Ken Slight aka Seldom Seen Smith

 Thinking buddies

mike youngren, charleston, wv, 2/2012

            Ken Sleight would not allow me to get knee-walking drunk until our friendly debate was over; and never before we completed the sublime thought or a creative concept.  “Pretend-sober” we were until the dishes were done and the dining room smelled of smoky embers; both of us upright and coherent until Jane began herding the man she loves toward their bed and ‘shooing’ me into the chill mountain night.  Only then was I allowed total inebriation.

“I think I’m fucked up.  Do you remember which cabin I’m in?”

“Over there,” she’d say, “and don’t scare the horses.”

“G’night.”

Good night.

Jack Daniels and jack Mormons were always two of my favorite companions.

Drinking buddies”.

“Born by chance into membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Seldom Seen Smith was on lifetime sabbatical from his religion. He was a jack Mormon. A jack Mormon is to a decent Mormon what a jackrabbit is to a cottontail.”

            Edward Abbey – The Monkey Wrench Gang.

             “Dammit Ken, this is going to be important – let me bring a TV camera.”

“Too disruptive,” said Ken, “spiritual we’ll be – TV hubbub would be an unwelcome frazzle.”

Edward Abbey was dead two months and buried in the desert near Tucson.  Ken and others organized a final farewell in Southern Utah amidst the red rocks outside the west border of Arches National Park.

“The Park Service won’t let us in Arches.  But we know a place not too far from where Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire,” Ken told me.  “We’ll need to walk a bit to get there.”

On May 20, 1989, in the morning, a close-knit group of 500 hundred strangers and friends parked Volvos, BMWs, Jeeps and jalopies alongside Highway 91 north of Moab.  We hiked a mile up a gravel road, crossed slickrock to a natural amphitheater where Ken and others would speak and sing into a scratchy microphone attached to a crackly portable PA system.  In the near distance, the dawn shapes of Arches –  behind, the backlit La Sal Mountains.

Three of the Abbey characters from The Monkey Wrench Gang were there:  Ingrid Eisenstadter, the model for Bonnie Abzug; Doug Peacock, who is George Hayduke in the story; and Ken Sleight, aka Seldom Seen Smith.  Missing was Doc Sarvis, the gang’s banker.  Everyone figures Sarvis was cast in the image of Abbey himself – who obviously had another commitment..

We spread out across the sandstone and – when we could hear – we listened to music, praise, tribute and eulogy, thinking our thoughts and being moved.

I didn’t bring a television camera.

The first time ever I saw this place we came to make documentary films about Arches and Capitol Reef National Monuments and the place now known as Canyonlands National Park.  Utah Senator Frank E. Moss (D) was leading a movement to upgrade the monuments to park status and to create Canyonlands.  The owners of our television station were environmentalists.

Photographer Bobby Smith and I spent a few months in the canyons, amidst the rocks, floating the rivers, flying to remote places and interviewing the natives.  Our films eventually became part of the Congressional debate.

 

One night, I climbed alone to the top of the Waterpocket Fold with nothing but a three-quarter moon, starlight and a bottle of “Jack” to guide me.  Our campfire was a mile away, down in the strike valley.  The giant chalk-white monocline cut north toward the Fremont River and park headquarters thirty miles away.  The Henry Mountains were eastern silhouettes.  The fold dropped out of sight 30 miles the other way, south, where Lake Powell would be.  I could barely make out Navajo Mountain.

 

God, it was quiet, everywhere – there was so much of it and so little of me.

I don’t know why – I thought of Frank Zappa.

 

I never witnessed Ken Sleight do anything heroic – though I saw the evidence.

I watched him love and saddle a horse.

 

Everyone knew Abbey’s character Bishop J. Dudley Love was really Cal Black.  Who else could it be?  The chief protagonist in The Monkey Wrench Gang was Bishop Love: the politician, the entrepreneur, the devout Mormon, the industrialist, the head of San Juan County’s Search and Rescue Squad, pilot, developer and eminent proponent of the theological (Mormon) position that man is steward of all these God-given earthly treasures and they are to be used solely for mortal purpose.  It is understatement to say Ken Sleight and Cal Black were polar opposites.

The Bishop wore a chunk of yellowcake, processed uranium ore, on a leather thong around his neck.  The purpose was a whistling attempt to dispel fear of radiation amongst the doubting public.

I had not much use for Cal Black.

We talked about the Cal/Ken relationship one night, over Merlot, I’ll wager.

Ken looked at me and said, “I kind of respect ol’ Cal.  I don’t agree with him – but, I always knew where he stood, and I respect that.  A worthy opponent.”

I was speechless – my thick tongue went numb.

“Another thing,” said Ken, “I wish he’d quit wearing that damn uranium necklace, crazy bastard, it’s going to kill him.”

 

And it did.

 

Love thy enemy.

            I began to realize right there, in the middle of my life, amid much pain and pleasure, I’d never met anyone like Ken Sleight – never would.  No tilting character this man – he’d sit on his horse in the middle of a trail to stop a bulldozer or move aside to let a lizard pass.

I found Ken to be gently persuasive.  Whenever my oft-rattled thoughts began to form around a tiny, but promising, fragment – Ken would quietly and respectfully nudge the synapse toward conclusion; if not perfect, at least a better place than where the thought began.

 

George Patton or Alexander Haig he’s not – not generally.

 

            The Bureau of Reclamation celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Glen Canyon Dam with official hoopla on a Thursday in May, 1983.  Interior Secretary James Watt spoke without fear of some 300 protesters who were kept by security more than a stone’s throw away.  The Governors of Arizona and Utah came to herald the big concrete plug and the reservoir they share on their common border and to cut the ribbon for an $8-million-dollar expansion of the Del Webb facilities at Wahweap, the boating and recreation Mecca on Lake Powell.

 

The television anchorman stood in the bright lights and complained about the script.

“Too opinionated,” he said about the edgy words.

I replied that his hair looked nice – which was my standard tactic dealing with anchormen.

We settled the brief debate by toning down a couple of verbs and smoothing the edges of the lead-in to David Brower.

Brower, on tape, talked about a time three decades earlier when The Sierra Club he headed fought successfully to keep the Bureau of Reclamation from building a dam on the Green River near Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument.  “But we didn’t oppose the dam site on the Colorado River that destroyed Glen Canyon,” he told us.  “We didn’t know much about Glen Canyon.”  Brower said the dam at Page, Arizona was a “compromise” he would forever regret.

 

We called our little television program “Compromise Canyon.”

 

Another segment featured photographer Eliot Porter, who documented the incredible canyon before it was drowned under 600 feet of water.  Porter told us that his neighbor Georgia O’Keefe sometimes went along on the camping trips into “The Place No One Knew,” which became the title of Porter’s 1963 coffee table photo essay published by The Sierra Club.

Sometimes Ken Sleight led the way through the rocks, into the canyons. “One of Porter’s cameras slipped off one of my pack horses and tumbled down a slope into a creek,” Ken told me one evening.  “I was mortified,” he said, “but Eliot had other cameras and he didn’t stop taking pictures.”

 

Compromise Canyon was a TV program with sharp teeth.  I’d come to believe that when the word “progress” is used, it nearly always means something beautiful is about to die.

When writing the script, I imagined Lem Wylie, the builder, and Ellis Armstrong, the patriotic bureaucrat, standing at its foot, admiring their handiwork: Glen Canyon Dam, 700 feet tall, 300 feet wide – nearly five million cubic yards of concrete and hubris.  They would praise the purpose, they’d praise the engineering, they’d praise the colossal effort.  Proud, they’d be, that their strong personalities overcame adversity.  With undaunted persistence they’d been able to negotiate people and politics to build this monumental erection to their intelligence, skill, talent and patriotic commitment to progress; at least that’s what the Bureau of Reclamation press releases implied.

 

            “Just think of it Ellis, 4.5 million kilowatt hours each year – these eight generators can put out almost 1.3 megawatts.  Son-of-a-bitch, there’s nearly 21-million acre feet of water parked back there in that hot, dusty canyon, ready to generate a hell of a lot of cash.  A gillion tons of re-bar, concrete, steel and sweat.  A 70-story-tall cash cow.  God damn.  Root, shaft and glan – my penis is bigger than the whole Colorado River.”

            “Bigger even than God’s penis, I’d say,” replies Ellis, the more religious of the two.

Back in 1963, Lem and Ellis were honored to meet Lady Bird Johnson, who came west to cut the ribbon on “progress.”

On the other hand, I met many “special” people who would stand at the foot of the dam and cry.  Some would be angry, others embarrassed.  Each would be forever sad – very, very sad;  patriotically sad.  My point-of-view and the source for the script grew from this sad group: students, writers, book store owners, river runners, bartenders, ranchers, movie-makers, lawyers, geologists, rangers, superintendents, teachers, explorers, historians, pilots, photographers, broadcasters and many others – people, citizens, who were generally more attuned to great loss than to great gain.

            Piss on the dam.

Another Zappa thought.

             If we all pissed on the dam, it should, in time, erode away and free the Colorado River in a mighty torrent that would flush all the rubble and rubbish downstream.  Any luck and Hoover Dam would rupture and Lake Mead could join the onrush of tumbling houseboats, buoys, Bo Derek and electric golf carts on beyond Lake Havasu City and London Bridge, past Parker and Blythe, through Yuma toward El Golfo de Santa Clara and The Sea of Cortez.

Ay’ carumba!

             In ten thousand years, the free-flowing river should erase our droppings.

             In fifty thousand years the Anasazi may reappear, growing crops, building clay dwellings in the red cliffs, raising children, making pottery, painting pictures and words on the sandstone walls and thanking The Great Spirit for all the peaceful beauty.

             A thousand years after the Anasazi disappear once more, watched closely by a diamondback, ten men in four wooden longboats led by a one-armed army officer drift through the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers a mile upstream from a great roaring place called Cataract Canyon.

You probably know the rest of the story – select parts of which were in the TV script.

Many of us believed the dam an arrogant mistake, built by arrogant bureaucrats.  Our television program could not be objective about the dam.  Therefore, the program instead would be about the rich sacred canyon that once stretched and scattered far, red and deep, upstream.

Inside the broadcast truck I noticed a familiar face on the crowd camera monitor.  My friend Ken Sleight listened to the words spoken by the anchorman with nice hair.  Maybe Ken smiled – then he was gone – exactly like Seldom Seen Smith.

When, because of my foolishness and without their permission, my young boys’ lives began to crumble around them, the absolute best we could do was head for Moab, to the high desert, beneath the La Sal Mountains, to ride the trail behind Ken.  I thought it an excellent idea to expose us all to my friend Ken Sleight’s influence.  Older now, with distance between us – but with much love and far less chaos – my boys and I often talk about Ken and Jane and Pack Creek Ranch.

Ken had become to me a sort of disheveled shade tree – green and leafy.  His roots spread wide and deep.  I’d say he’s a natural landmark.  He offers sanctuary.  He’s provides a cool, inviting place to sit and meditate or sip hi-octane nectar and talk about rocks and desert, canyons and rivers, mountains and Mormons, stupid and smart, people and places.

Life stuff.

A supremely bright and deeply beautiful young friend named Anna worked for The Sierra Club in West Virginia before she joined our public radio news department.  When first we met, we discovered a shared love of all things Abbey.  “I have a friend who is one of the characters in The Monkey Wrench Gang,” I said.  “I haven’t seen him for a long time – but, let me tell you a story.”

A couple of years later I retired.  When Anna learned we were driving west to visit friends and family, she said, “make sure you go see your friend Ken .”

Eventually, I did.

Thank you Anna.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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