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Thursday, July 31, 2003

It's Now U.S. 491, Not U.S. 666

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    "The devil's out of here," said Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught, "and we say goodbye and good riddance."
    The Devil's Highway. Satan's Highway. The Highway to Hell.
    In a ceremony here Wednesday, the 190-mile highway that stretches into New Mexico, Colorado and Utah was officially renamed U.S. 491 because of decades of complaints that its satanic 666 connotations spooked the people who live along and drive on the highway and repelled tourists who might otherwise take a trip through Navajo country.
    Navajo culture holds many superstitions, but fearing the number 666 is not among them.
    Most Navajos feared the roadway not for its name but for its nature— narrow, hilly and a magnet for drunks— and for the death and heartache it has caused.
    Jerry Hinaatsos, who has been driving U.S. 666 for 35 years, won't venture onto the highway at night and he tries to stay off it on Fridays and Saturdays, when traffic gets heavy, people start drinking and drivers are in a hurry.
    As for what it's called?
    "It's just a number," Hinaatsos said. "I really don't care."
    But for the many Navajos who are Christian, 666 is "the number of the beast" in the Book of Revelation.
    "I don't like that number," said Wilson Ray, the president of the Huerfano Chapter. "Being real spiritual, being a Christian, I don't want to see it."
    As of Wednesday it was gone, except for small green markers attached to the new U.S. 491 highway signs that say, "Formerly 666." The markers are there to prevent confusion until the new number makes it onto road maps and they will be removed in about six months. The cost to taxpayers is between $7,000 and $10,000.
    There is no disagreement that bad things have happened along the highway.
    Between 1985 and 1992, 22 people were killed while they walked along the 8-mile stretch north of Gallup popular with hitchhikers. The road was named one of the 20 most dangerous in the country in 1997. And its death toll marched on: Fifteen killed in crashes in 2001, 11 killed in 2002.
    Changing the road's name has not lifted the bad luck. Six people have died on the highway— five in one crash— since its name change was approved May 31.
    "Just changing the name isn't going to make it safe," Richardson acknowledged Wednesday.
    The road has been rebuilt in places as a four-lane highway, but most of it remains two lanes and hazardous. The remaining 71 miles will be rebuilt as a four-lane highway, and Faught said she is developing a plan to pay for it and hopes to be at work on construction two years from now.
    In the meantime, the state is putting more police patrols on the road and doubling fines for traffic offense to try to slow traffic and prevent more tragedies.
    Duane "Chili" Yazzie, the president of the Shiprock Chapter, had tried for years to get attention paid to dangers on the road and its embarrassing name.
    When Richardson was elected last October, he asked him for help and Richardson quickly responded.
    A medicine man held onto his straw hat in a stiff wind Wednesday and blessed the new road name in the Navajo language.
    George Blue Horse translated: "The road itself never ends. It goes on generation to generation. The new number is a good one. The new road will be a medicine."