June 06, 2006

The end of the road for Route 666

It had been Route 666 -- the 6th offshoot of Route 66, the Mother Road -- since the 1920s. But when folks along its New Mexico stretch complained to governor Bill Richardson that they were getting tired of devil jokes and beastly wisecracks and stolen street signs, Richardson and transportation officials in Colorado, Utah and Arizona, which had their own segments of the route, had it renumbered. In May 2003 it became US 491.

When the kids and I drove it in on our post-9/11 American journey, it was still Route 666, the Trail of the Ancients:

We’d entered the Navajo Nation. A sign on the Navajo Missions Communication Center asked people to "Pray For Rain." My fire danger radar had been up in earnest for nearly two hundred miles now, and I sensed things were about to heat up for real. I’d checked the maps for alternate routes, should fire close the roads I’d planned to take, the roads that lived within the lines of the Route Narrative. Parts of the Route Narrative might need to be rewritten. KDAG 96.9, "serving the whole Four Corners area," had thanked firefighters for saving homes and urged them to "stay sane and brave." Not a good sign. Out of the frying pan.

Bloomfield and Farmington oozed into each other, like the natural gas industry that holds them together and keeps them alive. With little else around to please the tourist, Bloomfield’s Dairy Queen, which we would have jumped at anyway, looked like traveler’s heaven behind the heat waves that danced on the blacktop. The vanilla soft-serves made our hours of desert driving feel like a race run once the medal’s around your neck. We got larges this time, and Adam lucked out because Dana couldn’t finish hers.

Shiprock was the reason we were here in this burning hot Bloomfield-Farmington sprawl. My brother-in-law, Jim, once hiked near Shiprock, a dramatic monolith that rises nearly eight thousand feet and dominates the Navajo Nation visually and spiritually. He spoke of its monumental profile, its remoteness, its deep meaning. I value Jim’s opinion on any subject and put Shiprock on my list of things to see if I ever had the chance.

As we drove through the Navajo Nation, we looked on bright blue meat markets selling mutton and lamb to families eating outside on aluminum tables; satellite dishes painted with Indian motifs; a few mud hogans; stores selling two dollar a pack cigarettes; penned sheep; tightly-packed green and gold hay bricks sold from pickups for five dollars apiece; billboards urging teens to practice sexual abstinence; power lines; houses selling "Frye Bread, Sweet Corn, Roast Mutton." And always, there was Shiprock. To the Navajo, Tse Bit` A`i. Rock With Wings.

We drove out of Navajo land on Route 666, the Trail of the Ancients. The road was arrow-straight, and when the colossal monolith was no longer in front of or beside us, it sat in the rearview mirror and remained there, gradually filling less and less of it as we neared Colorado. Dana had been reading for a long time. She looked up and out the window. "Shiprock is still there," she said quietly. Like Acoma, a place that always was. A great ship of stone riding the earth, giving the people a link to the past, a grip on the present, and hope for the future.

(Blogger's photo functionality has been down for a few days. When it's fixed, I'll edit in the Shiprock photo I had planned for this post. )

excerpt from Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America, Lori Hein, 2004