Friday, December 5, 2008

Ghost Trails - book review

“The glaring sun was about to expose me for the fraud I was. I wasn’t an athlete like the down-bundled Euros, and I wasn’t a real Alaskan like the owners of those snowmobiles. The men at the Knik Bar and said it all between a couple swigs of beer. A girl like me didn’t belong in a race like this.”

I really enjoy reading blogs, but to be honest they all blend together after a while. Then one day I stumbled about Jill Homer’s blog. She lives in Alaska and writes about her mountain biking adventures. What struck me is that she was mountain biking in the Alaskan winters. I didn’t think it would even be possible.

Then I was amazed when I read on her blog about mountain bikers riding a portion of the Iditarod Trail in February. I remember following the race reports last year of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. I also remember reading about Jill on a record-breaking pace. Then there were reports of Jill being late coming in to one of the check points. Then reports of her bivying out in the open in below zero weather. I was transfixed, it was reading like a fiction book, but it was real. Finally, Jill made it to the checkpoint; I was relieved – and I didn’t even know her.

I always wondered what happened during those hours when Jill was stuck out on the Iditarod trail with her bike. Then I read on her blog that Jill was publishing her book about the experience and was looking for people to review it. I jumped on the opportunity; I wanted to see what really happened.

When I began reading Jill’s book, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I really got two books in one. The chapters alternated between her Iditarod experiences and her entry to outdoor adventures. I then reread the book’s title: Ghost Trails – Journeys through a lifetime. And I realized the real focus of the book was on her life’s journeys.
Her Iditarod journey really started back in 1990 where Jill tells us of how she got involved in the outdoors, hiking with her friend Becky. But Jill just doesn’t describe the hike, she does what she does best – she gives us very honest insight into her thoughts and emotions. The doubts and fears that creep into all of our minds when we’re not in our comfort zones. Those things that we often don’t share, but Jill shares all of those thoughts in very open, honest way.

Through Jill’s outdoor journeys, she describes meeting her significant other, Geoff. I really thought that this was where she was going to lose me. I’m a guy; I don’t want to read about romance. But what I found instead was an extremely interesting story of a woman meeting not only a boyfriend, but a person who guides her into the outdoor realm. All of us that do a variety of outdoor activities probably had a mentor that introduced us to the outdoors. That guided us through those initial adrenaline charged adventures. I can recall clearly those people that changed my whole life getting me into outdoor adventures. And Jill does a great job relating her experiences. She has the ability to put you in the moment, making the book read like fiction until you remind yourself that it’s non-fiction.

The other half of the book details Jill’s Iditarod experiences. It will also make you feel like a sissy when you don’t want to go ride because it’s a little chilly outside. Jill does a great job of relating her thoughts, concerns, worries, and fears while describing the incredible hardships, the cast of characters she meets, and the beautiful yet cruel Alaskan terrain.

“Knowing I was in the midst of a bonk mandated as much food as I could stomach, but I was only able to put down the other half of my chocolate bar from dinner. At least I was warm, warm enough to let the fear encompass me again, and the quick glance at my thermometer, still bottomed out at 20 below after two minutes inside my bag, was enough to reignite my smoldering fear. What if the warm cocoon surrounding me failed? How would I possible crawl 10 or more miles into Rohn? I heard a low, dull howl in the distance that was either a wolf or the wind. I could not remember the last time I felt so alone.”

I found myself putting on a sweater while reading the book; Jill brings to life the harshness of an Alaskan winter. After describing all of the hardships (everything from keeping water from freezing to a loss of appetite when calories are essential) Jill brings us to the bivy she spent one cold night. Her descriptions put us right there with her. Sure, I’ve hit the wall before, but never like this. And not in a race where the consequence is severe frostbite, or even death.

“Despite my pounding pulse and churning stomach, I could feel my muscles relax and eyelids droop. A curtain of warmth settled over my thoughts and I closed my eyes. I could feel my fear melting in to the serene indifference of sleep. I wondered if I would ever wake up. I had no way of knowing for sure.”

Overall, I really enjoyed the book quite a bit. It was fun to read the story behind the Iditarod race report. It affirms the notion that I will never ride my bike in the Iditarod bike race. Even if you’ve never ridden a mountain bike, you will still enjoy the story of survival. As well, you’ll enjoy Jill’s journey in to the world of outdoor adventure, and the people who influenced that journey. A great winter read. And I know I’ll be reading all the race reports very close this winter, as I noticed that Jill has signed up for the race again. Good luck Jill.

Iditarod Trail Invitational

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