There was an event in Anchorage that we needed to attend and taking a plane seemed so obvious. Why not drive? It was only 3,500 miles from our home base in Los Angeles and it promised plenty of sweeping vistas, welcoming indigenous people and local delicacies along the way.
At least that's what we told ourselves. We tried to forget that on most road trips you simply drive a million miles, stare at the dashboard and eat bad food for days on end. Maybe this wasn't such a great idea.
But then we remember that we're not so young anymore. The opportunity for driving across five states, three Canadian provinces and two international borders to America's northernmost property — then back again — is not likely to happen again. It's now or never.
We Need a Plan
We talk about a plan over coffee, lunch and coffee again. Which car should we take? How many roadside attractions will we try to hit? After one too many discussions, Features Editor Mike Magrath finally comes up with a route.
The choice of car is decided for us. It's going to be our long-term 2012 Jaguar XF. It has shiny 20-inch wheels and low-profile summer tires along with a small trunk and the kind of fuel mileage you would expect from a supercharged, 5.0-liter V8.
Magrath seems to think that the Jaguar's idiosyncrasies will make the trip more interesting, or at least that's the word he used before we left. We're talking about a 7,000-mile trip; we need something that's dead reliable and able to take some punishment. So yeah, our $72,000 Jaguar sounds perfect.
On the Road
For a memorable take-off, we head to the Santa Monica Pier for a photo. We're immediately swamped by joggers on a fun run and then Magrath gets into a shouting match with a cyclist on the warpath. So far, so good. Once out of the L.A. basin, however, we start making time as we head toward Death Valley.
Getting out of California is boring. The gray shroud of sky sticks with us for about 3 hours until it bursts into brilliant blue and white as we get into the open desert. Death Valley, home to the lowest point in the United States, not to mention the distinction as the hottest place on Earth, is as barren, wide-open and as hot as it sounds.
After taking it all in, the rest of Nevada goes by quickly, then some of Arizona and half of Utah. The memory card on the camera has the proof of our progress, but we could be anywhere in the Southwest. It's only Day 1 and we're already treating other travelers with disdain. "Oh, you're going to Salt Lake City? That's nice. We're going to Alaska."
We stop for the night at some no-frills chain motel. There's a truck stop adjacent to the hotel and we check the alcohol content on the beer before we buy it. Back in Magrath's room, our feet are up and we're convening about tomorrow. We're getting up early and going as far as we can.
What's left of Utah and Idaho go by quickly the next day. We stop for gas in Montana and pass a restaurant that claims to offer "Home Cooked Grub." We're not sure if we're hungry, but we've yet to eat at under 65 mph on this trip so we stop.
The cook could've been the Bounty paper towel model and the waitress could have been on COPS. The special is something with country gravy. Meat of some sort, pounded flat (or run over) and deep-fried. They have me at country gravy.
Most of the trip, the 2012 Jaguar XF makes things easy, but crossing the Canadian border is not one of them.
"So who owns the car, sir?"
"So it's leased?"
"Well, no. They loaned it to us for the purpose of... Yes. It's a lease."
"Are you carrying over $10,000 and do you own any firearms?"
And that was that. We're off into the wilds of Alberta, Canada, which looks a lot like Montana. From our standpoint, it's beige. Neither of us knows a kilometer from a bushel, so we keep the digital speedometer in English units and estimate what it takes to not get a ticket. We talk deportation, prison and mounted police.
We finally leave civilization on Day 3. The first audiobook hits the speakers and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is sure to keep us entertained for 17 hours and 8 minutes.
Ahead of us lie the first of the good roads of the trip. Huge sweepers. Trees. Rivers. Mountains. Gravel. Oversteer. It is brilliant, epic and nearly endless. We don't see a car in our lane for 6 hours. This is the stuff we dreamed about.
It's a Big Country. Just Put That Anywhere
Other than the Yukon Territory not allowing radar detectors, and its handmade welcome sign looking like something from a defunct bingo parlor, we don't remember much about it except this one particular gas station.
There's iridescent dirt everywhere. Two guys with Dodge pickups towing campers are discussing mileage, time on the road, tire pressures, average speed. We open the doors and the rainbow painted-dirt suddenly makes sense; there are gaping puddles of diesel everywhere and the smell hits us hard. We need gas, though. Now.
Before getting back in, we flip the floor mats and wipe off our shoes as best we can. Magrath thinks his shoes are dissolving. We need to open the windows, as there's a fine black dust blowing around the cabin. It's not his shoes, since they're turning into a liquid; it's the backing for the floor mat.
Night Fallls. Hard
Our plan to caffeine it to Alaska is just not going to work. The Jag's headlights are crap. We prefer to do most of our long-distance driving at night. Traffic is lighter, cops are easy to spot (watch for brake lights). But when you can't see, you can't see. And in the Jag, we just can't see very far.
Visibility, even on this clear night, is down to less than 2 seconds at speed. Hitting a bear (or moose, or elk, or bison or hitchhiker) or a patch of gravel would leave us, at best, a in a ditch. Did we mention we're in the middle of nowhere?
We wind up stopping a few hours early at some cabin-y hotel with 6-foot-long beds covered in a camp blanket. But they have a full bar. There are kids in their early 20s speaking French and talking about Montreal. We are from Los Angeles and feel just fine with it.
The camp blankets are surprisingly effective and the next morning we're surprised that there's frost on the car and it's 29 degrees out. We find out that this motel is closing next week, as is the gas station and nearly everything else connected with the tourist industry. If we'd tried this trip just a few days later, we'd have been sleeping in the Jag. We got lucky.
60 Minutes to Alaska
"So you both live in California? And are driving to Alaska?"
"That about sums it up," Magrath tells the border guard heading into Alaska.
"Why are you coming to Alaska?"
"Because we're Americans and it's a state and because it's a cool road trip."
"Why did you boys go through Canada?"
"Because you have to. It's in between... You know you're not connected to the mainland, right?"
The border guard was not amused. As far as we were concerned, we were coming home. To him, we're tourists without a visa. Magrath figures it out and we are finally allowed back into our own country.
We're able to use real money again. The signs are in miles per hour. Gas is sold by the gallon!
Anchorage could pass for a rural Seattle, if you let it. It's a frontier. For a lot of people, it's the last good shot at something. It's a modest city, with modest houses, buildings and people. And the scenery is amazing.
We stay in town a couple days so Magrath can drive some SUVs and then start preparing for the return trip. On departure day, the sun is barely up when we decide to hit the road. It's the first day of moose and elk season, so we want to put some distance on the hunters before they've shot their quota.
I climb behind the steering wheel of the supercharged Jaguar XF like it's nothing. I'm a photographer by trade, but not now. Now, I'm a driver. Yukon won't do, tonight. We want to make British Columbia.
Even if Magrath hadn't mentioned it, I would have figured out it was the first day of hunting season. The hundreds of moose and elk skulls, skinned and bloody, strapped to the overstuffed coolers towed behind trucks would have been a good indicator.
I try to forget everything for a good 500 miles. So. Many. Skulls.
I fire the Jag down Highway 37. It's one wide lane. It's a logging road, and it might not be continuously paved. It's straight, but we're running atop a ridgeline, so we have great views. It reminds me of old photos of a freshly built Nürburgring. I drive accordingly. Life before superhighways must have been astounding.
Magrath tries his hand at photography by sticking up out of the sunroof to grab a shot. Bugs hit him in the face. He hates my job.
Big British Columbia
B.C. is massive. We see more bears than we do glaciers and more glaciers than we do other motorists. We wonder how Pontiac ever went out of business. Every little town is packed with Torrents, Montanas and G5s.
We stop in a sleepy town and stay in a hotel that smells like chopped lettuce. The bar is sad in the way that local bars can be. The parking lot is filled with trucks, with quads, with camo, with guns, with coolers.
Just like that, 700 more miles go down and we're stopped at the Canada/U.S. border near Does-It-Matter, Washington. It dumps us onto Interstate 5 and the biggest rat's nest of cops either of us has ever seen. The radar detector is going crazy. Every car we see is a cop and we're seeing one every 30 seconds or so.
Both of us are getting nervous. Not because we're doing anything wrong, but we are driving a black Jaguar with California plates at 1 a.m.
We celebrate our passage through Cop Land with a couple of milkshakes and two rooms outside of Bellevue. The Wendy's here doesn't have poutine and we realize something's changed.
Seattle. Portland. Mount Shasta. RVs. Oh, and Oregon doesn't let you pump your own gas. We've done these towns before. No need to stop again.
Sacramento is only 7 hours from Los Angeles. That gets a mildly psychotic laugh out of both of us. We convene in the Jag over burgers and assorted unhealthiness.
"Should we do it?"
"Are you sure you're good to drive?"
"Yes. I have a formula. Rockstar and cheeseburgers. It's fail-proof."
"Got it. Let's do it."
We make it to Lost Hills in central California before giving up the dream of getting home in one last shot. Driving all night is cool. Not barrel rolling off the freeway is even cooler.
It's 2 a.m. now. It's warm. It's windy. Alaska is gone. So is Canada. This area is just dead. Dead restaurants. Dead motels. Dead palm trees. We walk to a truck stop, dodging stray cats, and grab a couple of beers. We'd rather be anywhere but here; stopping this close to home feels like failure.
Traffic. Welcome Home
The final portion of Interstate 5 into the L.A. basin is referred to as the Grapevine. It's the main artery in and out of Southern California and it's doing its best to cause a heart attack. Magrath thinks fast and finds us a way around the traffic right after it hits. His shortcut saves us at least 60 minutes, a lifetime, today.
Near the office, we wait at a busy intersection and see more cars in two minutes than we'd seen for two days. It's surreal and we can see how people have trouble acclimating to the big city.
There's not a lot of talking at the last fill-up. Our office is less than a mile away and our Jag's been nearly flawless so far. There's an adventure van filling up next to us. One of those massive, lifted Ford vans with a diesel, four-wheel drive, built-in beds — the whole nine yards. There isn't a scratch on it. The tires are shiny.
The owner probably figured us for a couple of West L.A. yahoos, but we're the ones with a car caked in mud from the Trans-Alaskan highway.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.