There’s a rumor in the historic copper mining boomtown of Jerome, Arizona that river runner, rabble rouser, and eco-activist Katie Lee celebrated her 80th birthday by riding naked on her mountain bike through town.
“But that’s not true,” smiles Katie as we sit barefoot on her back porch. “I was only 78.”
Now Ms. Katie is 89 and Special Collections at the Cline Library at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff is celebrating her life with “Naked Truth: the Katie Lee Exhibit,” which will run through summer 2009.
So I made the pilgrimage to Jerome to interview this 5’ 4” petite blond who crafted a unique life bouncing between Tucson, Hollywood, Utah’s Canyon Country, and coffee shops and nightclubs across America.
I’d come to talk with a living legend who beginning in 1954 rafted and floated the Colorado and San Juan Rivers two dozen times before flood waters rose behind Glen Canyon Dam creating Lake Powell and inundating one of the loveliest canyon systems on the continent.
Lee was one of the early women to run the Grand Canyon in wooden boats, and she reveled naked in the warm waters of the Glen exploring nameless sandstone canyons. NAU intern Bonnie Roos explains, “She’s a gun-toting, guitar-strumming canyoneer and a lace-and high-heels wearing Hollywood starlet” who grew up in Tucson hiking Sabino Canyon and hunting buckskin on Mt. Lemon.
In the 1940s from Tucson’s Little Theatre she gravitated towards film and radio roles in Hollywood and wild all night excursions into cantinas in Nogales, Mexico to add to her folksong repertoire.
Katie worked for NBC both on radio and daytime television and performed in USO shows across the nation with Bob Hope, but by 1953 she realized Hollywood was not for her and she took Burl Ives’ advice to become a fulltime folksinger.
During the McCarthy communist witchhunt she refused to be an FBI informer against other actors and singer/songwriters and assumes the FBI started a file on her. Lee comments, “By now it would contain several protest songs... many appearances at rallies and marches against nuke tests, mines, dams, air pollution, gravel companies, uranium dumps, wilderness depletion, logging, paving, fencing... Hellsfire, you name it. Now the whole earth needs our help, not just my poor old rivers.”
Between her Hollywood days and her folksinging success, she discovered river running and it changed her life. Though she’s been married three times, she’s a Scorpio on the cusp of Libra and freely admits that her first love is Navajo sandstone and the seductive, sinuous way that water shapes rock. For three consecutive years beginning in 1955 she went down the Glen on “We Three Trips” with photographer Tad Nichols and boatman Frank Wright.
Often wearing only tennis shoes, Katie Lee, the goddess of Glen Canyon, personally explored all 96 side canyons before rising flood waters covered them. She told me, “Every single canyon had a different personality. That first year I was so amazed by the forms.” Katie explains, “We never carried water on our hikes thru Glen. The streams ran cool and clear.”
Over time her amazement and wonder became acute anger as the mysteries of Glen Canyon disappeared under Lake Powell. She’s never forgiven the Bureau of Reclamation, which she calls the Wreck the Nation Bureau.
Terry Tempest Williams notes, “Katie Lee is a joyful raconteur, a woman with grit, grace and humor. She is not afraid to laugh and tease, cajole and flirt, cuss, rant, howl, sing and cry. Katie Lee is the desert’s lover. Her voice is a torch in the wilderness.”
Lee’s first book Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle documented cowboy songs of the West. Her second book, culled from her journals, is an elegy to Glen Canyon titled All My Rivers Are Gone now reprinted with more photos and additions as Glen Canyon Betrayed.
She’s also written Sandstone Seduction: Rivers and Lovers, Canyons and Friends where she remembers, “I think back on the time when each canyon devoured me, pulling me ahead of the others to clamber over obstacles that would reveal whatever the next bend held in secret.... I’ve called the business of mastering slickrock hiking ‘getting in touch with the stone’: paying attention to balance and pressure, reading and navigating the land like a boatman does rivers.”
The Cline Library exhibit chronicles Lee’s amazing life. Karen Underhill, Head of Special Collections and Archives, explains that Katie Lee is “a living treasure on the Colorado Plateau. We did this exhibit so we can enjoy her now.”
Indeed, at 89 her music, books, DVDs, and CDs have never been more popular, and a lifetime of singing, protesting, and demanding a sustainable Southwest has garnered Lee impressive awards.
In her kitchen a plaque states, “Old guitarists never die, they just lose their pluck,” and above her front door step, weathering in the Arizona sun, are the letters SING. Katie Lee’s colorful living room contains wooden snowflakes, sculpted lizards and snakes, brightly lit stained glass, first edition books on the Southwest, and guides to plants and birds. Her garden produces 100 tomatoes yearly.
If her soul is still in Glen Canyon, the documentation of it is down in the basement on shelves lined with books, CDs, old posters, backpacks, suitcases, and photographic slides in their original boxes stored in leather cases. Her archives, her stories, and her hundreds of photos will go to the Cline Library. The eventual sale of her house will create a small endowment for the Katie Lee Collection. Future generations of scholars and students will be moved by her life to make the Southwest a better place, more in balance with our desert environment.
Katie Lee inspires. Young women who’ve spoken with her and heard her play guitar write, “Thank you for doing what you do and being the wild spirit that you are.”
(Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at email@example.com )