A Song for Katie

An essay from the May 2017 issue of Arizona Highways. | By Kelly Vaughn | Photograph by Tad Nichols/Northern Arizona University Cline Library

A Song for Katie

The first time I called Katie Lee, she asked if I was Irish. 

“With a name like that, you must be,” she said. “Sure. Come on up. We’ll be Irish together.” 

The second time I called Katie Lee, she told me she didn’t understand why I wanted to meet her — that she hoped she wouldn’t be around much longer, honestly

She is 97.

“I’m hoping to see the photograph you wrote about, remember?” I asked. “The one that hangs in your bedroom. The one from All My Rivers Are Gone.”

She told me to read her the passage. I did. She told me to come on a Thursday. 

It was gray and cold and the kind of day where, really, a woman wants something other than to drive to Jerome to be even colder. Something other than to think about what questions to ask of a woman she’s long admired for her gall — for walking naked through Marble Canyon in the 1950s and early ’60s and wading in the frigid water of the Colorado River. Katie fought loud and hard that that river not be dammed. She lost. And so she wrote songs and wrote books and became an advocate for other rivers, too, and for water. 

You’re not supposed to meet your heroes, I thought.  

But I went.

The house was turquoise, and Katie was hesitantly gracious, inviting me in for cookies and coffee, even though she still didn’t understand why I wanted to talk.

We sat in front of a window that overlooked the valley beneath us, cut hard and deep by the copper mining that made Jerome boom. We talked about politics and Earth, about the pull of wilderness and the awkwardness of re-entry to everyday life when you’ve been living on its fringes for a while. 

She told me that young women, single mothers, don’t always have an opportunity to take to the wild, that they’re working too hard and doing too much. I told her she was right, but wrong, too, and that I swore to take my children on a grand adventure every summer. And more often when I could. 

She smiled and spoke of Glen Canyon and of her river when it was free, before the dam gave it an aneurysm. 

Her word. 

And when she spoke of not returning to the canyon after it was flooded, she cried, then cursed a little, and in those moments, I wished I’d called her sooner — just so I might have known her longer. 

“That canyon was like a lover to me,” she said. “The curves, its softness. It was sensuous. It was the most natural thing in the world to walk naked through it.”  

When I asked to see the photograph I’d come for, Katie led me down a spiral staircase and into her bedroom, where the image hung in the same place she writes about in the book. Forgotten Canyon, she called the image — and it is. An Eden lost to flood, its sandstone walls eroded, its trees drowned. Little wonder she would sometimes get lost in the photo, the only thing left of it. 

When I said goodbye to Katie that day, I cried a little. She hugged me and said I didn’t have to go so soon. And I knew I’d not ever have another day like that. 

Two weeks later, I went to see the dam and to walk along the edge of Lake Powell, the thing that swallowed Glen Canyon. At Antelope Point, the water was low and calm, and the rocks on the beach were warm from a week’s worth of sun. 

I felt an overwhelming sadness that I’d not known Glen Canyon before the flood, but grateful, too, for the chance to work in nature that day. 

So when I took to the water, it was the most natural thing in the world.