Interview with Katie
Boatman’s Quarterly Review ~ winter 1996-1997
Anger is as powerful an emotion as love,” Katie said as we packed up to leave her home, perched on a cliff in Jerome, Arizona. “And I’ve kept mine alive all these years, over that God Damned dam.” Then she added with a wry smile, “It keeps me going.” Something must. At seventy seven Katie is as quick, sharp and vociferous as ever, especially when it comes to talking about the one place she truly loved, Glen Canyon, and how it was destroyed by Glen Canyon Dam. Katie Lee, long known as a folksinger and vocal opponent of the dam and the reservoir it created, took time out from work on her upcoming autobiography “All My Rivers are Gone” [an excerpt of which opened this story] to share a bit of her story with us.
I was born in 1919… I’m a westerner, born and bred. I was raised in Tucson. My dad was a contractor. My mother was a housewife, and a lot smarter than my dad about money matters and things, because she actually got us through the Depression… After being in Tucson, I remember we spent six years in Hollywood. My dad built the first houses above Sunset Towers, up on those hills – like the houses here in Jerome, you know, they went straight up and down the mountain. When the crash came, why, he just sort of fell apart. He said, “Well, I just can’t….” He said, I can remember that phrase, “Down and out, down and out.”
My mom took the reins, took my brother and me, and went across the Yuma desert when it was nothing but railroad ties, a boardwalk across the Yuma desert dunes … and she saved all that property we had in Tucson, and collected the rent, and we moved there for good then. My dad came over a few months later, I guess it was… My dad was a kid, he never grew up, thank God, because he kept the kid in me – he let me have the kid in me. My mother was the artistic, intellectual type, and my dad was the earthy one.
I don’t remember, in my years in Tucson, ever going inside until evening. So I think that’s probably where I got the affinity for the land and the desert – especially the desert. I would go back East to my aunt and my grandparents a couple of times in the summertime, spend a couple of months in the green, green, green, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the reds, oranges, yellows, blues, purples. I thought green was a bad color. (chuckles)
So after I got out of college, graduated, got married – during the war, this was – married an idiot. (laughter) That’s what we always do first, we always marry idiots. Anyhow, I married and had a son, and I left my Ronny with my ex-husband and his new wife, because he’d gotten married to a lady by then. And I came back to pick him up six months later.
I mean, I was really out there in Hollywood, living on ten bucks a week, practically not a nickel, really struggling… I had the leading role in this play at the Pasadena Playhouse, and then I had some other roles in theaters around Hollywood, ’til I finally wedged my way into casting offices and places like that, where people knew me, put my name in the big book, you know, and my photo and parts I had played… I struggled along until I got onto radio, and then I had really good parts in radio, national radio shows. I had a running part on the Gildersleeve show, the Halls of Ivy show with Ronald Colman and Bonita, his wife, where I played a part called Glory Golightly. And I was a country girl, was the forty-year-old freshman wife. Then I did the summer shows with Gordy MacRae on the railroad hour. These are all national shows, broadcast all over. And so I was making a decent living, but still always a struggle. And always I kept thinking in the back of my head, “Geez, what am I doing here?”…
I stayed there for six years and I worked in pictures and I worked in television, and I was on the first television show that was broadcast statewide out of Hollywood called Armchair Detective. I played character parts, I played walk-ons, I played little tiny bit parts, and never star parts, nothing like that. But I made it okay. And in that time, at the time right about the middle of there, like around ’51 or ’52, I started playing guitar. I had been playing it before – I mean, not very much, but I learned to play my guitar down in Mexico, really, in 1942… I’d done a lot of singing with my cowboy friends, people I knew in Tucson, we’d go out in riverbeds at night and sing and warble, and I’d go down to Nogales with these guys and we’d sing in the whorehouses. (laughs) That’s where we learned all our Mexican songs – great place to do it… And all the girls would climb all over my two friends, and they’d brush them off and start singing. The girls probably wondered what I was doing there. I knew what I was doing there (laughs) I was learning the music…
Then I came back, went to Hollywood. It was there I also ran into Burl Ives, who really, really set my career going. But in 1953, in the summer, I came home to do a show at the Temple of Music and Art. First time home for the little-town girl, back from the big city, back from Hollywood… The reviews were great. After the show, Tad Nichols came over to the house for the party my mom gave me, and he brought a guy named Jim Rigg with him, and he said, “Katie, I’ve got a movie that you’ve got to see.” So I sat down there in the living room in my mom’s… and I watched Tad Nichols’ first power boat run through the Grand Canyon. And I looked at that thing, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I thought all those people had to be dead. The bottom of that boat, when it got into Lava Falls – which I knew nothing about at the time – just spun around. You couldn’t see (chuckling) anything but water, like they were all going down a hole. And then it pops out and slams down and the camera jars up like crazy, and finally focuses back into this incredible washing machine.
… I saw that thing, and I said, “My God, you’re right. I have to do that! But, how can I? I’m just a little twit out there in Hollywood, trying to make a buck, and it’s $500 for the upper half and $500 for the lower half?” And he said, ” Go back to Hollywood and make money.” So I did. And I will not forget this night, I was sound asleep, I had just gotten sound asleep, and the phone rang, and it’s Tad on the phone. He says, “Kay?” (sleepily) “What? Wait, who are you? What’s this?” “This is Tad,” he said. “You want to run the Grand Canyon?” And I said, (sleepily) “Don’t be silly, I haven’t got any money.” He said, “No! Somebody has canceled. Jim says you can come for your food, fifty dollars, and bring a friend – make it a girl, if you can,” he said. (laughter)
Steiger: Some things never change.
Lee: (laughing) Some things never do. No, he said, “Bring some classy-looking broad with you,” that’s what he said. And I said, “Yeah, okay.” But he said, “And bring your guitar, that’s the deal. You can sing to the other passengers, and you have to be in Flagstaff tomorrow by noon.” This is 10:30 at night, the night before!
I thought, “Golly, I’ll ask Julie.” Well, Julie Winslow was my Jungian teacher. I was studying Jung with her, Carl Gustav Jung – psychology. So I phoned Julie. I said, “Do you have any other students that might want to…. I’ve got to leave here within an hour, and they have to pack.” She said, “Well, I can go.” Well, I nearly fell over. I thought, “That’d be great!” Then I thought of Tad. Well, Julie (laughs) was fifty-five years old.
The night before we got up there at Art Greene’s (laughs), which was their habit, Jim and Bob, they showed Danger River. And of course that just gives everybody the trembles. You know, you get on that boat, and your adrenaline starts racing so fast, you don’t see anything, you don’t know anything, you just think, “Am I going to live, or am I not going to live?” And so my first impression of the river was just, you know, fear. I was just scared to death.
…We did the whole thing in eight days. This is this twenty-one-foot CrisCraft kit boat, built by Jim and Bob and friends, and their other brother, Jack.
But that was my first experience, and of course I had to run Lava Falls, so I was the third woman, according to Dock Marston’s record, which is (chuckles) quite faulty, I understand, but what the hell, he tried. I was 175 to run all the rapids in the Grand Canyon, clear from there to Pearce’s Ferry, which is where we got out.
Steiger: Well, if you were the third woman….
Lee: Julie was the fourth. I was in the lead boat…
And my first impressions… first of all, it’s the adrenaline, and that’s supplanted by the fear, and then the relief that you’re still alive, and you don’t really start to look around and check out what the place is all about, until you get over those first couple of days of this incredible rush of everything coming at you at once. God knows the scenery is enough to knock you back, but you don’t have time to think about it, or to study it, or to get in tune with it, or anything. So until you’ve run it two or three or four times, I don’t see how you can have any affinity with that place. You may be terrified, you may remember it all your life, but that’s part of what rivers are about to me.
See, rivers to me – life is a river to me. And if I’m going to be on that river, by God I have to check out what’s going on, with me, and with total observation, finding out who I am, what the river is, what the side canyons are, what’s in the rock – all that. I have to know about that, or I don’t know about me, and I sure don’t know about the river.
Steiger: Don’t let me get us too sidetracked, but there’s a couple of things: For starters, on this power boat trip, the first one that you did, they actually had passengers. Who were those guys?
Lee: One was a botanist, the other one was a doctor. That’s it, a botanist and a doctor, Julie, myself, Tad, Bob, Jim – that’s seven. There was one other person on that trip, and I can’t remember now who it was. I’ve got ’em all written down, but I just don’t remember.
Steiger: Essentially we’re talking eight people, two boats…
Lee: Yeah, including the boatmen.
Steiger: And you guys had everything stored – those boats had little cabins.
Lee: Everything stored in the cabins, yeah. And under the boat seat. And when I went down with Tad, and we went through Lava Falls, he lost the camera. It flipped straight up in the air, did about four turns, and came down in my lap…
And I can remember looking back to see where Bob was, because, you know, we pulled out in an eddy to wait for him… And all we can see is this, the nose, just doing like this, until finally (whistles) up it goes, splat. I thought every screw in that boat was going to come loose when we hit. We did the same thing… As far as I’m concerned, there was never a boatman to equal Jim Rigg. The guy was incredible, incredible. He was so fast, that he could get himself into anything and get out of it, whereas Frank Wright, in all the years that he boated, never once ever tipped a boat over, never once got wet – except, you know, yeah, sure, he got wet, but I mean he never got…. He never was anyplace he wasn’t supposed to be. They were sensational boatman – two of ’em – so different: Frank, who was a natural, and Jim, a natural in a totally different way. Frank just knew. He never moved hardly at all. He hardly ever touched the oars. And when he touched the oars, they were looonnng, smooth strokes, he knew where he was going and how he was going to get there. Whereas Jim wanted probably the adrenaline rush, and he’d go just a little bit too far, you know, but (chink) so fast he could get himself out of it.
I knew as soon as I was finished with the power boat run, that I wanted to really go in the cat boats, because actually, Jim had said that. He said, “You’re going to like the cat boats a lot better. We don’t have this noise, and we don’t have this smell. We’re doing this just to see if we can’t make a little bit more, you know, make it a little bit more commercial in order to make a few bucks.” And he said, “You know, we want to try it, see if it works anyway.” And it didn’t, really.
You can only get four people in that boat comfortably, with all their gear and stuff, and the food for eight days. And it was a fast trip like that.
I really wanted to get in those cat boats, because down there, you’re fish-eyein’, man, you are six inches from the surface of the water, and you really get to feel what that water’s all about. It doesn’t slop around!
Steiger: Okay, so the first Grand Canyon trip, you probably didn’t see anybody. Did you see anybody else?
Lee: …yeah, we saw Dock Marston, down around Diamond Creek, on the first trip. In fact, Jim stopped and talked to him… we didn’t see anybody else on the first one. On the lower half, this next one after 1955 – that’s where we ran into [Georgie], or she ran into us, again and again and again…
[Katie reads aloud a passage from her manuscript]
Journal note, July 17, Day Four, CFS 7,620.” Low.
Tapeats Creek, Sweet Mother of Jesus, there they are, all over the beach like ants. So what Frank said might happen, but prayed would not, has. The garbage scows of Georgie White and her twenty-seven passengers. These are not boats, understand, but big black neoprene rafts, inflated rings with a soft, squishy bottom. They look so ugly and unrelated to this place, like turds in a punch bowl. We begged Frank to go on, to put them out of sight…
Well, she is the first, and probably not the last of her type to run the river. Up to now, people with some sensitivity – more than a dead pig in the sunshine – have managed to stay out of each other’s way. I don’t think there’s ever been that many people through the Grand in a single party before, and with luck, we won’t see her again.
[Later that trip, at Lava…] We portage our gear, stepping around the hippo riders who’ve come down to watch and take pictures of us. They think we’re chicken. We think they’re knotheads. Our last boat is lined and ready for the rest of the run, when her barge/garbage scow/whatever you want to call it, comes through. Three bridge pontoons, tied together, with an outboard on the middle one. Now I’ve seen everything. We laugh until the tears stream from our eyes at this show. They lumber, flop, and slump, bump, ooze, slide, backwards, stop dead, squash, flap, and boiiinnng over every rock and into every hole in Lava. Absolutely no way to control them. For sure all the skill of the sport is gone. Just point the thing and go, hoping the front – or the rear, it doesn’t matter – stays headed downstream, which of course, it doesn’t. It wallows sideways, one barge flips on top of the other, making a people sandwich, a Georgie White special, with arms, legs, heads and bodies sticking out the side. She calls it – so help me this is true – ‘thrills with safety.’ We call it a freak show…
Steiger: (laughs) Say what you really think, Katie. Don’t sugarcoat it.
Lee: Now, here’s the crux of that trip:
“When we reached the dead water of Res. Mead and Jimmy came up in the Lollipop to tow us to Temple Bar, I knew there was another thing bothering me. I didn’t like this nuthin’ place to end such a wild and rugged trip. Didn’t enjoy being towed across miles of funny-smelling, hot, glassy water. Furthermore, Georgie White’s gross behavior had done much to tarnish the splendor of the trip. Still more. Glen Canyon Dam was becoming a political war, in need of more of us to fight it down. Yet even before it would obliterate 200 miles of the Colorado above, and make it a crippled wimp through the Grand Canyon below, the old style of river running would be crowded out. With the dam would go seclusion, the untrodden beaches… the quiet, the peace, and saddest of all, our specially-designed-for-these-rapids little oar-driven, two-passenger cataract boats, which couldn’t possibly bring in revenue enough to vie with all the Georgie Whites sure to follow. What was in the wind proved to be a storm moving in on us, tearing away the footings of tradition, and replacing them with a landscape strange and busy, an instant city built on a wilderness waterway. The old, warm, silt road, paved and icy gun-metal blue – big floating condos, leased through a term we’d never even imagined: user days, new rules, restrictions, traffic, clutter, crowds, noise. I remember crying much of the time across that reservoir, though my notes say nothing about it.
Steiger: Maybe we should just talk a little bit about… how you got from the Grand Canyon to the San Juan.
Lee: Well, it was actually Jim Riggs’ idea, after we did this power boat run, to talk to Frank and find out if I couldn’t come and pay for my way on these trips by singing to the passengers on the trips I was on. And Jim and I at that time – you know, there’s one thing that nobody mentions when you take a river trip: you’re supposed to fall in love with your boatman. Well, we did. Sometimes they fall back in love with you. So Jim and I had this thing going – and he actually came out to the coast for a pre-med semester at UCLA. And that’s when we would go back to Lake Mead – Res. Mead – because the power boats were in a hangar up there at Boulder City, and we’d work on the power boats. And that’s when we named it the Lollipop. But when everybody came off of their Mexican Hat trip, down from – it was a big, long one that Frank did that year – went from Wyoming… I was there to sing, ’cause Jim had sort of wormed me into that, to sing. And by that time I’d written a couple of river songs, and I had learned all the other songs that were already there on the river, and Frank Wright was duly impressed.
I thought it was my duty to get as many passengers as I possibly could. Nobody told me to do this, but it’s also the way that I found out I had a talent I really didn’t know I had, and that was writing well enough to get something published in a newspaper…
I wrote articles in the Arizona Highways about ’em. Every time I was in a different town or someplace, when I started to go on the road after I left Hollywood in ’54, I wrote for the newspapers, for the Chicago Tribune, for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat….
Steiger: Was this to promote Mexican Hat Expeditions?
Lee: This is to promote Mexican Hat, to get Frank Wright and Jim Rigg some customers, because it was not all that easy in those days. They only had four boats, but they needed two passengers for each boat, with $500 for the upper and $500 for the lower. So in those days, those had to be professional people, not people like you and me who’d really just love to go on a river. People like us didn’t have any money. So it would be doctors and lawyers and big businessmen – the kind of guys that go on tours like that, to go out. This was a brand new thing for them to do. Not many people knew about running down the Grand Canyon, for Christ’s sake. But I worked real hard to get them, to pay back what I was getting for nothing. Because (a) I knew I had to have it from then on, it was like a drug, and (b) I wanted to repay those people, especially Frank. Jim pulled out after a while, but Frank was the one that lived in Blanding, had a family. That was his work. He’d been with Norm for… ever since Norm started.
By 1954 I wanted to get the hell out of Hollywood, because I wasn’t doing a thing there that I really wanted to do, and I’d started to sing a lot more. So Burl set up this deal for me in Chicago in the fall of 1954, and by that time Jim Riggs’ and my little affair had gone out the window, and I had done a San Juan trip with Frank, and two other trips with Jim down the Glen…
Burl… gave me a publicity party, he made sure that his press girl was there to take care of all the details. And from then on, I was off and running. I worked steadily for three years, and I had to – in order to quit working – I just had to say, “I am leaving, I am going on the river.” “You can’t do that.” I said, “Oh yeah, I can do that. I am doing that. Everything’s moving a little too fast here, and I need to do this.” I was out there in front of those people every night, standing up there all duded and dolled up, all makeup and pantyhose and high heels and fancy dresses. You just can’t know how good it felt to take off all my clothes and get back to nature, and feel that water running over my body, and feel the sand pickin’ away at my skin, and feel a rock, and… getting in step with the stone. It takes about three days before you get your balance in the slickrock.
But what’s important, as far as I can see, is having that place, always, in the back of my mind. I can get there, and when I really needed it, I could be where I had to be, in order to get cleaned out.
Of course you know we’ve become slaves to places like that, and you fall in love and you’re at the mercy of… I was certainly at the mercy of that river, after the first two trips. Couldn’t do a thing about it. I just knew that I had to have that to keep in balance, because there couldn’t be two more opposite things. You know, an actress, all duded up, all a-glitter, knowing all the smart phrases, doin’ the whole protective act, keepin’ the men off her back – except the ones she wanted – and then the opposite side, pure nature, stripped down. The most necessary thing, you just can’t be with nature unless you go there empty. I like to feel the wind and the rain and the earth and the sand on my bod – I don’t want clothes on.
I found out that the Glen Canyon was a much, much more… much deeper place to be, because there was time to contemplate there. There’s where the river is a totally different personality. It’s like he’s just laid back, and he’s got all these beautiful little siblings flowing into him, sort of keeping him company. And he’s not upset, he’s not in a hurry, he’s just getting ready for the big drop, which is coming a little bit later. But he needs that space in there, to contemplate. And the more I went to the Glen, the less I really wanted to go back to the Grand. The Grand was big and powerful and scary and… and rough, sort of like a… Sort of like a quick physical fuck, is what it was like. Whereas the Glen was a very soft, love-making place. You know, time to roll over and look at each other – make love, not just screw…
Those two to three weeks on the river – sometimes I’d take three trips a year. I went back to the Grand Canyon twice, because I wanted to see it and feel it in the cat boats, get the real feel of the water and the river and not just go zapping down there in a power boat…
[But] there are 125, maybe more, canyons from Hite to Lee’s Ferry. All of ’em had grottos, water, running streams, fascinating, beautiful, heavenly, incredible places. Some of ’em were tiny little fluted canyons. (And that’s another thing: If I get the guy that started calling those things “slots”…. Slots, you know, you got those in Las Vegas – lots of ’em, they’re machines. Those canyons had far too much character to ever be called slots. What I call ’em – and I call ’em a lot of names – I call ’em fluted canyons, I call ’em crevices, I call ’em…. Mostly, they’re just erotic sinuosities. They are fantastic. You can go along each wall and touch, and each wall is curves. You can feel the next curve and the next curve. Slots they are not.)
Steiger: You know, I haven’t heard…. It’s funny that you call the Colorado “he.” So many people refer to it as “she.”
Lee: Well, I know… To me, it’s totally irrelevant. The spirit of the place has no gender… I would get up on top of the cap, and I would see… that here’s the femininity of it, all these bodies, all these humps and boobs and chests and bottoms and legs all stretched out there, lolling into each other and hugging the earth. I can see that. Whereas down on the river, there were these wonderful straight, strong, chesty walls with masculine shoulders and arms up on top. To me, because I’m a woman, why, to me it’s masculine. And since the river turned out to be my real lover anyway, I couldn’t hardly have a girl. I like men. (Goddam, I sure like men.)
I got a lot of work, I worked all the time. I was making really good money for a folk singer in those days, but you know, somebody on the road, anybody can tell you who’s been in the biz, that you spend everything you make, practically, because you have to get your clothes, you have to buy this, buy that – gasoline, you travel. I travelled everywhere for the first few years in a little Studebaker Hawk.
I was doing coffee houses and clubs then. See, I opened the Gate of Horn in Chicago. I was called back from New York, ’cause from Chicago I went to New York. And that was another great big step. That was after this first Glen Canyon trip with Frank and Tad, where I really got to know the river, and it got to know me.
I call those [the trips she went off to do] the “we three” trips. “We three” meaning Frank and Tad and I. Frank had never done that before. He had never gone on a trip just for fun… He’s a very responsible human being, and he was always worried about everybody, and he wanted everybody to have a good time, and he had to keep all that inside of him. But we made a deal on that San Juan trip. I said, “Frank, if you really want to go, and we can get Tad, and maybe somebody [else], but just maybe just you and me and Tad. (I’ve known Tad since we were in school, or just after I got out of college, and I’ve known him for years, and he’s just like a big brother to me.) And you’ve never had a chance to lay back and enjoy the river. Tad and I can do the chores and the cooking and you can bring your camera and you can just photograph until you’re purple. And we can go in the fall, when there isn’t anybody here. You always do this in the summertime.” And Tad had told him about the light. He said, “You know, Frank, this is not the same place as it is in the summertime. It’s a totally different bag of tricks. The light changes everything in here in the fall.” The low light. So as it turned out, we talked him into it, and he supplied the boat and we split up the food and Tad and I did most of the chores, or tried to. Frank has a habit, he ain’t used to sitting around, not doing anything. But we hiked him all over hell, and I tell ya’, I drug him up through some cold pools that must have shriveled him. He must have thought he had two sets of tonsils. I know Tad thought he did.
…I found out, after this “we three” trip that I could not do any commercial runs: I did one more for Frank, and then I said, “This is destroying everything I come here for. I want nobody here. I don’t want anybody here [unless it’s] somebody I know personally. I will not take anybody down this Canyon that I don’t know, [I want to go with someone] that knows when to shut up and let everybody have their own thoughts.
But that’s the way it was with Tad and Frank, we all knew when to communicate with just signs or eyes or anything, and no speech… talk covers up what Nature has to say, and that’s why it’s so nice to go with just a few people or three people that know when to shut up, than people that don’t… We didn’t talk a lot on the river, at night in camp, sometimes, most times. We never swore, either, because Frank wouldn’t have it. (laughs) I used to say “Aw shi…nuts!” And one day Frank asked me “Katie, what are these Ashi nuts you’re always talking about?”
And I sang every night. Frank loved that music – so did Tad.
One of the turning points for me, advertising that, is really very funny. I was doing a show in Chicago one night, a talk show, but I wasn’t talking, I was on there to advertise the fact that I was singing at the Gate of Horn. This is ’56. But I was on this show that night, and there were several other people, all different – not just entertainers – people from all walks of life that had something to say, or that the press had found interesting. …and I look down the row here, and here’s this woman with a little brown suit on, and a little brown hat with little faux feathers in it… and she looks really strange in this outfit, and I’m thinking, “What in the hell? Who’s that?” And the man who’s the head of the show looks up and he says, “And we have on the show tonight Georgie White, who has come here to tell us about this incredible river run down the Grand Canyon Rapids of the Colorado River,” and on and on he goes. And I’m looking like, “Holy fuck bombs! I don’t believe this!”
[She] was on this show with me, and she’s advertising this river that I’m trying to protect. It just dawned on me right then and there that I’m doing the wrong thing. Never am I going to write another article about this river – never.” And by that time I had found out what Tad and Frank and I…. I really had gotten possessive about the place, and I didn’t want anybody else down there anyway – ever.
Steiger: So you decided to stop publicizing it.
Lee: I sure did. But you see, you know, we all shit in our own little nests sooner or later, and I was sure doin’ in it mine. That’s what I call it now, but at the time I was just blind as a bat about that. I was doin’ it for Frank and Mexican Hat Expeditions, but that’s no excuse, ’cause by that time, I was in. I mean, nobody was payin’ my way anymore, and I was payin’ my own way. And I thought, “God, look what I’m doing!”
Steiger: You mean, just publicizing the river was not a good thing to do.
Lee: Not the thing to do. And I had concerts to do all that year. I was showing Tad’s film and singing the river songs, and I was doing a whole mess all over the Midwest. I was doing these women’s clubs. And I had six months of those to go. But after that, my heart was not in it at all, and I quit doing that kind of thing.
Steiger: Katie, you’ve done a whole bunch of albums. There must be five or six of them, at least.
Lee: Oh at least, I’ll say.
Steiger: If not more, but there is one devoted to the river….
Lee: Well, the first one I did [Folk Songs of the Colorado] was in 1960, and it was for Folkways.
But the albums… the first one I actually did was called Spicy Songs for Cool Nights. And then the next one, somebody, this guy got ahold of me and wanted me to do Songs of Couch and Consultation. Everybody was being analyzed in those days. (laughs) And this was a hot seller.
So I did two of them, and that second one was called Life is Just a Bed of Neuroses. And there again, I was pulled and pushed and tugged around, you know, like, “You’re going to make a whole lot of money, Katie.” “God, I’ve got to keep this momentum going?!” And I said, “No, I’m sorry. I’m real sorry, I’ve got to go to the river. I’m all screwed up, I don’t like this, there’s something wrong here. I’ve got a trip….” “Well, you can’t go to the river, you’ve got to make a lot of money.” And I said, “No, you’re gonna make a lot of money, and I’m gonna lose my mind. I’m going to the river. See ya’ when I get back!” And there went the momentum. I couldn’t have cared less.
I still had a career, I still had…. I just knew that there were certain things that I couldn’t do. I could never be famous. I got right up there at the top, and then took one look at it, and it was just like looking over a precipice and you either spread your wings and [you’re] dyin’ or flyin’, and I knew I couldn’t fly. I just knew it, not in me. I’d insult people. You know, people would get in my hair to the point where…. I didn’t want to be another Frank Sinatra or any of those people that turned out to have more hate in them than joy.
…[But] looming over [Katie’s life on the river] was the fact that we were going to have to fight this dam which was coming in at us from all angles at that time. Up until then we’d just sort of pushed it off and said, “You know, this can’t happen, they’re not going to do this, they couldn’t do this. Nah, no way.”
…we tried not to talk about it on our “we three” trips, because we wanted to forget that and enjoy this place and get to know it. It wasn’t a sure thing, then, yet at all. We still had hope that we could fight it down. It wasn’t until just the following year, you know, that the shit hit the fan, because then’s when Moss just changed – all you did was just change the language in the law, and I didn’t understand stuff like that. You know, I thought a law was a law. Well, I sure learned a lot in a hell of a hurry…
I started in ’53. In ’56… it was three years before we knew we had a fight that was going to be bigger than one we could handle. I mean, I’d started writing my letters to Goldwater way back in ’54. So I’d sit down and write four-page, single-space letters to people. If I’d been smart, I wouldn’t have done it to Goldwater in those days. But I was so apolitical that I had no idea what you did, I just did the best I could. But anyway, I had written him, and within, you know, six, eight days I got an answer back. Barry did read the thing, but it was just, you know, trying to explain, you don’t want to do this.
Steiger: Well, he, of all people, probably should have known.
Lee: That’s just exactly right, but he, of all people, is a fucking politician, just like all the rest. And now, he’s still one, because now it’s the thing to do to be sorrreee. So he’s politically correct, right to the end. He’s sorry now, along with Udall and the rest of them. “Oh, we shouldn’t have done that.” Big fuckin’ deal! I told you long ago you shouldn’t have done it…
Steiger: But what you got from him then was, “Sorry, this is happening.”
Lee: Oh, “Arizona needs this water,” and “this is for silt control of Lake Mead,” and all that. As if I gave a damn about silt control in Lake Mead! So (sigh) yes, I wrote very logically as well as very emotionally, because that’s the way it is, you know. By that time I was involved with that Canyon, and it didn’t take long to get involved with it, but it took a long time to understand that it was really going to go.
Steiger: Now, what was this, as far as the law?
Lee: The law itself? It was that no water was to encroach on a national monument.
Steiger: And this is referring to Rainbow Bridge?…
Lee: Yeah. It was a national monument. They were going to inundate a national monument – they couldn’t do that. So we were, you know, we didn’t know it, but we were just grabbin’ at straws. We were all people [who were] not politically-minded. Hell, I never even joined the Sierra Club until after David Brower saved Grand Canyon. And I never blamed David for Glen – he blames himself. When I talked to him two weeks ago I said, “I was not one of those that blame you for inundating Glen. There’s just so much one man can do, David, and the Wreck the Nation Bureau was going to build a dam, whether you liked it or anybody liked it or not…
[Katie pulls out her manuscript again…back to 1955…] Through binoculars we see three lone figures high on the rim opposite Sentinel Rock – survey party, tripod and plane table. They called to us and some called back – not me. We note inscriptions on the rock by the dam site from other river rats who are livid about its possible construction. I got some hot things to add, but Frank says no. There’s no way anyone on our trip would have answered the Bur-wreckers if we still hadn’t been certain by law that nothing could destroy our Glen Canyon, nothing as unspeakable as a dam, even with such dumbfounding evidence before our eyes. Interesting word, dumbfounding. Dumber than dumb it found us. But I was starting to panic. I had just found a place on earth that could save my life, and some black-handed bureaucracy was already clawing to take it away from me.”
Down in the… snaky narrows are rocks like those I saw in Twilight Canyon across the way. Huge baked-potato-looking ankle-breakers, and I wonder why on earth that these boulders, acting as crushers in a mad flash flood haven’t rammed through this thin buttress to the river. The answer’s right in front of me – time – in time, it will. Here come the tears again. These animals who want to inundate everything! All this purity put to rest under putrid, still water. Don’t they realize spots like this are disappearing from the earth at an alarming rate?! Sure they do! They just got shit for brains. What’s a few hundred miles of sandstone to a politician? I’ve tried not to let these thoughts rain on my parade, tried to soak up every sight, sound, smell, and emotion, like a blotter, and keep them forever in my vision and my heart as protection against the drought of spirit, against the storms that batter my soul. But each day, as the threshold of earth’s awesome beauty and power move higher in my sight, more frightening is the knowledge that my own species, and only mine, has in the past, can and will in the future, eradicate whatever it chooses, for whatever reasons it dreams up, followed by the most bitter, bottom-of-the-barrel thought of all, What if this Canyon really is victimized and I can never come to this blessed shelter again?”
Life magazine came out with a stupid article about how they were going to irrigate, you know, with all this water. And I’m lookin’ at fifty miles of sandstone on both sides of the river, and I’m about to tear that magazine in 14,000 pieces and stuff it up ’em, because I’ve never heard of anything quite as stupid as that. They were gonna irrigate on…. Well, I wrote a silly little poem about it. In fact, I was into writing bad poetry at the time, because that was the only way I could express myself. I couldn’t even sing it!
This poem was written in 1955, in November after I got off of this trip.
So that’s it. I was pissed, and that’s what I said.
Steiger: Well, there’s a lot of water under the bridge since then, huh?
Lee: A whole lot. But, my conscience is clear. I have never, ever backed up.
October 13, 1956 We went on down a mile below. Little men were crawling all over the walls, from the top via little rope chairs – all alien, and all silent and busy, marking the walls for blasts. Tomorrow – no, Monday – President Eisenhower presses a button in Washington and the first blast falls off the wall to begin construction officially. Must have it official, by all means! A cable crosses the Canyon at the top, bold white numbers splattered all over the desert varnish, a fly-speck trail of them down both walls where the abutments will eventually go. Oh, how I wish I had a million tons of dynamite! Boats dot the shore, flags, survey equipment, tools, and hydro-glyphics peculiar to those who know about drilling diversion tunnels into walls, to fool rivers into escape tunnels, while they silently and slyly build up a wall in front of his path to hold him back for the power they think he’ll produce for them, at a cost ridiculous, and a reason nameless, except to those few who will line their purses with the money from the mighty contracts.
“Back to the boat and down our river. I cannot hold back the tears of anger and resentment, of the wrongdoing, when there is a right way. I know what they are destroying, they don’t care! I cannot fight harder, I haven’t the money to buy the dynamite, and that would be the wrong way anyway. Even though it would be the only way to fight rotten politics, I haven’t the strength alone to shout the truth, nor the means for it to be heard. I would be named a queer type of eccentric. At this point I can only hate those who set it in motion, write my songs of protest to let a few see and hear, and pity the man to whom the almighty buck means more than great Nature’s beauty, wonder, and spiritual elevation. Our language will never intertwine, our semantics will remain a barrier forever, and for that I am glad.
Steiger: Looking back on that, if you’d have known then what you know now, do you think there was any stopping that thing? It seems like you guys were battling overwhelming odds.
Lee: Oh! The odds were so ridiculous that…. Well, there were no… we had no way to publicize any of this. Sierra Club was the only one that could get any message out at all, and the Sierra Club had no membership then. What, 50,000 people, maybe, or less.
But we did not have any numbers to battle this. And another reason I wrote these articles was to try to get people involved, to let them know. Go down that canyon and see – you won’t want it dammed. Because the minute we got people on the river, we talked their ears off.
I remember being in the Canyon on the ’57 trip, the day before President Eisenhower pushed the button and blasted the first blast off of the walls. And that was in September or October of 1957. October 30 or 31, toward the end of the month. I was in the canyon, we’d just gotten out the day before. In fact, we were up at Art Greene’s and I heard the sound, and I remembered. It just brought me to my knees. I couldn’t handle it.
Steiger: Well, it seems like there were so few people….
Lee: I had done everything I could do.
Steiger: Well, as far as who knew Glen Canyon, about the time this deal was being made….
Lee: Yeah, but you see, it’s just a vicious – it’s a Catch 22. You’ve got to get the people in there. This is what the Sierra Club was in there for. You gotta get the people in there to know what it’s about in order to get them to stand up and fight. And in so doing that….
Steiger: You’ve already….
Lee: You’ve already fucked up your place. If you want the privacy, if you want the solitude, if you want the mystery and the treasures that a place like this can bring to you, you shut your mouth about it, and you don’t tell anybody nuthin’! So we defeat our own purpose.
Steiger: [looking at Katie’s log] here’s a Glen Canyon, ’59, ’61, ’62.
Lee: The only year I missed was ’60. That was the year I married a second idiot. No, ’58 I married the second idiot. Oh, God! (whew) Anyway, I only stayed married to him three years, and the first idiot three years, and then I got married again, way late, in ’68, to a real wonderful human being, who had to go and die on me. Did you ever meet Brandy?
Lee: One of those [trips was with] that second idiot I married, Gene. I took him on the river one year. I had a lousy time, actually, as far as the river trip was concerned, because I was trying to show him everything. You know, trying to get him to … feel and understand what’s not possible to transmit.
Oh, he was a very much outdoor person… he tried hard. It’s just that, again, how could you know the place or become acquainted with it if…. It’s like a person. If you want to know somebody, you have to get to know them, you have to see them a lot, you have to talk to them, you have to get to know their personality and whether you like ’em or whether you don’t like ’em. If they’re friends, then they stick with you, you know. That’s what this river was. It was just a matter of getting to know what it was all about. And its changes, and its crazy little mysteries that nobody’s figured out, and I don’t want anybody to figure ’em out. I mean, that Canyon … breathed. Laugh at me if you want, but it did. Had a funny little thing it did in its side canyons that somebody else has discovered recently in other parts of this country in the slickrock country – it has a pulse.
Steiger: Now let’s see here. When the dam closed….
Lee: It closed on January 21, 1963. I ran it in October or September of ’62.
Steiger: And never went again.
Lee: Well, no, never went on the river again – there was no river to go on. I went back on Res. Foul, on Cess- Foul, Utah’s Urinal, Arizona’s Piss Pot. Yes, I went back, in a boat called Screwd river, but it had a space between the “d” and the “r.” (chuckles)
Steiger: Hmm, I wonder who named that boat?
Lee: My boat. It was a little runabout ski boat, had a little 75 Johnson motor on the back of it, and I went back and tortured myself four or five times, maybe more – ’til it reached Hite – the Hite, not that thing they call Hite now. Hite is eleven, thirteen miles downstream, the real Hite. Underwater. Yeah, I went back. But Frank and Tad wouldn’t go with me. I had to get other people.
Steiger: Frank and Tad didn’t want to – they just didn’t want to go see it.
Lee: They didn’t want to go with me and watch me fall apart.
They were smarter than I thought. They knew what I was going to spend my time doing. Not seeing my way, tears so much I couldn’t even drive the boat. But I had to go see it.
Steiger: But – [back to those river trips] – you’re going through this place on these later trips, where you already know, (but at first you didn’t know that its goose was cooked)…
Lee: No. But you see, that’s the reason when you finally know, Lew, then everything becomes indelible, and you see it with a wholly different eye. You see it so that it’s so engraved on your memory you can remember the smells, the colors, the feeling, everything. You know, your eyes are windows to the soul, and your soul is nothing unless you analyze. You know, analyzation fills – that’s what makes your soul, that’s what makes you who you are. You’ve got to look at things.
Steiger: This is according to Jung, huh?
Lee: No! it’s according to me! Not according to Jung. In order to, you have to know, you have to feel, you have to see.
Well, it’s just like Brandy: I knew Brandy was going to die. He told me he was going to die before I married him. And he said he only had three years to live, and I said he had more, and he did have more, he had five. But when we knew that dam was going in, we knew exactly how long we had. We just hoped, you know, that a lot of bad things would happen, but nothing bad happened, to the dam – not yet! But once we knew that, then I had to just – I decided to drink until I was drunk with it. And in so doing, you know, because this was going to have to last me the rest of my life – and it has. You see? It has lasted. The fact that it’s gone…. Well, it’s not gone to me, it’s in my head, I can see practically every turn in that river. I can still see the sandbars and feel it all. And when I’m really up tight, I just lie down and shut my eyes, transport myself back to that place. It saved my life, and it has kept on saving it.
Thanks to Katie for photos by herself, Marty Koehler and Tad Nichols.
Katie sells tapes of her songs by mail, and should soon have her book to press. For more information, write:
Katydid Books & Music, Box 245 Jerome, AZ 86331