Bat Out of Hell: Route 666 Flaunts A Devilish Grin
Over the past few years, I've been eyeing my schedule for the opportunity to scout and confirm route 666 as worthy of our NM3 group motorcycle tour. Problem is, with front-door access to the other two legs of that tour, my face becomes too exhausted by the physical act of smiling to continue. Without the minimum sign ups (so no need), I always double back early to administer first aid to my joker smirk.
“On paper, route 666 looks like the ultimate Arizona motorcycle experience. Stir in a dash of speed and the map's demons begin to appear.”
Then, something happened. The core of our tour went full snore. Thirty yards of roadway buckled off the side of a mountain via landslide. My friend Murrae called and spoke as if we'd need to attend the road's (temporary) memorial service. We took a moment of silence, about thirty seconds, then realized it was just a bad connection with our Zoom meeting.
Sipping our evening bourbons, I let Murrae know this would be the perfect time to explore something new to me, a road I'd been meaning to get to, namely route 666. Many truths about this ride are anchored around past tense "if you know, you know" factors. For example, it no longer goes by that numeric moniker (kool-aid opinions got it changed) and I won't rob you of the chance for geographic research.
Historic Cliff Notes
Its "Devil's Highway" nickname started gaining traction in the 1950s. If you didn't know already, the numbers 666 are often associated with the Book of Revelation. The route also has a high fatality rate, which adds to the negative perception.
In 2003, the US government decided to rename the highway to US-491. This was done in an effort to distance it from negative connotation. However, the nickname remains as a social identifier to this day.
There's a downside, though in that the gub'ment chickened out. They cut most of Arizona from the map, including the all-important section that inspired both this article and the "Devil's Highway" nickname itself. What remains is a federally funded, cruiser-centric poker run.
That which was great is now Walmart's "Great Value".
Fortunately, history goes back further than redesignated slow-roller escape routes. I won't offer exact details until the very end but I promise you, it's worth it. In spades.
Do the work because the fact is: everything about this route has to be earned.
Preparing For Route 666 (Tacos = Beast Mode)
Before we begin, it's imperative that we hit Los Mendoza to buy three of their crunchy chicken tacos and a coke. Smother them in essential green sauce. Wash down with holy water. Only now are we equipped with the fury required for escape from this south-of-north dominion. The desserts ain't bad, either.
Now, Murrae recommended I ride route 666 due north instead of south and for good reason. Riding north, there's a relatively constant increase in elevation. The increase is dramatic enough that my ride started at 90°F, dropping to 47°F halfway in.
The uphill nature of this road when riding north insures better handling. Having covered it beginning to end, I have no intention of riding it south unless I have to. I'd rather "escape hell" by way of route 666 than make my descent into it.
Make sure to fuel up! You won't find another gas station for at least 100 miles. Once you begin, that's it, so best not to borrow Tom Burns SuperHawk unless you have an auxiliary fuel bottle laying in wait.
With the temperature shift, make sure to add or subtract layers as needed. As you'll read soon, while I never stopped laughing, I did find my way into the center of a thunderstorm, complete with lightning that was striking from a lower elevation.
Dear Satan, It's Been Real
With a belly full of tacos and soda, I'm officially rolling. The 90°F desert pavement projects a vapor mirage over what is a smooth, industrial two laner. All is simple and calm as I maintain low RPMs and a respectful speed through town.
Things start to get a little weird as the inclines/declines change. There's a passing lane for each incline to allow small vehicles to get around semis, which often haul multiple trailers full of raw material uphill. The "weird" part is that the posted speed limit for this US highway is rigidly set between fifteen and twenty-five miles per hour.
There's little to no traffic on the road but the few motorists in transit are obeying those exact numbers. All I have to go on at this point is "when in Rome", so I too am going exactly the speed limit. Funny thing, we pass through a tunnel that reads "slow" at these speeds.
That's when the landscape makes its first big change. Again, the tarmac is smooth, open and well marked, begging for an 80+ mph pace. But off to the right, on the other side of a concrete divider, there's a tall chain link fence angled inward to catch boulders.
Beyond it, I see an equally well paved road with enormous lanes. Strange place to build an expressway. Those lanes are huge. Wait, those are big enough for CAT 797F dump trucks and wouldn't ya know it, that's exactly what's on 'em!
It's obvious that I'm in a mine. When the road finally veers close enough to view down into it, I can't see the bottom. Looking up, the top of this mountain is covered by clouds, so I can't see that either. The entire mountain, base to summit, is being resourced. Or at least that's one way to put it.
For six miles of perfect surface conditions, through high speed sweepers and favorably banked switch backs, I'm reduced to what are pedal bike figures. Nowhere does this feel more bizarre than during the quarter-mile straights, especially when there are other motorists nearby. May as well laugh and enjoy the mellow while those tacos settle down.
Right around the ten mile mark, there is an opportunity to bend the rules a bit. Two sweepers (that are actually switchbacks) lend themselves well to the sport touring mindset. I'm not one to resist a scooping left hander. Follow that with an equally inviting right, then a series of tight "S" curves and temptation is exacerbated. The 100% open field of view doesn't exactly dial things down.
So, after fourteen of the longest miles in ST geek history, our ascent gains momentum and the Devil ... begins to delegate.
Farewell, Fierce Cerberus, Guardian of Route 666
Nothing screams "Burma-Shave sign" like a three headed hellhound, does it?
When I think of switchbacks, I think of trail braking to a delayed apex before rolling on the throttle full battle. It's the dance every true-to-form sport tourer learns and once we get the steps down, a ritual begins. Route 666 has other ideas, though (at least during our initial escape from the mine's infinite depths). Compressing the front end to tighten up our bike's rake angle? Not necessary.
The would-be switchbacks leading through Coronado trail are actually speedometer bait. They're sweepers, I tell ya, each hilariously dangerous for their unique "cliffside acceleration" lure. After a futile exercise in self assessment, I'm glad to let my bike stretch 'er legs up to the ridgeline and beyond.
Game on. From here, no other pavement intersects. With zero slow rollers ahead, it's time for a twist of the wrist.
Top of the hill, this is definitely when the curves shrink down to a bowl of spaghetti. There's no need to provoke or tempt fate with a road of this nature, especially during first exposure. However, right when concerns are dialed in for pattern's sake, things open up and the view is absolutely stunning. This marks one of a few lulls, each of which is spaced evenly over the course.
It's here that the usual ingredients in excellent motorcycling begin to find their rhythm. Endless sweepers, switchbacks and downright stupefying scenery are piled onto hours of riding. The prophets of Caddyshack, however have decided to voice a most ominous notion.
Surfin' The Wake O' The Lake O' Fire
Around the forty five mile mark, at the second peak elevation, I opt to acknowledge "those" clouds. I've seen 'em since the beginning but direct overhead sun in taco town was scrambling my compass. Making sense of their location at that time was just another dice roll. "Odds are they're bearing west" because they had to be, otherwise I wouldn't ride. And I wanted to ride.
Challenge Route 666 to invoke serious weather and it'll throw the surreal reality of one's luck back at them.
Purple, yellow and ocean blue, these are no ordinary clouds. They're a combination of both high and low altitude thunderstorms. Fortunately, they're right in my path of travel (yes, that's sarcasm) and one, while creeping underneath a much higher sibling, is hurling Thor's hammer from below my current altitude.
I'm not in it yet, so ride on! When a couple of small, electrifying drops hit my helmet's visor, the road deviates and skirts the cell. Trees a few hundred yards away are in the rain curtain. I'm in the out-of-nowhere sunlight. The only way to embrace such divine intervention is through godly acceleration.
A few more cells of varying scale find their way to "that next curve", which again jukes before tellin' me to make a run for it. Storms jog left? I jog lefterer. Eventually, the thunder and lightning join forces from all directions. I'm surrounded.
Mind you, there are twenty minute jaunts between each face off with the weather. A tornado touching down couldn't stop me from smiling during this onslaught of whoopass riding. So, when the inevitable turned to face me, my GPS cackled in manic laughter, showing me to be exactly halfway between start and finish.
Rollin' On The Inescapable River
The grim Ferrymen? Yeah. They're road painters.
I'm prepared for a brief halt but there are no indications of a stop. Instead, fresh centerlines shine crazy bright and behold, a painting truck crawls around the next bend. Coasting up behind with courtesy, maaaaan that driver waved me by at the most risky moment. Just, no. I'll wait until we're not in a blind corner, with a decreasing radius, along a 90° rock wall, minus any escape path.
Next opportunity, I take my leave but completely forget how mushy new road paint is, like riding over a pipe in the mud. A two wheel slide and chuckles gave new custom paint to my engine protector. This being route 666, I'm guessing Stryper would approve.
Finally, at 47°F, the wait is over and I get dumped on. Turning back makes no sense, especially from peak elevation downhill in the wet. Luckily, the bike's handling as smooth as the water through Hannagan Creek, which I'll add that the road mirrors every angle of (fun).
The overlooks are a little soft to park along but no big deal. I let the bike idle, pull my phone and stash it in my top case. A quick grab for my rain gear and I'm ready to forget all of the calm steps I've outlined to get it over my textiles in favor of spastic gorilla wrestling.
Let's not forget what rubber rainwear does to the fitment of textiles beneath. If jujitsu is the fine art of folding clothes while people are still wearing them, Bilt has a black belt. Dear Gore-Tex, I've found a way to move my jacket to where my trousers should be and vice-versa without unzipping or removing either.
No matter. Five minutes of solo Lindy hop and my grin remains intact. Rain mode activated on the bike, let's get back to it.
Showers have wiped this road clean and clear. Those few times I've felt it wise to activate rain mode in the past were met with occasional two wheel sliding but today she feels completely planted. I'll attribute this to the diverse array of jagged materials that were used to create this two-wheeled roller coaster.
Route 666 Has Teeth (Road Surface)
About that. Route 666 has a pattern of surface changes, all of them sharp, sticky and trustworthy (rain or shine). But the pattern is odd. The use of whatever macadam we're glued to in a given moment remains in play for mile+ sections. Bright white tack and seal becomes pleasantly roughed black top becomes "not outright pink" terracotta.
Once we're 2/3 in, the material changes are evenly distributed throughout.
My attention to tarmac right now is likely inspired by the multiple storm curtains entering my neckline horizontally from all directions. Still, this road is a total blast. Its curves get better faster than the rains get worse.
Leave it to a motorcyclist, more specifically a sport tourer, to completely rewire their mental circuitry and forcibly translate all things doom 'n' gloom to "sure, but how about that carousel turn through the valley?". It takes self-discipline and haphazard timing to accept when something is worth doing despite being batshit crazy. This recipe only lands on two prospectively disastrous entrees: poor decision making and/or the point of no return.
For the record, I'm dealing with the latter.
Thanks, Hieronymus Bosch
Goats! Well, that's the first sign I remember raising an eyebrow to. The rain is lifting and I still have 33.333% more laughter to address as route 666 continues doling out its entangled thoroughfare. In place of lightning, I'm met with wildlife. Five warning signs stand out.
Badgers - Lo and behold, the fervent digger of the depths emerges, a relentless avenger of the earth with fearsome claws and menacing teeth. It inflicts brutal carnage upon those reckless enough to cross its path, whether on foot or astride a roaring motorcycle.
Bighorn Sheep - Towering in the mountains, it displays awe-inspiring ramming power that makes even the bravest motorcyclists shiver. The thunderous crash of its headbutt leaves little escape from its imposing force, as it dareth to challenge even the most steadfast of two-wheeled riders.
Mule Deer - Traversing the land with legs springing like divine rubbery trees and ears attuned to the whispers of the devil himself, it remains defiant and fearless in the face of those who seek to conquer it, whether they be on swift-footed steed or on the irons of a roaring motorcycle.
White Tail Deer - Beware the approach of this ethereal presence, marked by a ghostly flag upon its rear. With otherworldly swiftness, it eludes capture, defying even the speediest of motorized chariots. It scampers away, leaving pursuing riders in a wake of frustrated lamentations.
Elk - From the shadows comes forth a majestic and formidable beast, adorned with mighty antlers that resemble the tree of life. Its spine-chilling call echoes through the forest, scattering motorbikers as they quake in its awe-inspiring presence.
Honestly, the only animals I encounter are mule deer but it's always a herd. Five in one corner are ten in the next and good grief are they stupid! Where white tails will eventually run as if their life depends on it, mule deer will wait until we're kissing their nose, then "excuse" themselves into the brush. When they do, their stride takes cues from the ministry of silly walks. There's a sort of constipation to it.
The Devil's In The Details
Our ride calms down as we approach Alpine. That's where ya gotta ask: should I chance another meeting at the crossroads? Remember, northbound is by far the more forgiving direction.
Also in Alpine, lunch is waiting at a few locations. Lodging, on the other hand is scarce as seasonal business fuels the entire town. As an alternative, Eager is only thirty miles further north, where pricier food, drinks and bedding come with a free view of tip jars next to a powdered egg breakfast.
All the more reason to plan ahead next time using a favorite booking portal.
I'll Circle The Abyss Of 666 Nine More Times (At Least)
In summary, route 666 is a drop jaw, pleasurably hectic and challenging street ride over the most beautiful mountain peaks of Apache National Forest. Choose the right weekday and you'll find traffic to be scarce while thrills overfloweth. Extreme changes in temperature, oxygen, pavement, cornering and awe inspiring scenery all merge to make this lovely beast of a sport touring motorcycle ride sinfully tempting at every turn.
It's so good, in fact that blazing temps, frozen rain, horizontal thunderstorms, sketchy road painters, wildlife in droves and overpriced food/lodging are par for the course.
But with such temptation comes responsibility. If rollin' rogue, tell others of your hellacious ride plans. Keep a ditch whistle, rescue tracker and pocket first aid kit on your person. Take advanced or next-level training before throwing a leg over. With all of this in place, route 666 doesn't stand a chance against you.
If after your ride you rock a 180°, consider the main road to the east (one state over). It too has its moments, mostly in the form of elegant panoramas and peaceful reflection on how you beat the devil at their own game. Just be sure to remember how it all started ... with three chicken tacos and a coke.
Georgia Ain't Got Nothin' On 666. What About You?
Some motorcycle routes are so sinister, you gotta write about 'em to warn others. What moments along route 666 do you remember most? What makes it stand out and why? Your input is invited. Leave a comment!