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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 Four: Portland to Canada

I was two months into my tenth year when Mt. Saint Helens erupted, and an exploding mountain makes one hell of an impression on a 10-year-old. Since then, I've wanted to go to the mountain and see it for myself. Now I finally had my chance, and there was no way I could just drive by.
I woke up early on purpose this time, and checked out before sunrise. I crossed the Interstate Bridge into Washington State, and the sun was just cresting the horizon as I stopped for a photo next to the "Welcome to Washington" sign. But the clear day quickly turned to the mist that I had been anticipating the entire time; not quite pea soup, but certainly thick enough to discourage high-speed traveling. I headed north, exiting at the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, which would take me as close as I could get to the mountain itself. When you get to the Mt. Saint Helens region, the locals' odd pride of the infamous location makes itself known in signs throughout the area. The mountain's broken silhouette is on just about everything, with some even alluding to the former grace of the pre-eruption peak, once regarded as the most perfectly conical of all the Cascade volcanos. The Spirit Lake Highway wound up toward the mountain, past the visitor's center at Silver Lake, then past the lake itself on its way toward the blast zone. And that's what it's called; you see signs saying, "Entering Blast Zone," and nearly every turnout and wide spot has a historical marker, with photos showing what it looked like before and immediately after the volcano's famous explosion. The amazing amount of regrowth in the area shouldn't be a surprise after 30 years, but wow, it's only been 30 years since virtually everything surrounding the mountain was wiped clean one sunny May morning. The vegetation thins as you get closer to the mountain. I stopped at Coldwater Lake, a body of water that came into being after the eruption. Scientists once thought it would take decades to support life. Now it's a teeming ecosystem, filled with native fish, plants, and birds, a living laboratory for science to study, and a testament to the resiliency of nature itself. The mountain revealed itself to me slowly as the road wound higher and higher. A hint here, a glimpse there, until finally, rounding a corner, I saw the devastated peak in its entirety. I was suddenly that 10-year-old boy again, giddy and excited to finally see with my own eyes what I had only seen in photos. It was a beautiful clear day, with hardly a cloud in the sky. A stiff wind blew cold everywhere, with a crispness you only find in the mountains. A thin veil of haze and wind-whipped dust surrounded Mt. St. Helens in the distance. Before me was the U-shaped caldera; the devastated landscape still only peppered by thin patches of green. Steam lazily escaped the lava dome in the center of the volcano, then scattered when the winds found it. Decaying tree trunks littered the hillsides, all pointing away from the mountain, marking the direction of the incredible blast. There was no snow to hide the destructive power the volcano wielded three decades before. In the valley, the winds kicked up ashen dust devils. The mountain filled my vision, its side seemingly scooped away, like the scale versions I had made in the sandbox years before. I took my photos, and then put my camera aside, taking it in, and making a mental checkmark on my personal bucket list. It was close to noon, and my rumbling stomach overrode the echoes of decades-old explosions, and I finally tore away from sightseeing and left. As I drove back down the mountain, I realized that the road seemed almost custom designed for the car I was driving. The big, fast, sweeping turns were slightly banked, and smooth as glass. The confluence of the road, the Challenger's sport suspension mode and manual transmission, and my familiarity with all of it came together in a spirited romp back down the mountain road. It was still early, and tourist season had mostly come and gone, giving me the road virtually to myself. The Challenger's heft is well documented, but despite that, it felt light on its feet as I carved my way through the curves, powering up and down the foothills, and finally slamming on the brakes to make the turn to the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitors Center and the Fire Mountain Grill for lunch. As I exited, a few bearded Harley-riding bikers complimented me on the car, and once again, I gave The Speech, and agreed that it was a nice car. I was eager to hit the road; the Canadian border was my destination today, and I still had to get through Seattle. It all seemed a long way off.
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