Last year, I obsessively tracked Jill Homer’s ride / race in the Iditarod Trail Invitational (as well as navel-gazed about why I would never do it myself). And then, once she got back, I pretty much had her blog on 30-second refresh, waiting for each update as she told her story.
I couldn’t help myself. She had just done something I would love to do, if only I had the nerve. And if I liked being cold more. And if I didn’t get lost so easily. There are other reasons, but these are sufficient.
So, naturally, when Jill published Ghost Trails: Journeys through a lifetime , of course I ordered a copy. Here’s why:
- I love a well-told story of any sort.
- I love well-told stories about epic mountain bike rides even more.
- I love well-told stories about epic mountain bike stories by my friends most of all.
It’s that third point that makes Jill’s Iditarod story really worth reading, at least for me. See, even though I have never met Jill in person, she tells enough about herself in her blog that I feel like she’s a friend — and lots of other people are the same way.
So, provided you already “know” Jill from reading her stories and looking at her pictures — this book is pretty much review-proof. You’re going to like it, because you like Jill, and you like her stories about her adventures.
Still, I have a few observations after reading Jill’s book. Here they are:
When I bought Ghost Trails, what I wanted and assumed I was getting was a much longer, more detailed telling of Jill’s Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) race than what she tells in her blog. And — to a degree — you get that, although I felt like Jill told only incrementally more about her race.
Instead of lots and lots and lots more about her epic ride last year, Jill interstices chapters about sections of the race with chapters about going on a hike when she was a tweener, going on a hike when she was a teenager, meeting Geoff, hiking with Geoff, rafting with Geoff, biking with Geoff, camping with Geoff, and moving to Alaska with Geoff.
I’m pretty sure I get why she did this: by alternating chapters about her pre-race life with chapters about her race, we gain context about who Jill is and what might be going through her head as she rides.
And that’s fine. That’s an interesting strategy for telling a story.
But that’s not the way I read the book.
After reading a couple of the chapters the way Jill ordered them, I told myself that what I really wanted right that moment was to get immersed in the ITI. I would come back later and read the other essays.
So I skipped every other chapter, at which point — oddly, I guess — the book hung together much better for me.
Jill and I Have Different Stuff Going On In Our Heads When We Ride
Before reading Ghost Trails, I had what I now realize is a completely stupid misconception in my head: that the way I feel and think when I’m on a long ride is pretty much the way other people feel and think when they’re on a ride.
But as I read Ghost Trails, I found myself again and again thinking, “Wow, what a foreign thought.”
For example, when I am completely cooked and realize I am way over my head, ridewise, I tend to start having an interior dialogue. It goes like this:
Me: “Hey, nice work. This was a very smart ride for you to go on. If you want to die.“
Me: “I know. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
Me: “I know what you’re doing here. But I choose not to tell you.”
Me: “Hey, did you bring any extra packets of mayonnaise? I’m hungry”
Me: “Yes, but they’re mine. I’m not sharing.”
Seriously, I just get increasingly silly as time goes on.
In contrast, here’s something from Jill’s book, when she hits a wall on a cross-country bike ride:
“Geoff, who had put a large gap in front of me at that point, finally returned after I had been sitting in the dith, sobbing, for several minutes. “What’s wrong? What happened?” he asked breathlessly.
“I’m sorry,” I blubbered. “I’m not hurt. I tried to… but I just can’t… had to let it out. It’s too hard. It’s too far. It’s just too far.”
Jill describes episodes of misery like this several times in her book. As I read, I tried to picture her mindset — and I couldn’t.
This was actually my favorite part about Jill’s book: the fact that she’s willing to write with candor, and that this candor exposes a riding mindset that’s completely new to me.
My goofiness keeps me going. Jill’s essentially the opposite: her intensity (and often, let’s face it, despair) somehow keeps her motivated. Reading this book made me consider, for the first time, that there must in fact be an infinite number of personal reasons for staying on the bike when it would be easier to get off.
It was fun to get into a completely different kind of rider’s head.
I Miss the Pictures
My only disappointment Ghost Trails is that it has only a few photos. Jill’s a gifted photographer and has photos in pretty much every blog post she writes, so I expected good photography — even if black and white — to complement the stories. But photos come only at the beginnings of chapters in this book, and they’re generally pretty dark (not to mention greyscale). I’m guessing Jill saw how photos looked on this kind of paper and decided to go mostly with text, but it’s still something I miss.
Jill’s Book Makes Me Want to Never Ever Ever Do This Race
One effect of reading Ghost Trails was that I am now completely certain I don’t ever want to do that race. Because, if I recall Jill’s book properly, you only get to ride your bike about 3 miles. The other 347 you get to push it through waist-deep snow.
Except when you’re wading through a river or climbing an ice-cliff.
It just doesn’t sound like much fun. And to tell the truth, it doesn’t sound like a bike’s the right vehicle for the terrain.
So I’m glad Jill did it — and is doing it again this year — and is willing to tell the story, so I can experience it vicariously.