Note: I shamelessly volunteered to read and review Jill’s book primarily because I wanted to read it ASAP, and for free. I’ve been reading her blog for a couple years, corresponded with her a few times, ridden with Geoff, etc. Reader beware.
Endurance mountain bike racing has a lot to do with the Marlboro Man. If the quintessential American is a strong, quiet man, with a gun, going out alone to do something dangerous, it’s easy to see the mountain bike as our horse. The race is our dangerous mission, the most important weapon (in both cases) our steely will, confidence, and determination. In a world in which ambiguity is avoided whenever possible, and physical tribulation is something chiefly lauded in the remote venue of professional sports, the draw of mountain biking for many miles can be understood.
In the pantheon of American myth there is no greater venue than Alaska. We can see it in things as diverse as Jack London and Sarah Palin. Alaska is big, far away, cold, mysterious. It’s place in our cultural mind’s eye makes Jill Homer’s tackling of the Alaska Ultrasport 350 this past March all the more weighty.
Jill Homer is the everywoman of the cycling blog world, a more accessible and honest, yet just as smart, contemplative, and funny answer to Bike Snob NYC and Fat Cyclist. She’s been bringing readers into her world at Arctic Glass for over three years. Perhaps the most dominant narrative thread for the duration has been her growing addiction to cycling, starting with the 2006 Susitna 100, and culminating with the Ultrasport.
By any standard, Jill’s been a dedicated, badass cyclist for the duration. She was logging 500+ mile weeks back in the beginning of 2006, something many dedicated endurance cyclists (like me) only do sporadically. It has been of only logical necessity that her addiction has become greatly exacerbated, most notably last winter, when her dedication to training through the appaling weather of Juneau reached truly masochist proportions. Her expertise at dressing for and cycling in the worst conditions imaginable is likely equalled by few, living or dead.
Throughout she’s been a poet for the process, physical and psychic, of pursuing an endurance sport. Jill has taken us through her highs, lows, achievements, injuries, setbacks, moments of joy, moments of lassitude, and the near-daily process of riding for hours and hours. Jill surely enjoys riding her bike more than I do; I’ve only been able to equal her during my most obsessed moments, and have long wondered how she keeps up her motivation.
Perhaps Ghost Trails: Journeys through a lifetime provides an answer. For the dedicate blog reader most of the material will be familiar, yet it’s enriched an sewn together in a way that makes in wholly new. There’s a truth to the structured, day-to-day journaling of blogging, and there’s an entirely different truth to a skilled wordsmith wrapping up a piece of her life in one integral package. I like them both. The writing is excellent, the story compelling, the narrative flow inviting and thought-provoking all at once. Despite the reading-saturated graduate school life I’m living today, I read the book in just two sittings, spread over less than 36 hours from when I first received the book. I knew the outcome, and the vast majority of the storyline, and was still riveted to the page, reading as fast as I could without missing anything, rushing along to find out what happens next. I can’t think of a higher compliment for a story teller.
But what is that answer, to cycling mania? I think it goes back to the Marlboro Man, the cowboy myth, and the huge gap left in modern life by the absence of struggle and meaning. The process of race and life as intertwining metaphors has rarely been better put:
…the Iditarod Trail becomes a living thing, infused with all of the personality and sinister motivations that humans are prone to bestowing on the things they can not control. The trail can be benevolent one mile and unspeakably cruel the next. It changes by the hour and even by the minute. No two travelers will ever see the same trail. As it snakes its way over frozen rivers and swamps, the ice and the weather – not people – choose its final path. It is a trail forever in flux; an imaginary line embedded in the geography of Alaska; a ghost trail. A person could potentially follow it forever, and never really find its end.
I presume that those of us who pursue such a trail would be rather sad if we ever did find the end. The most valuable thing about the process of racing, of putting urgency and specified purpose into a journey marked by uncertainty, is that we are engaging with an ahuman partner. Any anthropomorphizing we might do (how many times have I thought a certain patch of dirt benevolent or cruel?) in the end bespeaks of no more than our own consciousness and affect, the filters of normal life rubbed raw enough to let us look our most guarded secrets dead in the face. Usually a terrifying prospect, always rewarding and enlightening once it is over and done and discussed over pancakes the next morning.
What is of particular interest in Jill’s story is twofold; that she spent six days on the trail, and that she is a woman. The processed of self-induced, semi-voluntary, misery-induced introspection is intimidating enough that I prefer to get it over with, take a shower, eat a lot, and go to bed (in a bed). The added duress of doing it for days on end can hardly be overstated. I know just enough of it to be well awed by Jill’s accomplishment. It is a too-often overlooked aspect of endurance racing, just how much more those earning DFL (dead fucking last) go through. Having been DFL and proud myself on quite a few occasions, I like to think so.
So what does it mean, to be a woman tackling the modern cowboy myth? There aren’t that many other women out answering this question, and few of them have written a book. Fewer still have taken that book and used it to so openly reveal their learning process, their struggles, failures, weaknesses, and insecurities. Is this Jill’s greatest contribution to the story book of endurance racing, an emotional fearlessness possessed by few in any men?
For Ghost Trails is not the first time I’ve thought Jill too hard on her own gumbyhood; it’s my experience that few truly self-stretching endeavors go by without some minor catastrophe. The tradition in male adventure literature (which is still a redundant term) is to gloss over the mishap and moments of panic, briefly describe the solution, and move on to other things, thus endorsing the stiff-upper-lip and tacitly reinforcing one’s own mental toughness. Jill seems to do the opposite, the terror of the Kuskokwim River waterfall and the Farewell Burn singe a reader’s memory.
It is here where the bildungsroman around which Ghost Trails is shaped is illuminating. Does our world teach girls to grow into the sort of people who would seek out their own Iditarod’s, or are they predisposed to look elsewhere? How do any of us find our way into such bizarre uses of leisure time?
Like many other’s in the orbit of endurance mountain biking, I am a man, and have a female significant other who, while interested in being outside, does not wholly value the more physical and obsessive features of the ways in which I like to use my free time. We’ve had some wonderful hikes and rides together, and some trips that were quite spectacular in their emotional and logistical failure. Jill’s own process with her boyfriend Geoff is not unlike this, and it is here where the honesty of her stroytelling demands my utmost admiration. Why do men and women seem to so often experience outdoor, endurance sports so differently, and what is it about our culture that makes it so? Can one combine emotive honesty and at the same time give oneself credit when credit is due?
I’m still searching for these answers, but thanks to Jill Homer’s fearlessness Ghost Trails is a damn good place to look. If this book doesn’t get you thinking about riding through the wilderness, alone, for a very long time, I think you might want to consider selling your mountain bike.
And it’s out just in time for Christmas.