Katie Lee, champion of the Glen Canyon, remembered

Craig Childs recalls the fearless conservationist who loved an undammed river.

 

Lately, I’ve been writing about my old friend Katie Lee, the ink still drying on two recent books. Foul-mouthed, unforgiving foe of Glen Canyon Dam, guitar player, singer-songwriter, author and dauntless conservationist, she brought color to more than my writing, electrifying everything she touched. Trying to describe a slickrock Utah landscape, I called it “as curved and defined as Katie Lee perched like a goddess in Glen Canyon’s cathedrals. What paper map could ever compare?”

I thought Katie Lee would live forever. It never crossed my mind she wouldn’t be here to read the words I wrote.

Katie Lee
Ben Moon

Katie died Nov. 1, 2017, in Jerome, Arizona, at 98. She died in the bed of the house she shared with Joey van Leeuwen, a weathered, lanky Dutchman she met in Western Australia. She was 59, he was 12 years younger, and it was love at first sight for both: He came out to meet her, she said, wearing only shorts, his viney body sun-browned by the Outback. The memory of that moment still made her flush. In old age, the two leaned on each other like ancient trees, saying they could not live without each other.

The day after she died, Joey took his own life.

To reach their home, you followed the narrow, winding highway that switchbacks through Jerome. A big wooden sign over the door of the light blue house urged you, boldly, to SING. And the house sang — filled with the life-size wooden birds Joey carved and painted, some perched on bookshelves, some hanging from the ceiling, turning slowly in the air.

A performer till the end, Katie Lee swore at her audiences, then ensnared them by singing, her guitar around her neck like a troubadour. I knew what she’d do when I saw her — throw her old bony arms around me, then grab my face with her open palms for a kiss. If we had the time, we would sit and talk about the shape of rock and canyons in the country that stole her heart.

Born in Tucson in 1919, Katie graduated from the University of Arizona with a fine arts degree, and moved to Hollywood in 1948 to pursue a career as a stage and screen actress. She turned to cabaret performances, appearing at the old Gate of Horn Club in Chicago, New York’s Blue Angel, and San Francisco’s historic “hungry i” nightclub. She took her first river trip on June 15, 1953, through the Grand Canyon, which at the time flowed free, no dam at the mouth of Glen Canyon. She returned many times over the years to run the elegant, calm-water stretch of Glen Canyon just upstream of Grand Canyon. In the 1960s and 1970s, she was the jewel of the Colorado mountain ski towns, performing as a folksinger. She lived for a while in Aspen — “a glamour puss with a vintage Thunderbird,” in the words of local writer Su Lum. She stayed until the place got too damn rich; pissed at all that gentrifying glitz, she left with her usual panache, trailing strings of cuss words and goodbye kisses. At the age of 59, Katie spent a year vagabonding around the world. That’s how she met Joey, a bird-lover who worked at a furniture factory in Perth. In 1978, they settled in Jerome, Joey with his long arborist’s fingers and a smile that used every muscle in his face, fierce Katie Lee with her singsong voice and careless gift for enchantment.

Once, when I was 38, Katie Lee spread pre-1963 topo maps across her living room floor, reassembling the broken bones of Glen Canyon. She had a story about every bend, and began to cry, putting her hand to her mouth. After so many years, it still hurt that her beloved canyons were drowned below Powell, hundreds of miles of side-canyons buried. She refused to use the word “lake.” Lake Powell, she said, is an abomination. The license plate on her Prius reads DAM DAM. Her maps resurrected the world before the dam flooded the Colorado and its tributaries. No 250-square-mile reservoir, the only blue on the paper the course of the river as it wriggled around sandbars, falling into canyon shadow below alcoves perched high up in the Navajo sandstone.

Talking about the dam, she’d growl, schooling you with her voice. The rest of the world, its interstates and smokestacks, she flicked away with her hand. When she wasn’t angry, she had a sweet, squeaky drawl, and she spoke as if she were dreaming. Her hands rose in the air, outlining bays and elegant troughs in the rock.

With both of them gone, a day apart, I search the November night sky. There ought to be a new constellation, tall Joey holding Katie as she leans into him, their stars burning overhead as they float the river of the Milky Way.

Craig Childs is an author and long-time contributor to High Country News. He lives outside of Norwood, Colorado.

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