Book Review: Ghost Trails, by Jill Homer

You may be familiar with Jill Homer’s blog, Jill Outside, formerly known as Up in Alaska. Around here we affectionately refer to her as “Crazy Jill,” because some of her adventures are, well, a little crazy. We started following her because of her beautiful pictures of Alaska, but it’s hard to resist her tales of derring-do.

More of those tales are exactly what you’ll find in Ghost Trails. I grabbed a copy of the book thanks to a promotion Jill is running right now, and I’m really pleased that I did. The story is episodic, alternating a linear narrative of her bike race on the Iditarod trail with stories from further back in her past. The older stories explain, ultimately, how Jill ended up in Alaska, but they’re illustrative of character and psychological development, rather than presenting a firm chronological biography.

The Iditarod story is gripping, in the same way that Jack London stories are. Outdoor memoirs have a certain disadvantage in terms of suspense–obviously the author survived–but Jill keeps you fascinated. The other, more autobiographical narrative is equally compelling, with each moment left more on its own. Jill resists the memoirist’s pitfall of explaining why every moment matters, instead letting things play out on their own poignant terms. My favorite story is the oldest one, of a failed hike Jill took as a little girl.

That narrative of failure sets a tone for the rest of the book. Failing is always just around the corner in all of Jill’s adventures. What if, each story asks, this is the time that things don’t work? More importantly, the stories question why the foreseen failure didn’t happen this time. What is the difference between a race you finish and a race you don’t? Why can you push through some things and not others? How fictional is the line between success and its opposite? At the same time Jill also touches on all the kinds of commonplace problems and setbacks of the outdoor lifestyle. As someone who often totally fails in very commonplace outdoor adventures, I loved this very human touch. Let’s face it–most outdoor memoirs are written by men, and men don’t usually admit to things like falling off the side of a trail or forgetting to eat.

Unlike in many self-published books, the writing in Ghost Trails is clear and lovely. I taught college writing for five years, which makes it impossible for me to read bad prose. Combined with the page-turning nature of the story, it makes for a fast read. My “few chapters before bed” turned into “reading until 2:00 in the morning” which turned into “finishing the book during breakfast.” Jill is running the book discounted as a promotion for her new book, due out sometime very soon, which I will also surely be picking up.

Gear Review: Skirt Sports Lotta Breeze Capri

Lotta Breeze Capri
Image via Skirt Sports

I bought this little capri/skirt combo last summer. My version is a mesh-weave on the legs and a solid fabric on the skirt; I’m not sure how exactly this compares to current models

I’ve worn it a few times for biking, most recently on a short bike trip through town, which prompted me to review it here.

This garment combines a fair level of functionality with a fair level of cuteness. The legging portion is a comfortably breathable mesh-type fabric, with pockets on each outer-upper thigh. The pockets aren’t large, but they would hold some essentials. You do have to lift the skirt substantially to reach them. It isn’t indecent, but it might get you some raised eyebrows in a store.

The skirt is shorter than I would wear solo, but again, perfectly decent because of the leggings. It’s a nice length to not get hung on the bike saddle, and a respectable bottom-covering length for people who dislike showing the world their spandex-covered backside.

This is not a cycling garment. Skirt Sports doesn’t intend it to be worn for cycling; they have other models for that. At the time those models all featured a longer skirt and shorter shorts, and I thought this model was cuter. These capris do not have a chamois, and there are definitely seams where cyclists would prefer them not to be. The seams are, however, flat and unobtrusive. The pockets are not in an ideal position for cycling at all.

I’ve worn these capris two ways. First, over regular, padded bike shorts, for long rides that included some shopping. This is not ideal. Most importantly, wearing two pairs of pants plus a skirt gets hot, especially when all three layers are synthetic. Also, the leggings are just sheer enough, and the skirt just short enough, that the cycling shorts are still visible. Wearing the capris solo is much nicer, though you do obviously give up the chamois.

Aesthetically, these are cute, but definitely in a “cute gym clothes” way. Telling example: I got multiple compliments while wearing these in the kayaking section of L.L. Bean. Since I only wear athletic clothes in public when it is strictly necessary, they aren’t quite my style. (I also have really mixed feelings about overly-feminized exercise clothes, which I won’t go into here unless prompted.)

I can say that these are prodigiously comfortable. If I tended toward a more athletic style of dress, I would wear them a lot. I also think I would wear them more if my “social exercise” was running instead of biking. I sometimes see ladies on group runs that end at coffee shops, which would really be the perfect use for these.

The Title Photo Story

My header photo looks a little incriminating. My rule-adhering self just can’t take it anymore.

No Wheeled Vehicles

This was a beautiful ride we did last summer, in the far north-eastern edge of Vermont. We were there, ostensibly, for K to ride the famous Kingdom Trails mountain bike system. There’s good road riding all around, though, and I amused myself pretty handily. Without having to climb this:

Burke Mountain

which, if my photo-taking is accurate, is part of what the mountain bike trail does.

One afternoon we set out on a little jaunt up some rural highway. Very rural. After ten or fifteen miles, we stopped for a snack, leaning our bikes against this convenient power pole. Then we saw the sign, and I just had to take the picture. What the frame crops is the real place where “no wheeled vehicles” were allowed–a rocky, steep farm road going up that hill to the left. From the condition of it, I think the farmer was having trouble with ATVs. In any event, I promise, we did not go past the sign!

Who’s Stronger Now?

Today’s post on Lovely Bicycle! got me thinking again about rider strength and bicycle selection. I’ve been mulling this over a lot lately, as I find that our “couples” riding style is evolving in some very interesting ways. K is prodigiously strong as a cyclist. He was planning to race this mountain biking season, and would have done quite well. Then we moved, and here the season is already over. He’s also one of those generally athletic types. Ran track in high school, etc. I am not. I would like to be, but my DNA doesn’t lend itself to fast improvements. I think, after two years of cycling and various other fitness activities, I’m maybe a smidge above average. (Keeping in mind that the average American woman isn’t very fit at all.)

We bought our bikes in turns. When I bought my road bike, K had two mountain bikes. Until I was fairly comfortable on my road bike, he rode his mountain bike on our outings. Soon, even with my commuting-focused road bike and minimal skills, he was finding it challenging to keep up. Mountain bikes aren’t geared to go that fast–the priority is, at least usually, easier gears to facilitate climbing. Also, the logic goes, on a nice, technical trail, you don’t carry that much speed anyway. From what I dimly remember of those days, his fastest gear was only my mid-range. Even though he was a very fit, very strong cyclist, my pure mechanical advantage was winning.

So, before the year was out, he bought a new bike. But he couldn’t bring his mountain-biker’s heart to buy a dedicated road bike. Instead he bought a steel cyclocross bike. It has fast gearing, but a less-racy geometry. It’s heavy for a road bike and has wide, fairly knobby tires. I think the total weight is around 25 pounds, with racks but few other accessories. Still, he could run off and leave me if he wanted to. (He could also, and still can, ride through various “terrain features” that I had to walk. I resent this a little.) In other words, with our bikes fairly equal again, it showed that he was the much better rider.

When I bought my titanium bike, the whole field suddenly changed. It’s not the raciest bike, in terms of geometry, but it is certainly racier than Florence. Lower bottom bracket, shorter chain stays, significantly shorter wheel base. Last I checked, the total weight of the bike is around 17 pounds. I also lost the convenient indicators that tell me what gear I’m in. When I think to check, I’m finding that the same perceived exertion is, in fact, a significantly higher gear. The place this difference really shows is in the acceleration. Especially from a stop, or going up a hill, deciding to go faster seems to turn, immediately, into actually going a lot faster. And now, for the first time since the cyclocross bike, I can drop K if I want.

Keeping him back is, of course, a different fish entirely. His strength shows in his ability to always, without fail, pull me back in. When he gets ahead I still struggle to catch back up. One day, he’ll decide to upgrade his own road bike, and then the natural order will return. Maybe in the meantime I can get some more cycling fitness of my own.

Finally Did It

I finally got on my bike and rode a little in town yesterday. This was turning in to a now-or-never. You know how your brain exaggerates problems until they seem insurmountable (but they’re really nothing)? That was what I was doing about this.

The good:
–Our second-favorite grocery store is less than a mile away, even with a somewhat circuitous route. Given how long it takes the car’s air-conditioning to fight off the built-up heat, it’s hardly any hotter than going in the car.
–The Ortlieb Roll-top Panniers we bought are, indeed, awesome. One pair, split between the two of us, easily carried everything we bought for three days. They detach easily to carry in the store, and they have a very convenient shoulder strap. We liked them so much that we are debating getting a second set. I’ll try to do a formal review of these after we’ve owned them for a while.
–My new bike lock is much less fussy than its predecessor.

The bad:
–The best route requires a tiny block of sidewalk riding. It keeps you from turning left onto a major road with no shoulder or bike lane, only to turn left again across the major road in a block. As I’ve said before, there appears to be no anti-sidewalk riding law here, and most cyclists do it. The problem is the quality of the sidewalks. In that one block there is one substantial drop, and one place where the sidewalk has practically crumbled to dust. The latter almost caused my to wreck my bike. The sidewalks are better on the only slightly longer second-best route, which requires a similar amount of sidewalk riding. I think we’re going to try that way from now on.
–Our favorite grocery store is still eluding me. It isn’t that much further, but there are fewer secondary roads in that direction. I’m still mulling.

And in the “drat” category:
–I realized that my favorite tea place is within biking distance, even on a reasonably tolerable route. They not only don’t have a bike rack, I couldn’t see a single good substitute.

Bike to Work

In the midst of “Bike to Work” month/week/day, I’m feeling a bit out of the loop. We’ve had a constant stream of one thing after another that has just made it so much easier to do everything by car. As in, “Oh, we have an errand to (insert unbikeable place), let’s just stop for the groceries while we’re out.” Or, “I think it’s going to rain any second, I’ll wait.” My avoidance is made that much easier by the fact that I’m still kind of nervous about the whole prospect of biking in this town. I need to rectify the situation, soon, before it’s blisteringly hot out there and I have another excuse.

I also haven’t pinned down my exact feelings about bike to work advocacy. On the one hand, I’m really sympathetic with the project. A focus point like this can pull the disparate parts of the cycling community together and help make a statement about the practicality of bicycling. Also, in many areas there are events intended to increase the safety of bike commuting and help those new to the idea. The last large town we lived near coordinated group rides from the suburbs to downtown, in an attempt to help cyclists feel more safe during their commute. The problem is, I think, with what happens when that kind of support is gone. Cyclists like to imagine that if you can just get people to do it once, they’ll fall in love. It’s all a bit naive, if for no other reason that the self-deconstruction of the message. If it takes an elaborate, coordinated event to make commuting “safe,” then it can’t possibly be safe to do alone.

But, really, this whole post is just an excuse for a link to Emily’s excellent blog post on bike to work month. Emily usually deals with very serious mega-endurance bike races, so you may not know her blog. If you don’t, you’re missing some gems. She’s fierce. If I can get all girl-crushy on the internet here, Emily and Krista are my strong-woman role-models.

Today’s goal: ride my darn bike.

Spoiled

Today we went to two bike shops. We weren’t looking for anything in particular; just getting to know the shops in town.

First we stopped at one that we discovered on our first trip here. A lovely, quirky, shop. Modern enough to keep K happy, but not just the Big Box Brands. We browsed happily, engaging in such serious debates as whether a certain set of handlebars was “moustachey” enough and the aesthetic benefits of tan sidewall tires.

Then we ventured across town to a local chain-type place. There were impatient triathletes sulking in corners (I kid you not), and rack after rack of carbon fiber road bikes. K picked up a carbon fiber saddle that neither flexed nor gave in the slightest, but was on half the bikes in the store. I guess it’s the lightest. And while I’m not opposed to modern technology when it’s merited, this shop seriously worshipped the new and shiny.

On our way out the door, K said, “That shop has no soul.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.