“a lot of my heavy-duty lessons from my childhood happened here in Death Valley.”
by Cedar Lorca Nordbye (memphis), Anne Beffek (new york) and Gwen Robertson (sierra madre, ca.)
photos by Anne Beffel, Kenneth Haltman and Cedar Lorca Nordbye
This past March I spent the month at a residency at the Goldwell Open Air Museum in Rhyolite, Nevada. My residency centered on a series of five conversation-hikes in Death Valley. For these hikes I invited five friends (one of whom was my mother) to join me in the desert to hike and talk. I recorded and transcribed these lively conversations into brochures which resemble the National Park flyers available at the trailhead except that my brochures cite the locations of conversations instead of examples of geologic history.
The two conversations excerpted here are with my very dear friends Anne Beffel and Gwen Robertson. Anne divides her time between Syracuse, NY and New York City and is Associate Professor of Art at Syracuse University. She is the founding member of City Meditation Crew, a performance art group (of which I am a member) that uses public walking meditation and other contemplative activities to promote mindfulness, slowing down and attentive living. Gwen Robertson lives in Sierra Madre, California. She is an art historian, and educator who works at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and is currently teaching a class on Community and Performance at Pitzer College. She is also the co-author of “Community Performance: A Reader” (Routledge 2007)
I am an Associate Professor of art at the University of Memphis where I’ve been teaching since 2003. I make prints, drawings, sometimes even sculptures and relational works that revolve around my love of argument and conversation.
The normal interpretive brochure for Golden Canyon describes the natural history of the canyon. This brochure focuses instead on human history, a particularly small history of a hike on a hot day in March of 2010 when the artist Cedar Lorca Nordbye and his friend Gwen Robertson hiked up into Golden Canyon and talked freely.
(note: look in the box for Conversation-Hike brochures documenting hikes with Anne Beffel, Bobbi Loeb, Dylan Berkey and Candace Lieber).
Special thanks to the Goldwell Open Air Museum Residency Program in Rhyolite, NV
conversation 1 (Gwen)
#1 On your left you will see a steep, staircase-like canyon. At this point C asked G if she wanted
to go up it. “Not especially, but YES!” She headed up. On the way up they had this exchange:
G: I said I’d go on walks I didn’t say I’d scramble up canyons.
C: Ahh maybe I’ll consider removing the gun from your temple.
G: Is this fun?
C: Yeah this is fun. Suffering with friends is fun.
G: I can’t get over that we have to go back down.
C: That was actually remarkably easy because you have hand-holds on both sides, provided you are not carrying a camera. We’re
almost to the very spot where I stopped, which is where we’ll stop.
G: Oh, which is worth it?
C: Yeah. Because then from here on it’s like this. Yeah this is it. Come here.
G: Did I tell you I was afraid of heights?
#2 Once they reached a good lookout they sat and discussed G’s aversion to hiking.
G: One of the benefits of being forty is that you don’t have to do s#!t you don’t want anymore.
C: So you’ve done enough of this that you have a reservoir of it?
G: I don’t know that I ever need to do this again, ever. I have this sense that I am a person that does not scramble up rocks. That may be limiting. That may be wrong-headed.
C: Maybe, maybe, but it may make the times when you don’t have to scramble feel more appreciated.
G: I’m always grateful when I am the adult and we come to some place and I say “I’m not walking in there.” My
husband wants to, and I say, “Right on. You guys go and I will find some place I like.”
C: But when we drive down into L.A. we’ll be aware that we are not climbing over rocks to get to L.A. Because otherwise you can
just be in a car and you can be like “Yeah whatever, we’re in a car.” Actually for me having read about the wagon trails…
C: …that made their way across the country makes me more aware of the world that I live in and the
landscape that I traverse so effortlessly…
C: …I mean you fly over it.
G: I am always grateful that I’m not them.
C: But you don’t know as tangibly why you’re grateful you are not them as you do right now.
G: No, I think I do. I carry that inside. I think I am clear who I am in that relationship. I am glad I am not someone who scrambles
over anything that’s not metaphoric.
C: But wait, who’s to say that this isn’t metaphoric?
G: No, this is actual, my hands hurt.
C: But how many times have you been sitting in front of the laptop and you’ve though “my hands hurt.” When you’ve been dealing
G: Then you close the box.
#3 At this point we came to a cairn (a stack of stones, a kind of trail-marker)
C: See this thing, I think I should push it over in the spirit of Death Valley. As if someone might get confused here.
G: Yeah, “I wonder where I should go, oh, up.”
C: My Dad, oh I don’t know if I want to say incriminating stuff about my Dad on the record. He uh…
G: It’s what you’re working out. You’ve got to put it on the record.
C: He, uh, he has a real self-righteous streak and that was part of the incident about the “f#%@ing lizard, f#%@ing rock” thing. So that righteousness, that indignation, was one of the hardest things about my dad, is one of the hardest things, no he’s really changed a lot…no he hasn’t.
G: I was going to say, do we ever really change?
C: No he really hasn’t. But this self-righteous streak that I’ve inherited and it’s probably why I make political art. So anyway he
would knock those things down and always very passionately and vindictively as a moral lesson to the world. And then he would make them sometimes earlier, before he knocked them down. Another lesson that I learned here. It’s funny it seems like a lot of my heavy-duty lessons from my childhood happened here in Death Valley.
G: Well it’s probably where you spent the most time with your dad.
G: I mean one-on-one.
C: Yeah, at a certain age it was. So another one was we were eating trail mix and it had tamari almonds in it, which were my
favorite and so I would grab a handful that was more tamari almonds than anything and he came down on me like a ton of bricks about that. About not sharing, about how that’s everybody’s favorite. Really heavy. I remember feeling totally shamed and like I was maybe never going to be a good person because I was the kind of person who would…
G: That you would take the almonds.
C: Yeah, I would take the almonds.
G: That was one of the things that I did when I was in Humboldt by myself. I got a bag of mixed fruit and I dumped it and I ate my favorites and threw out the rest, and I didn’t have to eat it and I didn’t have to share it. There’s something in that. You shouldn’t have to depend on your relationship to all these other people all the time.
# Here looking back the way you came you get a good view of Death Valley framed by the canyon.
Note: Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French Philosopher who examined social institutions and the body. In a 1975 visit to the U.S. he took LSD at Zabriskie Point and had what he called the peak experience of his life.
G: Are we going around Zabriskie? (we accidentally referred to Manly Beacon as Zabriskie)
C: Foucault did this hike we can do this hike.
G: I can’t even read Foucault.
C: Sure you can. Actually I haven’t read him.
G: There’s a reason for that.
C: No, he’s easy.
G: It’s an endurance test.
C: When I’ve picked it up it’s easy. It’s not hard, it’s just a lot of it huh?
G: How much did you read?
C: Guilty. I read a few pages and I thought this isn’t so hard actually. So it’s like this trail. This trail isn’t so hard.
G: No it’s just an endurance test. Look at those stripes. Yeah so I’m in bad shape.
C: Me too. We’re parents.
G: Yeah, so would you like to go exercise or would you like to read a story about…?
C: Or you have a couple of hours because your kids are napping and are you going to work out or are you going to take a nap.
G: Or do the dishes.
C: I just passed on to Molly that advice about how with a new baby you should plan that each day you will do one thing, not clean the house, but do the dishes, or maybe just the plates. Good advice I found. Wow, it’s a pretty view. How you can see the valley framed by those rocks.
G: Yeah it’s a pretty view blah blah blah.
C: Hey, I’m open to whatever, so…
G: I’m just having fun complaining.
C: Yeah, but when the suffering stops even being fun to complain about then we can go back.
G: I just need to stop and get my legs back.
C: Do you want to take some pictures with your camera or your phone?
G: Buy a postcard.
#? This conversation took place on the switchbacks going up Manly Beacon.
C: You know my friend has gone to these parties where they do this Amazonian hallucinogen, and he says that it’s so much
more powerful than mushrooms, peyote, acid, it transcends all that and one thing that happens is that you have hallucinations that are common with the people you are with I think?
G: There’s a big part about that in Umberto Eco’s book the Name of the Rose, no, it’s in his book, Foucault’s Pendulum.
C: That was a nice return. I love that. That’s the bread and butter of my art interests, when a tangent gets pulled back with a
chord to the trunk. Okay, this is like the slope that Casey fell down, minus the pine trees.
G: I like the tones that come up that brown one. (pointing West)
C: You know what I can do, I can transcribe this conversation and make a brochure and put the brochures in the box at the base of the trail. I could even paint numbers on rocks to add to the signs. Then people can follow the conversations.
G: Assuming people will want to follow our weird conversation.
C: It’s like with Danica’s (Phelps) work, there’s always this question that you’re making work that is so incredibly
hermeneutically you and is anyone else going to get any benefit from looking at it? And what kind of ego is involved…
G: How much do you have to know her?
C: And how egotistical is it to say that my banal little purchases and daily interactions are going to be worth people going to a white box and contemplating them.
G: You have to imagine you’re standing in for the universal.
C: Which is pretty pompous no? But it’s what all of these memoirists, David Sederis are banking on.
G: Yeah but the ones that work are the ones that are universal.
C: I’m having a certain faith right now that the people following along this conversation, that we’ve tapped into something
universal, and maybe we’re not. It might be so anachronistically us, that no one else…
G: And arty.
C: And arty, right. But, those who would say there’s an artist’s brochure in here and throw that away are self selecting.
# Try to find a rock on the floor of the canyon that has 90 degree angles.
G: (Picks up a rock) It’s so square.
C: Who says there are no ninety degree angles in nature?
G: Look at the line of bushes, I guess it was where the water was.
C: I was asking my friends in New Mexico about what makes junipers grow where they grow and they thought that it had to do with wind carrying the seeds. If there’s too much wind the seeds can’t get any purchase.
G: Alright, you’re right, it’s been worth it.
C: Don’t speak to soon.
G: That’s right there’s still two waterfalls to ford. And two and a half dry waterfalls to go. At least we’re not
walking up a goat track currently.
C: That was good that I did that to you because then the rest of the walk is like “hmm, this is alright.”
G: No, you’re absolutely right, I like having had hiked. I like it when we get back.
conversation 2 (Anne)
#1: The beginning of the canyon.
Anne: You know when you first proposed this conversation we were going to walk silently.
Cedar: Oh, that was going to be our conversation? Yeah, I kind of like the idea of that.
A: You do?
C: I mean I kind of like the idea of it.
A: Okay, how about if I walk silently and you talk?
C: Oh yeah that’s my fantasy to have a smart friend just shut up and listen to how brilliant I am.
C: I was thinking that we’ve been talking so much and having so many great conversations, even in the car just now and so
now we need the hour just to process the things we’ve been talking about. So there was part of me when we were driving that was tempted to say shh, we have to save these ideas, save this conversation for later.
A: Well we’ve never really been at a loss, so we’ll see what happens.
C: Oh and we only really have an hour on this tape.
A: Well I have other tapes, but we could also just use that as a limit.
C: It used to be paved here. Isn’t that funny.
C: My dad’s love of Death Valley is really a love of canyons.
A: This reminds me of Koyaanisqatsi.
C: I’ve never seen that actually.
A: I think you’d like it.
C: Have you been to Utah?
A: No, well I’ve driven through it. I’ve just never spent any time there.
C: Because it has just incredible canyon action. So you like hiking?
C: Have you always?
#2 On your left you will see a steep, staircase-like canyon
C: Do you want to go up this?
A: Where? This? Sure.
C: Do you want to go first? We could switch off and on. I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do.
A: I trust you’ll not overextend.
C: Now that’s some trust that’s dubious. Do you see that rock? That big black rock that’s just about to fall down?
A: Oh wow.
C: I was thinking about hiking as being, like we were talking about embodied knowledge and body-mind separation?
A: Uh huh.
C: And that a hike is so much about the body and the physicality of the world. And a canyon like this especially has these
limitations and these struggles.
A: Yeah. It seems to me like it’s the point at which we really can’t separate them.
C: Uh Huh, but it’s funny I’ve had some hiking, or actually running experiences on trails. Some of the most meditative,
mindless, in my body experiences I’ve ever had. Was that a weird combination of words? Well at least my conscious thinking chatter has gone away and it’s been replaced by animal locomotion.
A: So maybe you were using the mind that’s in the soles of your feet.
C: Yeah. Keep me updated on how you feel about what were doing and if it feels too much or uncomfortable.
I was thinking that when you asked about stuff being fair game or you didn’t want me to be recording that thing about your shirt, that it’s interesting that touches back on trust issues, you know? And uh, there’s all different kinds of trust. Like you could trust my intentions but not trust me to not be sloppy and put something in that you wouldn’t want? Do you know what I mean?
A: I think trust…yeah, but you might not consider it sloppy. I suppose for me, leaving room for a wildly different worldview of what it means to be careful versus what it means to be sloppy…
C: Uh huh…
A: Is part of why it’s, like I don’t make assumptions that my sense of what it means to be sloppy has much to do with yours.
C: Uh Huh.
A: And I don’t know if that’s distrust or something else.
C: Yeah, maybe that’s part of trust that there’s kind of a hubristic sense that every body has the same values as me. You
know? Do you know what I mean by that?
A: Say that again.
C: That like a form of a kind of blind trust that I am able to have a lot of the time comes from my lack of empathy in a way, because I just think everyone has the same values as me.
A: Do you think that’s true? Do you really believe you believe that?
C: No, I don’t think I believe that if I’m intellectually asking about it, but I do think that when I go to confront a Hummer
owner that they’re not going to freak out or be weird because I wouldn’t. You know? Because I trust the benevolence of others and they’re going to trust me. And maybe what you were just saying about trust is that you identify your own idiosyncratic view of the universe so much that you can’t expect others to respect your needs or stuff because yours are so different from everyone else’s.
A: Well I’m thinking of it as everyone’s are different from everyone else’s.
C: Yeah, yeah.
A: But that’s more of a focus on difference than commonality. And your description is…
C: Which way do you want to go?
C: And my description is…
A: It’s more on the commonality.
C: Do you want to go first for a bit?
C: No pressure. If you’d rather not, I will.
A: But I think you could have big differences in values in what benevolence means but I think what you’re talking about like when you trust…and I don’t know if this is true, but when you trust the Hummer owner to trust in your benevolence and likewise, I wonder if what you mean is not that you agree on a definition of benevolence but that the bond that you are creating will for both parties override, the value of the bond you are creating will override anything that you could receive or they could receive by doing something that would break that bond. That feeling that you’re together, working together.
C: Uh huh. Yeah, I never thought about that, but that seems cool. It’s a part of why people wanted to do the Mona Lisa
Project or why they might want to do the Hummer project because they like being part of something. And that might make them play nice too.
C: Like they become team players.
#2B About a ten-minute hike up the side canyon one gets stunning views of the greater Golden Canyon Below.
C: I think your shoes are better than mine.
A: Well they are hiking kind of shoes. I’m hoping that if this climb is too much (w/your foot injury), you’re going to say.
C: Yeah I will. I mean I’m hoping I will too. I don’t always have the best sense, which is how I got hurt in the first place.
C: I think I’m almost at a place where I’d like to stop and I think we’ll get a good view if we stop up here. It’s a funny thing that our conversation about trust relates to what we were just talking about, about ability to come up or down and you asked if I would say if it was too much or something and the way that I injured myself is that I was trusting myself too much and I wasn’t being cautious enough or careful enough as I was coming down the side of this mountain. In some ways I’ve never been able to trust my judgment and I’ve always liked having other people around to say, “no that’s too crazy. Like even going to the hospital was, in a way I had to put on someone else’s point of view to decide if I should go or not, and when I had appendicitis I didn’t go when I should and this time I though, “Well, since I’m not sure if I should go or not go, I should just override that and go.”
A: But that’s your judgment too.
C: What is?
A: Your ability to try on somebody else’s viewpoint.
C: Oh, yeah.
A: And in a way that’s sort of the watchful observer at work. This is really high up and it’s really steep. I really shouldn’t
think about that, it’s making me sick.
C: It’s cool to look down there at those people. They’re like ants. And they all think that they’re the center of the universe.
C: They think that they everyone else is an extra in the movie that they are the star of. And they think look at those weird
little tiny people up on the cliff that are extras in my movie.”
A: Okay, I’m not sure that’s how they all think.
C: You don’t think that’s how all people think? Really? You don’t think all people think they are the center of the universe?
Some people don’t feel like they’re the main character?
A: Some people don’t feel like they’re the main character.
C: See that blows my mind. I think that might have to do with my difficulty with empathy because…
A: See, I don’t... I’m sorry go on.
C: No it’s okay. I like interrupting.
A: But I don’t want to interrupt because I want to hear what you were going to say.
C: I don’t know what I was going to say.
A: Your trouble with empathy…
C: Yeah, I think that maybe growing up as an only child and being catered to by my parents and treated with a lot of respect, I think that maybe I developed this Copernican relationship to the universe.
A: Didn’t you have a sister?
C: When I was eleven she was born. You were going to say something about empathy?
A: I think that you have incredible empathy. I think that what you might be talking about is compassion. Because empathy is the ability to put yourself…and this is my understanding and everybody has a different understanding and I don’t mean to say that your definition is wrong. But this is the question, when you are saying that you don’t have good empathy, are you saying that you fail to be able to imagine what other people are feeling or to put yourself in their shoes, or are you saying that you have trouble feeling like you wish you could stop their suffering and make things better for them?
C: Actually, I think I am pretty good at imagining what people might be feeling but I’m not good at feeling what they might be feeling.
A: Ahh, okay.
C: I don’t feel for others as much as I’d like to.
A: Feel for or feel with?
C: Feel with.
A: Do you feel for others?
C: What does that mean to feel for someone?
A: Well I guess that’s where you’re wishing something for them.
C: Well when I was at the emergency room, if someone was really hurting, I didn’t feel sad for them the way a lot of people would.
C: So that’s sort of where I see empathy. I mean I have to use my intellect to think of how people might be feeling and what could make them feel better and what I could do. And I want to, but it’s not because I feel their pain. It’s because I think, “Oh, they must be in pain and a good thing to do would be to alleviate that. You know the difference there?
A: Mm hmm.
C: So it’s a funny thing, it’s not quite narcissistic, or maybe it is narcissism that I’ve learned to override with intellect very
A: I don’t know how, Well I guess that depends on what you call narcissism. What do you call narcissism?
C: I don’t know I guess it has to do with feeling you’re the center of the universe. I think we shouldn’t sit in the sun here too long.
A: I like being up here though.
C: Yeah, it’s pretty nice.
#3 At this point in the hike we had regained momentum after the side-canyon and the conversation resumed.
A: So we’re recording now?
C: Yeah, not that you should think about that.
A: Yeah because media doesn’t matter in this culture at all.
C: But again, part of it is that this is not going to be a video. It’s going to be a drawing, or a brochure, or signs or something.
A: Am I supposed to be noting what I observe on this walk?
C: No, I mean if you want. I haven’t really thought this through very much.
C: Oh yeah, my legs are tired already. Oh, that sand dune walking was using funny muscles.
A: Yeah. Ha ha ha! I’m going to tire you out. Ha ha!
C: What? You’re going to wear me out?
A: I said Ha ha ha! I’m going to tire you out. See that’s evidence of someone being so afraid that they’re not going to be able to keep up that they turn mean.
C: If you were sincere you mean?
A: Yeah. I’ve had to talk to two different friends in the last week about their self-critical nature which has propelled them to a certain level of success, but that now they have to put that away because it was about to become a liability.
C: Uh huh. Artist friends?
A: Yeah, well one artist and one art historian?
C: Colleagues of yours at work?
A: Well, they have to remain anonymous for purposes of the public but one student and one colleague at another school.
C: Self-critical, like self-deprecating you mean?
A: Well self-deprecating is one manifestation of it. It’s just not being able to see what they’ve done right. To only see
C: …The faults of their projects and work and stuff?
A: And what they might do wrong.
C: What made you think of that just now?
A: This idea of how someone being afraid that they might not be good enough might actually, can turn them into a mean person.
C: Or make them more intensely competitive or something. Yeah. Yeah, I think that I would probably do a lot better if I had a more competitive streak in me in terms of getting my work out there and advancing my career and stuff.
A: Hmm. What does it mean to do a lot better?
C: Oh, it would mean that, oh I don’t know, I guess I feel like I am negligent in part of the job of being the artist, which is I make these things and I really like them, but I don’t put them out into the world as much as I would like to, or as much as would… If these things would benefit the world or benefit me to have the world see them, I am not reaping those benefits because I’m, well like we said before, we only do three fifths of our job as artists or something a lot of the time.
C: That’s part of the job that I’m not doing very much. And if I were a competitive person I would do that more. But I get the satisfaction of making something and having a few people respond to it and I feel like it’s done its job for my emotional state. You know?
C: That’s quite a rock isn’t it, that red thing? I think it’s called Red Cathedral.
A: It looks like a cathedral.
C: Doesn’t it? With the buttresses and everything?
A: Yeah, very gothic.
#4 A small concave recession opens up on the South side of the canyon around here. It is a good spot to escape the Mid-day sun.
A: It’s really hot out here.
C: Yeah, it is huh? So should we limit our exposure?
A: Let’s just stand in the shade over here for a little while.
C: Look at that depression there. It looks like there was a big rock stuck in there and it fell out.
A: It looks like it doesn’t it?
C: The way that these ones fell out because they were a different substance.
(We sit down)
A: I’m going to be higher than you, sorry.
C: No, that’s good. Something has to put my narcissism in check a little bit.
(After some conversation a family showed up. The son looked to be around 30)
C: Hello, hey where are you all from? Where are you from? Father: Brooklyn basically.
Father: For the last four years.
C: And before that?
C: Oh, my Father’s mother is from Poland also. Are you from Greenpoint in Brooklyn?
Mother: No, Bayridge
C: And it is very Polish in Greenpoint.
Father: It is. It is.
Son: They do all their shopping there.
C: I was walking down the street and it could have been Poland. All of the conversations I heard were in Polish.
Son: Sure, sure, sure.
C: Do you live in Brooklyn too?
Son: No, I’m in San Francisco.
Mother: He’s in California.
Father: It used to be that Polish people lived in the Lower East side.
C: My mom grew up in the Lower East side. And my dad grew up in Flatbush. But you live in San Francisco itself?
Son: I’m actually in Walnut Creek.
C: I grew up in Point Reyes. I was just talking to my friend Anne here about my interest in tourism and I just realized another interest of mine is just people’s trajectories, like the paths of where they are from and where they end up.
Son: Yeah, these guys are from Poland and then Brooklyn and then their kids take off and I’m in San Francisco and my sister’s in Chicago.
C: My Grandfather is from the Ukraine and my Grandmother from Poland and my parents grew up in New York and then they left and moved to California and then I left and moved to Memphis.
Son: Oh, so you’re in Memphis. We’re really bouncing all over the place huh?
C: Which only gets really unfortunate when you have kids. Do you have any kids?
C: Yeah, you’ll be sad when you have kids and then you’ll be sad when, these are your parents?
C: Yeah, you’ll be sad when you have kids and you live so far away from your parents.
Mother: See, you’ll be sad!
Son: Now, I’m going to have to hear that for the next week.
C: But it’s true, it’s hard.
Son: Well as long as Jet Blue flights are cheap I’ll be able to stick my kids on a plane to
Mother: It’s not same.
C: Yeah, it’s not the same. When you want to drop the kids off at your parents’ house because you want to go do something with your wife.
A: She thanked you. He’s not happy. Now days a lot of parents are moving to be with their grandkids.
C: Yeah, but the problem is you can’t afford to move to California. Or to New York either.
Yeah that’s another part of tourist that I’ve always been into, partly because of my own diasporic trajectories I’ve always been interested in the past, I mean the paths. I also think it’s interesting when you ask someone where they’re from, and they’re an immigrant, they balk at the question a little bit because they think “you heard my accent and you think that I’m not from here and I don’t deserve to be here as much as you do.” You know?
A: That’s exactly what just happened.
C: Yeah, he was like, “Brooklyn, what’s it to you?”