Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Rockies Queen: Roadtripping in the Canadian Rockies in a Muscle Car.

Recently I had the opportunity to go to Alberta, Canada for a trip.

More specifically, I had to fly in to Calgary, one of the most prominent cities in the great province of Alberta; and drive to Edmonton, also one of the most prominent cities in the great province of Alberta (note: the order of prominence may depend on who you ask in the great province of Alberta).

Anyway, connecting them is Highway 2, which is designed by a guy who once put a ruler on a map and drew a straight line between the cities (note: probably true).

While it is a very efficient way to move people between places, it just isn't very fun. So I decided to take the fun way instead -- by taking 10 extra hours and spending it driving in the Canadian Rockies.

The short way vs. the fun way -- always go for the fun way, even if it takes 10 extra hours.
That settles the journey. Now what about the car?

As my boss fiercely denied my chance to drive the office Miata to foreign land, I had to rent a car.

Renting a car is usually quite a depressing business. You are packed in a plane for hours to go to a new city, only to be greeted by an 18-year-old employee sitting behind a desk asking whether you'd be interested in a grey 4-door sedan that is usually reserved for either rental fleets and transporting first-degree felons.

Not this time. I am determined.

This is the conversation I had with said 18-year-old employee, complete with the same amount of hair product you'd find holding together a light aircraft.

"Say, do you have any available upgrades?" I asked.

"Well... What would you be interested in?" He replied, sitting behind a desk staring into the computer screen, possibly playing Solitaire.

"I don't know... How about a premium car?"

"Nah, we ran out of premium cars. How about a Dodge Challenger?"

Dodge Challenger, the retro-styled American muscle car? The one where I can roll down the window, and not look out of place crusing down an open highway while blasting Van Halen? A two-door coupe that is probably best reserved for drag strips and not 12-hour road trips? Doesn't matter. I have driven too many grey-colored sedans that I could barely contain my excitement at the thought of driving something different.

"Erm, sure." I said, in a rather nonchalant manner.

Not long after, I was heading outside the city in a brand new Dodge Challenger, blasting Van Halen on the stereo with the windows down and the sunroof open.

Only one of them is a normal-sized car.
First of all, the Challenger is gigantic. Or, as the guys at Regular Cars put it, "deceptively huge". Primarily because the Challenger is actually based on the 4-door Dodge Charger -- America's new favorite police car, which is so large it makes a regular 5-door hatchback look like a Mr. Bean special.

It feels weird calling it a pony car when it rivals the size of a pick-up truck. As a matter of fact, the Dodge Challenger is so buffed up it is now running for governor in California.

Secondly, there is an inherent appeal to driving a car that looks like a 1970s hot rod: you get a lot of compliments. Everywhere it goes, there is an inherent celebrity-esque quality to the car. People are drawn to it -- young and old. It is more of a compliment of the design team that came up with the shape of this car, because boy, does it look fantastic.

Now, a disclaimer: This is not the 707hp Hellcat model; nor is it the SRT8 model; nor is it the R/T model. This is the SE model, with a jaw-dropping 305hp V6 motor under the hood -- not exactly a rocket ship, but this will still be quick enough to get me in trouble with the Mounties.
With me were also the Thinkware X500 and F750 dash cams.
With so many speed cameras in Alberta, they are bound to
be useful, especially in this car.

Speed is one thing, cornering is quite the other. As the highway crosses into Banff and Jasper National Park, there are mountain passes and swooping corners to be found here. How does this big American (note: manufactured in Ontario) pony car handle it?

More importantly, how will my body last in this 12-hour road trip with two doors and limited interior space? After all, this is not a big, comfy SUV that shields the bumps from the passengers, with enough room in the back to accommodate a medium-sized family.

Guess we have to find out.

9:00am: Leaving Calgary.

The Dodge Challenger scoffs at your parking restrictions.
Driving in Calgary is tricky. As I am driving a much bigger car than usual with not much of visibility, and the vintage-callback instrument cluster doesn't provide clear indication of how fast I am going, it becomes very scary to be driving in a 300+ hp car in a city that is littered with speed and red light cameras.

Luckily, both the X500 and F750 I loaded for this trip come with the speed and red light camera alerts and they have saved me in more than a couple occasions.

Once I got outside the city though, the stress goes away and I can finally focus on driving.

10:00am: Arriving in Banff National Park.

One hour outside of Calgary on the Trans Canada Highway is Banff National Park. The weather is overcast and foggy high up in the mountains, and the temperature is hovering at a cool 41 degrees. Here, you will go through what must be world's most luxurious toll booths in the shape of country cottages, where I have been greeted by a very friendly park ranger. Very Canadian indeed.

Scene from the F750: One of the most luxurious toll booths I've seen. 
The day pass for both Banff and Jasper was $9.80 CAD, or slightly less than what it costs to cross the Holland Tunnel. Given the amount of sights I'd encounter in the Canadian Rockies, I'd say that's reasonable.

Plus, no early-90s Plymouth Relient would pass you on the shoulder and proceed to yell at you. That's a win.

11:30am: Lake Louise.

Continue driving west on the Trans Canada Highway and you will be greeted by majestic mountains and towering trees. Among these mountains lies Lake Louise -- a glacial lake that is named after the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria. 

The green / emerald color you can see in the water is the result of rock flour being flushed from the mountains to the lakes. It makes for a rather spectacular sight, and a good pit stop before heading back on the road. 

12:15pm: Back on the road.

Ah, yes. Back on the road with the Challenger. 

Lake Louise is also the junction where Trans Canada Highway meets the Icefields Parkway -- a 140-mile country road that heads through Jasper National Park towards the north. 

It's been just over three hours since I embarked on this journey, and so far it appears that everything is in order. My back hasn't disintegrated because of the body-hugging bucket seats, and while it isn't quite Saturn V-type of ferociousness, the 305hp powerplant provided plenty of oomph to overtake motorhomes and camper vans. 

It was also here where I found myself traveling in the Swiss Alps. Quite a staggering sight it was. 

Give me a pair of sunglasses and a 60's Lamborghini and I'm set. Oh wait...
2:30pm: Jasper National Park.

One of them is an exploration vehicle, and the other is a Mercedes Unimog
Crossing into Jasper National Park, the Icefields Parkway start getting twisty. That is normally a good thing if you're driving a $120,000 exotic European sports car, but a $30,000 Dodge Challenger...? Surprisingly not bad.

It is no Miata, and the sheer mass and size of the car makes it a little intimidating in narrow country roads. However, it is still willing to be thrown into corners, with the 7-speed automatic gearbox working with the engine to pull the scenery past the windows. The power delivery is very smooth, which is a good thing to have for a long drive like this.

Right in the heart of Jasper National Park is Columbia Icefield -- the largest icefield that Rocky Mountains has to offer. Here, the landscape looks like it belongs in a Christopher Nolan sci-fi movie.

Oh, the temperature was hovering at 35 degrees and it was snowing for a bit. Because Canada.

4:00pm: Lunch in Jasper, Alberta.

Modern vs. Vintage: the 70s-inspired Challenger meets a 1950s GMC 100 truck. 
After 7 hours of driving, it was time for a "lunch" break. Jasper, being a small town, doesn't offer much in the way of a "quick" solution to hunger -- most of the restaurants in town were diners. Since I was on a bit of a time table, I didn't quite have the time to stick around.

Luckily, they still have a local coffee and donut shop, so it was just fine.

This coffee shop is named after a Canadian ice hockey player. Because Canada. 
4:45pm: Back on the road.

The town of Jasper, Alberta is where the Icefields Parkway intersects the other Trans Canada Highway -- Highway 16. The exciting part of the trip basically ends here, as Highway 16 leads directly east to Edmonton while cutting straight across numerous small towns.

That said, it has been a full solid day of driving at this point, so I definitely don't mind taking it easy now.

On our way to Edmonton, the Challenger settles in and transforms into a rather comfortable highway cruiser. Any doubts I had about the car's ability to transport me long distance comfortably were erased.

7:45pm: Sun down.

The view of Northern Canada is still no less spectacular. The sky was finally clearing from the light snow earlier afternoon. The sun set occasionally peeked through the gaps between clouds, and every now and then you'd see a rainbow on the horizon. The highway was empty.

In this situation, I did what most sane person would do: activate the cruise control, pop in The Dark Side of the Moon, and take in one of the best wallpaper that mother nature can offer, while listening to The Great Gig in the Sky.

Driving on this wide open stretch of road, I finally started to appreciate the charm of the American muscle cars.

Yes, the combination of the classic design cues and raw power contribute to this unmistakable feeling of freedom. However, the idea of the classic American muscle car happens only on the stage of a wide and lonely stretch of highway. Once you have that, then everything comes together. And that's a good thing.

And remember, this is only a rental car with a V6 engine.

8:45pm: Arriving in Edmonton.

After nearly 12 hours of driving, I had finally reached Edmonton, the northernmost major North American city.

As I parked at West Edmonton Mall, the largest shopping mall in North America, I took the dash cams off the windshield and downloaded the videos onto my laptop. Good thing then, because I equipped myself with a couple of 64GB MicroSD cards -- the majestic sights offered by the Rocky Mountains required a bigger memory card, after all.

It had been a fantastic drive, and I have no regrets ripping the keys of a Dodge Challenger off 18-year-old rental agent at the airport. Yes, it is massive in the cities -- but then so is a full-sized SUV. Would an SUV be more comfortable and practical? Perhaps. Would an SUV offer better visibility in cities? Perhaps.

The thing is, after 12 straight hours of driving, I was free of any slipped discs or sore limbs. I didn't have the desire to check myself into a chiropractor clinic because of the ride. On the contrary, the road trip has been nothing but comfortable. Miles and miles went by and I was still in total comfort, with more style than any SUV can offer.

And, once the Canadian Rockies appeared on the windshield with hundreds of miles of open roads on the horizon, then playtime was on. If you find yourself in Canada, take a drive in the Canadian Rockies -- but get yourself a fun car.

Just try not to get any hair product on you when you grab those keys from the rental agent.

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