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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!