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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

The Great Valley

With Valencia's teens left coughing on tire smoke, it was back to the highway and onward to Sacramento. Only a couple hundred miles had passed, yet it was already late morning as the Challenger made short work of the Tejon Pass as Interstate 5 twisted its way through the mountains.
I pulled off at the Tejon Ranch, an enormous private land holding that sprawls through the mountains. The ranch covers such a massive area and diversity of terrain that it could be any place in the world, a fact moviemakers have known for years. Today, I stopped only by the sign to take a photo and to pause briefly at the horses grazing near the lake before heading north, down the fabled Grapevine, and into the vast expanse of the San Joaquin Valley. I had sworn off eating at fast food joints on this trip and decided that instead of plastic bags filled with salty, trans-fat-laden nuggets, I'd get some actual, real fruit. After all, California is the land of fruits and nuts, right? A few miles north from where Interstate 5 splits westward from state route 99, I stopped at a Murray Family Farms fruit stand. After stocking up on locally grown grapes, Asian pears, and a pound of raw almonds, I was off again, headed for Sacramento. I'll admit, this is where Interstate 5 gets dull. On either side of the highway are farms and, past the farms, hills. Hit it at the right time of year, and the hills are a verdant green, the sky a bright blue, and the farms flourishing with new growth. Not this time. Everything was brown: brown dirt; brown grass; brown hills; brown farm equipment kicking up brown dust, turning the air and even the trees brown. I'm fairly certain the Challenger was the most colorful thing around, which the valley resented so much that it made a truck kick a fist-sized rock right into the Challenger's windshield. I had just enough time to see it coming and think of a proper expletive before it hit, leaving a palm-sized network of cracks on what had been the Challenger's pristine glass; over the next few days I got to watch the cracks grow steadily, as California, Oregon, and Washington passed by the windshield. As Interstate 5 winds through Stockton, the valley floor becomes a Tetris-like assembly of geometric shapes, all different shades of green and brown with the road unapologetically slicing through them. The Sacramento River and its tributaries snake through as well, and at last, my final stop of the day: Sacramento--and my floating hotel right on the waterfront, the Delta King riverboat. Hours earlier, Gold Rush Days had ended at Old Sacramento, and a road crew was frantically cleaning up the tons of sand dumped on the roads for Old West authenticity, forcing me to abandon my Challenger in the parking garage and take a shuttle to the riverfront. The Delta King is, literally, a floating hotel. She was once an active riverboat that shuttled passengers from Sacramento to San Francisco before paved highways really even existed in California. After sinking in the early 1980s, she was restored, converted to a hotel, and permanently moored, with signs plastered everywhere reminding people that she isn't exactly built to code. My tiny room was right off the lobby, with wi-fi, and a view of the river. After checking my email, making a few calls, and closing the shutters to the setting sun, I decided it was time for dinner. Since the front-loaders were still hard at work taking the old-timey patina from the streets, I just ate at the Delta King Bar and Grille. A heaping serving of Cajun linguine and a glorious sunset later, it looked like most of the cleanup activity had stopped, so I decided to take a look around. I was wrong, of course; the 'dozers were still hard at work out of earshot. I dodged between them, wandered into the few shops still open, and eventually settled at Fanny Ann's Saloon for a nightcap. I chatted about cars and such with the friendly bartender until I was tired enough for my yawns to start blending together. I wandered back to the King and went to bed, the soft rocking of the riverboat giving me a peaceful night's sleep.
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