Remembering the Goddess of Glen Canyon- Katie Lee

Katie Lee was 89 when I met her at her cottage in Jerome, Arizona and just as feisty as ever. A former singer songwriter and folksinger, Katie had spent her life stretching boundaries and living on her own terms whether it was hiking in Glen Canyon wearing only red Keds and a large straw hat, or riding with a boyfriend in the Baja 500 across Mexican sand. A feminist and eco-activist, Katie could be warm and generous yet she had a sharp and biting tongue and a rising temper to go with her quick wit.
I spent the day with her moving from room to room in her sun-filled house looking at her books, her plants, her artwork and the many gifts she had received. My mistake was offering to take her to lunch and letting her drive. Never again will I get into a Toyota Prius with a chatty almost-90-year-old for a death-defying ride up the narrow streets of Jerome. When she saw a beefy, tattooed biker with shaggy mane, and chains clinking off his black leather, a skull emblazoned on the back, standing in the road to take a selfie, she yelled at him. Twice.
He slowly turned around and came towards the car. I thought he could lift it up with two fingers. He stuck his whole head into her lowered window. Clearly, this six-foot-four Neanderthal tourist was not used to being berated at high noon. Obviously, he’d had his share of bar brawls, but then so had Katie Lee. I thought about slipping out the door on the passenger side, but all I saw was the edge of a steep cliff. They shouted at each other for a few minutes and then Katie drove on muttering about ______ hole tourists ______ ing up her hometown. How was I to know that going to lunch with Katie Lee meant risking my life? But then Katie never was one to withhold her opinions. If she believed it, you heard about it.
There’s a rumor in Jerome that river runner and rabble-rouser Katie Lee celebrated her 80th birthday riding naked on her mountain bike through town. “But that’s not true,” smiled Katie as we sat barefoot on her back porch. “I was only 78.”
Edward Abbey inspired a generation of Southwestern environmentalists with his fiction, memoirs, short essays, and pithy pronouncements. He died at 62. Katie Lee took Abbey’s beliefs to heart. He wrote, “Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active, and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound men with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: You will outlive the bastards.” Katie did. She passed on this fall at 98.
Pert, vivacious, 5’ 4”, blonde and shapely, Katie Lee was everything women in her generation were not. After World War II, American women were supposed to stay home, keep the house dusted, the refrigerator full, the floors mopped and eagerly await husbands returning from work. By 1957 an American baby was being born every seven seconds. “Stand By Your Man” was a top Country & Western song. Katie Lee would have none of it.
She drove a 1956 “Baby Bird” Thunderbird coupe, sang songs and played in small clubs across the nation including in Aspen, Colorado before millionaires discovered it. The same year her car rolled off the assembly line, Congress passed the largest public works project in history to build the Interstate Highway System. Just as women’s apron strings were tied to their new General Electric stoves and consumer capitalism accelerated, so did construction projects across the West. Nature was to be demolished to make way for suburbs, freeways, and dams paid for by taxpayers and built by the Bureau of Reclamation. Katie would label that sprawling federal bureaucracy “The Bureau of Wreck the Nation.”
Wearing short skirts and dramatic black fishnet hosiery, she stood and sang at the center of two seismic shifts in American culture—the Women’s Movement and the Environmental Movement. As change swirled around her, as she endured men’s stares and solicitations, as she built her folksinging career but refused the sexual advances of Burl Ives, who could have made her famous, she sought the silence, solitude, and darkness of Utah’s canyon country.
A life on the road with cheap motels, smoke-filled clubs, fast food and too many proffered cocktails left her yearning for the delicate sounds of canyon wrens in lonely canyons. With boatman Frank Wright from Blanding, UT and photographer Tad Nichols from Tucson, Katie explored every nook and cranny of Glen Canyon before the dam impounded millions of acre-feet of Colorado River water.
Katie’s “We Three” trips are legendary as watershed explorations with no particular purpose other than adhering to Abbey’s admonition to, “Be as I am—a reluctant enthusiast . . . a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the West; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still here.”
That’s what Katie Lee did. She lived her life, enjoyed the West, and explored Glen Canyon. The reservoir, regrettably named Lake Powell after the one-armed river runner Major John Wesley Powell, flooded 186 miles and 96 side canyons from the dam site near Page, AZ north to Hite’s Crossing in Utah.
Katie knew that country before the concrete. She knew it before the houseboats, the jet skis nicknamed “lake lice.” She knew it before drunken Lake Powell revelers would annually leave 56,000 pounds of trash and garbage to be picked up each year by volunteers like myself as part of the National Park Service’s Volunteers in the Parks.
Katie walked up pristine canyons. Nearly naked, she explored a world we have lost. Abbey railed against industrial tourism at Arches National Park. Lee wrote about the canyons she loved. In addition to her songs, she left us her books, Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle; All My Rivers Are Gone: A Journey of Discovery Through Glen Canyon; Sandstone Seduction: Rivers and Lovers, Canyons and Friends, and the semi-autobiographical bawdy novel The Ghosts of Dandy Crossing, a eulogy to one of her lovers and a romantic reprise. The cover photo says it all.
A nude Katie stands in a small sandstone slot with a leg outstretched and her toes on a ledge, her upright knee held by her hand discreetly covers her breasts and thighs. She smiles and in her other hand points a Ruger Blackhawk .22 pistol at her lover who lies below her sprawled recumbent in a muddy plunge pool. He looks up at her adoringly. It’s his gun and his gal.
Katie knew Gregory Natural Bridge in a side canyon of the Escalante River up Fiftymile Creek, even though it was not discovered until 1940. She spent quiet moments in the Cathedral of the Desert in a scenic section of Clear Creek in another side canyon off the Escalante. She knew Music Temple, its clear pool of water, columbine flowers, moss, and the aesthetics of green ferns on red rock. Powell wrote that the sandstone opening and its acoustics were “made for an academy of music” so he christened it Music Temple and stayed for two days. Katie came season after season.
She loved the canyon country and the respite it offered from the social confines of American suburbia and the expectations for women and wives that she refused to accept. Ahead of her time, she was a feminist, an eco-activist, and an explorer prone to mistakes.
On a fall river trip once, she got caught in a plunge pool as her companions returned to camp. The sun moved, she became cold, and could not climb out. She wrote in All My Rivers Are Gone:
When I reach the pothole, I’m glistening with sweat, my face burning hot, salt running into my mouth. Not wasting a moment, I flip off my tennies, undo my shirt, pull the scarf from my head, run down and jump in.
The clear, untouched pool accepts me into its emerald depths like a big drop of water. I am part of it… it is part of me … surely I was once a fish. I dive down again and again, feel the water-fingers softly caressing my hot face, tracing my underarms, my neck and breasts—nipples raised hard against the cold. Its roiling crisscrosses my back and bottom, moves between my legs and up through my toes like feathers, tickling. I bubble up from the depths, many degrees colder than the sun-warmed upper layer, yet with all my motion, no sand has stirred from the bottom. The pool lies half in, half out of the sun, and though the water is not going anywhere, it seems to move against me still, even as I lie immobile on its surface. I flip and turn, purring to the sensual caress. . .
Maybe ten, maybe fifteen minutes.
Cooled to a most pleasant temperature I swim back to the sunny side to climb out. Foot slips and I fall back in … try another place close by, but slip again. There are no handholds on the dry, smooth sandstone above me. The pool is not full to its sloping rim, so from above, the sides seemed to slope gently, yet from down here they are quite steep. . .
Cool it, girl! Get hold of yourself. There has to be a foothold somewhere. Anxiously, I swim around the sides, checking every spot, then notice that in so doing I’ve made slick those grips that might have been possible when dry, yet I go at them all again only to compound the problem.
The sun is leaving the pool altogether and I am suddenly very cold The few places where I can grip the slick wall are inadequate if I’m going to shiver … and I’m starting to shiver now. There’s a fingerhold I can stick to with much effort, but I must t-tread water m-most of the time … legs so c-cold … feel like they might cramp. Float on my back … but I stirred up the cold from down deep … no warm water … on top … anymore … need to keep moving … keep moving.
I tell myself I must not cry. But the only warmth in my whole body is spilling unrestrained from my eyes.
Then I get mad. Teeth-grinding furious. Totally pissed. I’ll be damned if I am going to drown …

Like all survivors, Katie innovated. She knotted her scarf to retrieve her tennis shoes, placed them on her hands, and used friction to climb out of her turquoise trap. When her river running partners returned to find her, parts of her skin were blue and her teeth chattered uncontrollably.
Beginning in 1954 Katie Lee rafted and floated the Colorado and San Juan Rivers two dozen times before floodwaters inundated one of the loveliest canyon systems on the continent. Lee was one of the early women to run the Grand Canyon in wooden boats, exploring a watershed as yet uncompromised by dams and excessive water diversions like the Central Arizona Project.
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 became a fulltime folksinger. During the McCarthy communist witchhunt she refused to be an FBI informer against other actors and singer/songwriters and assumed the FBI started a file on her.
Lee commented, “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. She married three times. She was a Scorpio on the cusp of Libra and freely admitted that her first love was Navajo sandstone and the seductive, sinuous way that water shapes rock.
She told me, “Every single canyon had a different personality. That first year I was so amazed by the forms. 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. Katie remembered, “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. . .”
If her soul is in Glen Canyon, the documentation of the Glen was in her basement on shelves lined with books, CDs, old posters, backpacks, suitcases, and photographic slides. Her archives, her stories, and her hundreds of photos will go to the Cline Library at Northern Arizona University. The 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, in sustainable balance with our desert environment.
But more than that, I hope they explore the Southwest, get out there, get naked, take risks, have fun. As an environmental historian I never thought I’d write or edit a banned book, but I have. My book Outdoors in the Southwest: An Adventure Anthology won three book awards and is taught at Brigham Young University. Yet because it has the famous 1957 photo of the back of Katie Lee standing on a ledge in Glen Canyon, a sensuous woman juxtaposed with ancient weathered rock, Glen Canyon Natural History Association refuses to sell my book.
I couldn’t believe it. Prehistoric Ancestral Puebloan rock art can be more erotic and sexually explicit than Katie’s derriere, but there you have it. I edited a book banned for sale at Arches and Canyonlands, though it is on the shelves at the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, and other parks. I never got to tell her. She’d love the irony of it. But that was life with Katie, always on edge. She made it to 98. I’m shooting for 106—there are so many Utah canyons to explore….

Andrew Gulliford is an historian and an award-winning author and editor who divides his time between the mountains of Durango, CO and the canyons of Bluff, UT. Reach him at

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