"Slippery as an eel up here" I said aloud to nobody but myself as my front tire drifted out of the apex of the turn. The ground was baked hard as concrete, coated with a skim of dust, dried leaves and dead grass; a toxic combination with about as much traction as an air hockey table. This particular trail, carved laboriously into the side of a steep hill behind my barn over the previous two winters, is a narrow exercise in wheel placement and constant turns. It punishes lapsed concentration even when the traction is ideal. Traction had been far from ideal, blown-out and greasy, since June.
I locked the back wheel to slide it past the apex, hoping the front would find some bite as the rear let go, gave up leaning into tire edge knobs and drifted off the side of the trail and down the hill in a plume of dust. Sweating profusely in the almost 80-degree weather, I emerged from my own wreckage caked in dirt. It was Dec. 27, 2017.
It is pointless to complain about summer weather in California in December when the rest of the nation east of the Rockies was at that same time falling into the grip of a massive cold snap that would by early January be known as a 'Bomb Cyclone,' causing widespread and very real chaos from Maine to Florida. "Ohhh, you poor thing, you have to ride in a T-shirt and the trails are all hard and dusty. Should we call you a waaaahmbulance? It's -24 degrees here, so just shut your hole and let us deal with the real weather." That's what I imagined people in Marquette, Michigan, saying. We had been riding bikes there in October. It was an autumnal feast of varying traction and cool riding. As I type this, the daytime high in Marquette is 4 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing. They are probably breaking out shorts and sunscreen.
Playing in the medley of texture that Marquette offered—grippy rocks, slippery rocks, dry leaves, wet leaves, tacky soil, slimy mud, bony roots—then heading straight to another chunk of fall weather in North Carolina sent me back to California resentful of summer. The endless summer was becoming an endless bummer as first Napa got devoured by flames, then in December (December, for cryin' out loud!), Ventura and Santa Barbara went up in a quarter-million-acre blaze. As so many friends lost homes, it suddenly became meaningless to worry about whether the trails in Annadel State Park were going to survive, or if Tunnel trail in Santa Barbara got scorched. Mountain biking itself seemed like a luxury, a lucky act of strenuous leisure that we indulge in because we can afford the time and expense.
But there I was, looking the gift horse in the mouth. Not only was I fully indulging in the luxury of mountain biking, but I had the audacity to be complaining about the conditions. The story of the American West, from the Continental Divide all the way to within about 20 miles of the coast, up into Canada and down into Mexico, is one of deserts. Native cultures had deities and rituals based entirely around the fickle nature of water in this parched land. Massive and regular cycles of drought are punctuated by brief and violent phases of flood. Native vegetation clings to life with deep roots and thorns, draws water when it can and grips into rocks and dust the rest of the time, waiting. If I don't like sunburn and hanging dust, there's plenty of rain-soaked goodness on the rest of the planet. Love it or leave it, candyass.
Thing is, most of the time, I do love it. It took a long time, coming from the rain-lashed and muddy paradise of New Zealand, to get comfortable with deserts. By a long time, I mean a couple decades. But eventually, I fell in love with the astringent emptiness, the song of wind, the unforgiving precision with which a desert punishes the foolish. Deserts keep it real. Meanwhile, I live in a buffer zone between coast and desert, where one year it may rain 50 inches, and the next it may rain less than 10. One year it may be green for half the year, the dirt soft, the trails easy to build and easy to ride. The next year the ground may be bone-white and hard as stone for eight months, nothing growing but stickleburrs and thistles, and even those only make it a few months before turning into ghostly skeletons with tiny teeth. And I struggle with that unpredictability. In the dry years, I itch for soft dirt to dig, I pine for cold weather and I fall ever so slightly less in love with riding bikes.
In England, they have a different problem. The abundance of wet and miserable weather there is testament to the fortitude and passion of British mountain bikers that they ever bothered to start riding in the first place. Summer before last, my friend Chipps tells me that they went a solid three months when it rained every single day. Entire valleys flooded, the rainfall amounts so staggering that even now the ground remains saturated and unable to absorb moisture the way it used to. Still, in spite of the rain-soaked reality of his situation, I look at his muddy ride pictures on Instagram, and I envy him.
As I type this, the first rain of January is hammering the tin roof of the barn. The ground is sucking the water in like a drunkard. It is the first rain in two months here, closing out the driest December on record, and I am hoping that by the time these words get read, the soil will be dark and loamy, the grass green and lush. It is said, with regard to situational envy, that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Exactly. Ain't that the truth.