After a long day rallying for the draining of Glen Canyon and the dissembling of Glen Canyon Dam, Ken Sleight, river-runner, outfitter, activist and gang member, offers me half a sandwhich. We share the shade of a cottonwood on the banks of the submerged Colorado River, talking about his old, dear friend Ed Abbey on the anniversary of his death.
He greets me with a nostalgic smile beside Ed's old pickup truck and gives me a two-handed handshake before descending down to Lee's Ferry "to commiserate with Ed." Although Abbey's papers leave no doubt that Sleight was, at least in part, the inspiration for one of Abbey's most famous characters, he is reluctant to admit anything while the statutes of limitations are still pending.
"People ask me all the time 'Are you Seldom Seen?' " he says. "I don't know, I suppose some. I never own up to it directly."
Indy: How did you meet Ed?
KS: I think it was '72 or something. I went down to Lee's Ferry with a friend. We were getting ready for a river trip. I'd taken this lady with me to help out. We got things half unloaded and she says, 'the ranger's coming down.' It was Abbey. I'd written him a couple fan letters. Told him how much I liked his book, Desert Solitaire. Told him one of these days we're going to have to meet somewhere. He wrote back and said, fine, he'd like to meet me, let's get together. He got a job down in Lee's Ferry as a ranger. He came down -- he's a real big guy -- and I felt this big old hand clasp.
He knew it was me because I was on the river schedule; he had it on his clipboard. Danged if he didn't get right in and help unload the rest of the stuff. He liked Peggy too. We got the boat rigged with the ranger helping, rather than just looking from the bank. I said, 'here, let's make a sandwich.' We brought some beer out and we drank till 3 in the morning. The longer we sat there, the more ideas we had about getting rid of the [Glen Canyon] dam. That was the beginning of thinking about The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Indy: So you started talking about it the first day you met?
KS: Course I'd known him through reading him. I knew his interests. That's why I liked him. I loaded my people and started down the river and left Peggy back with Ed. I had a little qualm about leaving my girlfriend with him. [laughs] But it was OK. We started going on trips together. We'd always talk about how we were going to get rid of this sonofabitchin' thing right here. I always enjoyed talking about the precision earthquake. And it's coming. All I'm saying to Abbey now is "when in the hell is it coming, Ed? Where in the hell are you?"
Indy: Had he already been a monkey wrencher when you met him?
KS: I don't know. We talked a lot about it. He and I felt the same way. We discussed our experiences with the law. Excessive drinking. The joy of experiencing rivers together, new places. He would come down and sit around the campfire and just talk among us. Then he'd go off and I'd see him off in some cave somewhere, or writing notes.
Indy: What are the parts of Seldom Seen that you'd be most proud to be associated with?
KS: Being a part of the gang. Being a part of the philosophy. Sometimes [Abbey] made Seldom Seen look a little silly, and other times he made him look a little wise. The character goes in different directions according to how he might be feeling. That's the way we all are, really. Aimless, maybe. I think he made Seldom look aimless, breaking away from his roots, being a jack Mormon. Kind of different from the way he grew up. I think he probably hit the nail on the head sometimes. I see so much of Abbey in Seldom Seen. His politics. His frustrations.
Indy: What was he like as a friend?
KS: What I've always enjoyed about Ed was the selection of his friends. His friends were not in the upper ... they were the rejects, maybe. Reminds me of Steinbeck. Playing around with his little characters. And he liked those same characters in real life. What really bothered him in his and my relationship was our inability to make the money we wanted to pay off the farm. I was broke at that time. It was a struggle. But I don't have a sense of failure. That's the way I wanted to go. I have my freedom. There's a certain thing about being able to stand up to some of these people. It's very stimulating in fact, playing with the guys who try to intimidate you. It's a way of taking away the frustration you feel inside. I was going to talk on Abbey if they gave me a chance, if I got up on that podium.
Indy: What did you want to say?
KS: Oh, just say more or less what we talked about. The precision earthquake and all that. Say a little about the truck there. We threw a lot of beer cans out of that truck. How much Abbey enjoyed the Canyon. He's probably looking up there right now feeling great about this group, wished he was here. Have to explain to the people why he still has to give us that precision earthquake, like he says. Still waiting for it, Abbey.