UNKNOWN TERRITORIES
 

    

 

 

 

INTERVIEW WITH KEN SLEIGHT

Ken Sleight began working as a river guide along the Colorado River in the 1950s. He became a close friend of Edward Abbey and is widely credited as being the model for the character Seldom Seen Smith in Abbey's novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Later, Abbey would often stay at Sleight's ranch near Moab.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: When was the first time you met Abbey?

KEN SLEIGHT: I met him through writing to him after he came out with Desert Solitaire. We both knew of the existence of each other. He was up at Arches. I was running rivers. I wrote him a fan letter telling him how much I enjoyed the book. Saying, well, ‘see you sometime.’ He wrote back, and says ‘we got to get together.’ As I recall, that’s what he said.

A couple of years after, about a year, right after the publishing of Desert Solitaire, he was a ranger at Lee’s Ferry. And, one day I come rumbling down the road to Lee’s Ferry with all my equipment getting ready for a trip. Here comes a big gangly guy walking down to the ramp. It was Ed Abbey. Peggy, my girlfriend, she says ‘there’s a ranger coming.’ That’s when I first met him.

He got right in and helped me unload, rig up my boats. All that work, it was all done by dark. Then we sat on that boat, the three of us—Peggy, myself, and Ed—and talked until midnight. Then about that time Peggy went to the sack. And Ed and I sat and talked until three in the morning about getting rid of the dam, things in general. I think that that evening was the beginning of the thought of The Monkey Wrench Gang.

It was a fitting beginning for his book The Monkey Wrench Gang. It was a number of years he was writing on that while he was writing other things. Years later well he brought me this manuscript for The Monkey Wrench Gang, he said ‘read it and tell me what you think about it.’ I took real good care of it even though I don’t think it was his only copy. I took it and went out there on the Dolores River and all that day I sat down in the shade of the cottonwood and read his masterpiece. And I couldn’t lay it down, I just loved it. It exemplified what we were really trying to do in a way that people could understand it. It tells me everybody has a monkey wrench, that all they have to do is use it.

That’s what we talked about a lot, how to get rid of the dam. What are we going to do to preserve that beautiful area?

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: Do you think that as people started to discover Abbey’s writing and wanted to explore, did it start to affect him?

SLEIGHT: We talked a lot about that a lot times. If he’s writing about Arches National Park, Canyonlands or whatever, it draws attention to it. People come here and ask, ”Where was the trailer, where was the trailer?” They keep asking me where was the trailer. It doesn’t matter. I tell them, ”Does it really matter, man, where the trailer was?” But they want to know because he wrote so well that they want to see what he saw. “But, man, you can’t see it no more because it’s not the same way.’

I made the mistake of taking a reporter for Sunset magazine down into Coyote Gulch with me and into the Escalante. The biggest mistake I ever made in my life. One week after that hit the stands, here comes the mobs of people backpacking down into Coyote Gulch...

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: Abbey was able to write about the beauty of a place and also make a correlation between a lot of political issues. What do you think he saw as the difference between his political writing and his nature writing?

SLEIGHT: Abbey wasn’t, and he says this, he wasn't a naturalist. But he reported what he saw. A lot of people classify his writing as nature writing. What he’s writing is protection of what we have. We both felt much the same. We’ve got to protect. We’ve got to oppose anything that’s destructive of the land.

What bothers me, a lot of nature writers today doesn’t get political. They write about these things. They take the classes out in these things. But they don’t tell how go out and defend the wilderness. And, that’s a shame that they won’t go out and put their bodies on the line or even express themselves. Abbey wrote the book, Monkey Wrench Gang, as of course, you know. The lesson of that, what he was trying to say, is that everybody has a monkey wrench of some type, a talent of some type, and use it, whatever it might be. Abbey could do it by writing. We got to slow it down, we’ve got to slow this down. But there’s so much corporate money coming into the area that it’s going to take a hell of a lot of citizens to oppose it.

We tried to keep the roads out. We tried to keep the mines out. We tried to keep it the way it was. But it’s just about impossible. Too many big corporations and big corporations pay our government people. It’s a foregone conclusion that we’re not going to have what we had. The big change, of course, was the Glen Canyon Dam. That destroyed everything. That was the end of the era, in my mind. The end of the wilderness. After they built that, then they came and destroyed all that beautiful canyons, and then here comes all the amenities that lead to it, the roads. More roads. More roads and more trails off of roads, and trails off of trails, and pretty soon you have nothing of what was.

Thank God that I’ve had my opportunity to see those beautiful places. Nobody will ever be able to see them anymore in the same way. I feel very fortunate. Then I feel bad because others coming, the people, my grandkids and their grandkids, they’re not going to be able to see them in the same way. I guess that’s why it’s important to record, that’s why I feel good about speaking to you because I can let them know what’s we’ve lost.

UNKNOWN TERRITORIES: Can you tell me, for someone who doesn’t know, what they destroyed?

SLEIGHT: Rainbow Bridge is gone and Music Temple, which was a very sacred place to a lot of people. Of course, Cathedral in the Desert --a beautiful, great big amphitheater that had moss growing on the white sands before anybody went up in there. I remember when I first went up there. I had to push away the willows in order to get in see it. It was in the early fifties, and I’m glad I was able to get a lot of the pictures before the waters came into there....

Trip by trip, trip by trip, I saw a little higher water, a little higher water, a little higher water. It was hard. You’d see driftwood and little lizards on the drift logs. A lot of beavers was dead. And the wildlife at the end of those little canyons -- the canyons were teemed with dead wildlife. The water just wiped them out.

Then you could see up on the walls, all the talus slopes were going down into that reservoir— slopes that had been formed for billions of years. Then, big blocks of rock from the walls began falling into the reservoir.

And, all the ruins: the thousands of Anasazi ruins. Big life-size, pictographs on the wall in Davis Canyon. I watched all of that go under. And there on the wall, also, was where Everett Russ had scribed his ‘Nemo, 1934.’ That was the last --he disappeared that same trip. All gone. There were pictographs or petroglyphs, actual granaries, habitations, markings on the walls by a great number of Indian cultures, and they are gone.

Today we get alarmed if somebody is going out there digging up into those Indian ruins. We made it such a big to-do that it’s a no-no to dig into the ruins and get the artifacts out. They make such a big to-do about it and rightly they should; however, look how much the government did itself, our own government. They destroyed thousands and thousands of sites without adequate studies.

 

 

 

Sleight

Ken Sleight

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