Route 66. A ribbon of tarmac perfection winding its way from the Windy City in the east to the the City of Angels in the west. That’s Chicago to Los Angeles if you’re not down with the States-side lingo.
Opened in 1926, Route 66 was the first of its kind, the first trans-continental highway. A two and a half thousand-mile statement of man’s dominion over nature. If we want to drive across a continent in a matter of days, we can do it.
Amid the Great Depression Route 66 changed. With fortunes fading in the east, hundreds of thousands flocked west. The tarmac of Route 66 carried them. It carried thousands of displaced families towards easier times and a more prosperous future.
As Candacy Taylor puts it: Route 66 was a shortcut to freedom.
While the importance of Route 66 has certainly declined with the advent of air travel, it remains an American icon and motorists from across the world flock to the black ribbon in the hopes of living out dreams of Mustang-fuelled adventure.
And now Scotland has its very version: the NC 500. A 500-mile route winding up the Wester Ross coastline, over the craggy highlands, across the roof of Scotland and down the blustery east coast.
But how do the two compare? The classic American juggernaut and the plucky Scottish newcomer. Let’s find out.
Wester Ross and Arizona are about as different as they come. One is a dry, dusty expanse, watered only occasionally by sudden downpours. The other is refreshed almost daily with refreshing Atlantic showers.
However, ignoring the water disparity, they are similar places. Craggy rocks rut out of the ground and strike upwards into the sky. Roads wind up twisty mountain paths and descend for an eternity on the other side.
The Black Mountains near Oatman are particularly special, the colossal brooding mass truly living up to its name. Set amid dusty plains the mountain rang strikes a jagged border with Las Vegas to the north and Phoenix to the south.
On the other side of the Atlantic the Bealach Na Ba threads its way through equally spectacular mountain scenery en route to Applecross. The descent from sea level up to around 2,000 feet takes only a few miles and descends just as steeply. With gradients of up to 20 percent, it’s certainly not a drive for the faint hearted.
At over 2,000 miles long there’s a lot of empty space along Route 66. However, where landmarks do punctuate the steady blur of tarmac, they do so with a grandness that matches that of the road.
A little north of London Bridge (an actual bricks and mortar bridge from London brought to America by Robert McCulloch) lies the Grand Canyon. Almost three hundred miles long, up to eighteen miles wide and over a mile deep the Grand Canyon is a spectacular geological structure. Cut from the orange earth over millions of years the jagged result is something that has to be seen to be believed.
It’s not just natural wonders either. In Texas you can find the Cadillac Ranch, an utterly bizarre art installation originally commissioned by Stanley Marsh: ten graffitied Cadillacs buried nose-down in the dirt. And it’s a living exhibit too. Visitors are encouraged to bring along their spray paint and add to the design.
Across the Atlantic the NC 500 takes a more historic tact.
A stone’s throw from Golspie stands the monstrous spectre of Dunrobin Castle. This gargantuan construction looks like it’s been plucked from the French countryside with elegant curving towers and strong militaristic features. A particularly odd figure on the eastern coast of Scotland.
It’s not a road completely stuck in the past though. Up in the very northern reaches where the land starts to break up, glistening bridges connect the terra firma. Perhaps the best example is the Kylesku Bridge, a curving concrete beast beautiful in its 1970s utilitarianism.
The northeastern section of NC500 runs from Scrabster to Dunbeath along the roof of Scotland. If you stand on the tip of Dunnet Head, you’re the northernmost person on the British mainland.
That’s about as remote as it gets in Scotland without a boat.
Route 66, however, is in a class of its own. Empty roads strike out for the horizon, rolling for miles and eventually falling off the edge of the world.
You can drive for hours through the desert with only winged scavengers for company. It’s vastness on a scale that just doesn’t make sense at home. It’s a country the size of a continent and you feel every desolate mile of it.
The NC500 was billed as Scotland’s answer to Route 66. It’s not. It’s something all together different. Something altogether Scottish. It isn’t trying to replicate the trans-continental sprawl of Route 66. The two roads are utterly different and special in their own unique ways. Comparing them risks losing what’s special about either.
So what’s our takeaway advice? Drive both!