(PHOTOS BY TOM BUNN) (Scroll down for gallery)
Summer solstice at the Sun Tunnels (Utah’s version of Stonehenge) and the trek on the original Transcontinental Railroad bed to the Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake allowed me to partake in many of my interests during one trip: art history, earthworks, railroad history, astronomy, photography, camping and any excuse for motorcycling.
The Sun Tunnels were designed as an artistic homage to the summer and winter solstices and have become something of an attraction during decent weather. I had been here some years ago with friends and family and had the place to ourselves; other years, a crowd of 20 or more participated in the eve and the dawn of the solstice.
Nancy Holt, the artist, conceived the Sun Tunnels in 1973 shortly after her husband, Robert Smithson, finished the 1,500-foot-long Spiral Jetty, an immense basalt rock and dirt jetty spiraling counterclockwise into the Great Salt Lake. Her intent was to have the sunset viewed through one set of concrete pipes and the sunrise viewed through another pair. Concrete pipes in the middle of the Salt Flats sound strange, yes; and yes, people drive hundreds of miles to be here for the experience.
My trip began, as many do, the moment I departed I-84 near Snowville, Utah, where I picked up State Highway 30 to the west, then south, then west, then south, then southwest. The road skirts the Sawtooth and Grouse Creek Mountains. Even in mid-June the Sawtooths to the north were still covered in snow, making for a spectacular view and an amazing contrast to the vastness of the Great Salt Lake basin in the south. The motorcycle I rode was an ’09 R1200GS Adventure with locally made panniers from Happy Trails in Idaho. They were packed with lots of water and the usual backpacking gear for a long weekend in the high desert.
I arrived at the Sun Tunnels with plenty of time to stake an out-of-the-way spot and set up camp. I took photographs and chatted with a few of the 20 or so “Suntunnelers” here. Some climbed onto the tubes to pose for photos. One fellow in a well-used camper brought out his scrapbooks from Burning Man and entertained us with yarns and photographs of the excessive. I was the only motorcyclist there, and that seemed to be a starting point for conversation and friendships.
Evening approached and the clouds were adding explosions of brilliant yellows, glowing oranges and soothing blues on the horizon as the sun glided down. The small crowd gathered at the opening of the Sun Tunnels and were stilled, “ohhs” and “ahhs” were shared, cameras clicked, refreshments were opened and people posed and smiled. I set a camera on a tripod with the intervalometer programmed to make a photograph every 10 seconds. These images will be used to make a time-lapse video of the event.
As the sky darkened, campfires were lit and stars began to show. I placed little LED flashlights in the Sun Tunnels and set my camera on a tripod for longer time exposures. The holes Nancy Holt had drilled into the tubes represent the constellations of Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn; the larger the hole, the brighter the star in the sky.
It was a restless night. People searching for the Sun Tunnels in the darkness saw campfires and trickled in at odd hours. More were drawn to the site as dawn approached. I fired up the gasoline camp stove and loaded coffee into the business end of an ancient Bunn-o-Matic coffee machine, yielding hot predawn coffee in the middle of the desert where a calm cold had soaked everything to its core.
People wrapped in blankets and winter wear began to carry over their folding chairs to the opening of the sunrise Sun Tunnels. Dawn did not simply happen; it erupted from the horizon into color and movement of the clouds. People gave a standing ovation. They greeted the dawn by dancing, a ritual as old as human consciousness, an ending and a new beginning. Soon the blankets and coats were lying on chairs and the ground, as we basked in the warmth and glory of the new day’s sun. This was a distinctly different vibe from the evening’s sun setting event. For me it was time to pack it up, load the bike and give my farewells. The next destination: the Spiral Jetty.
The Sun Tunnels and the Spiral Jetty art projects are 103 miles apart but are connected very directly by the 144-year-old Transcontinental Railroad bed. The Pacific Railroad Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1862. The Act called for the construction of a railroad and telegraph westward from the Missouri River near Omaha, Neb., by the Union Pacific Railroad. Likewise, the Central Pacific Railroad Company was to construct a railroad and telegraph eastward from San Francisco.
Toward the end of 1868, track-laying crews from the east and west began to converge on Utah to join rails at Promontory Summit. The spirit of competition increased as both companies raced to reach Promontory first. Charles Crocker, one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad, claimed that Central Pacific could lay 10 miles of track in one day and, legend has it, Vice President Durant of the Union Pacific wagered $10,000 that it could not be done. Crocker covered the bet, and on April 28, 1869, the Chinese and Irish workers accomplished a feat startling even by today’s standards.
The concept to link the nation by rail became a reality on May 10, 1869, with the meeting of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads at Promontory Summit. A telegraph operator let the entire country know with a simple message: “DONE!” America had built a network of communication and transportation that brought the nation together. The “Iron Horse” allowed travel from coast to coast in days instead of weeks or months. A stagecoach ride required continuous travel for more than 20 days versus the same passage by train possible in less than a week and for $100.
As the industrial revolution accelerated, new markets were opened in the West for finished Eastern and European products. Explorations discovered vast deposits of minerals and timber resources, all moved by train. The heart of agricultural lands became accessible and the country truly became the United States of America.
By 1904, as many as 10 trains per day traveled through northern Utah. It was this year the Lucin Cutoff was completed; it redirected most transcontinental traffic across the Great Salt Lake by trestle. This new Southern Pacific bypass line was 40 miles shorter and avoided the steep grades and turns of the Promontory Branch. The workmen, their families and others whose livelihood depended upon the railroad began leaving and the stations and siding were abandoned. In 1942, the rails were recycled for the steel needed for World War II and the ties scavenged for fence posts.
The old railroad bed itself has changed little, a tribute to engineering, construction and erosion control. Some trestles were built of stone and are in perfect condition. The wooden trestles, for the most part, are unsafe if not totally gone. Short bypasses were made to go around the missing trestles. Some of the gullies are deep and have a mud base. I was glad the R1200GS Adventure had the power to push through and up the other side of the washes and gullies. The ability to drive back through history riding one of the most advanced motorcycles seemed appropriate.
The ghost town sites I passed by included the original stations built in 1869: Lucin, Bovine, Terrace, Matlin, Kelton, 10-Mile (Seco) and Rozel. Some of these stations were end-of-track construction camps where work crews would be left behind to build the section station as the railroad construction crews pressed east to Promontory.
Approximately 10 miles of track separate each section station. The stations had the materials necessary to house work crews responsible for maintenance of their 10-mile section of track. Some of their tasks included maintenance and replacement of culverts and bridges, replacement of railroad ties and ballast and the installation of heavier rails to accommodate larger locomotives. Some of these stations were also the homes of engineers who ran helper engines to aid freight-heavy trains over steep grades at Promontory.
The town of Terrace was the largest section station and served the Central Pacific as the maintenance and repair headquarters for the Salt Lake Division that stretched from Wells, Nev., to Ogden, Utah. Terrace boasted over 1,000 population, a 16-stall roundhouse, machine shop, coal sheds, water tanks and an eight-track switchyard. Terrace soon became a population center in northwestern Utah. In true Western fashion, the justice of the peace also ran the saloon.
Little remains of Terrace. It is a ghost town with only scattered shards of glass and bits of steel amid the overgrown foundations of the buildings. It does have a graveyard on the south side of the tracks. Only a few markers remain; most have been damaged or removed by vandals.
As I approached the Promontory grades, two replica steam locomotives were reenacting the “wedding of the rails” at the Golden Spike National Monument, a regular event put on by volunteers during the summer months. I photographed the Central Pacific Jupiter #60 on its way to meet the Union Pacific No. 119. Both locomotives are 4-4-0 wheeled. The tremendous sound of a steam locomotive is unforgettable; the hissing of steam, clanging of the bell and the roar of the engine. Travel by train 150 years ago was indeed a sensory event, much more than just transportation from one place to another.
From the Golden Spike site, the 16-mile gravel road to the Spiral Jetty is an easy ride, even for a road bike, if you don’t mind a little dust. Robert Smithson planned his Spiral Jetty in concert with and in contrast to the innumerable wrecked vehicles, boats, piers and the abandoned oil wells built to tap into naturally occurring oil seeps. These wells were drilled as early as 1904 during the construction of the Lucin Cutoff railroad trestle. Actual construction of the Spiral Jetty took six days in April 1970 using two large dump trucks and a front-end loader. The 50 wells sunk into the lake produced low-grade oil and were ultimately abandoned in place. However, pressure from environmentalists forced the state to clean up the area in 2005. There remain some wood pilings, bits of scrap steel and cables near the Spiral Jetty.
Smithson’s artistic view parallels with that of his partner Nancy Holt and other earthwork artists. Art should not be confined to the gallery or museum, it should walk on, climb over and be experienced as often as possible. Each time is a new experience.
The jetty is currently under water; only a bit of rock shows. It becomes visible when the water level drops below 4,195 feet. In the photographs, the visible jetty is shown as it was in 2010 and, more recently, almost submerged due to heavy snows in the nearby Rocky Mountains.
The Great Salt Lake is exactly that, the fourth largest terminal lake in the world and the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere. Numerous attractions surround the lake: Bonneville Salt Flats where high speed and endurance machines are tested, and the old Wendover Airfield where testing for Project W-47 (essentially the Manhattan Project) began in 1944. The airfield was also the set for the filming of the alien invasion in the Hollywood film Independence Day
This was a trip born of curiosity and my first motorcycle adventure that involved a tent. I had a topographical map and a GPS, but did not use them at all. I could see where I was going. The railroad bed was the path that linked two visions of artistic expression. This path also gave me an appreciation of the difficulties faced and the magnitude of determination of 19th century America to link the East and the West of our country. The sensation of being the only person as far as I could see, riding a motorcycle where thousands of men had toiled to build a reality from a dream, and watching the scenery roll by where thousands of people traversing this land sat in their railcars and marveled at the vastness, will always stick with me.
About the Author: Tom Bunn is an instructional designer by trade. He also has hobbies in photography, solar astronomy, fine art, history, kites and all things mechanical. He has restored several unique and rare vehicles and is currently reworking a 1962 Jensen/Volvo P1800 in his shop in Wellsville, Utah.