Review: Ghost Trails, by Jill Homer

This post is a part of my year-long quest in 2017 to read only female-authored travel writing. Find out more about it on the project’s main page.

Ghost Trails by Jill Homer

What a breath of fresh, icy air September’s title, Jill Homer’s Ghost Trails, has been.

As I said in my preview, it was the first book in my list not to come from a British or Irish writer, and the tone and style really stood out as a result (not in a bad way). Moreover, it was nice to be back in the groove of tackling a book that – unlike August’s epic – I knew I would be able to finish within the month.

And above all, it was, not to spoil my review too much, absolutely bloody superb: an exhilirating, powerful, rollercoaster of a book that is probably my favourite of the year’s list. Yes, even more so than favourite so far Full Tilt.

High praise indeed, and I hope this review will describe it sufficiently to convey that view.

But first let me explain the book. Ghost Trails is kind of two stories in one (with a postscript I’ll come to later). It’s primarily the author’s account of her attempt to cycle the gruelling winter-time Iditarod Invitational Trail cycle ride in Alaska in 2008. But alternating chapters are flashbacks to various stages in her life – from childhood through to adulthood during which she grows in her love of the outdoors, and a yearning of adventure slowly, painfully, at times despite her instincts, begins to infect and consume her.

And because the author writes so well but so intensely about both, they never become overbearing to the reader, because you’re never far away from a switch back to the other timeline. And each chapter, particularly the flashbacks, stands alone as a magnificent travelogue (or adventurelogue, if you will, which I can’t blame you if you won’t) in itself.

The chapters charting her ride are wonderful descriptions of the physical and emotional toil this 350-mile race takes on the author, and of the otherworldly landscape of hauntingly dark and unimaginably cold Alaska (mind you, some of the impact of her account of the temperatures she rode through were lost slightly by being in Fahrenheit, and I couldn’t always be bothered to translate in my head!). Alaska looms large in these chapters almost as a character in itself, a forbidding demon of a landscape that Homer is attempting to conquer, or at times both revel in and escape.

I wrote in my original appeal for titles for this series that I wasn’t a fan of “grunt and sweat” travel writing, but on reflection I ought to revise this opinion – at least if Ghost Trails is anything to go by. Perhaps this is where gender comes in, and I might need to read a bit more male-authored “grunt and sweat” to strengthen my hypothesis here, because I do feel Homer as a woman gives us not just an account of the physical side but a deep, moving portrayal of the emotional side of this struggle – we weep with her, cheer with her, cry with her and ache with her, such is the power with which she writes. We hang on every slow, painful, sluggish pedal or step through the snow, ice, cold and dark.

Meanwhile, the flashback chapters are just as good. Indeed, they are often better, and Homer’s ability write about the emotional side of her adventures was at times beautiful enough to make my jaw drop and eyes well up. By taking us through key adventures in her life – from stumbling hikes in the Utah mountains to a coast to coast cycle across the USA, I feel like the reader is able to grow with Homer, get to know her deeply, understand what makes her tick and why she wants to do what she does.

But don’t mistake the book for a self-indulgent, introspective journey into the author’s mind. At her best, Homer manages to take us on the internal and external journeys, the emotional and physical journeys, similtaneously. Early on, she writes:

There is no ideology that can shield us from the searing wind, the frozen emptiness, and the desperate loneliness of a night in the Alaska Range at twenty below. And there are no words that can prepare us for the raw amazement, the sweeping beauty and the quiet joy spread across white, unbroken land. We find so much wonder it makes civilised life seem shallow, and so much pain it makes death seem kind. We find love we can’t express in a place so uncaring it breaks our hearts.

The book is full of sweeping, powerful writing like this, and Homer is an utter master at taking us on a journey through her emotions as much as through her location. But she can be concise too, with snappy phrases that are helpful explanations of her mind and experiences as well as pure poetry in themselves. At one point she writes of “storms, raging storms, storms that will erase the whole world”. Elsewhere: “I was fascinated with the barren landscape, moving further into winter as though we were moving back in time.” And when visiting Manhattan in New York she describes how “A low moaning breeze swept through the concrete corridors.”

Much of the most powerful and emotional writing comes in the early flashbacks, where Homer was, by her own admission, “the teenager who cultivated an interest in the outdoors mainly because it garnered cool points with cool boys.” Perhaps it is her folksy, open, direct style as an American, but her writing about her teenage years is beautifully done, blending her outdoor struggles with her hormonal ones. The following extract, for instance, confirmed to me that if Homer ever wants to give up writing about her travels and adventures, then she’s probably got inside of her a mean line in angsty emo teenage romantic fiction.

And then there was Spencer, who was sitting right next to me with the prospect that he’d stay that way all night. Spencer, who I hadn’t yet dared to look directly in the eyes for fear he’d look away.

Homer’s flashbacks soon progress into her adult years, and her strength and confidence grow just as the scale of her adventures does. Soon she’s climbing huge mountains and cycling across the USA and making her first explorations of Alaska that lead her to the Iditarod.

And she brings Alaska alive with almost every sentence of her race chapters.

Despite the extreme climate, the spruce and alder remain. Even as they become scrawnier and sparser with every mile, they remain. Even as they’re nearly devoured by frozen swamps as pristinely blank as the surface of the moon, they remain. There’s a quiet beauty to that staying power, a consistency I take comfort in even as the sameness begins to tug at my sanity.

It is amazing how she manages to evoke such vivid detail when, at times, every step seems to be a calculated movement along a fine line between life and death.

The trail continued down canyon until I was standing directly over the creek. A few crossings were nothing more than ice bridges over open water. My heart stopped beating as I crossed them, but below my feet they glistened blue and white like crystal sculptures, beautiful words of art born of raw inspiration and natural rage.

In mixing the physical and emotional description so wonderfully, the book is as much a manifesto for adventure as it is a straight account of her travels – an inspirational tool which I suppose any good travelogue ought to be. Often, Homer can incite in us wanderlust, admiration and sheer terror all at once, making the reader want to head off on a gruelling adventure even with full knowledge of the dangers.

In any other lifetime, the Alaska backcountry would have been an unobtainable fortress, surrounded by the wall of my own inexperience. That I could just sit on a bicycle and power myself into the heart of such a remote, empty wilderness made me feel proud – and fearful. If I could pedal myself this far into the backcountry, what was to stop me from pedalling beyond the point of no return?

And that danger never lurks far away in the darkest moments of the Iditarod. Homer feels herself physically and mentally exhausted through almost the whole journey. She frequently contemplates the nature – and perceived closeness – of death. The alternating nature of the book means that entire chapters of the Iditarod account stand as powerful vignettes in themselves of the physical and emotional struggle of adventure. You could almost pick up the book and read a single chapter out of context and still be inspired, moved and amazed.

And I am certainly inspired, moved and amazed all over again as I read through the notes in my Kindle and jump back to the beautiful extracts they were marked against. And I realise that this review is already longer than it should be, and is little more than a string of quotes from the book tied together with my awestruck ramblings. Indeed, I’ve just realised that in flicking through my notes I’ve not really quoted anything beyond about the first third of the book. So you’ll just have to take it from me that the remaining two thirds are as excellent.

Though – and I feel dreadful shoehorning this into such a positive review – the book has a curious update that I am not sure belongs in it. Homer returns to the Iditarod in 2014, this time on foot, and her account appears at the end in a way that I am not entirely sure fits.

Firstly, it feels out of sync with the pace. As I have said, her alternation between the cycle and the flashbacks works superbly. To shift to a single, continuous narrative felt suddenly slow and stilted. Moreover, having experienced the highs and lows of the Iditarod with Homer – the sweat, the tears, the stunning scenery and terrifying challenges – I felt rather shellshocked at the end of her account of her cycle; ready to stop, recover and reflect on the incredible book that I had read. To then move on to a long postscript felt like an anticlimax, a bolt-on that didn’t need to be there. I confess I tried to finish the addition, but just couldn’t.

Perhaps it should have been a separate book. A sequel. A “freebie” on her website. I don’t know. But it certainly felt, as far as I read it, that it was not just unnecessary but almost detracted from the utter joy and exhilaration of reading the main story. It was, in a sense, exactly how I felt about the sequels to the Matrix films – disappointments that should never have been added to what was, and I think still is, my favourite film.

But it is, I hope, a tribute to the main twin stories of Ghost Trails that I can say all those negative things about the addition to the book and still find it to be such an incredible piece of writing that I suspect I will rave about to any and all who listen.

I’ll try to wrap up this unnecessarily long review by reflecting on the nature of the book and its place within this mission.

Homer doesn’t dwell extensively on her gender. Her self-perception of weakness perhaps stands as one aspect of this, and there are occasional references to disbelieving men at the start of the race (where she stands out as a woman against so many male cyclists). And I wonder whether she is much more open about her weaknesses than male writers might be in this situation, writing wryly at one point on a backpacking trip about how “what I wanted most was a cold Pepsi and a big tub of ice cream”.

Her ability to describe herself as a woman, warts and all, is an occasional highlight. For instance:

The fact that the Iditarod Trail was eating me alive was no huge surprise. I was a Mormon girl from Utah. I grew up in the suburbs and didn’t even pay attention to sports and athletics, let alone participate in them. I was once scared of the dark. I was still beyond terrified of water.

Perhaps when we are drawn to think about her gender the most, though, is in the later flashbacks when she is on adventures with her boyfriend Geoff. He is a key character in the book, and an important influence on Homer and the wider story. He comes over as a capable, confident adventurer who Homer sometimes feels in the shadow of. Though she describes his philosophy – and his impact on her own approach – in a way that I certainly found inspiring, not to mention reassuring.

For Geoff, adventure – like physical fitness – came naturally, so it really didn’t matter whether he trekked to the top of the tallest peak in Idaho, or simply laid down in the sand beneath the mountain’s shadow and let the afternoon unravel slowly. He was happy either way.

And then later:

I quit my job in May and hit the road with him. He promised to show me the ways in which he found freedom in poverty. He wanted to teach me that time was life’s most valuable currency, and the duration of it was most valuably spent on the move.

One chapter when they cycle through Colorado together is riddled in my Kindle with comments, and stands out as one of the best bits of travel writing I think I have ever read, with beautiful description of scenery, powerful inward reflections, and a sense that she was finally growing into the sort of confident cyclist that could take on something as hard as the Iditarod, writing evocatively of “the awe of distance”.

Reading Ghost Trails was an exhausting task in a sense – intimidating, in that Homer did something few on this earth could manage; engrossing, in that her beautiful writing kept you hooked at every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence; and dramatic, in the way she described the very real dangers and despairs she met along the way.

In short, it’s an absolutely incredible portrait not just of Alaska, and the other places she visits in the flashbacks, but of the physical and emotional sides of adventure and travel. While I’m not sure Alaska has moved up my travel wishlist as a result, what I have taken from the book is an admiration for Homer’s astonishing achievements and masterful writing. As I say, Ghost Trails is my favourite of this series so far.

I can only urge you to check out her website, and take a look at her other books too – after reading this one, I know I’ll be hunting down the rest without question.

And perhaps I’ll revisit the seemingly unnecessary postscript in a fresh mood on another day!

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