For Katie Lee

What follows is an excerpt of an In Memoriam piece that I wrote for Arizona Highways. It is a tribute to Katie Lee, the goddess of Glen Canyon. She died in early November at the age of 98, after a life well lived, trying damn hard to protect rivers and canyons. When Christian and I visited her at her home in Jerome in January, it was our first trip together for "work." The first of so many just this past year. —KV


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She died in her sleep.

The detail is both solace and surprise for those of us who had the good fortune to meet Katie Lee.

A folk singer, an actress, an outspoken advocate against the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, the woman was a force. A fire. A hell-on-horseback beauty who, if ever she was afraid, never showed it.

In January, I had the great privilege of visiting Katie in her turquoise home in Jerome. She plated cookies and brewed coffee and talked about her adventures in Glen Canyon with Tad Nichols and Frank Wright in the 1950s and early 1960s. Together, they documented the topography of the place, they named side canyons, and they found secret Edens that were — ultimately — flooded by Lake Powell.

Sometimes, Nichols would photograph Katie there, her body tucked into creases in canyon walls or half-submerged in its precious water.

“That canyon was like a lover to me,” Katie told me. “The curves, its softness. It was sensuous. It was the most natural thing in the world to walk naked through it.”

She cried a little as she talked about the loss of her canyon. More than 50 years later, its death by drowning was raw and painful that cold Thursday morning at Katie’s house in Jerome.

Writing about Katie in the past tense will be raw and painful for many of us for years to come.

At 98, though, Katie lived. She inherited the mantle of conservation that activists like Edward Abbey and David Brower laid out for later generations. The author of five books, she was a beautiful poet, a lyricist, a diarist. Her folk-singing career took her around the world, and her beauty and talent won her a successful early career in Hollywood.

But maybe frequent Arizona Highways contributor Craig Childs described Katie best: "Katie Lee speaks for the canyons and the sweet desert recesses. She is our foul-mouthed, lightning-eyed, boot-stomping balladeer, a character Louis L'Amour never could have invented. Born from the rock itself, she is a lifetime of experience on this wild, restless, cradling ground. If you want to know this place, you need to know Katie.”

What a wonderful thing to have known her.

Kelly Vaughn