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 U.S. Interstate system is a modern marvel. Inspired by European highways--especially the German Autobahns--the Interstate is a uniquely American road system, simply because of its sheer size. It's well-marked, easy to use, and even logically laid out: Traffic flows north and south on odd-numbered routes; even numbers go east and west; lower numbers are on the west and south; higher numbers on the east and north. Yet despite this, the Interstate has a reputation of being dull, bypassing more interesting places in favor of the shortest route possible. Maybe there's some truth to that, but assuming the Interstate is simply a means to a destination ignores what's nearby. We've set out to drive all the Interstates--local bypasses notwithstanding--by finding the right car, the right time of year, and the right place for our journeys. What we've discovered is that, like any road, the journey is half the fun. I really, really needed a road trip. A good one, nice and long, the whole cliché of a "man and the road," all that stuff. Yeah, maybe road trips are becoming a thing of the past, thanks to airlines whisking us from A to B, all while ignoring the places in between. But there's still something about getting behind the wheel of an awesome car, pointing it in one direction, and just driving all day long. For someone like me, it's therapy. The plan for my trip was simple: Drive the entire length of Interstate 5, nearly 1,400 miles of uninterrupted concrete and asphalt winding through the farmland, wild rivers, active volcanoes, big cities, and small towns of the three West Coast states, all of it from behind the wheel of a Header Orange 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8. For me, Interstate 5--at least, the southernmost 450 miles of it--was familiar territory. Living in Los Angeles, I've had many opportunities to hurry south to San Diego, north to Sacramento, and occasionally rush as far north as Redding, California. But it has always been in haste, radar detector beeping, trying to make the best time. Now, I had the opportunity--the mandate, really--to stop and smell the roses and see what the road had to offer. The Interstate system has a reputation of being dull, bypassing more interesting places in favor of taking the shortest route from A to B; it even plays as a background antagonist in the movie "Cars." Granted, there's some truth to that. But the Interstate is only dull if you ignore your surroundings. I've found that one only needs to pull off the highway to discover new experiences and places, as I was about to rediscover when I rolled north from the San Ysidro border crossing with Mexico on my way to Blaine, Washington, and the Canadian border four days later.

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.

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.

Day Two: Sacramento to Grants Pass

My alarm went off promptly at 5 a.m. as it does every day, and I groggily made a mental note to shut it off before going to bed that night. I promptly forgot all about that and went upstairs for breakfast at the hotel's other restaurant, the Pilothouse, for a three-egg omelet and my traditional infusion of coffee. Overlooking the river, watching the city come to life, it was easy to put myself back in time 100 years when the Sacramento River was the fastest way from its namesake city to San Francisco.
I checked out, had the Challenger valeted to the docks, loaded my gear, and trundled through Old Sacramento, snapping a few last minute pictures, and promising myself to come back in time for Gold Rush days eventually. But for now, it was time to hit the nearby Interstate. A few minutes later, I unleashed the fury of the Challenger's Hemi engine and blasted up the onramp, headed north again. The crop selection changes north of Sacramento, thanks to easier access to water, and the oppressive brownness of the southern part of the valley gives way to more verdant fields. But on this day it also gave way to wildfire smoke; the areas around Redding were ablaze thanks to a combination of dry weather, winds, and lightning. I was still able to press on and enjoy a pleasant lunch with an old friend and colleague living in Redding. North of Redding, Interstate 5's character changes for the better. The flat, straight road so many know--and mostly dislike--gives way to a narrower, winding route as it climbs up through the mountains in the northern part of the state. The name changes from West Side Highway to the Cascade Wonderland Highway, far more poetic, and more fitting. The road climbs up a long, steady grade to Lake Shasta, then through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, a stunning combination of rivers, granite, redwoods and other pine trees. Interstate 5 sheds its straight-and-boring persona, taking on a lively twisting and turning character befitting a favorite back road, not a major thoroughfare. Anybody who thinks Interstate 5 is uniformly boring just hasn't driven far enough. Then, as the road passes over the Sacramento River for the umpteenth time, you see the Castle Crags. These stunning bare rock formations thrust up over the surrounding forest, forcing your attention. The granite rock peaks aren't as famous or expansive as Yosemite's valleys, yet the cliffs are no less striking. If you're passing through, it's worth the 25-mile detour from Interstate 5 to go to Castle Crags State Park; just be sure to bring your hiking shoes. North of the Crags, the Interstate once again straightens as it heads into the valley west of Mt. Shasta, second only to Washington's Mt. Rainier as the tallest of the Cascades. Viewed from the air, ancient lava flows are obvious, but from the ground, all one sees is fertile dark soil and the nearly perfect cone of Black Butte. A little farther north, still in the shadow of Mt. Shasta, is the small town of Weed. No, not that, it's named after Abner Weed, a lumberman who helped establish the town 100 years ago. However, the town's residents obviously love the modern take on its name with signs encouraging visitors to "Enjoy Weed" abound. For the record, I only used a gas station bathroom before continuing my journey. Before long, I came upon the town of Yreka, the last wide spot in the road before crossing the Oregon border. Yet another quaint small town nestled in the foothills of the local mountains, Yreka--pronounced "why-reek-a"--was once home to the Yreka Bakery, a palindrome-lover's favorite hangout. However, despite Mark Twain's assertion that the town was named after the bakery's sign, it's actually a mangled version of the local Indian word for Mt. Shasta, "Ieka." I had hoped to get a photo of the Challenger in front of the Yreka Bakery sign itself, but sadly, the bakery is long gone, replaced by an Italian restaurant named Strings, which isn't a palindrome of anything.

Entering Oregon

After pausing to for a photo of the Challenger at the Oregon border, I realized how much I had fallen in love with the big orange Dodge. I was eager to hit the road again at each stop, not because I had a tight schedule to keep, but because the car was just so damn good. The seats couldn't be more comfortable without being literally soporific, and the relationship to the controls--steering wheel, shifter, and pedals--was ideal. On the twisty sections of Interstate 5 through the Shasta range, the big car was planted and controlled; it was only traffic and my lack of familiarity with the road that prevented more full-throttle runs. And that throttle...oh, my. A tickle of the gas pedal unleashed the muscle car under the comfortable cruiser, the thrust as habit-forming as anything you might find in Weed, but much more stimulating. But the capper was fuel economy; although I was hardly delicate with the throttle, the Challenger was averaging in the 22 to 24 mpg range, far better than I had anticipated.
That mileage held as I closed in on my destination for the day: Grants Pass, Oregon. The Interstate crossed and briefly paralleled the Rogue River as I drew near the town of the same name, and paused briefly at Valley of the Rogue State Park to get closer to the water. The Rogue is a favorite destination for river rafters and whitewater seekers, and Grants Pass is as familiar to enthusiasts of these natural attractions as Magic Mountain is to rollercoaster lovers. At last I made it to my destination, a Comfort Inn between the north and south lanes of the Redwood Highway in Grants Pass. It's possible that my expectations were too high after my previous night's stay in Sacramento, but "disappointment" doesn't quite cover it here. The room smelled, literally, and when I mentioned it to the woman working the counter, I was informed that they all smelled that way. Exactly what the smell was, I couldn't tell you--an odd mix of must and chemistry gone awry--but short breaths were the order of the day. I dropped my bags and quickly headed out, partly to minimize my time in the room and partly to get the car washed and myself something to eat. I cruised around town for a bit first and passed under a town sign suggesting, "It's the Climate" as the reason to stay in Grants Pass. But it's obviously the Rogue River that's the star. Plenty of parks nestle along its banks, allowing even a 4,000-pound Dodge Challenger to get up close. The tranquil burble of the river, quacking of ducks, croaking frogs and chirping birds made me feel downright guilty when the car's V-8 barked to life; I made sure to keep the revs low as I departed the riverside. But there were still the problems of a dirty car and my empty stomach to deal with. The first part was easy--a quick Google search found me a carwash that was still open--but what to get for dinner was still an open question. I turned to Yelp, a questionable source in the best of times, and browsing ratings quickly turned up Musashi Sushi Bar, off the main drag of 7th Street. Japanese sounded like a good break--none of the dozen or so burger joints nearby sounded appetizing--so I dropped in and was pleasantly surprised. The Japanese host greeted me with a friendly "irasshaimase!" and an invitation to sit at the sushi bar. A quick glance at the menu, and I decided to play it mostly safe with a teriyaki and tempura combo. But I couldn't resist the beautiful dark red tuna before me, and the thick slabs I ordered sashimi-style were the best I'd had in years. If you find yourself passing through this little town, treat yourself. By the time I finished it was already dark and obvious that there was no hope of nightlife in Grants Pass. I made my way to my room where either the odor had dissipated, or I had simply become acclimated. Either way, I hardly noticed it and quickly fell asleep.

Day Three: Grants Pass to Portland

I cursed my faulty memory again as my alarm blared at 5 a.m., but as I shook off the cobwebs, I decided that maybe it was for the better. The morning was still dark, but the clear, cloudless sky promised a gorgeous sunrise. I quickly got dressed, grabbed a terrible cup of coffee in the lobby, and loaded my camera gear into the car for some early morning photography. I made a quick hop down the highway to the town of Rogue River--taking pictures under its scenic bridge--then a more leisurely drive up a road squeezed between the Interstate and the river called Foothill Blvd. It's the kind of two-lane road that some say the Interstate destroyed: scenic, winding, rising and falling with the land. And it was all of those things, and beautiful, with the mountain on one side and the river on the other. But I had to slam my brakes twice as cars mindlessly pulled onto the road, and I saw at least two roadside memorials for those whose reactions weren't as quick. Beautiful and scenic, yes, but for my high-speed travels, I was happy to take the Interstate.
Back to the hotel: packing, checkout, breakfast, and on the road by 9 a.m. I plugged in my iPhone, letting it randomly choose music as I blasted north through the Oregon hills. The drive was guaranteed to be a short one--Grants Pass and Portland virtually bookend the highway in Oregon--but the scenery continued to dazzle. The road wasn't as tightly twisted as it was at Shasta, but as it wound gently northward, it was more than enough to provide an entertaining drive without slowing me down. My radar detector had already proved its worth more than once. Not that I'm prone to high-speed runs, it's just that even if you're going with the flow, and that flow is doing a good 80 mph, it's the orange-and-black-striped muscle car that will get bopped--not the white family sedan going just as fast. By this time I needed gas, and a little south of Eugene I became reacquainted with one of Oregon's odder laws: You can't pump your own. I forgot and got halfway through filling my own tank before an attendant rushed over and saved me from myself. The hills had taken their toll on the Challenger's fuel economy; it had dropped down to about 20 mpg--still not bad considering the hugeness of the engine and car. As I drove north from Eugene and got closer to Portland, the scenery became more like the flat farmlands of California, and less like the wooded southern areas of the state. Once in Portland, the Interstate became yet another crowded, narrow-feeling expressway, albeit in one of the most scenic cities in the western United States. Before I left Los Angeles, associate editor Matthew Askari--a frequent Portland visitor--had suggested I stay at the Jupiter Hotel on the east side of the Wilamette River that cuts through the middle of town. The quirky hotel is almost too hip for its own good, but the room was comfortable, and my late lunch at the Doug Fir Lounge next door filled me up and lulled me into napping. It was that evening that I went exploring on the west side of the river, also on Matt's advice. The Challenger was safely parked in the basement, and there it would stay for the night; Portland is not particularly car-friendly, and since half the places Matt had recommended primarily serve alcohol, leaving the Dodge where it was seemed like the best plan of action anyhow. After sampling the food at the Portland City Grill, chatting with the locals, and doing my best Huell Howser, I finally got out and about and stumbled into Jimmy Mak's. The jazz bar had been recommended to me by a bartender at the Portland City Grill earlier in the evening, but the walking route sounded convoluted to a Los Angeles native like me, and I hadn't planned on going. Yet, serendipity intervened, and here I was, sipping a beer, browsing a menu, and waiting for the music to start. Then the band took the stage, a group of mostly older, experienced gents who were clearly playing for the love of it. "We just play good ol' jazz here," said Mel Brown, drummer and leader of the four-piece band that was warming up behind him. "None of jazz fusion stuff," he added, with "stuff" an obvious stand-in for a less family-friendly word. They began to play, and the music was sublime. Each member's solo generated genuine applause from the small audience. It was exactly the kind of experience I had hoped to find on my trip, and possibly, the kind one can only have while alone for a few days. I could have stayed at Jimmy Mak's all night if the music had kept playing, but the musicians were eventually winded, and I made my way back to the hotel, filled with a love of music, and an appreciation of how nearly flawless the trip had been. I was eager to hit the road the next day, ignoring the beckoning music blaring from the Doug Fir. I had a big day tomorrow, and one of the highlights of my trip awaited me.

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.

Oh, Canada

I'll be honest here: I was still on such a high from fulfilling a childhood dream that I barely remember the drive from where I reentered the highway to the outskirts of Seattle. I remember Seattle itself because it was so visible; there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the weather was in the 80s. The locals were amazed at their good fortune. Traffic slowed as I crossed through the city, and I declined to explore this time. My destination was still a couple hours north, the hours were getting short, and I wanted to get to the border before sunset.
As north as it is, Seattle is not on the border with Canada. After battling the Seattle traffic, I had a good two hours of driving left ahead of me, and for some reason, they were the longest of the trip. The car was still comfortable, the music still randomizing an eclectic mix--although Rhapsody in Blue followed by Bohemian Rhapsody couldn't have been coincidental--but the want of being there had simply overridden everything else. The last exit for the United States leads you off Interstate 5 into a little town called Blaine. Drive through the traffic circle at the end of the offramp, and 2nd Street takes you to a small, grassy park--the kind where dogs run and fetch balls, children play on the swings and slides, and the houses bordering the street are in another country. A three-foot-deep trench is all that separates the United States from Canada, at least in Blaine, Washington. Two border patrol agents rode by on bicycles, and paused to ask about the car. I chatted for a while, gave The Speech, and asked what they'd do if I just wandered over to Canada and knocked on someone's door. "We wouldn't care," one said, "but the Mounted Police might have something to say about it." Good point. I wandered around a little more, down to the Peace Arch State Park straddled by the north and south lanes of Interstate 5, and casually strolled into Canadian territory without even realizing it; only later did I learn that one side of the arch is the United States, the other is Canada. Compared to the Mad Max-style high security of the Mexican border, the casual nature of this border was comical. I went back up to the park, and a group of Canadians wandered past. We chatted a bit, and when I told them what I'd been up to the past few days, they offered to take my photo. I handed them my camera, leaned up against the "Canada" post at the border, and smiled. Yes, they were polite, and no, they didn't ask, "So, you're aboot to head home then, eh?" Over the 1,561 miles of my trip, I managed to average 23 mpg, much better than I could have hoped. The 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8 was, as I had suspected from the first moment I ever drove it, the perfect long-distance road trip car. Throughout the trip, I was eager to get back behind the wheel. It rewarded me as much as any sight, any person, anything I actually did on my journey. And although the trip home wasn't nearly as scenic--that 18-hour blast with associate editor Trevor Dorchies and me trading driving duties is another story for another time--the car rewarded me the whole time. So did Interstate 5. Far from a mind-numbing crawl between cities, the road itself--not just the attractions, but the road--was captivating. Sure, it was dull at times. Any road is. But the sights along the way, its sweeps and curves--and yes, even those long straight stretches--added up to a magnificent ride. Throw in the places I saw and the people I met along the way, and you have just about the perfect road trip. Until the next one.
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The open road. It beckons some of us, compels others, and maybe even scares off a few. But for most, one of the great joys of owning a car is enjoying it on a road trip, whether it's blasting down an Interstate, exploring the wilderness, or driving to your favorite annual hoedown. We love road trips, and we love telling you all about them in words and pictures, so come ride along with us as we hit the road and discover what's out there.
2014 Nissan GT-R Mug Run

2014 Nissan GT-R Mug Run

We drive a 2014 Nissan GT-R on an urgent mission to replace a coffee mug.

October 17, 2013

The Pebble Beach Experience: A First-Timer's Look at the World's Most Extravagant Celebration of Cars

The Pebble Beach Experience: A First-Timer's Look...

Pebble Beach weekend is one of the best car events in the world, but...

September 17, 2013

Hotel Airstream

Hotel Airstream

We spend a weekend in a $180,000 Airstream Interstate to race $500 cars,...

February 13, 2013

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