SUN TUNNELS, 1973–76, is built on forty acres, which I bought in 1974 specifically as a site for the work. The land is in the Great Basin Desert in northwestern Utah, about four miles southeast of Lucan (pop. ten) and nine miles east of the Nevada border.
Sun Tunnels marks the yearly extreme positions of the sun on the horizon—the tunnels being aligned with the angles of the rising and setting of the sun on the days of the solstices, around June 21st and December 21st. On those days the sun is centered through the tunnels, and is nearly center for about ten days before and after the solstices.
The four concrete tunnels are laid out on the desert in an open X configuration eighty-six feet long on the diagonal. Each tunnel is eighteen feet long, and has an outside diameter of nine feet and two-and-a-half inches and an inside diameter of eight feet with a wall of thickness of seven-and-a-quarter inches. A rectangle drawn around the outside of the tunnels would measure sixty-eight-and-a-half feet by fifty-three feet.
Cut through the wall in the upper half of each tunnel are holes of four different sizes—seven, eight, nine, and ten inches in diameter. Each tunnel has a different configuration of holes corresponding to stars in four different constellations—Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn. The sizes of the holes vary relative to the magnitude of the stars to which they correspond. During the day, the sun shines through the holes, casting a changing pattern of pointed ellipses and circles of light on the bottom half of each tunnel. On nights when the moon is more than a quarter full, moonlight shines through the holes casting its own paler pattern. The shapes and positions of the cast light differ from hour to hour, day to day, and season to season, relative to the positions of the sun and moon in the sky.
Each tunnel weighs twenty-two tons and rests on a buried concrete foundation. Due to the density, shape, and thickness of the concrete, the temperature is fifteen to twenty degrees cooler inside the tunnels in the heat of day. There is also a considerable echo inside the tunnels.
In 1974 I looked for the right site for Sun Tunnels in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. What I needed was flat desert ringed by low mountains. It was hard finding land which was both for sale and easy to get to by car. The state and federal governments own about two-thirds of the land, the rest is owned mainly by railroads and large ranches, and is usually sold in one-square-mile sections. Fortunately, the part of the valley I finally chose for Sun Tunnels had been divided up into smaller sections, and several of these were for sale. I bought forty acres, a quarter of a mile square.
My land is in a large, flat valley with very little vegetation—it’s land worn down by Lake Bonneville, an ancient lake that gradually receded over thousands of years. The Great Salt Lake is what remains of the original lake now, but it’s just a puddle by comparison. From my site you can see mountains with lines on them where the old lake bit into the rock as it was going down. The mirages are extraordinary: You can see whole mountains hovering over the earth, reflected upside down in the heat. The feeling of timelessness is overwhelming.
An interminable string of warped, arid mountains with broad valleys swung between them, a few waterholes, a few springs, a few oasis towns and a few dry towns dependent for water on barrels and horsepower, a few little valleys where irrigation is possible…a desert more vegetationless, more indubitably hot and dry, and more terrible than any desert in North America except possibly Death Valley…Even the Mormons could do little with it. They settled its few watered valleys and let the rest of it alone.
—Wallace Stegner in Mormon Country: The Land Nobody Wanted
In the surrounding area are old trails, crystal caves, disused turquoise, copper, and tungsten mines, old oil wells and windmills, hidden springs, and ancient caves. A nearby cave, coated with centuries of charcoal and grease, is filled with at least ten feet of residue—mostly dirt, bones, and artifacts. Out there a “lifetime” seems very minute. After camping alone in the desert awhile, I had a strong sense that I was linked through thousands of years of human time with the people who had lived in the caves around there for so long. I was sharing the same landscape with them. From the site, they would have seen the sun rising and setting over the same mountains and ridges.
The closest settlement is four miles away in Lucin, Utah. It’s a village of ten people; nine are retired and one works for the railroad. Until the demise of the railroad, Lucin and Tacoma (ten miles west) were thriving towns of a few hundred people, with hotels, cafes, barber shops, saloons. Tacoma is completely leveled now. Except for a sign, there is no way of telling that a town had once been there. Lucin has only one of its old buildings left standing. The next closest town, Montello, Nevada (pop. sixty), twenty-two miles west, went through a similar process, but is more intact: even a few of the original sheds, made of interlocking railroad ties covered with sod roofs, still exist.