When the Glen Canyon Dam was approved in April 1956, a group of archeologists and river runners set out to document more than 250 culturally significant sites and 125 side canyons that would be flooded by the project. One of those river runners was Katie Lee, a folk singer and Hollywood starlet turned activist. As she describes, "We would go around a corner, and spread out before us would be this incredible site ... Everything was in the right position; everything was perfect."
In this excerpt from the award-winning documentary DamNation, filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel interview the "desert goddess." Now in her 90s, Lee reminisces about walking naked through the enchanting landscape—"It was absolutely the most natural thing in the world"—and the significance of what was lost in the flood. "I don't think Eden could have touched Glen Canyon," she says. DamNation was produced by Patagonia, and the full-length film can be seen through Vimeo on Demand.
Katie Lee's considerable passion is never far from the surface. It shows when her blue eyes widen in a rage, and in the tenor of her voice when she takes off on one her rants against greed or government bureaucrats. She has a theatricalings an arm toward the big window in her study, beyond which lay the pink and purple hills of Jerome, in central Arizona's Verde Valley.
"I suppose it's strange that I'd wind up here in an old mine town," she says, eyeing the gouges in the ground that yielded one of North America's greatest lodes of copper: "Look at what they've done to the earth. My earth."
But Jerome, population 500, is actually the perfect place for Lee. The mining has long since ended, and the town is now home to artists, longhairs, rednecks, witness protection graduates and fools bold enough to cling to their own ways of thinking and doing.
The buildings hang precariously, and it seems, impossibly, against the steep slopes of Cleopatra Hill. Some have even slid a few feet or more. But so far they've hung on, and so has Lee, a former Hollywood starlet of some note and a folk singer who recorded eight albums. At 79, she's also an author and environmental activist seeking to convince the world that Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River needs to come down.
It has been her cause, her defining purpose, for more than three decades. The anger that drives her is like fuel. She has used it to produce a book, 35 years in the making, that's part river history, love story, political polemic and personal narrative of her pre-dam trips down the Glen, which corkscrews across 170 miles of southern Utah into Arizona.
All My Rivers Are Gone (1998, Johnson Books, Boulder, Colorado) veers from heartfelt and well-written descriptions of a mystical place now gone, and the awakening its beauty engendered in her, to maddeningly emotional screeds about whoever or whatever aggravates her, especially those behind the dam's construction.
"Humans have a genetic mania to destroy all the sanctuaries that feed their souls," Lee writes. "I don't want to be part of the human race when I see pimps in government and the whores who do their bidding. I'd rather be a coyote."