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April 1999

The Devil Wore Sneakers

Last time you went looking for a new place to hike, you probably consulted a guidebook. We all do. So why is author Michael Kelsey getting lambasted for giving us what we want?

The high, red desert of southeastern Utah blurs into a rusty streak as I speed down lonely State Highway 95. Around milepost 70, I make out a white dot-a car in the distance-which must be moving slowly since I’m gaining on it fast. When I get close enough to detect the make and model-a sputtering, well traveled Volkswagen Rabbit-I can tell my hiking-partner-to-be is behind the wheel. The cropped blonde hair is a dead giveaway. So is Michael Kelsey’s face, an immediately recognizable mug familiar to Southwest hikers because it shows up in practically every photo in each of the 14 quirky regional guidebooks he’s written.

In the staid, usually anonymous world of hiking guidebook publishing, Kelsey stands out. In fact, the mere mention of the independent, self-made publisher’s name enflames the passions of many an otherwise calm person. In some circles, this intrepid canyoneer is the most despised person in the field of outdoor travel writing. Kelsey-haters have reportedly hidden his books in Salt Lake City outdoor stores and removed highway milepost signs so people can’t find the trailheads to hikes he’s profiled.

“Kelsey deserves a lot of ridicule,” says Mike Salamacha, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wilderness ranger based in Kanab, Utah. Salamacha’s territory includes areas exposed to the masses by the infamous guidebooks, delicate desert ecosystems the ranger says have been trashed as a result.

Then there are the Kelsey detractors who just like to poke fun at him and his legendary idiosyncrasies. I’ve overheard backcountry rangers joke about how he drives his ’81 Volkswagen Rabbit on perilous, rutted roads suitable only for four-wheel drives, how he obsessively times his hikes down to the minute, and how he unartfully plunks car keys in photos of ancient Indian pot shards for scale perspective.

Despite the contempt, Kelsey’s books have sold well for over a decade, and have seen several updated editions released. “There are a lot of people who bad-mouth Kelsey but who secretly use his books,” notes Jim Stiles, publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr, an environmental newspaper based in Moab, Utah. “It’s like pornography.”

For all of Kelsey’s notoriety, he’s at heart a loner and few people have gotten to know him, much less hike with him. As I pass the slow-driving, stone-faced man on the highway, I’m relieved that he’s decided to show up for our hike. I’ve used some of his unorthodox guidebooks over the years and have often wondered what makes the author tick. Is Michael Kelsey an oddball, a misfit people love to pick on? Or is he a scapegoat for our love/hate relationship with guidebooks that lead us to remote, pristine places we then decide we want to keep all to ourselves?

I wait by my car for about 10 minutes before Kelsey pulls up to our meeting spot at milepost 57. From there, we’ll hike into Lower White Canyon in the San Juan Resource Area near Lake Powell. Since this perilous canyoneering trek was publicized 12 years ago in the ground-breaking Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, BLM officials say there’s been a twofold increase in visitors, countless hiker mishaps, and at least one death-all Kelsey’s fault, they contend.

“That was me who passed you back there,” I say, making small talk as he unfolds all 5’11” from the car.

“Oh. I didn’t notice,” he responds in a hurried voice. His gray eyes, partly hidden behind tinted glasses, are darting about as if to avoid looking directly at me. “To save fuel, I never drive faster than 45 miles an hour.” He pulls a notepad from the dashboard and announces with hardly a pause, “On this trip, so far, I’ve been getting an average of 68.83 miles to the gallon.” He relates a few more statistics about his trip before we shake hands and exchange nice to meet you’s.

As Kelsey readies his small pack, it suddenly hits me that the person in the guidebook pictures, the guy who chronicles epic canyoneering adventures in two deadpan sentences (entry for Lower White Canyon: “On the third try, the author was better prepared and made the entire hike in less than five hours. On his fourth trip, he also did it in five hours, then used a mountain bike to get back to his car.”) is standing before me. For 18 years, he’s researched and written about places in the Southwest, driven the same little, white car, and for all I can tell, worn the same hiking uniform: a cotton T-shirt, short shorts, calf-high, cotton tube socks, and nylon running shoes. He’s a 55-year-old man who reminds me of the quintessential small-town high school football coach: always serious, always wearing shorts, always tan, and able to maintain a level of physical fitness that belies his age.

“You’ve got an awful lot of bulk,” he says, turning his attention to the pack I’m wearing. While many of the hikes in Kelsey’s books make excellent multiday backpacking trips for average hikers, he prefers to cover the same routes on massive and swift dayhikes and car camping whenever possible. This way, he travels light, covers a lot of ground for his book research, and can listen to the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) on his short-wave radio at night. “Can I see what you’ve got in there?”

We’ll be doing some rigorous hiking, a lot of rock scrambling, and a fair amount of swimming and wading through cold pools. Consequently, I’m wearing a quick-drying synthetic shirt and shorts, and my large daypack is stuffed with a fleece sweater, nylon tights, an extra pair of synthetic socks, and sports sandals. Although I refuse to jettison my extra clothing or 2 liters of water (he’s taking just 1 liter), Kelsey convinces me I don’t need the small inner tube I brought to get through the deep water of narrow Black Hole-“an empty plastic bottle in your pack will keep you afloat,” he tells me.

As we walk toward the canyon rim, there’s a shiny metal sign: “Hiking in the Black Hole can be hazardous! The canyon provides few escape routes. The water is deep and cold-exercise good judgment and caution.”

“This is new,” Kelsey says. He pulls out his notebook and writes: June 1, 1998; 11:10. His altimeter watch beeps as he punches it. Our experience today in the Black Hole will be used in the fourth edition of Kelsey’s Canyon Hiking Guide, which he’s in the process of compiling.

When the original Canyon Hiking Guide came out in 1986, it was the first guidebook to explore the Four Corners region outside national park boundaries. This vast area of deep canyons and hot, dry slickrock, some of which is now included in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, had long been considered by other guidebook writers as too inhospitable to be worth writing about. For backpackers like me, who felt they’d hiked all the trails in the area parks, Kelsey’s book opened the door to hundreds of new destinations on BLM and Navajo Nation lands. For land managers, though, the book triggered an endless migraine.

“When Kelsey publicized a place like Lower White Canyon’s Black Hole, he took something that 10 years ago was considered an extreme and rarely attempted endeavor and opened it up to the general public,” Phil Gezon, a BLM recreation planner, later told me. “Now we have Boy Scouts going in there all the time with no idea of what they’re doing. It’s become a testing ground for people to see if they’re tough enough to make it.”

Kelsey seems oblivious to how trendy Southwest canyoneering has become. But to his good fortune, his guidebooks tapped into the “cool factor” and, to some degree, have perpetuated it. While such matters routinely go unnoticed in his frame of reference, he is acutely aware of one thing: the environmental impact he may be responsible for.

“I guess this is my trail. I’m the cause of it,” he says, sounding almost repentant, of the well-worn path winding through the chasm. Then an air of self-pride surfaces when he adds, “It looks like everybody is staying on the one path, so the impact isn’t that great.” Kelsey stoops to pick up a candy wrapper, a task he’ll repeat often throughout our hike. While it’s become standard among guidebook publishers to include a detailed Leave No Trace section, the extent of Kelsey’s advice on minimizing impact is one sentence in his books’ introductions asking readers to pick up litter.

The fact that there is now a trail into a place like White Canyon is probably what grates Kelsey’s detractors the most. But unlike many of his critics, he isn’t an urban refugee who recently moved to southern Utah to experience the empty, soulful silence of the desert. He’s from old Utah, and like his ancestors, he’s just trying to make a living off the land.

A third generation descendant of Mormon pioneers who founded the southern Utah town of Clear Lake, Kelsey grew up near Provo and got a master’s degree in geography from the University of Utah in 1970. He spent the next decade as a backpacking vagabond, traveling the world bagging mountain peaks. Kelsey is extremely proud that, to date, he’s visited “200 different countries, republics, or island groups.”

Since his earliest backpacking trips as a youth, when he would head into Utah’s Wasatch Mountains with “cans of food rolled in a cotton sleeping bag that was tied to my shoulders,” Kelsey has always been more at home in the wilderness than in the civilized world. “Hermit” is the word many use to describe this man who hikes solo, seeks remote destinations, never married, and shuns social activities. His mother, Venetta Bond Kelsey, with whom he lives, puts it another way: “He fell for the mountains, not girls.”

Kelsey never has held an office job and becoming a “nine-to-fiver” would be a fate worse than death. “I was working in construction in the early ’80s, and it dawned on me that maybe I could make a living off all the notes from my mountaineering treks,” the fanatical record-keeper recalls. The ambitious result was A Climber’s and Hiker’s Guide to the World’s Mountains, a 928-page book that hurriedly regurgitates information on nearly 500 peaks, most of which Kelsey bagged. He sent the manuscript to The Mountaineers, the Seattle-based book publisher, but “they sat on it, so I decided to publish it myself.”

That was in 1981. Since then, Kelsey has written and published 13 other hiking guides. His most recent books, gleaned from slot-bagging trips to Paria River, San Rafael Swell, and Lake Powell, are the most successful. Kelsey’s Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, packed with 114 wilderness treks in northern Arizona and southern Utah, is his bread and butter. “I’ve sold about 11,000 copies of that guide over the last 4 years,” he says.

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