The North Coast 500 is known as Scotland’s Route 66, but just why isn’t the classic road trip a bigger part of British culture? We faced the Beast from the East head-on to find out
The snow in Glasgow covers everything so completely that when I wake up and look out of the window, for a second, I think that my car has been stolen. For the first time ever in Scotland the national weather service issues a ‘Red Warning’.
I plan to drive up to the Highlands and do a big loop around the very top of Scotland, it’s a route named the North Coast 500. Time to make a decision. What is a Red Warning anyway? One bit of the Met Office definition really sticks out: Risk to life is likely.
What would Jack Kerouac do? Would John Steinbeck turn around and go home? William Least Heat-Moon wouldn’t let a bit of snow get between him and the road, would he?
I’ve always been obsessed with this idea of the classic road trip, getting up and going, anywhere, everywhere, as far as possible and back again. I like how journalist and road-trip obsessive Richard Kreitner defines what good a road book does: it has “a narrative arc matching the chronological and geographical arc of the trip it chronicles”. The above writers wrote my favourite road books. They’re all American.
Route 66 runs east to west all the way across the US. Steinbeck called it “The Mother Road”. The road trip – the lonely gas station, the hamburger in the highway diner, the perfectly straight, perfectly flat tarmac stretched out into the sunset – is quintessentially American. But it isn’t part of British literature, of British culture. This might explain why I’ve always loved road books, but only recently learnt to drive.
The North Coast 500 earned a place on a list of the world’s best road trips. They call it “Scotland’s answer to Route 66”. So why can’t the classic road trip – the epic, heroic adventure into the unknown, be part of the British identity, too?
“Because,” says Michael Smith, “everywhere is just up the road.” The writer and filmmaker made the six-part BBC documentary, Drivetime, about Britain’s relationship with cars and driving. “The vast distances that make such journeys heroic and make them adventures just don’t exist here. The unknown poetry of the far horizon, that settler’s sense of virgin territory still to be conquered, it belongs more to the New World maybe. It’s not as marked for the Englishman.”
Smith doesn’t drive. I ask him if he’ll ever learn and his response is unprintable. For most of his documentary he sat in the passenger seat and looked miserable. “There was a point making that programme,” he says, “when I felt I’d been on the Sheffield ring road forever. I was stuck on it in some kind of Groundhog Day loop.
“Then you drive 200 or 300km farther north and it opens out, and you’re touched by a certain grace again, touched by some kind of holy presence. What was once the closed loop of your bondage becomes the open road of your liberation.”
Outside my hotel, I use a window squeegee to clear the car of snow and dig out the wheels. I wear ladies’ green gardening gloves (my partner Carolyn’s – all that was in the car). Like the rest of the UK, I haven’t properly prepared for the heavy snow and abnormally low temperatures that come in from Siberia, a cold wave they call the Beast from the East.
I set off on my first road trip as a driver, slip-slide through the city streets, and gradually get out of Glasgow on the busiest motorway in Scotland. Soon after, the snow brings this road to a complete standstill and traps thousands of people in their cars overnight. Even if I want to, I can’t turn around. The road home is closed. Steinbeck would’ve liked this idea. In Travels with Charley: In Search of America, he wrote: “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
I head north to Inverness, the start of the Highlands, the first and last stop on the circular North Coast 500, then I drive cross-country from the west coast to the east. Somewhere along the way I outrun the snow. But not for long.
The sign reads: ROAD NORMALLY IMPASSABLE IN WINTRY CONDITIONS. It looks clear enough to me. I drive on. The single-track road goes steadily uphill. Every now and again, diamond-shaped white signs mark a “passing place” where the road widens just enough to allow two cars to pass. But I don’t see any other cars.
It’s getting dark. The road keeps on rising. Hairpin turns twist left and right and always upwards. The weather holds out, but the hill becomes a mountain. Soon the walls of snow either side of the road stand 10 feet tall. The road looks like a tunnel cut through a glacier. It climbs higher and higher
The Applecross Inn – wood-panelled, wood-burning stove – looks like a dream after driving all day. I eat battered haddock, chips, peas, and drink heavy Scottish ale. The man behind the bar has long red hair, a big red beard and looks like Hamish out of Braveheart. The fella next to me sits with his 11-year-old dog, which he claims is the world’s first ever labradoodle. You get talking to people in a place like this. They tell me the Bealach na Bà (Pass of the Cattle in Scottish Gaelic) reaches over 2,000 feet, that ploughs only cleared it a few days earlier, and why it shouldn’t be attempted by novice drivers. I’ve been lucky, again.
I start early the next morning. Nobody about, no cars. Then I hit the morning traffic: blocking the single-track road, a herd of highland cattle. This one cow – huge horns, trendy fringe – refuses to move. I steer left and the cow lumbers right. I go backwards and the cow saunters forwards. I get out the car to nudge it in the right direction, but the cow steps off the road. I get back in the car and the cow hoofs it onto the road again. I finally inch by, window down, and I swear the cow smiles at me.
I pass lochs and beaches and a lonely whitewashed cottage with a bright red roof. I pass sheep that have the common decency to cross the road quickly and efficiently. I pull over, turn off the engine, and get out. Silence. The snowy caps of the mountains catch the sunlight. Craggy hills roll around in autumn colours. The sky looks bigger here and I feel smaller. This, I think, is what Smith means by “a certain grace”.
I stop at the Torridon Stores & Café and eat a sandwich, possibly the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten, – fried egg and Stornoway black pudding (the blood sausage that’s so good it earned protected status a few years ago to stop “imposter puddings”). I drink a coffee on the porch in front of a sea loch. The sun makes the surface of the water twinkle like stars on a dark night.
“When I was younger,” Neil Ansell says, “I kept a tally of the countries I had visited, but stopped counting after 50. I realised it was meaningless.” For his new book, The Last Wilderness, Ansell recently came up here to the northwest Highlands, for a series of week-long walks all alone. In his 20s, he spent five years hitchhiking. He says a good road trip is worth more than kilometres covered. “Quality and depth of experience trumps quantity… the search for unique experiences. My advice would be to not have an itinerary – be flexible, follow your nose or the advice of locals. Try to engage as much as possible with local people.”
I call the Riverside bed and breakfast to check on the roads in Ullapool. Charlie doesn’t speak, he shouts, but in a lovely singsong Scottish accent, so you don’t mind. “I’ve lived here 35 years! I’ve never seen snow like it!” He hangs up, makes a few phone calls to family and friends and various traffic and weather organisations, then rings back with a proposed route.
From this point on let’s just say that, unless I say otherwise, it’s snowing sheets. The snow lies thickly on the road. The snow covers the car. The snow is absolute.
I arrive at the Riverside. Charlie’s on the phone. He covers the mouthpiece with his hand and shouts, “I’ve got a Frenchman gone off the road! He’s panicking!”
At breakfast, Charlie tells me he arranged for a snowplough to rescue his Frenchman. Several guests and I stand behind Charlie and Charlie stands in front of a table full of maps. A Dutchman keeps asking about the road north. “Nooo!” Charlies finally says. “The road to Drumrunie is closed!” His lovely long vowel sounds make me picture a yawning cat.
I follow Charlie’s plan and drive south-east across the width of the country, then head north along the coast towards John o’ Groats, which means coming off the North Coast 500 and starting the route all over again in the opposite direction.
Charlie’s on the phone. He covers the mouthpiece with his hand and shouts, ‘I’ve got a Frenchman gone off the road! He’s panicking!'”
The driving gets sketchy. Blizzards bring visibility right down. The wind blows huge snowdrifts across the road. A few cars head in the opposite direction, then no cars at all. Finally, predictably, my car starts to make a noise that, with my limited knowledge of car mechanics, I can only describe as sounding expensive. My road trip becomes a slog.
“When a ‘slog’ is inescapable,” William Least Heat-Moon tells me, “it still can give a sense of accomplishment and enlarge awareness of things and people encountered.” In his classic 1982 book Blue Highways, Heat-Moon loses his job, breaks up with his wife, and sets off on a three-month road trip across America.
He recently published his first novel, Celestial Mechanics. In describing it, Heat-Moon offers advice for anyone who can’t see the road for the tarmac: “So many of the difficulties and discomforts we find ourselves in today are the result of lacking a broad comprehension of what we are as creatures and who we are as individuals. Too often we live oblivious to the provable facts of our existence. Of those facts, none is greater than being aware that our brain, our heart, our great toe quite literally came from the stars and to there they will return… I have found that doing my best to think in cosmic terms leads to enlarged empathy.”
Who cares about a bit of engine grinding? Heat-Moon drove 20,000km with two worn tyres and a knock in the water pump. Who cares about a bit of weather? The snow can’t stop us now. We fly up the coast to John o’ Groats and out to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the mainland of Great Britain. One of my favourite lines in Kerouac’s On the Road goes: “No more land! We can’t go any further ‘cause there ain’t no more land!”
At the end of any good road book, the narrator comes home changed in some way. I always thought cars made you less curious, less of a wanderer, less willing to go the wrong way. I’ve changed my mind a little: cars are what you make of them.
The final few days, I drive east-west across the very top of Scotland and back down the west coast. The weather is merely Arctic instead of apocalyptic. The scenery is never anything less than stunning. In total, I cover more than 1,600km, but I’m still forced to miss out a small section of the North Coast 500: beaten by the snow, but not beaten by the road.”
Words: Gary Evans
Images: Carolyn Stritch