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COMMENTARY: The Weird Saga of U.S. 666 – A Tale for 06-06-06

Posted by kinchendavid on July 17, 2006

June 6, 2006 

By David M. Kinchen

Hinton, WV   – Everybody’s got a 6-6-6 story, so why should I deprive HNN and BNN readers of mine?
While driving from Los Angeles to West Virginia several years ago, I stopped for the night at a motel in Gallup, NM, in the western part of the state on Interstate 40. After picking an affordable motel from the vast inventory of places that had left the light on for me in the city of dozens of motels, I settled down with my atlas to see what the attractions were. What a geekly thing to do, you say? I knew I was in Navajo country from previous trips to The Land of Enchantment, the motto of this beautiful state.
The first thing that caught my eye was a U.S. highway, U.S. 666, running north from Gallup all the way to Cortez, CO. Later research revealed that there’s a story behind the naming of the so-called “Devil’s Highway. It all begins with the famous “Mother Road,” Route 66, which runs from Chicago to L.A., as everyone knows from Bobby Troup’s immortal 1946 song made famous by Nat King Cole. There’s even a conflict with West Virginia’s very own U.S. 60, The Midland Trail, and its offshoot, U.S. 460, very familiar to drivers in Virginia and West Virginia. It’s all in a website address that I list below.
Interstate 40 runs along much of the path of Route 66, especially in New Mexico, Arizona and California with parts of Texas and Oklahoma thrown in.
So what’s the big deal? Actually nothing, except my various researches show that the highway is shown as 666 on some maps (including the one accompanying this story) and my 2003 U.S. Atlas courtesy of my insurance company, Nationwide. Other sites –including Mapquest – show the road as U.S. 491. If you ask Mapquest for directions from Gallup NM to Cortez CO you’ll get a brief mention of U.S. 666, but mostly it will say U.S. 491.
No, I didn’t take the “Devil’s Highway” through the high (some passes are 9,000 feet up) mountain country of Shiprock, etc. in the Four Corners area of the U.S.: I stayed on I-40, I-44 and I-64 all the way to West Virginia. There wasn’t any superstition involved; I was on a tight schedule.
Why the name change – if indeed there was one? Maybe 491 and 666 can get along. Anyway, I found a web site from the Federal Highway Administration that tries to explain what the highway’s name is today. Quoting from the site, http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/us666.htm:
On January 21, 2003, Governor Bill Richardson delivered his first State-of-the-State Address to the New Mexico Legislature. The new Governor discussed many topics of importance to his State, including the fate of U.S. 666:
We must coordinate the business interests of Native Americans and the state. After years of neglect in Santa Fe, I am proud to announce my wholehearted support for the renovation of Highway 666 (a name we are working to change) from Gallup to Shiprock, on the Navajo Nation, and I have directed the secretary of transportaion to cooperate fully with the Navajo Nation in this effort.
It was the death knell for “666.”
The New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department joined with Colorado and Utah transportation officials in submitting a recommendation to eliminate the last remaining segments of U.S. 666 and establish a new route, U.S. 393, in its place. After summarizing the history of the route, New Mexico’s application explained the reason for the change:
There has been such an outcry from people living on or near US 66 in New Mexico and from the traveling public who avoid traveling on US 666, that House Joint Memorial 60 and Senate Joint Memorial 49 were passed by the 2003 Legislature of the State of New Mexico, to request assignment of a new designation for US 666 as quickly as possible.
The identical Joint Memorial Resolutions described U.S. 666 as “the site of many accidents,” noting that “although the rate of accidents has decreased due to road improvements, it is still a dangerous stretch of highway.” Then the resolutions got to the point:
WHEREAS, people living near the road already live under the cloud of opprobrium created by having a road that many believe is cursed running near their homes and through their homeland; and
WHEREAS, the number “666” carries the stigma of being the mark of the beast, the mark of the devil, which was described in the book of revelations in the Bible; and
HEREAS, there are people who refuse to travel the road, not because of the issue of safety, but because of the fear that the devil controls events along United States route 666; and
WHEREAS, the economy in the area is greatly depressed when compared with many parts of the United States, and the infamy brought by the inopportune naming of the road will only make development in the area more difficult. Based on these considerations, the Joint Memorial Resolutions requested a new numeric designation as quickly as possible, adding that, “changing the numeric designation of United States route 666 would provide an added degree of comfort for those using the road.”
New Mexico’s application explained why the three States had settled on U.S. 393 as the new number:
Renumbering U.S. 666 to U.S. 393 would keep changes to the branch route consistent with the elimination of U.S. 66. U.S. 666 is also a north south route, and therefore should have an odd route number, rather than an even route number.
Before considering “393,” the States had apparently thought about basing the new number on the fact that the northern terminus of U.S. 666 was its intersection with U.S. 191 at Monticello, Utah. However, because the numbers 191, 291, and 391 were used for State routes in New Mexico or Colorado, the States concluded they could not maintain the numbering sequence for variants of U.S. 191.
They chose 393, which was not in use in any of the three States. The problem was that the number implied that the highway was a branch of U.S. 93 (Port of Roosville, Montana, to Wickenburg, Arizona) even though neither U.S. 666 nor U.S. 191 intersected U.S. 93. Moreover, U.S. 93 did not have any branches; if AASHTO were to number branches of U.S. 93 in sequence, the first would be U.S. 193, not 393.
At the suggestion of AASHTO, the States agreed to renumber the route as a spur of U.S. 191, with “491” chosen to avoid duplicating State route numbers. After AASHTO’s Standing Committee on Highways approved the change, it became official on Saturday, May 31.
As S. U. Mahesh of the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department told the Albuquerque Journal, which number ended up on the highway was not important. “As long as it’s not 666 and it’s nothing satanic, that’s OK.”
Editor’s Note: Does this say anything about the superstitions of the American populace? I leave it for my kind readers to decide for themselves!

(Originally published on 6-6-06)


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