Off the beaten path

A few weeks ago, when my daughter, son and I were on our time-limited drive across the country we did manage to take one side trip. In an art class, my daughter Claire learned about a public land art installation called the Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt located in northwestern Utah, in the northern tip of the Great Basin Desert not far from the Nevada border.

We were near the end of our first day of driving. We turned off of Interstate 80 which we had be traveling eastward on for several hours, onto Highway 233, northbound. The term “highway” was a loose interpretation in that it just little more than a 2-lane country road.

At about halfway we passed through the small town of Montello (population 84) which wasn’t much more than wide spot in the road. It was the biggest and only sign of civilization for miles around. At some point we crossed into Utah, though we didn’t see any road signs indicating that we did so.

After about 45 miles from I-80 we turned onto an unmarked dirt/gravel road that lead out into the desert and I was a bit dubious. It wasn’t evident that this was still a public road or a private one. In fact, it seemed to barely be a road at all.
We could hear the gravel churning beneath our wheels as we drove mile after mile, kicking up a plume of dust behind us. For 7 miles we drove. Occasionally, we should see a small wooden signs in the shape of arrows stuck in the dirt with words “Sun Tunnel” pointing vaguely in the direction of the “road.” A one point we crossed a dry gully. Thoughts of the van getting stuck in a rut raced through my mind. I could picture our bleached bones behind the wheel of the truck being found by some archeologist 1,000 years hence.


As we drove further into the desert, small groups wild antelope, about 30-40 yards ahead of us, would stop to look at us out of curiosity then bound across the road off into the sagebrush.

Surprisingly, when we arrived at the site, 2 young women were already exploring the site. Pulling up in the moving van in the middle of the desert, we must have looked like a scene from “Breaking Bad” so I assured the them that were weren’t there to make methamphetamine.

First impressions of the site were less than inspiring. What looked like 4 large concrete pipes, 9 feet tall by 18-feet long, lay randomly on the desert floor. They kind of looked like leftovers from some large sewer main project. On closer examination, the “pipes” were arranged in and “X” or a cross so that 2 were aligned in one direction and the other 2 were lined up 90 degrees from the first set.

Large 6-inch holes have been cut into the top of the pipes in the pattern of different star constellations so that light from the midday sun would repeat the pattern on the floor of each tube.

The tubes are aligned so that the setting sun can be seen straight through them during the summer and winter solstices. Unfortunately we weren’t able to scheduled out trip on those dates.

About a half-hour after we arrived the sun began to set beyond the Pilot Mountain range to the west and that’s when things began to get interesting. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the clouds that filled the heavens became more dramatic.
The sun pierced the clouds with orange beams as it neared the horizon. Even though it wasn’t the solstice the tunnels were still impressive. The warm sunset light skimmed off the curved surfaces of the concrete a golden glow transforming what looked like some abandoned random sewer pipes into works of art that both framed and accentuated the surrounding landscape and making them a part of it as well.

Our detour from our main journey took us roughly 3 hours out of our way. Although at first it seemed like it was a waste of time, in the end it was worth to find the desolate beauty of the desert.

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  • Blog Author

    Clifford Oto

    Clifford Oto, an award-winning photographer, has been with The Record since 1984. Through the changes from black and white to digital photography, he’s kept his focus on covering the events, people and life of San Joaquin county. This blog deals ... Read Full
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