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?

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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.

“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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