By Susan Cypert
She was called many things in her lifetime: blunt, foul-mouthed, blissfully profane, eloquent, free-spirited, joyful raconteur, badass, the Goddess of Glen Canyon, Kickass Katie, Grand Dame of Dam busting. A woman with grit, grace and humor. A woman who took no “s…,” liked saying “f…,” who once rode naked through Jerome on a bicycle.
And what a woman she was. Born Kathryn Louise Lee in Aledo, Illinois, October 23, 1919, Katie was three months old when her family moved to Tucson. She always considered herself a “westerner, born and bred, whether my birth certificate shows it or not.” Young Katie spent almost every waking moment outdoors, exploring Sabino Canyon, a natural desert oasis in the Coronado National Forest. “I suppose it was a training ground for what would come later,” she wrote. “I learned to stick to near vertical surfaces; to recognize the temperament of various rock forms; and for sure, to recognize what grows beside, on, and especially in between those rocks.”
Around 1924, the family moved to Los Angeles where her father designed some of the first houses in Hollywood Hills. The 1929 crash sent them back to Tucson. At 16, Katie decided she was born to perform and set her sights on Hollywood.
World War II, however, intervened. She married a soldier, had a son and was divorced by war’s end. During that time, she learned to play guitar, even though she couldn’t read music. In 1948, she was asked by one of the directors at the Pasadena Playhouse to take a leading role, so she finally headed to California and a modest career as an actress, including gigs on radio shows.
She had more success as a folk singer. Her repertoire was typical of the 1950’s: songs about outlaws and murder, love and hate, cowboys, injustice and politics. Her friends included stars like Josh White, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Burl Ives, who once said of Katie “the best cowboy singer I know is a girl – Katie Lee.”
In 1953, Katie returned to Tucson for a performance at the Temple of Music and Art. While at home, she saw a documentary of a powerboat run through the Grand Canyon and knew she had to experience that exhilarating ride. She couldn’t afford the $1,000 fee, but eventually earned her way onto one trip by agreeing to sing for her passage.
The trip left her awestruck. “I was in shock, literally…nothing of that magnitude had happened to me before. To be on the razor’s edge – to know you can die, to see how insignificant you are in relation to time, space, nature, beauty, history, our planet – is to be firmly put in your place. A grain of sand. That’s all you are.” She was the 175th person to run the Colorado River and the third woman to run all the rapids since Powell’s first trip in 1869.
Then came trips through Glen Canyon, which became her sanctuary and lodestar for the rest of her life. Best friend, muse for her music, and (once the canyon was deep underneath the water of Lake Powell) the source of her rage, grief and purpose. “The Grand was immense and powerful. Awe-inspiring. And loud… But the Glen… the Glen was like floating on silk. Like being rocked in a cradle…Best lover I ever had was that river.” Katie described the Glen this way, “You’d walk along and the next thing you’d see is this blue reflected from the sky, this beautiful, clear little pothole pool…every little grotto was full of frogs and birds and wildflowers. Plus, the incredible light was what nearly drove us all crazy. There was no light in the world like that…when I finally saw Glen, it just captivated me.”
Next time, Katie’s canyon is lost.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at https://www.sharlot.org/articles/days-past-articles.l. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to email@example.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 2, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org for information or assistance with photo requests.