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Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels

Of all the 5,600-plus miles I drove during Road Trip 2009, none may have been more focused than the 320 or so I drove on the Fourth of July to see artist Nancy Holt's terrific Earthwork, the Sun Tunnels.

Built between 1973 and 1976 on 40 acres of Great Salt Lake Desert land near the tiny town of Lucin, Utah, "Sun Tunnels marks the yearly extreme positions of the sun on the horizon," wrote Holt in 1977, "the tunnels being aligned with the angles of the rising and the 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 centered for about 10 days before and after the solstices."

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Laid out in an X

According to Holt, the "four concrete tunnels are laid out on the desert in an open "X" configuration 86 feet long on the diagonal. Each tunnel is 18 feet long and has an outside diameter of 9 feet 2 1/2 inches, and an inside diameter of 8 feet...Each tunnel weighs 22 tons and rests on a buried concrete foundation."

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The constellations

One of the wonderful features of the Sun Tunnels is the series of holes drilled in each of the concrete tubes.

Without knowing what they were, you would be tempted to think they were just holes that make for terrific viewing of the desert and mountains beyond, but in fact, they have a very specific purpose.

The holes come in four sizes, either 7, 8, 9, or 10 inches in diameter), and according to Holt, "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."

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Looking through, with holes

A view through one of the four Sun Tunnels, looking straight out at another of them, with some of the holes--and their shadows--visible inside the 22-ton concrete tube.

Holt writes, "During the day, the sun shines through the holes, casting a changing pattern of pointed eclipses 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."

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The landscape

While the Sun Tunnels on their own would be considered breathtaking, the landscape in which they were placed is equally stunning. Placed in the Great Salt Lake Desert, with nothing but open land and mountains as far as the eye can see, Holt chose a spot that was worth visiting, regardless of whether there is great art there or not.

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Through to the mountains

A view through one of Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels, and then through a second one, at the mountains behind.

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Through straight on

A view of all four Sun Tunnels, looking straight through one of them at another.

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Two at an angle

One of the great things about the Sun Tunnels is that while they were designed with the purpose of aligning directly with the sun during the summer and winter solstices, it is also fun to walk around them, viewing them at an infinite number of angles and seeing how the tubes look.

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Two holes

A look out through two of the holes drilled in one of the tunnels.

The holes correspond to four different constellations--Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn.

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Dust devil

As seen from a distance, the Sun Tunnels and a quickly approaching dust devil, in Utah's Great Salt Lake Desert.

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Two in a line

Two of artist Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels, as seen lined up.

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Shadows of the holes

The holes drilled into the tunnels--which correspond to four different constellations--cast wonderful shadows on the bottom halves of the tunnels.

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From far away

Because the tunnels are so large, and are placed by themselves in the middle of a large piece of the Great Salt Lake Desert, they are visible from miles away.

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