The Great Challenger Adventure

Driving a Dodge Challenger into the great American unknown
Imthishan Giado

Challenger Road Trip

Fifteen years ago, a callow youth left Dubai for the first time in his life to travel far away, across many oceans, past many great cities, to a college in a tiny town in rural Montana.

For a boy of just 19, it was a ferociously scary trip. I remember wondering if I would fit in, if I could hack it out there all by myself in an alien culture surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Living in Dubai, you tend to forget what a small place it is, really, and how shockingly comfortable.

But I worried for nothing. Over the course of two years in the strange and eccentric town of Butte, Montana I would meet many wonderful new friends, see sights that beggared belief and have the kind of experiences that will hopefully make for a good memoir someday.

Now, I’m finally going back. Back to see if my friends have changed, if the town is still as I remember it, if America is as I left it. And I’m doing it in an awesome Dodge Challenger. Because, well, why wouldn’t you do it in a Dodge Challenger?

I’ll be reporting below on each day’s progress. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram on #MMEOnTheRoad. Newest updates will be at the top, scroll to the bottom to see more.

Day 4: Butte, At Last

Arriving in Butte is like traveling back in time.

By Dubai standards, it’s tiny. The last census claimed it housed 33,854 people, approximately the same population as Bur Dubai. Coming from the burgeoning metropolis, it was a real shock to be in a town which you could traverse in less than 20 minutes.

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Pledges to Greek fraternities had to scrub this statue of the founder down during Rush week.

Fifteen years later and having travelled the world many times over, Butte feels smaller than ever. It’s an cascading ocean of memories, walking through the school grounds, remembering how I used to trudge through the snow drifts in the early mornings to get to class.

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The steps to my old dormitory, where I had my first cigarette – the first of many, as it turned out.

What’s amazing is how largely unchanged the school is. Fourteen years, two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a recession, Butte has proved resistant to the sands of time.

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I *lived* in the computer lab in 1999.

So many of the memories feel like artifacts of a different time. For example, in those days nobody came to college with their computer – what are you, some kind of Donald Trump? – so I spent at least six hours a day in the computer labs, until the guards threw me out. A lot of that time was admittedly spent on Napster grabbing as many songs as humanly possible off our insanely fast (for the time) OC-3 line.

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The Challenger, resting after 1700 long miles.

Believe it or not, Butte was also where I learnt to drive. Highly illegally of course – my friends were outraged to learn that at the age of 19 I still didn’t have a licence – hey, priorities were different back then – and put me behind the wheel of their clapped-out college Hyundais and Pontiacs. This is where I learnt to drive stick; it’s also where I first learnt that snow is not to be trifled with.

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This unassuming house was home to most of the campus’s Indian population

Cellphones? USBs? We were still using Zip Drives back then. Let’s put it this way – I made a healthy side income by owning the only CD burner in the dormitory….

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My friend Cotton, from the tiny town of Lima, Montana.

Friends are the other reason I came back to Butte. It’s fascinating to find out how people’s lives have changed over the years. Some for the better – like my bosom buddy Cotton, who’s gone from a good-old-country-boy to an affiliate marketer moving to big-city Seattle next month – and some for the worse, like my dorm TA, a nervous, greasy kid named Dale who committed suicide a year after I left, after being accused of raping two girls. Not all news is good news, as they say.

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My friend Matt Moore, who’s happily transitioned to married life.

But most of the news is good. You never think you’re grown up, and then suddenly you are, like my friend Matt here who’s a real grown up with a house, a kid and a lovely wife he adores above all else. Kinda puts my own nomadic existence into perspective – not that I would trade this job for anything else in the world!

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Time to get back on the road.

All too quickly, it’s time to head back to big city LA and my flight home. But what an amazing journey it’s been. By the end of the trip – which will also see me travel to San Francisco and visit Motor Trend in LA – I will eventually cover an eye popping 3525 miles (5672 km), drive for more than 68 hours(!) and spend $562 in gas over the course of nine days of travel.

They say you can’t understand America until you drive it, and take in its enormous vistas and unfolding majesty, meet its friendly denizens and bathe in its warm shores.

They’re right.

Day 3: Salt Lake City to Butte

After the debacle of the Paul Revere style dash to Salt Lake City that ended 100 miles short in the tiny, fly-infested twon of Nephy, I knew today had to be different.

Resolving to do things a little more sensibly, I checked out of the Not-So-Best-Western and amble gently down the freeway. The distances here are so vast, going 5mph faster makes f**k-all difference to your travel time beyond a few less minutes.

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Vast open landscapes outside Salt Lake City.

Going slower also gives me the chance to enjoy some of the spectacular scenery this country offers. Interstates carve their way through ceaselessly mountains and pour across valleys. You can literally see the Rocky mountains begin on your left, and the grasslands conclude on your right. Well, you could if I wasn’t driving when I took this photo. Naughty Imthishan.

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The golden brown fields of Idaho.

The closer I get to Butte, the lonelier the road becomes. Where once I shared the highway with semis, monster trucks and Miata, the last few hours I’m lucky to see another car every 45 minutes. Not necessarily a bad thing. Your brain essentially freewheels and is free to ponder the mysteries of the universe while your conscious body keeps the car pointed through the beautiful winding roads. Yes, I was awake, safety nerds.

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There’s nothing sexy about Butte’s truck stops.

And at long last, after more than 24 hours of driving and more than 1500 miles, I reach Butte, the school of my childhood. Will it be the same? Am I the same?

Only one way to find out.



Day 2: Vegas To Salt Lake City

I knew this was going to be a long day, but I didn’t think it would take this long. Chalk it up to one epic error of judgement.

You see, I wanted to see the Grand Canyon. There are two ways to see the Grand Canyon: visit either the North Rim or the South Rim. The North Rim isn’t as exciting, but directly joins the highway up to Salt Lake where I have a room booked. But the South route also allows me to take in the Hoover Dam and only adds an extra hour, says Google Maps.

Google Maps, you are such a liar.

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Megatron not pictured.

Located an hour outside of Vegas, Hoover Dam is a must-visit for engineering fans. When you get there, you’ll be amazed at the work of the engineers back in 1936 who managed to create this gigantic structure out of these unforgiving walls. Transformers fans, this was where Megatron was stored in the first 2007 film.

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There’s a good reason manufacturers use Arizona for hot weather testing. Temperatures rose to 45 degrees, though the Challenger stayed cool and composed. I wasn’t so much, after receiving this bill for gas at a station in the middle of nowhere.  Nearly Dh300 for a full tank! Blame the free market – it’s summer and Americans are driving everywhere.

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That’s one brave man. It’s a long drop to the bottom.

After another six hours – a journey GMaps said would take four – I finally reach the Grand Canyon. Entrance is not cheap at $25, and what they don’t tell you is that it’s hour off the interstate. Well worth the trip though; the view from the various points is breathtaking. Be warned; the rock surface is slippery and there are no guard rails, and if you choose to hike down to the canyon, temperatures can triple that at the rim. More hikers die of heat exhaustion here than rock falls.

These Jeeps are available for transport to the outer reaches, though I’d much rather pony up for a helicopter, thanks.


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Not on my mods list!

It was only when I left that I realised the magnitude of my mistake. In Flagstaff an hour later, I realised there was no easy way to reach Salt Lake City. There were three options: backtrack all the way to Vegas, a six hour jaunt; stay the night in Flagstaff and commit to an 14-hour plus final drive to Butte the next day; or gamble that I could find the way north through the backroads to Salt Lake. In the dark. Where GPS would be spotty and help impossible to get.

Never one to be sensible, I downed the strongest cup of gas station coffee I could find and set off.

To say it was crazy would be an incredible understatement. The roads were pitch black and surfaced like bomb craters, the Challenger bucking all over the place like a live-axle pickup. Animals ranging from coyotes to Challenger-munching full sized-deer  would leap out of the forest into your path with seconds to avoid them. And confusingly, the road randomly diverted you through dead-end towns and along sheer cliff faces. With no guard rails. Great roads to drive in the light of day, but near suicidal at speed in the night.

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Empty gas stations, deserted hotels and not a restroom in sight.

Over the next seven hours, I would not see a single human soul, but somehow, fuelled by Chips Ahoy! and bonkers-determination,  I made through to the interstate, the Challenger’s navigation guiding me straight and true long after my iPhone signal was lost. It would be another three hours before I would make it to Utah, and eventually abandon thoughts of reaching my room in Salt Lake.

I just wanted to find the first available motel and crash for the night (or morning as it were) but a new problem arose: everything was booked. Exhausted, I visited more than 20 motels before finding one with a free room. The night manager took pity on me and gave it to me for half-price, neglecting to mention that was full of the annoying flies you’ve ever seen.

Tomorrow, Butte. Somehow. Or bust.

Day 1: LA to Vegas

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My Granite Pearl R/T. And it’s got a stick!

Never, ever complain about Dubai’s crowded airport, becuase LAX is an absolute mess, as intuitively laid out as a goat’s intestines. Fortunately, this magnificent beast was waiting for me at the end of it. A Granite Crystal Challenger R/T Blacktop with a six-speed, it’s going to be my mode of transport to Butte. Can’t think of a better road trip car!

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Surprisingly disappointing.

Fuel time

You can’t just get in and drive sixteen hours to Butte, so I needed fuel. This came in the form of California’s famous In-N-Out, a cult hamburger joint that draws devotees of the sandwich from all over the country. How popular is it? At lunch time, the wait to get served was nearly an hour long – and that includes drive-ins! Can you imagine anyone in Dubai waiting that long for a burger?

What a pity the burger wasn’t all that when I finally received it. Dry as a sandpaper massage, the meat was overcooked and underwhelming in flavour. Another sacred cow gone.

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Santa Monica Pier is stunning and worth the traffic snarl to visit

Life is a beach

Post lunch, what better way to relax than a walk on Santa Monica Pier? This 105 year-old boardwalk is one of LA’s most famous landmarks, heaving under the weight of hundreds of Angelenos looking for a respite from the summer heat. Parking is easier than a Dubai mall, as long as you’re willing to pony up the $12 fee for a beachside spot. Yes, the lifeguards actually look like the ones from Baywatch.

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LA traffic is hellish.

Rush hour

Caught slap bang in the middle of rush hour, it takes nearly two agonising hours to find my way out of LA. Whether you take the confusing side streets or the frustrating freeway, this is one of the worst traffic jams I’ve ever experienced.

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The food isn’t healthy, and the gas isn’t cheap.

All of this means that I’m exhausted before I’ve even begun. Thankfully, there are plenty of rest stops along the way, like this gas shed outside of Barstow. Food and amenities are widely available, though anything healthier than a burger or beef jerky is not. Little did I know, it would take another four hours to reach the city of sin.

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Taking yet another break at a gas station.

Fear and loathing in Las Vegas

With no streetlamps, the highways are difficult to navigate. That’s the lawless interstate in the background – can you spot it?

Finally – finally! – I reach Vegas. The vast metropolis emerges out of the desert, a cacophony of light and sound shocking you out of your road stupor. Time to party!…or not, because I’m utterly exhausted and just want to lie down.

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Upgrades rule!

Fortunately, Planet Hollywood upgrades me to the awesome Panorama suite with views overlooking the Strip. Not that I have the energy to take any of it in or even head down for one of their much vaunted shows – it’s time to crash.


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