A Mesmerizing Road Trip in a 2017 Volvo V90 Cross Country
Experiencing a great American getaway, with an impressive Swedish steed on duty
Brian Horn may have the best job in the world. Horn is a guide with Grand Teton Fly Fishing in Wyoming. He spends all of his days, or at least the ones when the sun stays in the sky way past dinner time, guiding fly fishermen down the Snake River, and along no less beautiful rivers and streams, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
When fishing season ends there, he is off to Belize, the Florida Keys, or New Zealand, casting, catching, and releasing rainbowed, speckled, water-colored, aqua-breathing, dry-fly gobbling trout, or a related finned cousin. And when the days become really short and temperatures drop and water freezes, he is up in the Montana backcountry hunting 800-pound elk. Kind of beats the hell out that 9-to-5 gig, wearing a coat and tie, staring at the blank spot in your cubicle, and suddenly realizing you are only in your mid-30s and there is another 24 years before you get that company going away party, doesn't it?
I met Horn a week ago, when I realized I had spent too many weeks in a row looking through the back end of camera, at too many loud and fast moving objects racing past the opposite end. So I made the relatively last minute decision to take a mid-racing season, mini vacation as far away from civilization as I could drive to.
But first, I had another sports car race to photograph. Not a bad thing, especially this one, the Pirelli World Challenge event in Utah. I really like the PWC series, as it features great cars, great drivers, and usually great circuits. This round was at Utah Motorsports Campus (UMC), formerly Miller Motorsports Park. The facility sits on 511 acres in Tooele, Utah, which is 30 minutes west of Salt Lake City.
UMC is the second longest road course in North America. Originally the dream project of businessman, car enthusiast, and Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller, the facility has fallen on a bit of hard times after Miller died in 2009 and his family did not renew the lease with Tooele County. Recently, Mitime, a subsidiary of the Chinese conglomerate Geely, offered to purchase UMC for $20 million. Other bids followed and it seems a public auction will ultimately decide this track's fate. If the Mitime bid prevails, its plans include adding a drag strip, an oval track, and a hotel to the site. If Mitime is outbid, the likelihood of sports-car racing continuing at this great facility is rather small.
A proper road trip, even a short one, requires a new and interesting destination, a hassle-free co-pilot, and the appropriate car. Grand Teton National Park was the destination, and I secured a cabin at the Jackson Lake Lodge. The co-pilot was an easy and natural choice: "the Gator", the econ professor, marathon runner, Skip Barber racing school grad, University of Florida football fanatic—also known as my better half. We've made several memorable road trips together over the last several months—driving across Norway, hiking in Iceland, exploring the national parks in southern Utah, and a Met and Nobu blitz in New York City. Having her along makes traveling all the better.
The car needed to be elegant enough for semi-formal evenings on the town, large enough to handle a good bit of luggage, comfortable enough for hours of interstate driving, and capable enough for handling stuff on or off the beaten path. One car came to mind, a car I've wanted to drive since it was introduced several months ago, the all-new 2017 Volvo V90 Cross Country. Volvo was game, so the car was ready for me as I walked out of my hotel room on Friday morning in Salt Lake City. Reposed in Volvo's magic blue metallic exterior, with amber leather seats with charcoal interior, and equipped with plenty of useful technologies and features (if a car has "bells and whistles" I don't want to drive it) I would come to know and appreciate over the coming days.
With the exception of some of the music (ABBA and Bjork? Really?), I've always appreciated the Scandinavian way of doing things. Understated, modest, unusually well-thought-out social institutions, an inspired culinary scene, plus novels and television shows with substance.
I can now add car design to my list.
Thomas Ingenlath, Volvo's senior vice president of design, and his team, created a new generation of cars that reflect the Swedish aesthetic. External lines are understated, graceful, elegant, and beautiful. Their interiors boast quality and comfort, and seem instantly familiar. Inside and outside, this generation of Volvos is balanced and distinctive, athletic and supple. Perhaps not the words you expect to be associated with Sweden. But don't forget this is the country which produced Ingrid Bergman, Alicia Vikander, Ingemar Stenmark, Bjorn Borg, and Ronnie Peterson.
My first two days with the car were limited to the short drive to the racetrack or quick drives to downtown Salt Lake for dinner. Salt Lake City is a great place for foodies. The highlight of this trip was HSL (www.hslrestaurant.com), the latest venture by executive chef Briar Handly. The restaurant opened in 2016, has a relaxed vibe and a mostly organic menu. My starter was a snap pea salad with rhubarb. The entrée was halibut with farro porridge and wild arugula pesto and mustard seed. Food so good, eating anything of lesser quality should be a crime. Several of my fellow veteran motorsports photographers and I have adapted this unwritten rule: Tourists eat at chains, travelers eat everywhere else. HSL was full of locals and travelers.
After the final checkered flag fell at UMC, and a short detour to Park City, we headed north to Wyoming. The rear of the Volvo was packed with two of the largest Patagonia rolling duffel bags, a ThinkTank International roller camera bag, a small Vera Bradley duffel bag, my small laptop carry-on and a small daypack. Photographers rarely travel light. My wife's laptop bag was placed on the floor behind her seat. Still room for 3 more passengers, although a roof rack would be needed for their luggage.
The route to Jackson Hole was a combination of interstate, divided highways, and two-lane roads through small towns. The Volvo's 115.8 wheelbase, riding on Pirelli Scorpion Verde All Season (235/50R-19) tires, and the rear-end premium air suspension (a $1,200.00 option and worth every penny) made this car an absolute pleasure to drive. Whether cruising at 80 mph or opening it up to triple digits, the V90 Cross Country always felt securely planted, stable, comfortable, and predictable.
We arrived in Jackson at 8:45 on Sunday evening, and either by accident or divine intervention, parked directly across the street from the Snake River Grill. Just remember to choose elk or trout and you can't go wrong. And be sure to order the Eskimo Pie for desert.
I quickly came to the conclusion the only good reasons to come to downtown Jackson were one great restaurant and a couple of topnotch fishing/adventure/outfitter offices. The rest of the town is block after block of souvenir stores, their windows full of stuffed moose and bear, and shelves overflowing with t-shirts. The was not the destination I had in mind. And thankfully, the one I was destined for was just another 30 minutes down the road.
Grand Teton Nation Park is like a cathedral God built for himself. Granite walls touching the clouds. The wind whistling through aspens, and crystal clear rocky streams and waterfalls comprising nature's choir. An ark's worth of wildlife, uncaged, free, and easy to see. And happy people greeting each other, their accents from around the globe, and only agendas to experience this slice of heaven and everything in it.
Our entire first day was spent hiking the Cascade Canyon trail, then back down to Observation Point, and finishing with a 2.5-mile route along the Jenny Lake Trail back to our car. Plenty of people on the trail to meet, or with whom to share a story about spotting a bear and her cubs and to taste the seemingly endless supply of huckleberries.
Most of the second day was spent fly fishing on the Snake River. Without a doubt, this was the highlight of the trip for me. Finding our guide, Brian Horn, was simple enough, just a Google search and a few minutes of research made us realize this was the outfit to go with. Its website is www.grandtetonflyfishing.com. Horn is outgoing, enthusiastic, and full of knowledge and patience. A fantastic guide and steward of this land and these waters. He has guided everyone from Curt Gowdy, the former host of "American Sportsman," to newbies like us, and every level of fishermen in between. After a short lesson in fly casting we were on our way. The day was sunny and crisp, a perfect six hours of drifting down the river, observing ospreys and bald eagles in their natural habitat, and shooting lines. We caught several cutthroat trout; the sheer thrill of landing the first one, briefly holding this beautiful creature in your hands before releasing back to the river, is something I will never forget. I cannot imagine a better way to make a living or connecting with nature. The only word that comes close to describing this day is "spiritual."
Moose was on the agenda for the balance of the day. The V90 Cross Country was set to Off Road mode as we drove over dirt, loose gravel, and pot-hole strewn roads in the back country searching for these marvelous animals. By no means did these conditions begin to test the Volvo's off-road capabilities, but did provide a sample of the limited throttle response when driving in this mode. However, with 8.3 inches of ground clearance, this car is not designed for boulder climbing but is probably best suited for maneuvering through the sand to your beach picnic, or picking up the kids at school during a snow storm and getting everyone home safely. Or on this day, taking you to where the moose feed.
For the majority of this trip I used the Eco and Comfort driving modes, resulting in 32.3 mpg on the highway and 26.1 mpg in mixed conditions. The temperature was cool everywhere outside of Salt Lake City, so we drove most of the time without A/C activated.
In addition to the great fuel mileage and impressive ride quality, the Volvo semi-autonomous technology was outstanding. Specifically, the adaptive cruise control was fantastic even in heavy interstate traffic. The auto high beams and active bending headlights were made for driving the dark roads in the national park. The center display, the largest I've seen this side of a Tesla, whether using the GPS, adjusting the head-up display, or simply finding a radio station, is a breeze to learn and intuitive.
There is not much not to love about the Volvo V90 Cross Country. Well styled wagons are a welcome change to the ubiquitous, cookie cutter SUV market. The Swedes have created a beautifully crafted option to the seemingly endless supply of alphabet-soup and abacus-themed, especially German, SUV and crossover models.
We woke up early on the third day, packed the car and made the short drive north to Yellowstone National Park. I thought we had beat the crowd, but easily more than 1,000 people were standing in the semi-circle around Old Faithful when we arrived. Twenty minutes later the geyser erupted for a grand total of 75 seconds. Interesting? Yes. But not as impressive as anything I witnessed the previous days in the Tetons. Old Faithful is the "small hands" of attractions. A lot of huffing and puffing, followed by a very anti-climactic performance. The better part of the Yellowstone experience was hiking through this unique and massive volcano.
Soon it was time to head back to Utah. We exited the West Yellowstone gate, sliced through Montana along U.S. 20 W, then picked up I-15 S to Salt Lake City. And as quickly as it began, the trip was over. But what a wonderful short trip it was.
This country's national-park system is the ultimate in re-gifting. Everyone should go and take someone with them. And encourage others to do the same. You leave a national park as a better person. Perhaps it is simply glimpsing the divine and having some understanding of your place in it. That's how I felt after a few days in Grand Teton National Park. Humbled. Appreciative. Lessons for a lifetime, memories forever. And of course there was the added bonus of driving a wonderful car there and back, a Swedish gem that delivered the goods to an American treasure.