Baja to British Columbia: 1,500 Miles on Interstate 5

We get hit by rocks, visit volcanoes, and perform a burnout or two from behind the wheel of a 2013 Dodge Challenger SRT8

By Keith Buglewicz | Photos By Keith Buglewicz | April 05, 2013

Day One: Mexico to Sacramento

The first leg of my journey was planned out to cover the most miles for two reasons. First, it was the longest, straightest stretch on the route, and admittedly, I was succumbing to the "Interstates are boring" stereotype. Second, I was familiar with the route and already thought I knew what I'd find.
The day started in the Gaslamp District in San Diego, where I spent the night at the Ramada Inn on 6th Avenue. Formerly the St. James Hotel, it first opened for business in 1913, making it one of the older hotels in the revitalized historic district. The two-bedroom suite was like a time machine, with carved crown moldings, a pedestal sink, and even a steam radiator. My restful night came after an evening of fish and chips--plus a little Irish dancing--at The Field, followed by a brisk walk past the revelers on San Diego's Fifth Avenue. The next morning, I was ready to jump back behind the wheel of the Challenger and hit the road.
The bright orange coupe had already surpassed expectations on the relatively brief cruise from Los Angeles to San Diego the day before. Its orange paint with black stripes, powerful 6.4-liter V-8 engine, and six-speed manual transmission were at odds with its quiet interior and comfortable ride. Yet two buttons, low on the dash, unleashed the fury that a casual glance of the Challenger told you was inside: A "Sport" button stiffened the shocks and made the heavy coupe more agile in turns; and an "off" button for the traction control, which allowed burnouts as long as you were willing to hold down the gas pedal. Without admitting anything, resisting the temptation of the latter proved virtually impossible. On my way from the hotel to the closest Starbucks, the V-8's burble echoed alone through the empty city streets; 6:30 a.m. on a holiday Monday was well before San Diego's wakeup time. For most. Hopping back behind the wheel, I heard, "Cool car!" for the first of many times. I turned to see a sharply dressed but slightly disheveled bro escorted by two lovely young women who were still wearing last night's clothes. "Yeah, thanks," I confirmed. We chatted briefly--I told him about the car, why I was driving it, and where I was going in what would become an oft-repeated speech--and then I watched the three stumble away arm in arm, still giggling from the previous night's "Dear, Penthouse" exploits. After putting the dystopic steel wall and mistrusting eyes of the San Ysidro border patrol behind me, it wasn't long before I was rolling through San Diego again, the Interstate still virtually traffic-free. As the miles rolled by, I settled into the Challenger's big seats and took in the sights. Behind me, the Coronado Bay Bridge arced gracefully over the bay as the orange morning sunlight glinted off the skyscrapers downtown. Passing through downtown, a jet roared overhead as it descended into the middle of the bay to the airport. By the time I got to Oceanside, it was nearing 8 o'clock, and my stomach needed more than buckets of coffee to keep me going for the rest of the day. I pulled off at the last possible exit before passing through the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton. Aptly named, Oceanside is your quintessential California beach community. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it boasts the whole catalog of California clichés: quaint mom-and-pop shops, a harbor, houses with the ocean as their back yard, surfers, expensive yachts, and miles and miles of sand. I was more interested in food and settled in at the Beach Break at the Harbor café. The Banana Crunch French Toast leapt off the menu at me, and it did not disappoint. As I wolfed it down, I took in the cool morning. Pterodactyl-like pelicans clustered on the docks nearby; sweaty bicyclists ordered heaps of bacon and sausage to undo all the good they'd just done, and peeking out from behind another car, the orange nose of the Challenger beckoned, "C'mon, let's get rolling." Who am I to argue? It turns out I wasn't the only hungry one; my black-striped steed was feeling thirsty, and stopped at the first of the many gas stations I would eventually visit. The 6.4-liter V-8 under the Challenger's hood is an amazing example of automotive engineering. It puts out 470 horsepower, just as many pounds-feet of torque, and meets every emissions requirement the government can throw at it. Yet despite its EPA estimated 23 mpg highway estimate, I was worried that the Challenger's fuel economy would be just as retro as the rest of the car. While cruising it was pretty good, but once off the highway, economy discouragingly dipped into the low teens. With a full tank of premium, we were off again. And by this time, only a couple hundred miles into the trip, this was my car. My body and the seat had become such good friends that, as I drove through the 20-mile stretch of nothingness known as Camp Pendleton, I wondered if Dodge offered an SRT office chair, and how much money I could make selling such a thing. It's odd to find a seat in a sporty car this comfortable for a long haul. Too often, manufacturers will sacrifice comfort for cornering support, creating a seat that's confining or too firm. Not here; this chair was made for cruising. It's thickly padded, but not squishy soft, either, and one look tells you there's plenty of support from the grippy fabric and thick side cushions. It's as supportive as an AA sponsor, but a lot more fun to be around. The miles rolled by, and soon I was back in familiar territory again: Orange County, with Laguna Beach and the neighboring cities; a swallow-less San Juan Capistrano; the artificial peaks of Disneyland, still visible from the freeway despite the best efforts of local development. A little farther north, and I crossed over the abrupt change from Orange to Los Angeles County, as the smoothly graded concrete ribbon of O.C. gave way to L.A.'s pockmarked, cracked, weed-strewn asphalt. Weeds poked up from the center median and the road shoulders. The Nevada Test Range has smoother roads; supposedly, a fix for the 5 is in the works. The road smoothed north of downtown Los Angeles, and I couldn't resist pulling off the Interstate to compare the Challenger to roller coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Santa Clarita. The Magic Mountain Parkway leads straight to the park's X2 rollercoaster. As riders screamed their way through the two-minute-long ride, I thought back to when I was younger, and the last time I was at Magic Mountain, and I got a bit jealous. It looked like a lot of fun. "Sweet car," a voice leered behind me. I hadn't noticed a teenager and a couple of his friends were sitting on the curb of the little cul-de-sac I had stopped in. "Yeah, thanks," I agreed, giving my speech for the second time as I made my way back to the driver's seat. As I sat down, I heard him yell, "Light 'em up!" obviously hoping I'd do a burnout. Sure, as if impressing some random teenager is what it takes for me to unleash a silly, juvenile burnout. The truth is, with this car it takes a lot less.
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