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    road in a dry desert with a Shiprock mountain peak in the background

    The Devil’s Highway

    Americans are famous for looking to the future. But we are haunted by our past.

    By David Schaengold

    September 15, 2023
    • Robert Donnelly

      Thank you. Your article brought back memories of a motorcycle trip a friend and I took from Albuquerque some years ago. Unfortunately, this was before the name change, so we missed out on taking sophomoric photos next to a "Route 666" highway shield. But maybe we wouldn't have anyway, given how awestruck we were. By the way, to my ears, the "ship" part sounds pretty apt, and I imagine it would've made sense for the Spaniards to have borrowed from the nautical vocabulary. The mountain juts so abruptly from the plain, its jagged, short rocks circling the base like choppy waves. Or maybe they were thinking it resembled a cathedral, as ship and nave are homonyms in Spanish. Like a full moon, Shiprock commanded reverence. But my most powerful memory wasn't visual so much as auditory: a lone eagle wheeling above the igneous towers amid a silence the Navajo consider holy.

    • Maca

      Appreciated reading this piece. Several insights resonated deeply with my own experience. I'm curious to understand / unpack a little further your distinction between "traditions" and "tradition as such." (as in the passage "There are traditions in America, but not really tradition as such.") Moreover, I'm wondering about the distinction between "tradition as such" and culture.

    • Laura

      I really appreciated your writing style and description of experiences. Your theory of how European "indigenous" religious heritage (which I have definitely observed) is like African wildlife heritage makes a lot of sense. Sadly, so does the reality that the result of 'development' is to "sever the threads that run from the past to the present". Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

    When I was a child, I lived for a few years in the town of Shiprock, New Mexico. Shiprock is in the middle of the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation in the United States. Behind my family’s house was a fenced dirt yard, and behind the yard was a triangular back lot of several acres. A number of other houses also adjoined the back lot, so that backyard fences formed the two short sides of the triangle. The hypotenuse of the triangle was US Highway 666.

    In New Mexico no one pretends the devil does not exist, and so the name of this highway had been one of the principal subjects of local politics since it was christened in 1926, even though the name was chosen as part of a system. It didn’t help matters that the initial “S” in the sign for the Shell station in Cortez, Colorado, right along the highway, had burned out. The station was at the top of a rise when you drove into Cortez from the south, and if you did the drive in the dark, the four remaining letters stood out, in red, rather prominently. It was an unusually dangerous road. Between ten and twenty-five people died every year on the hundred-mile stretch from the Colorado border down through the reservation to Gallup, where the road ended.

    Our house, like all those on our block, was a one-story, cinderblock structure built as cheaply as possible by the federal government in order to house a doctor who worked for the Indian Health Service. I was the only kid on my street who rode the bus to school, because most of the other doctors’ kids went to private schools off the reservation, in Farmington or in Cortez.

    The neighborhood bus stop was directly in front of my parents’ house. I wore a laminated placard while I waited for the bus so that the bus driver would know he should pick me up. The placard was school-bus yellow, to make the connection as clear as possible for the driver. Our yard was made of dust, like all the yards in the neighborhood, so when it was windy I had to wear a scarf and squint as I waited.

    The bus was nearly full when it reached our house, loaded up with kids from the rural stops farther north. The driver had to take a detour off 666 to get to my street. I don’t know if the other kids noticed or minded the delay I caused every day. The bus drove past me before it picked me up, turning around somewhere up the block.

    road in a dry desert with a Shiprock mountain peak in the background

    Shiprock, New Mexico. Photograph by edb3_16,

    Once I was on the bus we cruised quickly past the other houses on our block – the couple with ten Irish Wolfhounds; the doctor whose fiancé had died climbing Everest; the Welsh surgeon who liked guns and who had once chased a thief on foot for over a mile, straight across the desert, until the thief disappeared into the gulch of the San Juan River. At the end of the block was a cattle guard, which rumbled our seats, and then the turn onto 666.

    And then out into the open desert. Though Shiprock is officially a Chapter of the Navajo Nation (in the United States, Indian tribes are co-sovereign entities, and a chapter is a bit like a county), the town is just a stretch of highway where the pull-offs are a little denser: the liquor store, the hospital, a few trailer parks, a few schools and churches, and our street. Between these there isn’t much – just the expanse of yellow-beige dust and short bristly plants, spaced one per living-room-sized area, and sometimes a roadrunner pecking like a harpsichordist at the desert floor.

    A few seconds of lumbering acceleration onto the highway, and the Shiprock itself appeared against the horizon. The Shiprock is a black, tormented rock, larger than a hill, smaller than a mountain. It does not look anything like a ship. It does look a bit like a giant turkey that has plunged headfirst into the earth, wings outspread and tail feathers pointing to the sky. The traditional Navajo name for the Shiprock is Tsé Bitʼaʼí, which means “the winged rock,” and in Navajo traditional religion it is indeed the carcass of an enormous bird, on whose back the Navajo people rode when they first came to this world.

    My mother often told the stories of Navajo traditional religion to me and my brother, and I accepted them as fact. She forbade us from mentioning the word “coyote” during the summer, as doing so might invoke the coyote’s spirit and cause trouble. I took this taboo extremely seriously, and would never have uttered the animal’s name even in private during the forbidden months. Whether this proscription squared with the doctrines of our Adventist church never troubled me. We celebrated some Jewish holidays, too, my father being Jewish, and I never considered what Maccabees might think of our affection for Changing Woman, another Navajo deity, when we downed latkes during Hanukkah. Children are happy syncretists. But my straightforward belief in the reality of the Shiprock story meant that the journey down 666 to school was not without an element of religious terror. I put my nose up against the glass of the bus windows and wondered if I would have felt sick to see the bird when it was alive, wings two miles across and ten thousand Navajo berthed in the feathers of its back.

    I miss that bird. Not so much the rock, for which I feel only ordinary nostalgia, but the bird. I don’t miss believing in the bird, exactly, either. What I miss is having a giant bird in the landscape. I miss having a story about the big thing on the horizon.

    There’s a difference between being part of a tradition and being haunted by the past. In a way, the two are opposed. Tradition is, among other things, a way of coping with the past, a form of cultural digestion. Like good digestion, it is not purely passive. One eats only at certain times, one pays attention to the little signals from one’s stomach, one takes a little wine, and so forth. In the absence of tradition-making and tradition-keeping, a society suffers from an undigested past. Such a society is haunted. The past acts, but it acts in a different way: often unexpected, often scary.

    American society is haunted. There are traditions in America, but not really tradition as such. There are plenty of traditionalists, too, but again that’s not the same thing as actually having a tradition, and in fact somewhat implies the opposite. By comparison with Europeans, say, Americans live in a constant Year Zero state.

    When I was nine my family moved to Cincinnati. The horizon there is close and fuzzy with trees. I arrived in the middle of fourth grade, and my new classroom was abuzz with preparation for the Ohio Fourth Grade Proficiency Test, one of those do-or-die tests where if you fail you can’t legally or in good conscience call yourself a fourth grader – nor, more importantly, can you advance to the fifth grade. Since this was the test for Ohioan fourth graders specifically, there was a good amount of Ohio history to be learned, and, for someone who had only just become an Ohioan, it had to be learned very rapidly.

    I don’t doubt that there was some mention of the Fort Ancient People, or the Hopewell, or the Shawnee, in all of the learning that ensued, but I can’t remember any of it. It was not till after I had left Cincinnati to go to college, some nine years later, that I began to be interested in the pre-European history of the place. It is striking how minimal the total effect of this history has been on the subsequent life of the city and the region, but insofar as it can be reconstructed, it is a remarkably varied, violent, and beautiful chronicle. The American Indians who were present in the Ohio Valley near Cincinnati when European colonists arrived were themselves relatively recent migrants, arriving around the beginning of the eighteenth century into a power vacuum left by the collapse of Iroquois power in the region. The Iroquois had expanded into the region in the middle of the seventeenth century, in the course of a far-reaching war with various tribes and confederations. The parts of Ohio near Cincinnati were nearly depopulated in the course of the war, and maintained in that state for a few decades by the Iroquois, in order to serve as a hunting ground, a kind of vast game reserve. The peoples driven out by the war were called the Fort Ancient People, who had lived in the area since the tenth century or so. They had constructed ceremonial mounds of earth, many of which are still extant today, scattered in odd places, including in a few backyards.

    The most remarkable epoch of the pre-contact history of the region, however, lies further back in time.

    In his essay “Inner Dallas,” Frederick Turner imagines a conspiracy of artists and businessmen who wish to give the city of Dallas, Texas, historical depth. They conduct secret digs, and bury forged artifacts. At the right time, the artifacts are “discovered,” and archaeologists declare they have discovered the remains of an ancient civilization, the Xochitec. The effect, as Turner describes it, is “electric”:

    Suddenly the city has become a major tourist center. Academics, savants, artists and writers move into the less expensive neighborhoods of South Dallas; coffee-houses and galleries spring up; Xochitec artistic and architectural styles are imitated in public, domestic, and business buildings; women’s clothing fashions feature feather capes and headwear, copper, rose quartz, shell and agate accessories. A new literature begins to appear, and Dallas becomes the cultural center of the entire Southwest.

    Turner’s prediction presupposes a different country than we actually have, though. Cincinnati proves this, because it has a real ancient civilization under it, and nothing has come of it. There is a monument as old and large as the Pantheon, arguably just as beautiful, lying in the country immediately to the east of Cincinnati, and it has had no effect on the culture of the city at all. Two thousand years ago, the center of the Hopewell culture was a city in the vicinity of Cincinnati, at the time probably the largest settlement in North America. They built huge mounds, including the Great Serpent Mound, a ribbon of sinuous green a quarter-mile long. “If the emperor Trajan had an embassy in North America, it would have been in Cincinnati,” I recall a historian saying about this culture.

    The Serpent Mound, Peebles, Ohio

    Serpent Mound, Peebles, Ohio. Photograph by Niagara66.

    As far as I can tell, this entire civilization – hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of humans bearing children, teaching them elaborate stories, watching them grow and strive to marry some particular person their hearts desired, generation after generation – has left nothing of itself to any successor culture. If their distinctive civilizational habit had not been mound-building we would probably know nothing about them at all.

    It requires certain cultural habits to remember and pass on stories of the deep past of places. Without those habits, the past lingers like a ghost. Sometimes forgetting the past is admirably motivated. We seek moral perfection. A statue of a confederate general, say, is not just a reminder of past sins but a kind of moral tumor in the body politic, and we will have it out.

    But mostly, we just don’t have a culture of caring about the past. Even our own past. What does come down to us from the past arrives in the present like a museum piece, chiefly of intellectual interest, or abstracted, as ideals. “America has always been the land of freedom,” etc., etc.

    I went to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, a few years ago, before Covid. My interest was mostly architectural, initially, but I found, once I was there, that I was strangely moved by a sensation of the corporeal presence of the first president. I went to his tomb, down the hill from the main house on its bluff, almost in the woods. The tomb is a small brick structure, incongruously neo-Gothic – an odd resting place for a man who died in the last days of the eighteenth century.

    Knowing I was standing a few feet from Washington’s body, a reverie came over me: Washington is the father of the country that bore me, shaped me, and still holds me. Washington is thus, in some very real, political, and spiritual way, my father, too. His actions, his philosophy, for good or ill, are inscribed in the landscape for thousands of miles around his modest tomb. I do not comprehensively admire Washington as a man – how can one comprehensively admire any slaveholder? – but judgments of character are beside the point when standing at his tomb. I am an American, and it all comes from him, the Taco Bells and brick-veneer three-beds that now surround his estate, the Adventist church that meets in a double-wide trailer out near Shiprock, and my own mitteleuropäische Judeo-Catholic self.

    My thoughts were interrupted by a museum docent, stationed at the tomb to interpret it for visitors. “Did you know,” she asked, unsolicited, “that George Washington had no biological children of his own? Did you know that George Washington was originally buried in the old tomb, in 1799? Did you know his body was moved 450 feet between the old tomb and the new tomb in 1830?” My reverie concerning the pater patriae was, it turns out, intolerably un-American. The point of a museum, it seems, is not to contemplate but to learn.

    A few months after my Mount Vernon trip, I went to Germany, and visited the Kolumba, a museum in the city of Cologne. The site has a long history. The oldest buildings discovered on the site go back to the first century, when Cologne was a Roman colonia, a frontier city, and are roughly contemporary with the construction of the Serpent Mound. A church was erected on the location in 980, around when the Fort Ancient People were beginning their own renovations to the Serpent. The church was a Romanesque building, dedicated to Saint Columba, a third-century virgin and martyr. Over the centuries major additions were made, first in the Gothic and later the Baroque style. In 1943, Allied bombs destroyed nearly the whole structure. A large Gothic sculpture of the Virgin Mary, dating to the fourteenth century, survived intact, however. The sculpture became known as the Madonna of the Ruins, and in 1949 a small Modernist chapel was constructed to house the Madonna on the site, using material scavenged from the ruins of the church. In the early 2000s, the Archdiocese of Cologne commissioned the architect Peter Zumthor to design a museum building on the site, to house the diocesan collection of religious art.

    The building Zumthor designed, finished in 2007, is a transtemporal marvel. While it looks, overall, like a work of contemporary architecture, its gray, textured brickwork gives it something of the charisma of an old building, compared to the sleeker modernist buildings of the surrounding neighborhood. Chunks of ruined church are incorporated into the walls, so that even before you enter the museum, it feels like a building with a story.

    The museum collection occupies only a portion of the interior. A large section is devoted to the ongoing excavation of the site, with a suspended walkway for visitors to walk through the ruins without disturbing them. The ceiling of this section is far overhead, and there are no large windows, just small gaps in the exterior brickwork to let in light. These gaps sparkle with the light of the outdoors, and you feel like you are walking under a starry sky. In the middle of this space is the chapel of 1949, and within it, the Madonna of the Ruins and a tabernacle in which the eucharist is reserved. Chairs and kneelers are provided, facing the Madonna and the tabernacle. To kneel there and pray for a while after you’ve seen the museum feels like the most natural thing in the world.

    It’s hard to say which would be more impossible in the United States: the easy cohabitation of the centuries – the tenth living with the twentieth, the fourteenth lying down with the twenty-first – or the complete unity between the devotional objects on display and the host in the tabernacle.

    Europe and the United States are both broadly secular societies, though in very different ways. The standard journalistic trope is that the United States is more religious than Europe, a fact evidenced by surveys that ask the citizens of these respective places how often they go to church. I am a little skeptical of these survey results, as in my experience Europeans are likely to downplay their true devoutness, and certain swaths of Americans claim to attend church regularly who do so in fact only sporadically. But even if we grant the basic claim that Americans go to church more often than Europeans, it does not follow that they simply occupy different positions on a single spectrum running from secular to religious.

    The difference lies in the relationship to tradition. Christianity is part of the tradition of Europe. It is digested, and this is evident equally in European secularism as in its religion. The whole place is made of Christianity. Visitors to Italy, France, or Spain, in particular, are easily struck by the way in which the entire human world of those countries seems to presuppose a society in love with Jesus Christ. But it is also a place where Christianity can, for that reason, seem finished off. It all went into the buildings and the fields and the names, and there it has calcified.

    It’s hard for an American to comprehend these two qualities of European culture. On the one hand, a near absence of explicit personal religiosity; on the other hand, this practice, distributed throughout the continent, of letting the past carry on saying what it wants to say, when what the past wants to say, over and over again, is that Jesus is Lord.

    It is an admirable practice. It is one of the most enviable features of European society, and it explains much of the beauty of Europe, beyond the mere possession of a healthy stock of historic architecture.

    Christianity is part of the tradition of Europe. It is digested, and this is evident equally in European secularism as in its religion.

    The case is not as simple as European success and American failure, however. I have heard a theory that explains why Africa, uniquely among the continents, has a diverse population of animals that are larger than humans – “megafauna,” as they are called. The fossil record suggests that until fairly recently, geologically speaking, nearly every continent had such animals: North American mastodons and cave bears, giant South American sloths and glyptodonts, marsupial lions in Australia, the European aurochs. It is likely that humans hunted all these animals to extinction. This did not happen in Africa, however, which is why we still have elephants and rhinoceroses and giraffes. The theory that accounts for this is that the African mammals survived because they evolved alongside humans, and therefore had a chance to adapt to humans over time, learning to avoid, evade, or fight them as necessary, in a manner compatible with their own continued existence.

    With respect to modernity, perhaps Europe plays a role analogous to the role that Africa plays in the history of human evolution. It was from one continent that the exterminating force was launched, and as a result, it is only in that one continent that the extermination did not occur. Because modernity evolved slowly in Europe, at the scale of centuries, not decades, Europe (by which I mean Western Europe) retains a certain comfort with its past. This is not to say that Europe is pre-modern, but rather that its form of modernity is distinct, because it is indigenous. Even though Europeans invented secularism, the tabernacle is still there, in the middle of Cologne. The weather lady on Swiss television will warn you about snowfall “on the second Sunday of Advent.”

    The fantasy of the empty continent, which so exercised the minds of early modern thinkers, found its locus classicus in the Americas. There, a man might “plant in some inland, vacant place,” as Locke put it, unburdened by the past. So, it is in the Americas that the exterminating impulse toward the past is most deeply rooted – it is, oddly enough, our only real tradition. But the same dynamic is present, I believe, with various modulations, in the non-European places of the Eastern hemisphere, where most people live. To become a “developed nation,” as a non-European nation, is to sever the threads that run from past to present.

    For those who admire how religion is woven into the fabric of everyday life in Europe, as I do, the thought is sobering. The culture in which the Kolumba came to exist cannot simply be imported to other shores, any more than you could release a rhinoceros onto the New Mexican plains and expect it to survive. The task is more like the revival of the wooly mammoth, or perhaps like the summoning at Endor.

    In the meanwhile, it is some consolation that Locke was wrong. The past, even if it is not incorporated into a tradition, does not simply disappear. The serpent and the winged rock, and the grave of the patriarch, too, are really there, and the docent shall not overcome them. Even if the United States never becomes a land that is comfortable letting the past speak for itself, its own past will never cease to reassert itself. I wrote above that the Hopewell culture has left no apparent trace on the culture of Cincinnati, and it’s true that the traces it has left are not apparent. But they are, I believe, there. If nothing else, they are present in the strange feelings that overtake me, and certain others I know, in the presence of those mounds. And they are present, too, as deliberate absence. Since they perdure, they must be swerved around, and the swerve is real, too.

    The state of New Mexico eventually renamed Route 666. The road is now called US 491. “The devil’s out of here, and we say goodbye and good riddance,” said the state secretary of transportation to the Albuquerque Journal on the occasion. The change did not immediately improve conditions on the highway. Six people died on it in the two months after it was renamed. Eventually, though, a series of alterations to sight lines, lane divisions, and turning geometries lowered the fatality rate. Our friends who still live in Shiprock tell us that it is a normal road now, and no one is afraid to use it, except just before midnight, when all the bars close.

    Contributed By DavidSchaengold David Schaengold

    David Schaengold is a cofounder of

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