Joe Kelsey's Descent Into Delinquency

May 12, 2016



Joe Kelsey, the man in the mugshot above, could be considered something of a poet laureate to climbers. Having been a climber, writer, and Vulgarian who climbed all across the country between the 1960s and today, his writing on the subject captures both the antiestablishment glee of the subversive proto-climber, as well as the camaraderie and the inherent poetry of climbing. We had the privilege of interviewing Joe for the film, and awhile back he provided us with a story about his Yosemite mugshot and how it ended up in his possession. The story was too delightful to not bring up again here at Brave New Wild:


"I believe it was fall 1970, though it might have been 71. It was the fall after the Stoneman Meadow riot, wherein hippies threw stones and bottles at mounted rangers. We returned to the Valley after summer in Wyoming to find hostility between rangers and climbers (and anyone else who looked disrespectful of society’s norms).


The Valley wasn’t as multinational then as later, but there was a colony of Brits, and they gathered nightly around a campfire and sang. Most Yanks thought singing to be not macho, but Claude Suhl and I got into it and learned the songs. One night two rangers appeared and did that bullshit routine of formally stating, three times in quick succession, “You are an unruly mob. You will disperse.”


This was the Vietnam/Civil Rights era, and the Brits were intimidated by American authority in general and the possibility of deportation in particular, so they nervously scattered. However, the rangers cornered a few, and I felt valorous enough (inebriated enough) to come to their rescue. One ranger was unnecessarily bullying them. It being the Vulgarian way to throw curve balls, I calmly, soothingly lectured the rangers, as if they were children, about addressing climbers not confrontationally but politely. The Brits disappeared into the night, and I was requested to produce photo ID. When my New Jersey license failed to provide a photo, I was under arrest.


The Valley wasn’t as multinational then as later, but there was a colony of Brits, and they gathered nightly around a campfire and sang.


Claude appeared and was perceived as interfering with an arrest. I took the opportunity of this diversion to explain that my bladder was bursting, the arrests conveniently taking place just outside a bathroom. The kindlier of the rangers told me to go ahead, in fact to get lost, it was Claude they were really after. Claude always looked more like trouble than I did, no matter how hard I tried. The next guy out of the bathroom had my hair and mustache. When I emerged, he had become me and was in custody, and I had to re-introduce myself as the perp.


Claude and I were escorted into a paddy wagon that happened to be the same vehicle used a week before to transport us to an El Cap rescue. We departed Camp 4 serenaded by a mob chanting “Fascist pigs! Fascist pigs! Fookin’ fookin’ fascist pigs!” No sooner had we been booked, fingerprinted, photographed, and incarcerated–after they took our shoelaces so we wouldn’t be tempted to hang ourselves–at the correctional facility (behind Yosemite Village, near the soothing sound of America’s most beloved waterfall), the Fookin’ Pigs chant could be heard outside. Shortly, Rob Wood, a Brit living in Vancouver, was thrust into an adjacent cell. As luck would have it, it was a Friday night, and we were told the wheels of justice would not be turning till Mon. So we were duly astounded when a ranger appeared Sat a.m. to say our lawyer had arranged for our release for the weekend, provided we left the park.


How, you may ask, did the likes of us get legal representation?  It’s certainly what we were asking. It turned out that the accidental impostor who emerged from the bathroom before me had graduated #1 in his class in law school, before deciding to do something less detrimental than practicing law.


We departed Camp 4 serenaded by a mob chanting “Fascist pigs! Fascist pigs! Fookin’ fookin’ fascist pigs!” 


The baddest thing I did during this episode I did as we were leaving the correctional facility. The mug shots sat on the corner of a cluttered desk by the door. No one was looking, and I couldn’t resist a unique Yosemite souvenir, classier than a rubber tomahawk.That’s how they became preserved for posterity, or at least for the sort of posterity I’d prefer them to be preserved for.


We and a dozen or so fellow travelers (two VW buses full), including a few chicks who surmised that we were a happening cadre, obeyed neither the letter nor the spirit of our release by going to Tuolumne for the weekend. We didn’t spend the weekend paying our dues to society.


First thing Monday morning we were outside the courtroom, with our lawyer and perhaps as many as 100 Camp 4 residents. Our lawyer wisely suggested everyone else wait outside while he went in and introduced himself. Shortly he and the judge came to the door. The judge asked if they were all witnesses, and our lawyer replied, “They could be, your honor.” So judge and lawyer retired back inside; the judge asked the lawyer to describe the events of Friday night and told our lawyer he suspected such miscarriages of justice were going on, but too many youths were afraid to talk. Our arrests were “expunged,” meaning we were not only found not guilty but even the fact of our arrests was supposed to be eradicated. Which didn’t happen–last I knew I could be pulled over for a taillight out, and the cop, after running my ID, would look at me knowingly and say, “I hear you’ve been disorderly.”


The judge asked if they were all witnesses, and our lawyer replied, “They could be, your honor.”


The kindlier ranger was fired; the mean ranger, who turned out to be an ex-Marine officer, became a pianist in the Ahwanee bar. Could I make that up?


Thanks for giving me the opportunity to reminisce about the days when life couldn’t have been sweeter! I only hope that you’re identifying that wayward youth in the mug shots as Fred Beckey."


- Joe Kelsey


You can find more of Kelsey’s clever writings in such classic and ill-reputed publications as “The Vulgarian Digest” and The Climbing Cartoons of Sheridan Anderson as well as the current & upcoming edition of the Wind Rivers guidebook. 

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