Driving alone along a desolate, remote desert highway can be a slightly unnerving experience that touches us on some deep level of our psyche. The endless, monotonous surroundings stretching as far as the eye can see can instil a distinct sense of time standing still and of crushing loneliness, as if civilization or perhaps even the universe somehow no longer exists beyond the road, and all that remains are the relentless expanses of cacti, brush, boulders, and desert dirt. Along with this feeling of stark desolation comes a certain level of menace, with the prospect of somehow getting stuck out in some untamed, unforgiving wilderness along one of these deserted stretches of road enough to create a palpable dread that pokes at the edges of our basest primal fears. Perhaps nowhere is this sinister air of danger more pronounced than on one particular highway in America’s “Four Corners” region of sections of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico that has garnered such an intense, enduring reputation for being cursed and haunted that is has rightfully earned its morbid nickname “The Devil’s Highway.”
Running through Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona, the highway formerly known as U.S. Route 666 (now known as US 491 in Colorado and Utah, and the now separate US 191 in Arizona) meanders through almost 200 miles of rugged, sweeping desert wilderness and passes through the tribal nations of the Navajo Nation and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Much of the route is remote and deserted, with long stretches through vast, seemingly uninhabited wasteland that harbors little to no signs of civilization. The route is perhaps one of the most well-known and notorious highways in America, and has a long, bizarre history of all manner of weirdness, bad luck, inexplicable accidents, ghosts, apparitions, spectres, and various other unexplained phenomena.
The beginning of Route 666’s rise to infamy as one of the strangest and most haunted highways in America can perhaps be traced back to its unfortunate numbering. The American Association of State Highway Officials assigned the number in 1926, and since the highway was the 6th branch of the now defunct Route 66, the assignment turned out as 666. Although the number was completely keeping with the guidelines for numbering highways and in no way intentional, it did not take long for people to notice and start making the connection between the route and the Christian “Number of the Beast” or “Mark of the Beast.” This sinister connotation was compounded by the fact that statistics at the time seemed to show that the highway had a higher number of accidents and road fatalities than was considered normal, particularly along the New Mexico stretch. There were such a large number of fatalities along the road that at one time, Route 666 was named one of the 20 most dangerous highways in America. Although there are a lot of factors that could account for the high number of accidents, such as poor road conditions or the hypnotizing effect that the monotonous scenery can have on tired drivers, many became convinced that there was a link between the misfortune, deaths, and the highway’s satanic number.
In addition to the accidents and deaths, many who drove along the route told of being beset with a mysterious and pervasive feelings of anxiety, dread, or a sense of impending evil. There was also supposedly a high rate of car malfunctions and complications on Route 666, with a large number of incidences of overheating, engine troubles, flat or blown tires, electrical malfunctions, and numerous other freak accidents. This sense of terror the highway invoked, the high number of car troubles that seemed to happen there, and the various deadly accidents, some of which have become almost like urban legends, were at the time enough to dissuade many from venturing onto the highway at all and it was not long before Route 666 was being referred to as “The Devil’s Highway” or “Satan’s Speedway.”
This all may not seem particularly supernatural for some. After all, accidents happen on highways, and driving along a bleak, deserted stretch of road at night can certainly give people the jitters, but the weirdness of Route 666 does not end there. In addition to the strange feelings of anxiety and dread, as well as all of the accidents and breakdowns, there is a plethora of strange stories originating from on or around the highway. Perhaps some of the most intriguing are the various tales of alleged spectres and spooks that inhabit Route 666. One of the most infamous and legendary of these apparitions is that of a menacing black sedan, also sometimes referred to as “Satan’s Sedan,” that allegedly prowls the highway to terrorize drivers. The reports of the sedan share many similar characteristics and usually follow the same basic scenario. The driver will be driving along the highway and be besieged by a potent feeling of inexplicable terror upon sunset. As soon as the sun slips below the horizon and darkness descends, the driver will notice a pair of flickering headlights moving rapidly and inexorably closer from the distance behind them. This is almost always said to happen right after sundown and on the nights of a full moon. Accelerating away is said to do no good, as the phantom vehicle will close in no matter how fast you try to outrun it.
What happens when the threatening black sedan inevitably arrives differs from story to story. Some say that the mysterious car will pull up beside them and pace them for a time before speeding into the black of night, sometimes even honking its horn or revving its formidable engine in an intimidating manner. Others have claimed that the car will bump or smash into them from behind or side swipe them before roaring off. Still other witnesses have described the sedan barreling towards them at high speed with no sign of slowing or stopping, and being forced off of the road onto the shoulder only for the spectral car to blaze off into the desert night. Those who have tried to get a look at the driver of the malicious black sedan have variously stated that no one seems to be driving, that a shadowy figure is hunched over the wheel, or that the windows are all tinted completely black. Many witnesses have alleged to have been set upon by the ominous vehicle only to look up and find that it has completely vanished without a trace, leaving them once again alone in the cold desert night with their fear.
The mysterious black sedan of Route 666 is not the only phantom vehicle said to frequent the road. Another popular legend concerns a ghostly semi truck that is purportedly manned by an aggressive demonic entity. The truck is said to careen down the highway at breathtaking speeds, chasing or even smashing cars off of the road, and sometimes terrorizing people who have broken down, many of whom have described having the feeling that the truck was intentionally trying to target them as it sped by. Legend has it that the deranged spirit at the wheel of the truck abhors and holds some grudge against the living. Author Linda Dunning, who has written extensively on the phenomena associated with Route 666, describes a close encounter her husband had with the phantom truck in her book Specters in Doorways: The History and Hauntings of Utah. Dunning recounts how her husband saw a truck that seemed to be on fire speeding along the road towards him at speeds of at least 130 mph, with sparks flying off of the wheels and flames belching forth from the smokestack. Dunning’s husband, fearing for his life, apparently pulled off the road and fled his vehicle in a panic as the flaming, speeding truck roared off in a trail of whirling fire and sparks. The man was only able to continue on his way after getting his wits back and recovering from the terrifying ordeal.
Demonic motorists also share the highway with a multitude of other spectral creatures and beings. One infamous figure said to haunt the deserted landscape is an apparition of a young girl dressed all in white who appears at the side of the road at night, sometimes posing as a hitchhiker and other times standing right in the middle of the highway. Her forlorn expression and the dark, forbidding desert stretching for miles around her often prompt concerned motorists to stop and offer the girl assistance. When they do, the pale, white clad young lady is said to promptly begin to dematerialize, blink out of existence, or otherwise vanish as if she were never there. Unlike her malignant ghostly cousins at the wheels of the truck and sedan, the girl in white is apparently not aggressive, and is mostly thought of as harmless, albeit unnerving.
More dangerous are the packs of demon dogs, also called the “Hounds of Hell,” that reputedly stalk the wilderness around Route 666. They have been reportedly been seen prowling the desert scrubland near the highway and are even known to chase down cars on the road. Motorists who have been set upon by the dogs have described these vicious mystery canines as having supernatural speed, able keep pace with their vehicles while snarling and snapping their jaws. It is claimed that the phantom dogs will actively attack cars, and that their claws and fangs are sharp and powerful enough to shred tires and gouge metal. More dramatic reports tell of the devil dogs smashing through car windows in an attempt to maul the people inside. A few motorists have also described being certain that they had hit one of the hounds with their car, only for the creature to run off completely uninjured. It is perhaps not surprising that many of the many accidents reported along the highway have been attributed to these ferocious packs of roving, spectral dogs.
Adding to the bizarre menagerie of ghostly animals found along Route 666 is the presence of shape shifting entities the Native tribes of the region refer to as “skinwalkers.” The highway passes through a few sacred Native American sites, including two mountains known as Ute Mountain and an extinct volcanic core called Shiprock, and as such there is a good amount of Native American lore imbuing the land that Route 666 sits upon. According to Native legends, skinwalkers are the spirits of evil medicine men with the ability to magically transform into various animals such as coyotes, crows, or wolves. Once in animal form, the skinwalkers have the unnerving habit of running out in front of vehicles, or even entering the vehicles only to morph back into human form, usually in the back seat, and terrify the driver. Various instances of phantom passengers suddenly appearing in cars have been attributed to the antics of skinwalkers. Far from mere mischief making, Native legends say that the skinwalkers carry out this harassment in order to steal or devour the souls of any who happen to crash and die as a result. The Native Americans of the region believe that one way to prevent a skinwalker from appearing in one’s car is to make sure there is nowhere for it to sit. As with the packs of demon dogs, skinwalkers appearing in front of startled drivers or even in their back seats and causing them to swerve or crash are believed by some to be at the root of at least some of the traffic accidents along this cursed highway.
Other bizarre phenomena regularly plague drivers along Route 666 as well. There are many instances of drivers reporting that time has a habit of somehow stretching out or slowing down here, claiming that it took much longer to traverse a certain distance than expected. Conversely, there are also those who claim to have experienced large chunks of lost time or to have seemingly teleported over vast distances. Some of these lost time reports describe the victim somehow disappearing in one location and appearing in another several hours later, often far from their starting point and with no idea of where they had been or what they had done in the time that had passed between the two. There are additionally stories of drivers who have disappeared without a trace for days or even weeks, only to suddenly reappear somewhere along the highway with no recollection of anything that had gone on during the time they were missing. These people who have experienced lost time or have disappeared only to come back are perhaps the lucky ones, as there is also a good amount of instances of people vanishing along Route 666 only to never be heard from again. The frequent discovery of mysteriously abandoned cars with no sign of the original owners is a grim testament to this, and for some of the missing, no car has ever been found at all.
All of this strangeness and paranormal phenomena became so associated with Route 666’s foreboding number that the government was eventually convinced to change the numbering due to an outcry of growing unease and fear among the public concerning the road, as well as the threat the stigma of the route’s number posed to the economy of the area. Not only were businesses affected by the lack of travelers willing to travel along the cursed highway, but development of the region stagnated due to the strong aversion many had to the perceived satanic number. In order to appease those long convinced that Route 666 was an evil place held in the grip of the devil, and to allay fears of the infamous cursed road and to perhaps remove some of the stigma attached to it, the name of the highway was renamed to US 191 along the Arizona stretch in 1992 and to Route 491 in the other three states in 2003.
It is often said that the mere renumbering of Route 666 had the effect of significantly reducing the amount of fatalities and accidents along the road, as if removing the Number of the Beast somehow robbed this enigmatic place of its dark power and left it bereft of its curse. There is the belief out there that maybe the number itself was attracting some dark force to this barren highway to wreak havoc on those who travelled it. Perhaps more likely is that the highway has seen significant development in recent years. Long neglected and poorly maintained, very few improvements or repairs had ever been done on Route 666 until around 2003, when several major construction projects were undertaken to improve overall safety on the highway as well as to appease Native tribes of the area that had long complained of the negative effect the decrepit roads were having on tourism and their economy. The construction projects were deliberately timed to coincide with the rechristening of the highway, and there was even a ceremony performed by a Native medicine man to cleanse the newly numbered highway of evil spirits. Considering the amount of work done to improve the road since then, it seems that this increased level of safety is more likely the reason for the drop in traffic fatalities rather than any lifting of evil curses or eviction of sinister spirits. Nevertheless, the stories still come in from time to time of phantoms, ghosts, and strange disappearances along the road.
Regardless of what the highway is called now, the former Route 666 still holds much of the mystique and mystery it has always had. Whether it is actually the devil himself or not, many still believe that there is a certain potent, malevolent force that pervades the land here and works its dark influences on the highway. Is there something going on along this stretch of bleak desert road in the middle of nowhere that defies our current understanding of our world? Or is this all just creepy stories and urban legends? Whatever the answer may be, dark, lonely highways can certainly have a distinct power to deeply affect us and unnerve us on some level; an ability to stir up primal feelings of desolation, loneliness, despair, and fear. It as if some of these roads penetrate not only through rugged wilderness to the horizon beyond, but also through the human psyche into the weird realms of our subconscious. It seems that the bizarre, inscrutable Route 666 is certainly one of these.