Sun Tunnels Solstice

Sun Tunnel Sunset

Sun Tunnel Sunset

I spend most of my time outside and live by the Sun and so Solstices are kind of a big deal for me, more so than any other Hallmark-holiday. So when I was invited to a Solstice party way out in the northwestern Utah desert at an art installation called the Sun Tunnels, I changed my tentative travel plans. Instead of heading west into Nevada’s Ruby Mountains, I went north to City of Rocks, Idaho, where I spent a couple of days climbing 2-billion year old granite with my campground neighbors, who not only invited me to climb with them, but also made me lunch and cooked me dinner. The generosity of people I meet on the road never ceases to amaze me.

City of Rocks in southern Idaho boasts some of the oldest granite in the USA

City of Rocks in southern Idaho boasts some of the oldest granite in the USA

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On of our routes up Coyote Corner on Rabbit Rock (5.8) in the center up the corner crack. Find the two climbers!

On the Friday before the Solstice, I headed back south to the very edge of northwest Utah, about 15 washboarded miles off the pavement, past the ghost town of Lucien, to a dusty, desolate spot on the edge of my map. Four concrete tunnels and a handful of cars assured me I was in the right place. I tracked down my art historian friend Joey, who seemed a little incredulous that I had actually showed up. Funny how rare it is to meet somebody these days who says yes and means it.

The wide open landscape around the Sun Tunnels

The wide open landscape around the Sun Tunnels

One of the few inhabitants of this remote desert.

One of the few inhabitants of this remote desert.

The Sun Tunnels were created in 1976 by pioneering land artist Nancy Holt, who sought to capture this almost incomprehensibly huge Basin-and-Range landscape on a more human scale. The tunnels are 18 feet long and 9 feet high and viewing the wide open country through the aperture of the tunnels does make it easier to wrap your mind around the sheer scale of the landscape. Arranged in an open X formation, two of the tunnels line up with sunset and the other two with sunrise on the summer and winter solstices, events she hoped would lure people out to experience this beautiful, remote place at least twice a year.

Sunset on Friday Night. The alignment lines up for several days before and after the actual Solstice.

Sunset on Friday Night. The tunnels align with the setting Sun for several days before and after the actual Solstice.

The smaller holes are arranged to echo four different star constellations: Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn.

The smaller holes are arranged to echo four different star constellations: Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn. They don’t align with the stars, but simply serve as additional apertures onto the landscape.

Around 75 people made the journey out to the Sun Tunnels on Friday night, most from Salt Lake City, and several dozen camped overnight to catch the sunrise through the opposing set of tunnels the next morning.

Sun Tunnels Sunrise

Sun Tunnels Sunrise

Then, much to my initial surprise: everybody left. By noon on Saturday, only three of us remained at the site. I soon found out why: this was a hella harsh place to hang out. High in the sky, the Sun was relentless and repeated gusts of hot wind raked across the desert all day, stirring up towering dust devils that forced swirling grit into the tiniest crevasses. Even with the trailer to hide inside, the day was kind of an ordeal. But I was glad I stayed. After a day in the elements, the Sun Tunnels became more than a novel art installation: the cool, concrete tubes were a refuge.

The Teardrop through the Sun Tunnels

Sun Tunnels Teardrop

The black lines were made by people firing guns into the tunnels and the bullets spinning along the walls.

The black lines were made by people firing guns into the tunnels and the bullets spinning along the walls.

By evening, a whole new crowd of about 150 people showed up, their arrivals announced on the far horizon by the trails of dust kicked up under their wheels. Several people rolled up with flat tires and I found several dozen rusty nails scattered around my campsite. In the desert, the hazards never cease.

New arrivals getting a thorough dust bath

New arrivals getting a thorough dust bath

Bowie the party animal. The dogs both made the rounds. Pretty sure they greeted each and every person at the Tunnels more than once.

Bowie the party animal. The dogs both made the rounds. Pretty sure they got petted by each and every person at the Tunnels more than once.

Sunset on the Solstice. I didn't even try to get another alignment shot.

Crowded Sunset on the Solstice. I didn’t even try to get another alignment shot.

After dark, the party really got started. Many people had brought firewood and food and everybody was willing to share. Camped way out in the desert, a few bright fires surrounded by hundreds of miles of pitch darkness, we all pooled our resources and a hundred Sun-loving strangers became a tribe. Once again, I found myself in exactly the right place at the right time with the right people.

I connected with a cadre of anarchists from SLC

I connected with a cadre of anarchists from SLC.

Climbing on top of the tunnels was much easier than anything I scaled at City of Rocks!

Climbing on top of the tunnels was much easier than anything I scaled at City of Rocks! I’d call it a 5.5.

I originally planned to head west to the Ruby Mountains, but an irresistible offer from a charismatic anarchist enticed me back to Salt Lake City. Stay tuned for an unexpected, enlightening urban post!

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently traveling the backroads from New Mexico to Alaska, writing and living out of a tiny Teardrop camper. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at www.marycapertonmorton.com.
This entry was posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Science Writing, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Sun Tunnels Solstice

  1. Fantastic post, such striking photos

  2. Cnawan Fahey says:

    This is so fantastic! For years I’ve made special observances of the solstices and equinoxes and have long day dreamt about creating something with boulders to align with those special sunrises and sunsets and tubes through which the sun would shine at its zenith. Though I never imagined such large tunnels. I envy your lifestyle and really enjoy your writing!

  3. That harsh desert is home for me, love this post!

    xox

  4. Lavinia Ross says:

    Beautiful country there! Had not heard of the Sun Tunnels. Love these reports and photos of places I have never heard of or seen!

    We had our own solar event of sorts here with the old house. At the Spring and Fall Equinox, the morning sun would shine directly in the east windows, and at sunset, the sun would also shine back in the same east windows. How? The setting sun reflected off the windows of a big farmhouse up on the eastern ridge, right back through our east windows, making a beautiful pattern on the wall of the shadows of plants on the shelf situated in front of the window.

  5. Isn’t it amazing that earlier cultures understood the intricacies of the solstice’s? What an awesome experience. I truly agree with you that you were, ‘…in the right place, with the right people at the right time.’ What a great experience!

  6. Very interesting… glad you got to make the connection with others who value and celebrate the solstice.

  7. Spud says:

    City of Rocks area is my home turf where I grew up near. In fact , I have a plot just north of Fairfield in a pioneer cemetery with a stone already in place with all the info just minus the final date and me of course ! Can’t imagine a better final rest place than that area.

  8. swade says:

    Bansky graffiti in Park City 20min from SLC…

  9. Pingback: Salt Lake Spirals | Travels with the Blonde Coyote

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