Jill Homer, a newspaper editor in the isolated, soggy hamlet of Juneau, Alaska, has an outlandish ambition: Racing a mountain bike 2,740 miles from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide. Her preparation plans are equally ambitious: A 350-mile winter bicycle race on Alaska’s frozen Iditarod Trail, followed by two months of focused training during a summer sojourn with her boyfriend in the Utah desert.
But in the tradition of best-laid plans, Jill’s dream begins to unravel the minute she sets it in motion. Less than 25 miles into the Iditarod Trail Invitational, Jill breaks through lake ice and suffers serious frostbite on her foot that forces her to drop out of the race. While she’s laid up on crutches and unable to train, Jill’s employer coerces her into taking a job that may prevent her from even starting the 2009 Tour Divide. Then, just two days before they planned to embark on their sojourn, Jill’s boyfriend ends their eight-year-relationship. This final dismantling of expectations causes Jill to question everything she thought she knew about life, love and her own identity.
Faced with a summer of plans they’re both reluctant to change, Jill and her now-ex-boyfriend embark on a road trip from Juneau to San Francisco in an effort to salvage a long-term friendship. She vows to repair her crumbling relationship with her ex, but a chance discovery and a jarring bicycle crash reveal the truth — that their past, and her heart, have been irrevocably broken.
She returns alone to her family home in Salt Lake City, Utah, with a vague plan to pick up the pieces and continue pursuing the Tour Divide. Despite a lack of motivation and overarching desire to do something more conducive to “getting on with her life,” Jill embarks on a series of training rides to prepare her for the rigors of a self-supported endurance race. She spends long nights huddled in a thin sleeping bag beneath a wash of stars, trying to reconcile her heartbreak and uncertainty.
Just days before the start of the Tour Divide, Jill travels to Banff, Alberta, where she meets kindred spirits who help spark greater perspective and new enthusiasm for a solo journey. On June 12, 2009, she joins 42 other racers at the start of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Jill finds herself almost instantly in over her head, facing a sudden deluge of loose gravel, rocky terrain, hard fatigue, violent thunderstorms, difficult route-finding, stream crossings, bear encounters, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles — and she hasn’t even pedaled out of Canada yet.
On the third day, Jill meets a veteran Divide racer named John who sustained a knee injury descending a high pass in the rain. They agree to ride together for the day, which stretches into several days as John settles into Jill’s pace and Jill enjoys the company of a methodical, results-driven athlete who loves cycling but seems so much unlike her in nearly every other way. They part ways in western Wyoming, and suddenly Jill finds herself facing nearly 2,000 miles of Rocky Mountains backwoods, completely alone.
The difficulties compound quickly. Mud and weather slow her progress, knee pains become chronic, food planning errors leave her low on calories, and a rear hub failure nearly strands her in the harsh desert of the Great Divide Basin more than 100 miles from the next town. Brake failure leads to a bad crash in northern Colorado. Amid the mounting demands of her savage new way of life, Jill’s sense of civility wears away and her emotions become those of a child, raw and affecting.
But Jill’s adventure also swings toward the sublime, from the unconditional kindness of strangers to a deliriously beautiful descent from the sweeping mountains above Salida, Colorado. Jill allows herself to believe the worst is behind her, unaware that the most jarring discovery still awaits her beyond the storm-ravaged peaks of the southern San Juan Mountains.