What Ends Up on a Glacier Guide’s Bookshelf?

Have you ever wondered what glacier guides read? Probably not. I didn’t either, until I got hired at a tiny guiding company in Alaska. But I’ve discovered that glacier guides are a unique breed of people. The guides at MICA are what I like to call “literate bums.” They have gone to college, had the opportunity for high-powered jobs, and turned them down for hard work and simple pleasures. In other words, they bum because they want to.

Because of this, the communal bookshelf at MICA is an unusual case. It is not the typical shelf in the corner of a coffee shop, filled with discarded, half-read books. The only thing uniting those impersonal collections of Da Vinci Codes and self-help books is the fact that they are no longer wanted. They don’t tell you anything about the people who belong to that community. In fact, they hardly reflect any community at all.

The shelf at MICA, on the other hand, is much more specific. It reads like an individual’s bookshelf, reflecting a full spectrum of interests, wants, and guilty pleasures. When you walk into the home of someone you just met and scan their shelf, you look through a window into their mind. A bookshelf includes everything from life-changing reads to passing phases. It’s their psychology and their life history. In the same way, the MICA shelf displays the collective conscious of the people who call the Matanuska Glacier home.

So what do they read?

into the wild cover

The most popular book on the shelf, for obvious reasons.

The hut where this shelf lives, called the Chuck Norris Building, is adorned with meme-like posters of Chuck Norris and tilts sideways (“the shelves are level,” I was told when I first walked in). Its bookshelf includes the obligatory Fifty Shades of Grey and the Bible, and, because of the nature of the group, multiple copies of Into the Wild. There are climbing guidebooks, Lonely Planets for Korea and Vietnam, and mountaineering manuals. There are classics, too. Many (but not all) are of the environmental variety: Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, but also Wuthering Heights, a few Jane Austens, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

Outside the Chuck Norris Building burns the evening campfire. Everyone is there, from the greenest 19-year-old guide to the owner of the company. We share the kitchen on the other side of the fire pit. Since it is almost 10 pm (still light outside), the “house mouse” crew is getting ready to clean. Around the center of camp lie about two dozen tents; we will all live here for the next 100 days. Guides made all the buildings at camp, the CNB and kitchen included. Sitting on a van seat that now functions as a couch, I’m surrounded by the books read by the people around me and the people who came here before them.

The things to come

The shelf gets very little attention—we are on a glacier, after all, and between constant work and outdoor recreation there is no shortage of other things to occupy our time. But I see it, and in it I see a prophecy. The guides who came here before me probably came for the same reasons: adventure, natural beauty, physical and mental challenges. Within their books, I see the places I might go and the thoughts I might think, all because these people have read these books. It is rare to see any shelf with such a high concentration of books that inspired people to make their life’s boldest choice.

By getting to know these people and their books, I can follow in their literal and literary footsteps. I might learn from the books themselves, or else from the person who consumed that knowledge first. In the MICA shelf, most of the books have already done their part. They have passed on their knowledge to the guides, who will pass it down second-hand to the newest members of the community. The books can rest.

Most of them, anyway. I have my eyes on White Teeth.

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