Stuff That’s Come in the Mail, Part II: Ghost Trails, by Jill Homer

02.11.2009 | 1:26 pm

Last year,200902110938.jpg 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:

  1. I love a well-told story of any sort.
  2. I love well-told stories about epic mountain bike rides even more.
  3. 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:

I Cheated

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.


  1. Comment by Big Boned | 02.11.2009 | 1:46 pm

    I also have Jill’s book and I read it the same way you did (my wife did too – in fact she had the light on keeping me awake as she read it one night…).
    It’s a really interesting book.

  2. Comment by MikeonHisBike | 02.11.2009 | 1:49 pm

    I read Jill’s book as well and loved it. I too can now say that I would never do the ITI either. It was a great read though.


  3. Comment by Rider 3 | 02.11.2009 | 1:50 pm

    In your mind you say “extra” packets of mayo. Does that mean you start out rides with “some” packets of mayo? Frozen mayo doesn’t sound like a good idea, so maybe Leadville is a better place for you.

    Rider 3

    Team Two Wheel Blog

  4. Comment by Al Maviva | 02.11.2009 | 2:11 pm

    Interesting. When I am utterly cooked on an MTB ride, I usually have that very same conversation with myself about whether or not I brought extra packets of mayo. But instead of the voice being inside my head, I think it’s coming from a second mouth that appears on the back of my hand, usually toward the end of really long technical climbs.

    The mouth is generally highly critical of my riding abilities, weight, appearance, sexual prowess, and choice in liquor. I don’t like it much. I think I need to either switch energy drinks, or wear thicker lobster claw gloves while MTBing. I could get fitter but then the hand would just call me a narcissist. I hate that thing. One of these days, I’m definitely going to tell it to the hand.

    It’s possible that it’s not an extra mouth on my hand talking, that the voice is actually my internal dialogue and the , or a bad oxygen depletion hallucination. But until I know for sure I’m carrying an extra toothbrush in my camelback, just in case.

  5. Comment by Al Maviva | 02.11.2009 | 2:12 pm

    Hmmm… this got zapped.

    “mouth is just a spot in my vision, the result of blood veins in my eyeballls bursting”

  6. Comment by Clydesteve | 02.11.2009 | 2:18 pm

    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.

    This is amaaazing! I was thinking that very same thing!

  7. Comment by rich | 02.11.2009 | 3:21 pm

    I ordered and read the book as soon as it came out. And, like you loved reading about epic rides done by other people.
    Also like you, I was convinced I could never do that ride. I’m all for suffering and can talk myself into doing some pretty dumb things, but 350 miles in the snow, below zero……no way!
    I also came to the conclusion that from the stories she tells, if my daughter was dating a guy like Jeff, I may had to kill him, hide his body and tell her he left a message breaking up with her…..

  8. Comment by Don | 02.11.2009 | 3:51 pm

    I should get said book. I’ve been meaning to try this “reading thing”.
    I mean, outside of blogs, of course…

  9. Comment by Grant | 02.11.2009 | 5:35 pm

    I hinted heavily that I wanted Jill’s book for xmas, to no avail… I have just ordered it from her, so please – no spoilers!!!

  10. Comment by allison | 02.11.2009 | 5:50 pm

    I finally ordered my copy this morning. I haven’t read the blog posts about the race, so I’m looking forward to reading about her full adventure!

  11. Comment by Di | 02.11.2009 | 6:04 pm

    Mayo? My weakness is steak. I usually end up dreaming about steak or hamburgers toward the end of a ride. It’s amazing how meat can motivate me to ride homeward with effort.

  12. Comment by Kt | 02.11.2009 | 6:45 pm

    Hm. My bonked-interior dialog trends towards repeating the same 3 stupid lines of a stupid song over and over. Sometimes I even keep it in my head. :)

    But yeah, having read Jill’s blog posts about her race last year, I don’t think it’s a race I could ever do. I don’t “do” cold. I like to think that some day I could ride my bike for 9 hours straight and feel pretty good at the end of it.

    The thing is, Jill gives me motivation. I say, “look at what Jill is doing. It’s -40, she’s falling into a creek and her bike is a solid mass of ice, she hasn’t eaten in 14 hours nor slept in 28 and a half, and she’s still going. What’s wrong with you, Kt, that you can’t even make it up this little hill, in this sunny mid-spring day, after hydrating and eating properly for once?”

    See? Motivation.

    Besides, Jill is COOL. Like, WAY cool. Except that I don’t understand her relationship with Geoff. :)

  13. Comment by hp | 02.11.2009 | 7:41 pm

    There’s a 100% guarantee I won’t ever do a race like the Iditarod. A charity century is just about my speed.

    I am, however, inspired to ride on cold, rainy, nasty days only because of Jill

    WIN Susan!

  14. Comment by ShedBiker | 02.11.2009 | 9:13 pm

    Jill’s book is awesome. But I read it front to back, like Jill wrote it. And I think that made me appreciate the story that much more. Sure, it’s a book about biking the Iditarod. But it’s also a book about Jill, masterfully crafted. Read it like she wrote it to get the most out of it. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a read so much.

  15. Comment by indoorrollypolly | 02.11.2009 | 10:43 pm

    Really? You ask your self if you have extra mayo packet…. hmmm, interesting

    I was always wondering why I have one word that eventually come out of my head when I’m about bonked, and that’s Lycopene…… really, I start saying the word “Lycopene”!
    Here I just thought the word was kinda neat, maybe it’s really my body telling me I need more Ketchup.
    Guess I’ll have to replace the Hammer gel with Ketchup packets to keep me going. Ha-ha

    And yes I still use French Fries as spoons for my Ketchup.

  16. Comment by annette | 02.11.2009 | 11:08 pm

    That race (& book) look kind of awesome. I might be crazy.

  17. Comment by Geoff | 02.12.2009 | 12:55 am

    i never really thought about how lucky i am that jill’s dad isn’t an intolerant, overprotective father with homicidal tendancies. thanks rich, for pointing this out to me.

  18. Comment by Mike Roadie | 02.12.2009 | 5:50 am


  19. Comment by fatty | 02.12.2009 | 7:56 am

    annette – that race and book ARE awesome.

    geoff – i’m pretty sure rich was actually paying both you and jill a compliment: the anxious dad confronting the likelihood of losing his daughter to a dangerous, compelling and exciting boyfriend compliment. it’s easy to miss nuance when all you’ve got is straight-up text. good luck on your ITI race; i’ll be tracking your progress too.

  20. Comment by Di | 02.12.2009 | 9:28 am

    :roll: Um…this discussion is making the book seem more appealing. I’m going to have to put this on my “buy within the next three months” list. I’m really starting to wonder what kind of an influence Geoff is. ;-)

  21. Comment by Heidi Swift | 02.12.2009 | 10:53 am

    I just discovered Jill via her interview in The Ride of Your Life by Davide Rowe – truly inspirational.
    But, yes, I had a similar reaction (which isn’t very typical of me)… along the lines of “I never want to suffer that much. Ever.”
    It’s the cold for me, too. And the pushing. I’m all for hauling the bike over things cyclocross style, but bogging it through the frozen mire? No thanks.
    What a seriously kick-ass woman though, right?

  22. Comment by Barbara | 02.12.2009 | 11:13 am

    I loved this book, which I asked my sister to get me for Christmas as soon as you told us about it, Fatty! Not only was the adventure gripping, but Jill writes so beautifully, some of it was pure poetry. I, too, missed the photos, which would have added so much, as they do on her blog.

    Kt, I agree with you – Jill is awesome, and I don’t understand her relationship with Geoff. Seems like every time they go hiking or biking he leaves her in the dust to fend for herself, even when she’s scared or in unfamiliar territory.

  23. Comment by Kathleen | 02.12.2009 | 12:24 pm

    Nice review Elden…thoughtful, insightful and witty with a dash of offbeat humor. Love it.

  24. Comment by Matt | 02.12.2009 | 12:59 pm

    I ordered Jills book after she was the ‘guest blogger’ here over the holidays. LOVED IT! Can’t wait to hear about THIS years ride (walk, slog, sufferfest beyond all comprehension).

    Jill, I personally can’t fathom how ANYBODY can do that ‘race’…nor what it takes mentally to think to yourself “hey…this is something I want to do” (and then to REPEAT it again? Did you become mentally disabled during the last one?) I grew up in Montana so I know a thing or two about cold, but not in this (or any other) lifetime could I imagine myself pedaling away from the ITI start line into the frozen tundra. My hats off to you (and all the others too) who PAY MONEY to do this ride. I am such a wimp! (ooh…it’s wet out and only 55 degrees…can’t ride today!)

  25. Comment by Big Boned | 02.12.2009 | 1:05 pm

    Ok Fatty,
    You’ve tormented me long enough! Don’t you think it’s about time to change your banner from those brats? Every day I look at them and the IT guys are telling me if I keep licking my screen, I’m going to need a new monitor soon.
    Howze about you give some props to Chipotles and replace that banner with a nice burrito! Perhaps that will encourage Chipotles to through in some arygle for your readers…
    “Thank you Big Boned, what a great idea – and you shall receive the first card…”

  26. Comment by Big Boned | 02.12.2009 | 1:16 pm

    obviously I mean “throw in” – I’m faint with hunger.

  27. Comment by steve sax | 02.12.2009 | 2:12 pm

    Yeah, Big Boned…me, too. Faint with hunger. Mut be a superpower, because ths is while I am eating.

  28. Comment by rich | 02.12.2009 | 2:31 pm


    Sorry, guess I should have added the smileys….

    You’re right though. As much as I try to deny it and pretend to be an open minded, easy going guy, I have to admit, that probably does describe me somewhat. (at least when it comes to my girls) :-)

  29. Comment by Russell | 02.12.2009 | 7:10 pm

    As a Southerner I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have never thought about bringing packets of mayonnaise on a bike ride. Now I can’t get it out of my head. However, at about mile 93.6 of a long ride I will often fantasize about deep fried Cliff Bars.

  30. Comment by John | 02.13.2009 | 11:36 am

    I think you are a bit hard on yourself in this section:

    “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.”

    I think the difference is you ride simply as an escape. When I read that (and don’t take this the wrong way), I think this is how you handle taking care of Susan; you hunker down in the same manner as Jill does on the bike.

  31. Comment by Jill | 02.13.2009 | 12:25 pm


    Thanks so much for taking the time to write a thoughtful review of the book. Your review made me realize that there may be places where I took the story *too* seriously. There was a lot of humor in my situation, even when the situation got more serious, and I as a writer sometimes have a hard time digging it out. Humor is hard for me … that’s why I appreciate your blog so much. Your good humor finds joy in both fun and hard situations.

    As to the idea that the bike isn’t the right vehicle for the job, there are a lot of good arguments for that. I talked to foot competitors last year who told me “I feel so bad for cyclists, dragging those anchors.” Sometimes the bike is like an anchor, actually slowing you down from your normal walking speed, but sometimes you are just walking with your luggage cart, at close to the same speed you would be if you were just out there as a walker (not a runner, like Geoff, but perhaps one of the less competitive foot racers like I would tend to be.) But when you can ride the bike, you’re flying (relatively). Even though I was one of the last cyclists into McGrath last year, I still finished ahead of every single runner and skier. After seeing the condition of the trails, I felt bad for the skiers. Snowmobile moguls, long stretches of frozen dirt and unbroken trail would be, in my opinion, very tough with skis. If I had to pinpoint the perfect way to cross that trail, it would be on foot (perfect but hard.)

    But, in the end, if your ultimate goal is simply to get from Knik to McGrath, the bike is still an avantange, even if only a small one. Just my opinion about it.

  32. Comment by Geoff | 02.13.2009 | 8:09 pm

    fatty (and rich), i was right there with you on the lightheartedness of rich’s comment. my response was also meant to be taken with that same toungue in cheek sarcasm. i guess i should have used some smileys as well. shows just how correct you were about how printed text can be hard to interpret the intended tone of.

  33. Comment by Geoff | 02.13.2009 | 8:14 pm

    and to further touch on what jill was saying. the bike has proven to be without question the most effective mode of human powered travel on the iditarod trail. I could be wrong but i think that every year the race has been held the overall winner has been on a bike and the percentage of finishers on bike tends to be about twice that of people on foot or skis. there really is no sane reason why anyone would attempt this race on a bike, but anyone who would attempt it on anything other than a bike must be twice as crazy (insert smiley here).


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.