Southern Wyoming would be much more interesting if there were still buffalo roaming about. The landscape is mostly high desert grassland and exceptionally windy. You can see for miles around but it’s not nearly as flat as it looks. The road heading West from Cheyenne steadily climbs in a straight line all the way to the summit near Sherman Peak. Even though the ascent was not as dramatic as what we had seen in the Rocky Mountains, we were still having a problem keeping our engine temperature under control. Engines typically run hotter when climbing, but ours was going way above normal operating temperature and was not cooling back down nearly as fast as it should.
This has been concerning us for a while. Our plan was to carefully proceed North towards Oregon, stopping to cool down the engine when needed and avoiding mountain passes when possible. Once we got to Oregon we would take it to the Cummins mechanic that we had been to before. Our RV engine is a Cummins 8.3L 300HP turbo diesel motor and we feel safer taking it to a specialized mechanic that works on these larger engines. This plan probably would have worked out just fine, but we got a lucky break when we stopped in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
We were setting up for a quick overnighter at a KOA just outside of town when I saw an ad for a local Cummins shop in the KOA brochure. The shop was less than a mile from where we were camped. We called them up and they could fit us in the next day.
Rock Springs was really not on our must-see list, but we had some flexibility in our itinerary and both thought we would feel more comfortable going forward if we knew what was up with our engine and could hopefully get it fixed.
The next morning we dropped the RV off at Cummins. Their initial suspicion was that we either had a malfunctioning thermostat or a blocked radiator (or possibly both). After a test drive they concluded that the problem was actually our oil thermostat.
Our particular engine has an oil cooler located inside the radiator. Both have a thermostat and both help to keep the engine running at the correct temperature. Because our oil thermostat was not functioning properly, our engine oil was not cooling down. The overheated engine oil was then continuing to heat the coolant in the radiator as it ran over the oil cooler. The result was that all of our fluids were running too hot and were not cooling down fast enough because oil holds temperature longer than water. Replacing the oil thermostat fixed the problem. Once our oil was able to maintain a proper temperature the radiator was able to do its job and keep all of the fluids cool.
Our radiator is probably still filled with 20 years of dirt and road grime but this was not the source of our problem. We can clean the radiator ourselves at some point, and at a much lower cost than having the guys at Cummins do it for us.
In the end, finally getting our engine problem fixed made Brandon exceptionally happy. It also meant that we spent three days in Rock Springs instead of one. First, we had to get the problem diagnosed. Next, we had to wait on the new thermostat to be delivered (the following day). Finally, by the time it was fixed it was too late to hit the road for our next location. Our stay in Rock Springs ate up all of the time we had planned for boondocking in the Grand Tetons, but we made the best of it and went searching for everything Rock Springs had to offer. Best of all, the Cummins shop let us spend a night boondocking in their parking lot for free.
Funny enough, we actually loved our spot at Camp Cummins. It was cool at night (around 75 degrees) so we left our windows open and enjoyed the lights of the “city” out our windows. Rock Springs has a pop. of around 30,000 but in a state with a total pop. of just over 500,000, this counts as the big city. But even though we were parked in “big city” Wyoming, no one could actually see us. We were hidden in plain sight. It was surprisingly lovely.
Because our RV was in the shop most of the time we were there, we had no choice but to go explore our surroundings in the Jeep. After lunch at Bitter Creek Brewing we headed west toward the nearby town of Green River to check out the Flaming Gorge Recreational area.
On the map I could see lots of water and I was hoping we might find a swimming area. We took scenic Hwy 191 for about 30 minutes through high desert and across a small tributary river before we finally started seeing evidence of the large river running through the Flaming Gorge.
We turned at a sign for the Buckboard Marina and Campground. They had spots for RVs both with and without hookups and a few undesignated boondocking spots out on a peninsula. We eventually found a road through to the other side of the campground and a secluded swimming beach. The water was brisk, very clear and we were the only people around. The strong wind made the surface break in little waves.
Brandon didn’t bring his swimsuit so he just hung out with Gunner.
The Cummins shop had told us that they would leave the gate unlocked for us so that we could park the Jeep next to the RV when we returned. They must have forgotten because the gate was very clearly locked when we got back from our trip through the Flaming Gorge. This wasn’t a big problem because we could walk right around the gate. All it did was keep people from driving a vehicle in or out. However, we still needed somewhere to park the Jeep overnight. There was actually a Jeep dealership (no joke) next door so we drove over to see if we could park in their lot overnight. They were a bit confused by the request but said it was no problem. We parked at the very back of their lot so that we could see the Jeep from the RV. Our initial concern was that the Jeep would be locked in and we would have no transportation in case of emergency. But the car salesman we talked to told us that they had never once locked their gate while he had been working there. We noticed that they also left the keys to each vehicle sitting right on the back bumper. Rock Springs is apparently a pretty safe place.
As we were settling in for a night at Camp Cummins Brandon noticed a stray dog wandering around the parking lot. She looked well fed and was wearing a collar. We coaxed her over to us (with a bowl of water and some turkey slices) so that we could check her tags for a phone number. A man picked up the line almost immediately. He was right around the corner looking for her. She was an adorable little pit bull named Elsa, who apparently escapes from the yard pretty regularly. Our dog Rudy was not an escape artist. For the first two years we lived in Portland the back gate latch didn’t work. Had he pushed at the gate just slightly he would have been free to roam, but he never figured it out. Even still, I understood this man’s frustrations with his wandering pup. Constantly driving around looking for her, picking her up at the pound, wondering if she’s been hit by a car. We were very glad we found her before she made it to the nearby highway. As we were walking away I heard the little boy in the backseat say, “Elsa is going to be in big trouble with mommy!”
We spent the rest of the night enjoying the view from our nondescript camping spot.
We got up around 8am the next morning and proceeded to have a leisurely morning drinking coffee in the RV. The part for the RV was not supposed to arrive until after lunch so there wasn’t any rush to vacate for the mechanics to get to work. Around 10am we wandered over to the office to drop off the keys and take off for a day of exploring in the Jeep. The way they chuckled and laughed “Good Morning!” when we walked in made me think we were part of a joke we weren’t aware of.
Apparently, one of the mechanics had knocked on our door around 8:30am but we must not have heard it over the sound of the shower. When we didn’t answer the door they just went ahead and started installing the new thermostat right where we were parked. The part had arrived on the morning truck instead of the afternoon truck and they were itching to get started and get us back on the road. We never heard a thing. By the time we waltzed into the office at 10am all that was left to do was change the oil and take Alpha for a test drive. For anyone wondering, the oil change was unrelated to our thermostat problem. But it was time and we thought we might as well do it while we were stopped at a decent mechanic. The last time we had the RV’s oil changed (at Camping World in Portland) they had used the wrong sized filter and caused us to leak oil all through Northern California (see Bakersfield, California).
The customer service at Cummins was truly top-notch. They were very honest with us from the get-go, running through all the possible causes of our problem but emphasizing that they wanted to keep this affordable and would start small and work their way up to keep costs down. Our final bill actually wound up being $300 less than they had quoted us. They also didn’t treat me like I was an idiot. Mechanics generally talk to Brandon like an equal and either completely ignore me or speak to me like I don’t know even know not to put gas in a diesel. I’m still learning, and there is a LOT that I don’t know, but in order to learn I need to be included in the conversation. It’s a small thing but I really appreciated it. But most of all, they made us feel at home. We were welcomed to stay overnight in their lot and they fixed our engine while we enjoyed coffee onboard!
They couldn’t change the oil in the RV with us on board so we quickly packed our day bags and took off for another day of exploring Rock Springs.
First stop was brunch at Penny’s Cafe in Green River. We had heard really good things about Penny’s and wanted to check it out for ourselves. Penny’s is a classic 1950s diner, right down to the long tube-shaped facade, neon signs, and walls decked out in retro advertisements.
From Penny’s we drove back into Rock Springs to find a way to kill time while the guys at Cummins finished up work on the RV. Brandon had been eyeing all of the dirt trails leading up White Mountain just outside of town. The area appeared to be BLM land open for off-roading. We had seen at few ATVs and dirt bikes on the trails so it seemed kosher. In any case, Wyoming is a funny state. There are not many rules here and no one seems to care much about what rules they do have. For example, you don’t need an OHV permit for a Jeep so long as it is street legal and registered. You only need permits to drive non-street legal vehicles off-road. This makes sense, but we were continually surprised by the nonchalant attitude of the people. Even at the local BLM office. When we asked about permits the lady at the desk laughed and said, “Welcome to Wyoming!”.
The drive up White Mountain was fun and not too difficult. We honestly have yet to encounter any off-road trails that compare to Brown’s Camp in Oregon in terms of difficulty and technical driving. For the first half of the drive we took a side trail that someone had created. It eventually met up with a service road that led the rest of the way up the mountain. At the top we found what we believe was a weather station. We learned later that we could have continued down the other side of the mountain, eventually ending up in Green River.
We went straight to Cummins when we came down from the mountain and arrived just as they were pulling Alpha out of the shop. Perfect timing. We spent our final night in Rock Springs back at the KOA where we had started this little adventure. The next morning we take off bright and early for Yellowstone National Park!