Katie Lee: I Will Return

Copyright 2017 by Diane Sward Rapaport

My close friend Katie Lee died peacefully in her home in Jerome on November 1, 2017. She was 98 years old. I am immensely sad.

Activist Katie Lee

Katie Lee was a vibrant, energetic, and eloquent singer, author and activist never stopped fighting to drain it and return the natural flow of the Colorado River.

Katie lit a wildfire in her heart about the loss of Glen Canyon when it was drowned to become Lake Powell Reservoir. She called it Loch Latrine or Rez Foul. Often called the “Grand Dame of Dam Busting,” she never stopped fighting to drain it and return the natural flow of the Colorado River.

She left a torch that won’t be extinguished. She knew how to scorch with her words, whether in her books, stories, songs, or lectures. I seldom met an audience of hers that didn’t shed tears and give her a standing ovation.

I once asked Katie why she was so attached to Glen Canyon. She replied,It’s as if my feet are still stuck in the sand at the edge of the river. It’s where I live. This other life I walk around in all day—well, that’s a passing thing. And in many ways it’s my defense against the sadder mechanisms of life around us. And God knows we all need those mechanisms from keeping ourselves from going crazy in this mad world.”

Although she leaves a potent legacy, one she was fortunate to realize in her lifetime, I offer here a few personal memories.


The last time I saw Katie was two years ago when I took her to lunch in Cottonwood, Arizona on her birthday. She cussed at me all the way down the mountain from Jerome for my atrocious driving.You’re f****g braking too often, you need to learn to downshift around these curves; you’re too jerky.” And of course, the more she cussed and yelled, the more nervous and jerky I got. By the time we reached the restaurant, Katie was carsick, and I was mortified.

Then I remembered her acknowledgments about me in her book Sandstone Seduction under the heading, Category Indefinable: “I can teach her only two things: where to hike and how to drive.”

Katie learned to drive from her third husband, Brandy, who was a racecar driver. She became superb at driving fast and smooth, cursing and honking at anybody in her way.

She just never managed to teach me.


Katie did teach me where to hike. Her topo maps showed me how to choose the places where there was virtually no possibility of seeing anyone else. (Hikes she has taken are highlighted with yellow or orange markers on topo maps, which will be archived at Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library).\

At 42 years old, I was a backpacking neophyte; a city slicker newly arrived in Jerome, AZ, who had made some waves in the music industry. I had never before spent a night that was not in a national park with groomed trails and signs telling me where to take a photo. Katie took her mate Joey, my husband Walter and I, and her friend Merlin on a ten-day trip into Gravel Canyon, in Utah’s White Canyon area—possibly not traveled by anyone (including the cows) since the Native Americans left in the fourteenth century. We accessed it from the top. Katie drove up some scraggy, scarred dirt road, which scared the piss out of me, one of my first experiences with Katie behind the wheel.

We started down canyon over many large tree trunks and refrigerator size boulders left by years of flash floods, sending Merlin ahead, sometimes for many hours, to see whether the canyon would continue to “go” or would box us out. He was training for some Chilean snowbound mountain backpacking and carrying 70–80 pounds.

Katie is her most natural self in these wild places—funny, easy to be around, and helpful. She is a gifted storyteller and those wonderful canyon amphitheaters inspired her and turned anybody with her into a rapt audience. The most magical moments were when she played her beat-up guitar and sang, with the coyotes adding their wild harmonies.

We found side canyons full of untrammeled ruins, whole pots, areas strewn with corncobs and grinding stones, and other remnants of lives long gone.

After we rappelled down a forty-foot cliff to walk out, Katie broke one of her two steadfast rules: Never tell anybody where you went. (The other was Don’t go down something you can’t get back up). We found a mauled and looted grave at the end of the rappel, human bones scattered everywhere, and it made Katie furious. We stopped at the Kane Gulch ranger station and told the ranger about it. “How did you happen to find it?” asked the ranger. “We came down canyon,” Katie blurted out. “Oh,” said the ranger, “I didn’t know you could come down that canyon.” Two years later, Outside Magazine did a story on it.

Hikes with Katie taught me to appreciate why those lonesome places are shelters for our emotional upheavals and havens for spiritual growth.

Je Reviendral

Katie loved making bead necklaces for her friends. A few weeks before she died, she told me she was making a necklace for her friend Candace of natural green polished stones and four tiny silver charms: a snake (“because I love them”); a pen (“because I’m a writer”); and a ladder (“of success”); the fourth was a tiny disk engraved with the words Je reviendral (“I will return”).

I’d like to think that maybe, just maybe, Katie never left. The wildfires that she set in my heart continue to spread.

More info: katydoodit.com

A lovely video of Katie singing “Song of the Boatman,” accompanied by Peter McLaughlin, at a birthday party about a week before she died. Lyrics by Katie Lee. Music adapted from the song “Cry of the Wild Goose,”by Terry Gilkyson. Katie gifted the guitar she played for so many years to him. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLTsnbPgXw1HDbfLoQs8R4YTAITkdoBOhH Video by Michael.

An elegant obituary in The New York Times on November 10 written by Robert Sandomir. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/obituaries/katie-lee-folk-singer-who-fought-to-protect-a-canyon-dies-at-98.html?module=WatchingPortal&region=c-column-middle-span-region&pgType=Homepage&action=click&mediaId=thumb_square&state=standard&contentPlacement=2&version=internal&contentCollection=www.nytimes.com&contentId=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2017%2F11%2F10%2Fobituaries%2Fkatie-lee-folk-singer-who-fought-to-protect-a-canyon-dies-at-98.html&eventName=Watching-article-click


In case you missed the NBC special on its Today show: https://www.today.com/video/life-well-lived-katie-lee-beloved-goddess-of-glen-canyon-dies-at-98-1088937539539



15 thoughts on “Katie Lee: I Will Return

  1. What a gorgeous tribute to Katie Lee. She would love that you continue to share her teachings.
    All I can offer here, aside from my heartfelt condolences, is a quote from Winnie the Pooh, upon leaving Piglet… “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”


  2. So sorry to lose such a magnificent human being and so sorry for you to lose such an amazing friend. Though 98 is certainly way better than most of us do, she is one who deserved to be 198 (albeit without these failing bodies). You have really outdone yourself with this beautiful memoriam. I was moved to tears. Wish we were there to give you big hugs and kisses.. We will when whenever we see you next. Love, love, love Bob

    Bob Swanson – Swanson Images Fine Art Architectural Photography And the Finest Art Printing http://www.swansonimages.com PO Box 26, Weed, CA 96094 530-938-0600 cell 415-515-7460


  3. What a lovely tribute to your friend. What a blessing to have known her…my sympathies on your loss…


  4. Thanks for this, Diane, even though it makes me incredibly sad. I considered Katie a dear friend also. I loved talking to her on the phone–her voice sounded so young! Thanks again for your eloquent tribute.


  5. Diane, shared the piece with Paul Fried (ex-Sedona Times, The Tab, and honorary Jerome denizen) who I copied on this reply. He wrote back to me: “What an exemplary human she was — relentless, brilliant, uncompromisingly activist. Long, productive life. Rest in deep peace. Thx for the terrific piece of writing from Diane. Tell her well-done from me.”

    I concur.




  6. Beautiful tribute Diane. I would say in some ways you two are kindred spirits and I am so glad you got to share in Katie’s adventures and dreams. Two passionate and strong women.


  7. I so enjoy your blogs Diane since it keeps me connected to Jerome and John’s time spent there. I am going to assume he knew Katie as they sound like kindred spirits. You wrote a beautiful tribute. John McNerney’s sister, Connie


    • Hi Connie. I will call Iris tonight. Yes, we were all tight buddies in Jerome. Katie and John’s mom spent time when John and Iris threw a ‘mom’ party at their house; and of course they also knew Katie and Joey in Todos Santos and La Paz. I do try and keep up with Iris. She has had a difficult time since John died. Thanks so much for keeping up. Hugs, Diane


  8. So sorry, Diane. What a lovely tribute to your friend. Arizona Highways also did a nice article. You can find it on their Facebook page if you haven’t seen it yet.


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