Katie Lee was a notoriously blunt woman. I had been in her living room, in Jerome, Arizona, for just ten minutes last summer before we covered sex and death. I had noticed a model sitting on a shelf—a small white dory with the name Mexican Hat Expeditions painted on its side. It was a replica of the crafts on which, half a century ago, Lee first forayed through Grand Canyon and Glen Canyon, places for which, right up until she passed away in November 2017, at 98, Lee would be the fiercest of advocates and the most lyrical of chroniclers.
With Mexican Hat, Lee became only the 175th European to traverse both the upper and lower ends of Grand Canyon, and one of the first women. On later trips alongside two pioneering river runners, Frank Wright and Tad Nichols, she helped name many of the side canyons along the Glen, which was submerged beginning in 1956, when the Colorado River was dammed to create Lake Powell. In the driveway of Lee’s small blue house in Jerome was a silver Prius decorated with bumper stickers—RESTORE GLEN CANYON and THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH REPUBLICANS—and a vanity plate seemingly calibrated to tiptoe along any censorious line drawn by the Arizona State Motor Vehicle Division. It read: DAM DAM.
It was summer 2017, and we were sipping lemonade that Lee brought out from her small kitchen, talking about those earliest expeditions. “The Grand was immense and powerful. Awe-inspiring. And loud. You went down there and you could see how the earth was put together,” she said. “But the Glen…the Glen was like floating on silk. Like being rocked in a cradle.” On one of the Glen Canyon trips, Nichols famously photographed Lee naked, her body joyfully mirroring the curves and contours of the canyon’s sandstone. She took pains to make clear, as we sipped lemonade, that no sex had been involved. “I didn’t want any,” Lee said. I said that her writing about the canyons and the San Juan River was, nevertheless, quite sexy.
“Oh, absolutely,” Lee said, then sighed. “Best lover I ever had was that river.”
I first encountered Katie Lee in a used bookstore on Royal Street in New Orleans, where the first thing she published, Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle: A History of the American Cowboy in Song, Story and Verse, leaped off the bargain shelf, demanding to be purchased on title alone. When I finally opened it, several years later, I was floored. What was this book? Memoir, elegy, folklore, ethnography, history, beat narrative? Ostensibly a rambling, cross-country search for the original source of the cowboy song “Old Dolores,” the book was all those things, written in a voice that was at once hip and authoritative, folksy, profane, mischievously joyful, and lonesome sad. I sort of fell in love.
It took Lee almost two decades to write Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, starting in 1960, when she was already past 40. She crisscrossed America in a mid-1950s Thunderbird coupe, singing in clubs and, in between, chasing down the last survivors of a West that by then had already been romanticized longer than it existed in the first place. There was, conscious or not, an element of penance in Lee’s obsession. Her father had been a real estate developer in Tucson, building subdivisions where ranches once were. Lee grew up on the border between the Old West and the New, and her childhood familiarity with the former was inextricably tied to its disappearance.
Lee left for Hollywood in 1948, when she was approaching 30, and found small roles in TV and movies. “I was too old to be an ingenue and too young to be an older actress,” she said. Lee had more luck with a singing career. Her breakthrough was an album about psychoanalysis, Songs of Couch and Consultation. Among her admirers were Harry Belafonte, Burl Ives, and Woody Guthrie, who sent a five-page mash note. Then, during a visit back home in March 1953, she saw footage of a friend’s rafting trip down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. The images hit Lee with the force of a revelation.
“I remember sitting there, stunned, through the excited babble of my guests, knowing one thing for sure—that I had to get there somehow, see and feel that place,” Lee wrote. She did get on the river, first through Grand Canyon, playing her guitar on the banks each night for paying guests, and then on runs through Glen Canyon, which became the lodestar of her remaining six decades—lover, muse, temple, and, once the canyon lay deep beneath the waters of Lake Powell, the source of lifelong rage, grief, and steely purpose.
The damming of the Colorado River at Glen Canyon—the result of a deal to preserve the more popular Dinosaur National Monument—would come to be seen as the galvanizing ecological crime of the 20th century. In songs, speeches, and stories, Lee became one of the nascent environmental movement’s fiercest voices. She was Kick-Ass Katie Lee, the Goddess of Glen Canyon, a woman who took no shit, liked saying “fuck,” and rode naked through Jerome on a bicycle, in imitation of Lady Godiva. Asked once in a National Geographic documentary if she had ever met Floyd Dominy, the architect of Glen Canyon Dam, Lee answered matter-of-factly: “No, I never met him. I would have cut off his balls if I had met him.” She wrote three books about the canyon and its environs: Sandstone Seduction, The Ghosts of Dandy Crossing, and All My Rivers Are Gone (later republished as Glen Canyon Betrayed: A Sensuous Elegy). Lee played countless songs of commemoration and longing for the place and testified, rallied, petitioned, and inspired. “I just don't understand what I've done that makes people so insistent that I've done something,” she told me, with not quite characteristic modesty. “I've just always said what I believe in, and I've said it out loud, and many, many times.” She paused before adding, “And with a lot of swear words.”
Jerome was once a copper boomtown, a spiral of steep, winding streets that clings like an Italian hill village to a rise overlooking the Verde Valley. Abandoned by the mining company in 1953, it was saved from ghosthood in the late 1960s by the arrival of hippies, back-to-the-landers, and other dropouts. Katie Lee moved there in 1971, having been chased from Aspen and then Sedona by encroaching New Agers, retirees, time-sharers, and other varieties of what she liked to call “feather-headed” folk.
She showed me around the house, built into the side of a gulch filled with piñon pines and scrub. Upstairs was the kitchen and a small, bright office cluttered with memorabilia: photos of rafting trips and concerts, a “Hayduke Lives!” patch celebrating the novel by her friend and fellow conservationist Edward Abbey, badges from a lifetime of conferences.
There was a large map of Baja California, which Lee crisscrossed by dune buggy for much of her second marriage, to a former race-car driver named Edwin Brandelius, Jr. The desert soothed his emphysema. As Lee told it, she and “Brandy” had gone to the trouble of getting married only so she could get his veteran’s pension when he died. “He said, ‘I just want to fuck the government one more time,’” she recalled.
“None of my marriages was a total waste of time; all of them taught me something,” Lee later wrote. “But Brandy was like the whipped cream on top of a hot chocolate sundae—he melted too soon.” Doctors told them they would have three years before the end; they got five.
She was done with marriage after that, but not long-term companionship. The front door opened, and a lanky, dapper man with white hair and a mustache walked in. “That’s my guy, Joey,” Lee said. The two met in Australia while Lee was backpacking around the world to celebrate her 60th birthday. The next year, Joey came to live in Jerome. “He’s pretty much deaf. Probably because he doesn’t want to hear what I tell him,” Lee said. From the ceiling in her office hung an assortment of lifelike birds—a black woodpecker; a white owl, wings outstretched; a mobile of delicate hummingbirds. Joey spent much of his time hand-carving and painting these in a workshop downstairs and leaving them for Katie as presents.
Lee was in remarkable shape for a woman approaching 100, but she was unaccustomed to any limitations, and the ones she suffered drove her crazy. She was forced to get on all fours, wincing and cursing, to descend a spiral staircase to the downstairs bedroom. Her skin was papery and quick to bleed, as a small scrape on her elbow demonstrated. Time had left some holes in her memory, though I had a suspicion that the most delightful of these—“That asshole singer, what was his name?” (She meant Frank Sinatra); “Bob…the one who couldn’t sing” (Dylan)—were evidence more of temperament than age.
She still drove, but not at night. Among the new things I learned about Lee during my visit was that she was an abominable back-seat driver. There may be an ideal speed at which to descend from Jerome to the Mexican restaurant in nearby Clarkdale for dinner; I did not manage to find it. Once we were seated, Lee ordered a single vodka and tonic and semi-surreptitiously added a second shot from a flask in her purse, as if to steel herself after the harrowing hell ride I had just put her through. After I made her talk for more than an hour, she asked, wearily, “What are you going to do with all this?” I said I needed some time to let it sink in. “Let it sink in,” Lee said, putting a hand on my arm. “But don’t let it drown.”
As I said: sex and death in the first ten minutes. There was an open book sitting on the coffee table in Lee’s dining room: How to Get the Death You Want, by John Abraham. “I haven’t read it yet, but I just know I’m going to do it my way,” she said. “There’s probably every kind of drug in the world in this town, if I need it.”
In the end, it didn’t come to that. On the night of November 1, Katie and Joey had dinner alone together. They said goodnight, she descended the spiral staircase to her bedroom, and sometime in the night she slipped quietly from life into death. Joey found her there the next morning.
Kathleen Williamson is a singer-songwriter, lawyer, and old friend of Lee’s, dating from the days when Williamson lived in the gulch in Jerome and was known as the Goat Lady, delivering milk from her herd on the back of a donkey. She arrived later that day to begin the job of sorting papers and memorabilia, most of it to be sent to the Katie Lee Collection at Northern Arizona University, and to comfort Joey. “He was distraught,” she said. “They really did love each other.” Williamson left him that night sitting in a chair by the front window of the house, reading Edward Abbey. She’d be back the next morning, Williamson told him. “Not too early,” he said.
Williamson drove into the center of Jerome to see the flag that the town had lowered to half-staff in honor of its most famous resident. Passing Lee’s house on the way back to where she was staying, Williamson glanced in the window and saw Joey still there, reading. Sometime after that, he took a .22-caliber Ruger pistol, went downstairs, lay down in Katie’s bed, and shot himself in the head.
“The first thing I remember about getting to the house the next morning was that all the windows were closed and there was an overpowering smell of skunk,” Williamson said later. “It was really bad. Thick. Just overwhelming.” The only explanation, she thought, was that a family of skunks had been under the house and, startled by the gunshot, all sprayed at the same time. A police officer who was staying at the house until a medical examiner arrived from Prescott had a different idea. She had performed the same duty the day before, watching over Katie’s body, and she said that a raven had spent the entire time hovering in tight circles over the house.
“The cop said, ‘Those must have been their avatars,’” Williamson said, with a chuckle. “Only in Jerome do the cops talk like this.” She was inclined to believe it, too. “Except the cop assumed that the raven was Katie and the skunk was Joey. But I think they got crossed up, or stuck around watching over each other. Because, if you think about it, Joey was the bird man. And Katie…Katie knew how to raise a stink.”
We had, of course, talked about rivers. The words had the quality of a catechism by now, her cataloging of Glen Canyon: “One-hundred and eighty-four miles of pure Eden. One hundred twenty-five side canyons, each of them different, each with its own personality.” Lee had spent, in total, a matter of weeks in Glen Canyon and the rest of nearly a century casting spells to keep the place alive. She never dreamed about it, Lee often said; to do so would mean that it had slipped into her subconscious when, to the contrary, it never left the front of her mind. “There’s always something during the day that reminds me of it. It could be a rock formation. It could be a cloud formation. Every night, when I sit down to dinner, the light that falls over the table…I’m back there.”
In recent years, parts of Glen Canyon have reemerged, the consequence of years of western drought, but Lee had no plans to revisit the area. There were times when she was almost grateful that most of it lay safely underwater. “It would be trampled to death,” Lee said. “All those miles and miles of sandstone would be covered with tire marks. Assholes running over them with bicycles and trucks. Unless you built a 20-foot wall around the place, which you couldn’t do.” She sighed. “I guess I just got lucky. I got very lucky.”
But how did Lee remain optimistic despite a lifetime of mourning, I wanted to know.
“I’m not really in mourning,” she said, leaning forward as though to share a wonderful secret. “Because I know what’s going on up there. I know what the river can do. I’ve watched it do it. Before I even knew anything about Glen Canyon, I knew it. But when you live there with the river, and you’re on it day after day after day after day, you see what it can do. It can eat through sandstone. That river is working its way around that dam. And that fucking dam can stay there forever, as a monument to human stupidity, but the river is going to go right through it.” She leaned back. “I don’t have to worry about it happening,” Lee said with a smile. “It is going to happen.”