Out West: An Unforgettable Road Trip Through Six States and Several National Parks

by Jason Heidemann
Out West Road Trip Opening Photo

I’m on an ambitious Wild West road trip that will swing through six states and include visits to several National Parks, three big cities, and a plethora of small towns and roadside attractions.

Hello, Utah! As soon I cross state lines via HWY 93 into the Beehive State, I run smack into the Bonneville Salt Flats, a 30,0000-acre salt pan and, I imagine, an ideal setting for car commercials. Like the vehicles in front of me, I drive right off-road and onto the flats, sputtering away from the pack in search of my own little haven in which to soak up endless horizon. The mountains to the west are the only interruption to this vast white canvas, so I prop my tripod upon the crusty earth, unfold my Pride flag, and snap a few pics.

I’m not expecting a big bear hug from Lucas Horns, my Misterbandb host for the weekend in Salt Lake City, but he greets me with one and I’m immediately smitten. (It doesn’t hurt that Horns is dressed only in a pair of short shorts). A mustachioed gent with a perfectly chiseled chest, sculpted no doubt by his five years as a professional dancer with prestigious dance company Ballet West. Lucas makes me feel at home right away. His industrial loft is located in the heart of downtown and exudes an amazing queer energy thanks to touches like a pair of rainbow Doc Martens, a drag coffee table book, and other cheeky tchotchkes.

Out West Road Trip: Pioneer Town, near Palm Springs California

Photo: Jason A. Heidemann

After about an hour of chatting, Lucas sends me off to dinner in the artsy Sugar House neighborhood while he heads to a dance gig happening on the back of a flatbed truck. His dinner rec is on point. Finca offers Spanish small plates in a romantic bungalow-like setting. I order way too much, including a croqueta (Spanish ham and cheese fritter), patatas bravas (crispy potatoes), tosta de setas (toast with mushrooms), and a heaping plate of roasted chicken thighs. Even though my belly has now swelled to the size of a dirigible, there’s room for a nightcap.

The city is alive and crackling tonight thanks to SLC Open Streets, a COVID-friendly initiative that has brought bar life to the great outdoors. I snag an al fresco table and sip an Old Fashioned at White Horse Spirits & Kitchen, one of many craft cocktail bars crowding Main Street. It’s here that a local asks me a question I’ll hear many times: “What do you think of Salt Lake City?” Even though it is a tiny metropolis, I have to admit I’m thus far impressed.

I’m startled the following morning, not by the 8 A.M. kitchen alarm that blares like an over-caffeinated rooster, but by the sight of my naked host bounding out of his bedroom to silence it. The surprise isn’t that he looks amazing in his birthday suit, it’s that he’s up early to play tour guide for me.

Lucas has generously set aside a few hours to give me an insider’s tour of SLC, starting at the bustling Downtown Farmers’ Market where he fuels up with cold brew coffee. I am already properly hydrated and sated thanks to breakfast at Vosen’s Bread Paradise, a German bakery known for its flaky and amazing croissant and jelly doughnut hybrid the Croiliner.

As we stroll the city streets, Lucas spills SLC secrets and all kinds of Mormon gossip (though he himself was not raised LDS). We pass a largescale mural, a feminist reimagining of Sgt. Pepper’s created by Jann Haworth, a Salt Lake resident and co-creator of the actual Pepper’s album cover. Lucas points out SLC Brewing Company, a craft beer hall famous for brews like the Polygamy Porter, and we stroll past the allegedly haunted Peery Hotel. We also visit Temple Square (buried under scaffolding) and the Capitol Building, which sits up on a hill to showcase the state government’s dominance over the Mormon Church. I learn that Mormons are obsessed with genealogy and that a river runs underneath the city. As a gesture of thanks, I treat Lucas to lunch at Eva’s Bakery, a downtown boulangerie open for outdoor dining.

Out West Road Trip: Amargosa Opera House in California

Amargosa Opera House
Photo: Jason A. Heidemann

Even though Lucas and his beau have to dash away to a photo shoot, he still steers my itinerary which includes a visit to emerging gayborhood 9th and 9th, where Pride and BLM flags are ubiquitous. At Dolcetti Gelato I order a scoop of passionfruit (I am, after all, a passionate fruit). Next, it’s a stroll through pretty Liberty Park (the likeliest spot for sighting shirtless men) and onward to The Living Room, a tourist-trod, but supremely satisfying hike that ends with expansive views of the city and mountains (but also layers of haze thanks to the wildfires).

Tonight, I will do something I have not had the pleasure of doing in many months—visit a gay bar! But first, dinner. At Pallet, I study the bare bone of my pork shank with the intense eye of archaeologist. I’m searching for one last piece of tender meat while wondering how it all disappeared so fast.

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