highway. Changing the number won’t change the fortunes of small towns strung across the dusty Southwest, in Indian reservations and nearby, where the future offers little more hope than dry thunderclouds promise rain.

No jobs. No industry. No crops. Only lines of cars passing from one national park to the next, and they’re just passing through.

I am nostalgic enough to believe that something was lost when those highway numbers changed. Route 666 took its name from its place on the map. It was the sixth branch off Route 66, the fabled Mother Road that was once the path of choice for millions of vacationers, truckers and automobile pilgrims looking for salvation among the motels, diners, tourist traps and expansive beauty that was the West.

“If you have a plan to motor west,” the old song says, “travel my way, take the highway that’s the best. Get your kicks on Route 66.”

Only isolated fragments of Route 66 remain. They’ve been split apart by the interstate highway system that gave us convenience at the cost of character. When I first ventured west of the 100th meridian, it was to Route 66 country, and although Route 66 no longer remained, its romance still lingered. Driving on Route 666 was as close as I would get to a piece of lost Americana.

It was something else, too. That highway pulled me out of Gallup, N.M., which would soon seem to me like a big city once I hit the dusty towns on the Navajo Reservation. Tohatchi. Naschitti. Shiprock. This is the rugged West that doesn’t show up on postcards. And it isn’t sung about in that song.

Kicks on Route 66 are found in Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino, not in Tocito or Towaoc. But I became enchanted by this country’s sagebrush and mesas, turquoise skies and red rock, and years later, it lured me back.

Thankfully, what I love most about old Route 666 won’t change when the signposts do. It will still be a track through a rugged, struggling, beautiful place that carries the heart of the West. But I also loved where Route 666 came from. It was a branch off a piece of history, one that is now another step closer to forgotten.

No kicks, I’m afraid, on Route 491.

David Frey is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes in Carbondale, Colorado.

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