Greetings from Wyoming, as the Great Swing Back East continues, Cowboy-edition. When you last heard from us, we were wrapping up our time in Sin City and nursing what was essentially a two week hangover mixed with mild dehydration.
The time since our last post did not go as smoothly as it could have, to say the least, which forced us to miss quite a bit of our week in our last stop, Salt Lake City, Utah. Things had gone too smoothly thus far on our trip, and we were due for something like this.
Remember that feeling of unspecified dread I mentioned last week, the one that almost caused me to cancel my trip to Death Valley? Well, much like a parent knows their child or an owner knows their pet, after 8 months and nearly 14,000 miles on this trip, I know our car. Something was, in fact, gravely wrong, though I could not tell you what made me feel that way.
Our first real inclination that something was wrong came about an hour south of Salt Lake City, after what had been a pretty and hot but otherwise uneventful drive. “AT OIL TEMP.” I’m well acquainted with lights telling us to change the oil, to add more coolant, but this was a new one. Morgan did some quick research from the passenger seat, which advised us to pull off the road, turn off the engine, and let it cool down for a few minutes. Following a tense 10 or so minutes, we fired the car back up and, fortunately, no warning lights.
We arrived in Salt Lake shortly thereafter and got settled into our home for the week. We didn’t rush out to do any sightseeing. After all, we had a full week here, right? (*ominous music plays*)
The next morning, it was raining. This was strange; we racked our brains and figured the last time we saw rain was March 29th, in Tucson of all places. It took me a minute to even remember how to use my windshield wipers. I drove across town to the Natural History Museum of Utah, which by all means seems like a really great museum. I just didn’t get to see much of it.
As I pulled into the parking lot, the car shuddered and then stopped. I’m not a car guy by any means, but even I knew this wasn’t good. I could barely will it forward enough to get into a parking space and out of the aisle. A quick call to Triple A told me I’d likely be waiting an hour or so for a tow truck. So I figured I might as well try to see a bit of the museum – I was here already, right?
Naturally, immediately after buying my $20 ticket, I got a call from the tow truck driver, telling me he was 24 minutes away. Alright – challenge accepted.
I practically jogged through the museum, trying to speed-read exhibits on local native groups and the biology of the Great Salt Lake. I even got a quick glimpse of the many dinosaur skeletons. But even before 24 minutes had elapsed, I got another call letting me know my tow was here.
While chatting on the way to the repair shop, I felt a bit hopeful when my tow truck driver reassured me that he thought it was probably just low transmission fluid based on the symptoms and our light yesterday. He dropped me and the car off at the AAA-recommended repair shop and I went to go get lunch and wait.
From here, the series of events turned out almost comically bad. The next morning, I got the call that the transmission had totally failed. Not only that, but the shop estimated it could take 3-4 weeks for a repair, which they couldn’t even guarantee. They suggested I have it towed to a nearby Subaru dealership. It took more than a full day for the dealership to even look at our car, at which point any last hopes of a quick fix were crushed. It was, in fact, a full transmission failure, priced at a whopping $8,000 – roughly the worth of the car.
This was something that I’d been kind of worried about in the back of my mind ever since we left – stranded out west with Linus and our entire life in luggage, thousands of miles from home. I suppose I could have investigated potential solutions, but I didn’t even want to manifest it as a possibility. Our first plan was a ludicrous one, involving a one-way rental to Cheyenne, Wyoming, followed by flying Morgan back to Florida to purchase a car, which she would then drive back to meet Linus and me. Despite Morgan’s insistence that she was up for it, I was skeptical. This produced an even more ludicrous plan in which Morgan would fly back to purchase the car and drive it part way, at which point I’d fly in and meet her, and she’d fly back to Cheyenne to go back to work. My head hurts thinking about the logistics of this.
In reality, with those costs in mind, we had a much easier and more obvious solution in front of us – just buy another car. I can fully acknowledge how lucky we are to be able to do this. Morgan had planned on buying a new (to us) car when we wrapped up the trip anyway, so we essentially just accelerated the process a few months.
But what is there really to say about the process of buying a car (which is already stressful enough) on a deadline and two thousand miles from our “home” state? It’s not good – especially when you’re a “first time buyer,” as the dealers considered Morgan. We nearly bought a Nissan Rogue on our first day of shopping, but a ludicrous 12% interest rate sent us searching for better options. We found it the next day, in a lovely 2020 Ford Edge. I will miss my Subaru, for all its problems…but this thing is pretty nice. We celebrated with some incredible Mexican food from Red Iguana, including potentially the best tacos I’ve had on this trip. Yes, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Surprisingly enough, in between that pure chaos, we were actually able to see a *bit* of Salt Lake City. I continued my state capitol tour with a tour of the Utah State Capitol. This was a fairly strange tour in that it was just me and two middle-aged Germans who seemed very surprised to learn about how state governments work here. But the building was absolutely spectacular, even if they really made no effort to conceal that this is a Mormon building for a Mormon state.
Right next door was the Pioneer Memorial Museum, which houses artifacts from Mormon pioneers who first settled the Salt Lake Valley. Another of the weird (though by no means the weirdest) things about Mormonism is that it’s really only about 170 years old, meaning many LDS members can trace their roots all the way back to the pioneer who brought their family here. The result is that they absolutely LOVE family history, and preserve some of the weirdest things because of it.
Aside from dozens of cases of plates, clothing, trinkets, and more, there were also a few weirder gems, like this terrifying painting, casually slipped in amid other real photos of people, and a taxidermied two-headed sheep that would have been more at home at The Museum of the Weird. I was starting to get the willies already before I noticed the Haunted Mansion portraits, so I hightailed it out of there.
On the way home (via scooter, naturally) I swung by Salt Lake City’s top attraction, which was surprisingly in the midst of a massive construction project. This is Temple Square, home to Mormonism’s top temple, the famous Tabernacle, as well as the religion’s offices and visitor center. When I visited in 2018, it was pretty awe-inspiring to walk around the gardens and monuments with the massive temple looming over you. It’s not quite the Vatican, but it’s got similar vibes. Then again, Salt Lake City isn’t Rome either.
By the time late Thursday afternoon had rolled around, it was hard to believe all the stress of the past few days was over. From first issue to driving away in our new ride took almost exactly four days. One lesson here might be that the worst-case scenario you fear in the back of your mind might actually not be as dire as you expected. Another is that money solves a lot of problems easily enough, and we’re lucky to still enjoy a solid financial situation after nine months on the road. I shudder to think about the alternative; perhaps Morgan and Linus and I would be hopping a freight train home – they do go through Morgan’s childhood hometown, after all.
I decided to celebrate our newly-restored transportation by walking up a very steep hill in 97 degree temperatures. It might seem hot, but I think Death Valley may have broken my internal thermometer (along with, I suspect, the Subaru’s transmission.) I was heading up Ensign Peak, which overlooks the entire Salt Lake Valley and was an important spot for early Mormon settlers.
It climbs about 400 vertical feet in under half a mile, pretty much straight up. But the views from the top were obscenely worth it. That selfie below may be the first time I smiled since the car broke down. From the top, you could see all the way to the Salt Lake in the distance, along with the Wasatch Mountains to the east.
One of the highlights of our visit was something we almost skipped, but which turned out to be the kind of unique experience this trip has been so great for providing. We crossed the Wasatch Mountains and headed to Park City to check out the Utah Olympic Park, the site of events during the 2002 Winter Olympics and now a training site for American athletes. It’s also got a winter sports museum, where we passed the time waiting for our tour. I could see Morgan considering getting into ski culture just for the outfits.
When we checked in for our tour, we were told our tour guide was Carl, who “knows everything about this place.” That turned out to be an understatement, when our guide introduced himself as Carl Roepke, a former Olympian, luge champion, and P.A. announcer at every Olympics since 2006. This guy has forgotten more about winter Olympic sports than we’ll ever know, and the tour sort of reflected this. It was almost as if he had so much knowledge of this stuff that he couldn’t figure out the most important things to tell total novices. Strangely enough, this made for a very awesome tour that took us through the luge and bobsled tracks, along with a trip to the top of the Alpine ski jump. I never got off the bunny hill when skiing, so naturally this was pretty terrifying to consider.
One of the absolute coolest parts of the visit came after the tour was over, when we were able to watch the ski jumpers practice some incredible flips into a special pool.
You can watch a few here – sorry for the vertical video.
After our very enjoyable visit, Morgan and I strolled a bit through Park City, one of those towns where you really need to be rich to experience it properly. We grabbed some lunch and headed back across the mountains in an attempt to see the Salt Lake. But we were thwarted by a closed state park, apparently due to a massive brushfire in the area that took out a bunch of power lines. This seemed like a strangely appropriate way to wrap up our week of misadventures in Mormon Country.
It’s really a tremendous shame that I’ll probably associate the stressfulness of this week with Utah forever because I really like Salt Lake City. People here are just so nice; it’s uncanny, in a way Morgan also noticed almost immediately as well. And it feels like a real niceness, unlike in the south and midwest where it can feel a bit shallow or superficial at times (bless your hearts.)
It makes it really hard to realize that a lot of these extremely nice, clean-cut, hard-working, family-minded folks also believe some absolutely bonkers things. If it weren’t for Scientology, they’d have the inside track for the strangest origin story of a widely-practiced American religion. The whole thing is very sinister in the most wholesome way possible, and we’d prefer just to be left out of it.
We’re already more than halfway through our time here in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and it’s been a blast so far. I look forward to telling you all about it – hopefully sometime next week, if I don’t fall hopelessly behind like on this one. Hey, we bought a new car and traveled 861 miles in the last two weeks – give me a break!
From our new home on the range,
Nick and Morgan