End of the road for U.S.

New name: After 77 years, ‘the devil’s highway’ is being stripped of its hellish implication.
Los Angeles Times, via The Baltimore Sun, July 29, 2003
By Steve Chawkins

TOHATCHI, N.M. – As long as he could remember, Edwin Begay felt there was something gravely troubling about U.S. 666, the road that runs by his hometown.

When Begay was a high school athlete, players from elsewhere on the Navajo reservation would razz him and his teammates for all the sinister cults they thought there must be beside a road named for the devil. Until recently, Begay tried to avoid saying 666 – quite a feat, considering his house sits on the road’s west side and the school where he works sits on the east.

“I just tell people we’re north of Gallup,” he says. “We’ve gotten criticism over ‘the Satan road’ for years. It’s always been an offense to us.”

But no longer: Mindful of the biblical reference to “the number of the beast” that will usher in the end of the world, state officials in New Mexico, Colorado and Utah decided to beat the devil by changing his highway’s name. After 77 years as U.S. 666, the road is to be called U.S. 491, by decree of the American Association of State Transportation and Highway Officials.

The highway will be rededicated at a ceremony tomorrow in the reservation town of Shiprock. Navajo medicine men will issue traditional incantations.

“They’ll bless the new highway,” says S.U. Mahesh, a spokesman for New Mexico’s highway department. “And they’ll cleanse the old one.”

Souvenir hunters have snatched the old signs.

The road was named innocently enough in 1926. Highway officials only wanted to indicate it as the sixth spur off U.S. 66, the get-your-kicks highway later immortalized in song.

But good vibes have been elusive for the Navajos and Ute Mountain Utes who live near the pothole-riddled road. On the reservation, some see the number as a bad sign, malevolently placed upon the highway by a callous white establishment. Outside the reservation, residents shrug off such concerns as American Indian superstition.

On a Sunday afternoon in a restaurant at the highway’s southern tip in Gallup, Jessica Lindberg, 18, bemoans the demise of a geographic fixture she has known her entire life.

“It’s ridiculous,” says Lindberg, a nursing home receptionist. “It’s historic. Everyone who lives in Gallup knows it as the triple-six.”

Long saddled with a reputation for its drunken-driving collisions, the road rolls 193 miles north from Gallup to Monticello, Utah. In New Mexico, about 107 miles of it slices through the eastern edge of the sprawling Navajo reservation. Most of that stretch is just two lanes, with barely a shoulder on either side.

About 10 miles north of Gallup, Jenny Benally sells Indian blankets, turquoise jewelry and saddles in a combination pawnshop-grocery-laundry-gas station. Reluctant to drive U.S. 666 at night because of the crashes on it, she says the name change is a good idea.

“I know the triple-six is a bad sign,” she says. “Our grandmas and grandpas are upset by it. It should have been changed a long time ago.”

At the Gospel Lighthouse in Iyanbito, Navajo pastor Mark Thomas agrees. For many on the reservation, the number is freighted with prejudice, he says: “They feel like the Christian community has brought a curse upon the Navajo people.”

Thomas, whose aunt and uncle were killed by a drunken driver on the road, said the highway has been wrongly endowed with a sinister power: “When fear is placed in the minds of people, they expect that something evil is going to happen,” he said.

Even the dry legal language of a New Mexico legislative resolution captures the highway’s satanic aura, alluding somberly to “the cloud of opprobrium created by having a road that many believe is cursed running near their homes and through their homeland.”

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said the Navajos’ requests for a change have been ignored for years. “It’s been one of those cases where public officials knew about the problem, but nobody did anything about it,” says Richardson, who was elected in November. “Out of respect for the Navajo people, I made a determined effort.”

Stripping the road of its hellish implication is only the beginning, Richardson said. A new name might draw tourists and businesses. And, after a $7.5 million environmental study, the state hopes to make the road safer by widening its remaining 77 miles of two-lane, wind-raked asphalt.

Beer and liquor are illegal on the reservation. Residents go to Gallup and Farmington to drink, sometimes careering out of control as they ply the highway on their way home. Whether a new name will improve life along the road is a question that arouses skepticism even among the missionaries whose churches dot the reservation.

“There are just too many drunk drivers,” says the Rev. John Greydanus, pastor of Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Shiprock.

A drunken driver recently skidded from U.S. 666 straight onto Greydanus’ lawn, stopping just 3 feet from his house. Outside the church next to his home, tourists have stopped to take pictures of each other in front of the 666 sign. Sometimes, they hold up homemade 777 signs to signify their battle against evil.

Meanwhile, drivers on “the devil’s highway” whiz past the wry reminder Greydanus put up on his church’s billboard: “Only one road leads to heaven.”

In popular culture, that road is definitely not U.S. 666.

In the 1994 film Natural Born Killers, the highway was the setting for a 52-corpse, gore-spewing murder rampage. Garage bands beyond reckoning have composed harsh, teeth-baring odes to the number made infamous in the 13th chapter of Revelation.

How it got there is a matter of conjecture.

Like a number of other New Testament scholars, David Scholer, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., believes that 666 was not so much a reference to Satan as a coded allusion to the brutal Roman emperor Caesar Nero – an especially chilling figure to ancient Christians.

Clues to “the beast’s” identity are found in the Hebrew alphabet, whose letters each had a numerical value. Letters representing 666 can be arranged to spell the emperor’s name, Scholer says.

Over the years, Christians have applied 666 to a host of villains, from corrupt popes to Adolf Hitler. But in doing so, they’ve misunderstood the images in Revelation and mistaken history for prophecy, he says.

Along the highway, mystery drains from the landscape as travelers roll north from the reservation. Stark mesas and volcanic cones give way to softer vistas of bean fields and pastures.

In Cortez, Colo., truckers fill up at the M&M Cafe’s gas pumps and pray at its chapel. Marvin and Paula Graves, a singing duo called Trucking Troubadors for Christ, lead services weekly. Paula Graves says she has never met a trucker upset by the prospect of apocalypse on U.S. 666.

The number’s reverberations grow even fainter in Utah, where the road ends after 17 miles. At milepost 13 – an unlucky spot if ever there was one – retired beekeepers Della and Delbert Archer chuckled when asked about their location.

For 25 years, they have lived happily in a double-wide trailer amid the sage and pinyon. No bad luck has befallen them beyond the usual toils of aging, says Della Archer, 79. They’ve never given a moment’s thought to living on a spot that others might see as numerically hexed. “No one’s even asked us about it before,” she says.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday July 29, 2003.
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