Work, live and die hard and go to Hell

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I always found it interesting that the “highway to hell” ran through Cortez and on into Utah, with stops at Pleasant View and Cahone. After all, as Carl Sandburg wrote, “To work hard, to live hard, and to die hard, and then to go to hell after all, would be too damned hard.”

But I guess the politicians and the sign-makers fixed it for us.

In 2003, on May 31, the Old 666, “the mark of the beast’ got its brand altered and became Highway 491.

“Whereas, the 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 Revelation in the Bible; and whereas, there are people who refuse to travel the road, not because of the issues of safety, but because of the fear that the devil controls events along United States Route 666; and whereas, the economy of 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,” read the Joint Memorial Resolutions put forth first by the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department and later joined by Colorado and Utah transportation officials in the recommendation of the name change.

But as Richard Weingroff, of the Office of Infrastructure, noted in a 2003 article about why it was number 666 in the first place, “despite the biblical reference and the image U.S. 666 has gained over years, the gematria calculation had nothing to do with the numbering of the route. Boring though it may be to contemplate, the route was simply the sixth branch of U.S. 66 in early August 1926, and retained that number when U.S. 466 was dropped a few weeks later,” said Weingroff.

That bit of truth and knowledge did little, however, to stop the tales of the strange and the twisted on the remote stretch of blacktop winding its way through multiple states.

Mad truckers, packs of demon dogs and even a frail girl in a long nightgown that appears out of nowhere, are just some of the stories associated with “Triple 6” according to Linda Dunning, in a “Haunted Utah” piece that she wrote in 2003. Not to mention the occasional “skinwalker.”

“There are Native American tales of unwanted passengers appearing in the backseat of the car along such stretches of highway,” writes Dunning. The evil shape shifter may take the form of a crow, a coyote or other animals.

Then, of course, there is the movie. The 2001 straight-to-video release by Lions Gate Home Entertainment simply titled “Route 666,” has Lou Diamond Phillips complicating his job protecting a mob informant by heading down a mysterious highway with evil prison gang zombies in chase, as well as wicked mobsters. Basically, in the end, it is “the road’s” entire fault.

But the Joshua Trees and the dialog makes you wonder if the writers and the directors (and maybe even the actors) fell in a Peyote patch out in there in the process of filming.

The name change brought a ton of attention nationally and internationally.

A June 2003 article in the New York Times by Jodi Wilgoren, told the story of how the Anasazi Restaurant & Lounge had its address altered 15 years before the highway took the treatment.

“June Merrett (it is really Merritt, even the ‘Gray Lady of Journalism’ can jack up the spelling of a name every so often) who owned the Anasazi then, decided that the address of her establishment was unacceptable. As though it wasn’t inauspicious enough to be stuck squarely on U.S. Route 666, the building’s number was also 666. So along with adopting the local name of the road as it crosses through town -Broadway - she convinced officials at city hall to switch the address of the Anasazi to 640.”

When the highway officially dropped the 666 designations at the end of May in 2003, the signs for “New 491 - Old 666” as well as anything with the “666” became quite the collector’s item fetching admirable pricing on eBay. Fanciers of the signage made it difficult to keep the route marked. People were running over them with their cars and taking the chain saw or the cutting torch to them.

That reminds me of conversation related to the absence of signage that I overheard in Cortez shortly after the highway name changed.

“Is that the Highway to Hell over there?

“No, now it’s just the road to Dove Creek.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Good point.”