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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?

“His guides fill a niche that appeals to the more serious hiker,” says Beth Humphreys of Anderson News, a Flagstaff, Arizona-based book distributor. “They’ve proven consistently popular over the years, but books on something like dayhiking in the Grand Canyon produced by a big company like Falcon sell four to one over Kelsey’s Canyon Hiking Guide.”

Unlike the large publishers that crank out guidebooks according to proven formulas, Kelsey does it all himself: research, writing, map drawing, accounting, even delivering his books to distributors. He’s outfitted his ancient Rabbit with heavy-duty shocks so he can carry up to 1,000 pounds of books. When he’s out hiking or traveling, his 87-year-old mother answers the phone and takes orders.

“Michael has a rule that the books have to go out the same day an order comes in,” Mrs. Kelsey says. She worries that her son doesn’t charge enough for his books. “If he didn’t do everything himself and watch his costs, he wouldn’t be able to survive. His brothers and sisters (he is one of seven children) say he’s stingy, but I call him thrifty. That’s the way he was raised.”

Being an independent publisher allows Kelsey to do everything his way, which further adds to his eccentric reputation. For example, he chooses the British spelling of “fotography,” and he conveys all distances according to the metric system (a conversion table is included for people who missed that lesson in seventh grade). He recommends using a mountain bike to get to a trailhead, since getting there often requires traveling on deeply rutted dirt roads. He includes a list of food he takes on multiple-day trips (Ramen noodles, Vienna sausages, and instant pudding, for example). He rants about land management policies that limit visitor access.

And, clearly annoyed with the many lost- and injured-hiker incidents he’s been blamed for, he has added this disclaimer: “Warning: Don’t blame me if you get into trouble in some canyon or out in the desert!…No one is being forced to go into the wilderness; nobody is twisting your arm…This writer bears no responsibility for mistakes you might make or for your own stupidity or neglect!”

But perhaps the oddest part about Kelsey’s guidebooks is how he chronicles time and distance. He may be a turtle on the roads, but on the trail he’s a jackrabbit, accomplishing in a long day what would be a rigorous overnight trek for an experienced hiker or a three-day trip for a beginner or someone in so-so physical condition. Herein lies a problem, according to critics: Readers don’t understand that Kelsey takes the distance/time ratio to super-human levels.

“People run into trouble because they think they can do the hikes in a day, like he does. Then they get stuck overnight and they’re unprepared,” says Salamacha, who patrols the BLM’s remote and scenic Paria District. “Usually you don’t hear about those bad experiences because people are too embarrassed. The only clue is when I see something like ‘Kelsey sucks!’ in the trail register. That happens fairly regularly.

“The rangers here, we talk a lot about why Kelsey writes his books the way he does,” adds Salamacha, who tried to stop the sale of Kelsey’s Paria guide at the BLM’s Paria/Escalante visitor center. “We concluded that it’s all for his ego. He just wants to let people know where he’s been and how fast he hikes.”

Even with my extra-long stride and altitude-conditioned lungs, I’m struggling to keep up as Kelsey descends into Lower White Canyon. At a drainage, he stops to note the time, and I try to catch my breath. After about a second, his watch beeps and we resume what’s more like a rigorous trail run than a hike. Large boulders, steep inclines, slippery gravel beside perilous drop-offs-nothing slows him.

“I’m not one to stop and gawk at the scenery,” says Kelsey, hopping along slanted slickrock walls as if he has suction cups on the bottom of his shoes. “I like to hike in places that are challenging and where I’ve never been. I’m an explorer.”

Lower White Canyon is at the top of his Canyon Hiking Guide’s “Best Hikes” list purely because of the “challenge” involved in getting through the Black Hole. Experienced Kelsey guidebook users know that “best” means hardest, most dangerous, and possibly painful. Unfortunately, someone who buys the book at the Salt Lake City airport doesn’t figure this out until he’s shivering in a deserted slot canyon.

Despite his penchant for racing through perilous slot canyons and seeking out places where hypothermia seems inevitable, Kelsey is surprisingly concerned about his own safety, as I soon find out. “This is more water than I’ve ever seen in here,” he says as we wade through another waist-deep, ice-cold pool. El Ni?o-induced rain and snow has filled the Black Hole to the brim. “This p-p-probably isn’t a good idea,” he stammers between chattering teeth. “The w-w-water just hasn’t warmed up at all. It’s t-t-too early in the season.”

Nevertheless, we go for it. Kelsey sidestrokes into the dark liquid that fills a perpetually shaded, 4-foot-wide section of the slot. I follow, stroking through the coldest water I’ve ever encountered.

“Uhhhhh….Uhhhhh….” I hear Kelsey moan as he moves through the painfully frigid pool.

My arms and legs deaden and it feels like a huge weight is pressing against my chest. I wish I’d brought the inner tube because the empty water bottle in my pack is doing absolutely nothing to fight the sinking feeling. I think about the reputation of my hiking partner and about what a bad swimmer I am.

“I’m turning around!” I shout, paddling frantically. Once out of the pool, I yell again for Kelsey, who’s still splashing and moaning. I tell him to continue on, but he agrees this isn’t a good day for the Black Hole and suggests we visit a nearby canyon.

On our hike out we run into a father and three teenagers headed for the Black Hole. All are dressed in cotton shorts, T-shirts, and tennis shoes, as if they’re going for a stroll in a city park. One is carrying a small daypack.

“Are you all planning to go through the Black Hole?” asks Kelsey.

“You bet,” enthuses the adult as the teenagers smile politely.

“I wouldn’t do it if I were you,” warns Kelsey. “There’s more water in here than I’ve ever seen, and you all are getting a late start. You could get hypothermia.”

Put on the spot in front of the teenagers, the dad is clearly perturbed by this stranger’s uninvited concern. Kelsey doesn’t reveal his identity to the group, but they probably learned about this hike from his guidebook.

“Oh, we’ll be fine,” chuckles the man. He continues on toward the Black Hole and the teenagers follow behind obediently.

Disturbed by the man’s lack of good judgment, Kelsey hikes away fast while ranting about his predicament. He likes to fill his guidebooks with challenging destinations, but he doesn’t want to be blamed for the actions of “stupid people.” It’s as if his ability to make a living is being threatened by “a few idiots” and public land managers “who think they own the place.” There is fire in his eyes.

We stop at the top of the canyon to eat lunch, and the conversation shifts to “environmental wackos” who want to keep places a secret. “They say they hate guidebook writers, but they should be thanking me for all the people who’ve joined the campaign to preserve Utah wilderness,” Kelsey notes between fast, hard bites on an apple. “Sure, my books have brought more people into this country, and that’s a negative. But the books have also made more people aware of the land and more likely to fight to protect it.”

We sit silently for a few moments, swatting at flies and finishing lunch. Kelsey stares at the white and tan labyrinth of sandstone below, giving his ravaged apple one last munch. He motions toward the seemingly bottomless chasm and asks, “Do you mind if I throw this apple core down there?”

Perhaps Kelsey’s unpopularity would seem justified if he had become obnoxiously wealthy from his guidebook business. But this is a guy who hikes in secondhand tennis shoes and sleeps on top of book boxes in his car when traveling. Maybe the problem is that Kelsey is just good at what he does, and that puts many of his readers in something of a moral dilemma. “A Kelsey guidebook is like a seductive dance with the devil,” laments Salt Lake City attorney Steve Lewis, a long-time hiker and professed environmentalist who sounds as if he needs a 12-step program to pry himself away from the guides.

Kelsey’s books have facilitated remote wilderness experiences for many hikers like Lewis, who otherwise may never have ventured beyond well-established national park trails. And yes, some rescues, as well as environmental degradation and loss of solitude, can probably be traced to Kelsey’s written words. But let the person who’s never used a guidebook-any guidebook-cast the first stone.

“Kelsey was the first out there and he’s definitely exposed a lot of secret places,” says Tom Wharton, outdoor editor for the Salt Lake Tribune and president of the Outdoor Writer’s Association. “But there are similar books being published. You can’t blame just one person for the impact. We’ve all contributed to this.”

Once out of White Canyon, Kelsey and I spend the rest of the day exploring a nearby slot he’s yet to hike completely. Despite distractions like incredible scenery and the fastest hiking pace I’ve ever sustained, I keep thinking about the hikers who ignored Kelsey and ventured into the Black Hole.

That night, as I drive to the spot where we’re to camp and hike the next day, I see a car parked at the Black Hole take-out along Highway 95. It’s well after dark, and my bet is the vehicle belongs to the foursome, since they were the only ones we saw that day. If that’s the case, then those are some unhappy campers.

In the ensuing days, I see no news reports of rescues or deaths in the Black Hole, so I guess the determined adult and three teenagers made it out. They were probably miserable, near hypothermic, and blaming Michael Kelsey for a “best” hike gone bad.

Postscript: Mrs. Kelsey reports that the diesel Rabbit broke a record last August. “Michael was driving back from Zion and says he caught a tailwind. He got 75 miles to the gallon.”

To order one of Michael Kelsey’s guidebooks, contact Kelsey Publishing, 456 E. 100 N, Provo, UT 84606.

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