May 9, 2007
It was love at first sight when the peace that was Glen Canyon first washed over Ken Sleight and Katie Lee back in the mid-1950s. And, although they had yet to gain the acquaintance of each other when they independently came upon this most serene stretch of the Colorado River, their initial encounters with the slow idyllic meanders would change them both forever.
This was back before Ken’s next epiphany, a chance run-in with an on-duty river ranger down at Lee’s Ferry in 1967. Sleight and his "swamper," preparing for a run through the Grand Canyon, looked up from their boat-riggin’ tasks as the uniform approached. With hand extended, the ranger introduced himself. "I’m Ed Abbey. Do you need some help?" The West would never be the same.
It should be mentioned here that an intervening variable of truly cataclysmic proportions had insinuated itself into the space-time preceding this historic cultural hook-up. And that would be the construction by the Bureau of Reclamation of Glen Canyon Dam some 17-miles upstream from Lee’s Ferry.
And that, in due course, backed up the Colorado River until it had inundated and drowned the 186 miles that constituted Glen Canyon. The marketing arm of the Bureau refers glowingly to the standing water behind the dam as "Lake Powell." Sleight is much more taken with the term, "Lake Foul."
This is all old news, of course. The plugging of the Colorado River would both shame and ignite the environmental movement in the West. It would also serve as the main topic of conversation when Abbey and Sleight, after completing their boat-packing chores that long-ago afternoon, spent the rest of the night consuming vast amounts of beer and plotting against the damn dam.
Some years later, Abbey would show Sleight a manuscript he had been preparing. One of the four main protagonists of the conspiratorial saga, a character named "Seldom Seen Smith," bore an uncanny attitudinal resemblance to the river-runner.
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The book, a not-so-subtle environmental call-to-arms titled, "The Monkey Wrench Gang," would go on to become a bible to "river rowdies" and "desert rats" throughout the Southwest. And due, in part, to "guilt by association," Sleight would become a cultural icon in his own right.
Katie Lee had run the Colorado River through Grand Canyon prior to her later rendezvous with destiny upriver in Glen Canyon. The hydraulics of the former had not massaged her sensibility. There was a roughness to its personality that prevented her from adequately embracing the essence involved. When she first put-in at "the Glen," however, she experienced a river epiphany of her own.
"And when I took a look at Glen Canyon, I went down in a rowboat. I had time to look around, I had time to look up and down and feel it. And I had time to touch the water. And it wasn’t roiling and trying to kill me. And there I was in this incredible place. And the more I ran that river, the more the river got to know me. And that’s the secret."
When she first heard that preparations to flood "her" canyon were pretty much a done deal, Katie went "ballistic."
"Look, you don’t know what you’re doing. This place is an Eden. There’s no place like this on Earth. What are you doing this for?" Responses centering around the water and power needs of Phoenix and Las Vegas didn’t serve to calm her down much.
"My trips through Glen Canyon and the river that ran through it changed my life — gave me an understanding of myself, my talent and its limitations; taught me about intimacy and the value of observation. Together they resurrected my spirit and melted my heart with their beauty; showed me time was not my enemy, and with their power to entertain, mystify and nearly kill me, diluted my ego to its proper consistency. For all my wandering, the Glen gave me roots as tenacious as the willows along its banks."
As an author, musicologist, folk singer, storyteller, actress, songwriter, filmmaker, photographer, activist, poet and river runner, Katie has also become a legend and an icon of the river and the movement. Along with Ken Sleight, she is one of the few who were able to become one with the spiritual component of Glen Canyon.
Or, as author and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams put it, "Katie Lee is a joyful raconteur, a woman with grit, grace and humor. She is not afraid to laugh and tease, cajole and flirt, cuss, rant, howl, sing and cry. Katie Lee is the desert’s lover. Her voice is a torch in the wilderness."
During her 16 trips down the river, she ended up not only coming to "know" the many side canyons, but also coming to "name" a few. She did not see them as "slot" canyons, however. "They are fluted canyons, they are crevices, they are "erotic sinuosities" — they are anything but a "slot." Hey, works for me. What she said!
And now to the crux of this epistle. There will be a gathering of the river-rowdy faithful tonight down in that quite eclectic neighborhood of Salt Lake City that houses both Ken Sanders Rare Books and the Broadway Cinema Theaters. The centerpiece of "An evening with Ken Sleight and Katie Lee" will be the 7 p.m. premiere of Katie’s film "Love Song to Glen Canyon" at the theater complex.
Tickets to this heady soiree are available at both the theater and, ahead of time, at the bookshop — which, by the way, if you are one of those who like to swap lies around a campfire after a long day on the river, will also be hosting the after-party. It doesn’t get much better than rubbing elbows with the likes of Ken Sleight and Katie Lee within the volume-laden "erotic sinuosities" of Ken Sanders Rare Books.
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