The Curse of Greener Grass

Words Mike Ferrentino
Date Dec 7, 2021
Reading time

Zooming our goodbyes on Monday, the northern contingent said farewell and wished each other the best of luck bracing for impact of the latest atmospheric river poised to dump massive amounts of rain all over the Pacific Northwest and coastal B.C. I hung up, and went outside to watch dust motes spinning skyward like miniature tornadoes. The thermometer on the wall of my barn registered 80 degrees. It was November 29th.

Right before the call ended, we had joked about an exchange program. The North Van collective could start mailing packets of rain south to me, and I could in turn ship boxloads of dust back north. Obviously, not a moneymaker of an idea. And navigating customs would be a brute. But still, it’s the thought that counts, right? Cam and Deniz and Hailey probably spent the week slogging through the muck with grim resolve. Waterproof clothing and shoes, big, low durometer tires, and drivetrains that eat themselves. Doesn’t sound like fun. But nevertheless, I envied them for their sodden adventures.


Did you guys know Cam got a new car? Kidding... Cam did get a new car, but it's a BMW (a 15-year old BMW – Ed.). I had a BMW 2002 once, traded a one speed rear wheel and a set of RaceFace Turbine cranks for it, thought I was getting a killer deal. Turns out there was over a quart of water INSIDE the transmission, and both lower control arms were bent backward, like the previous owner had been driving it into rocks while playing submarine captain. But I digress...

For my part, I watched as the fledgling green in the meadow that had sprouted in a hopeful glimmer of rain a month ago turned brown and died. I read news reports about the state of California’s worsening ongoing drought, and how the Sierra snowpack that the entire state depends upon for aquifer replenishment is likely to be gone for good in the next couple decades. And I sulkily dragged myself around the trails in my backyard. Trails that are steep and bony and super fun to ride and super easy to work on once there has been a little precipitation, but are just a sketchy, tractionless funsuck when it’s this dry. May as well throw a few bags of kitty litter down on some steep concrete footpaths and call it good.

Growing up in New Zealand, I was mesmerized by imagery of the western US. My grandfather sent me a book when I was about 8 – Time and the River Flowing, by François Leydet. It was this immensely beautiful photo-heavy book about the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, and it hooked my imagination hard. Waihi, where I was raised in New Zealand, absorbed about 80” of rain a year. We joked that people didn’t really get suntans during summer holidays; they rusted instead. So the golden sandstone desert landscapes of the American Southwest was the centerpiece of this exotic and amazing mirage that I pined to one day see for myself. The notion of being able to sleep out under the stars was enough to induce fever dreams. No need for a tent? Actually being able to see the stars? No constant smell of mildewing nylon? What madness is this?

Hearing those bubbly lyrics of timing and irony spun me into thinking about the great ironies of mountain biking...

I found out it was all true. Amazing. But I also learned that scorpions and rattlesnakes like to get in your sleeping bag. I had a coyote try to steal the down jacket I was using for a pillow right out from under my head, somewhere along the Sea of Cortez, one cold clear dry night. I found out that dust storms are real. So is dehydration. That the desert is often a forbidding and deadly place. That the reds and golds can be balanced out by vast barren expanses of monotonous grey alkali dirt where almost nothing at all will ever grow. That the sun can be every bit as oppressive and inescapable as a rain-pregnant sky.

Having grown up in a place where the smell of mud drying on dirt bike exhausts was maybe my strongest childhood memory, the deserts of the American West took a lot of getting used to. And I have learned to love the sparse emptiness, the tenacity of life that exists in them, and the nuances and variety that the many flavors of desert can encompass. But the sun has always beaten me down. And dust, fuck I hate dust. Meanwhile, I have friends in England who rhapsodize about dust. They speak of it in reverential tones. “Mate, it hasn’t rained for a week on the moors, I think I saw some dust raising off your tires this morning!”


Don't images like this seem so damn inviting? Amber waves of grain, or some such horseshit. All warm and somehow evocative of something wonderful. Except for the thorns, the burrs that just decimate your socks, the incessant face flies, the 100 degree heat even near sunset, the hanging clouds of dust, the rattlesnakes, and the complete and utter lack of anything resembling traction. Other than that, yeah, pretty much perfect...

We pine for what we do not have. I do not harbor mountain bike escapist fantasies about the trails in Waihi. The dirt there, and up into the Coromandel peninsula, was slippery clay. Tricky to ride when wet, and it was almost always wet. And while there are so many sensory triggers from New Zealand that can instantly induce pangs of longing and a desire to be there Right Now (feijoas, the song of a korimako, wet grass under bare feet, the curl of a fern, a meat pie from a BP station…), the dirt between Waihi and Whangamata is not among them. But the redwoods in Whakarewarewa forest in Rotorua? Or the dense, almost chocolate loam of the Pacific Northwest? Swoon. That’s magic stuff. And yes, I absolutely have dreams about it.

Huge forests, that cool dewy stillness, the shafts of light filtering through the thick canopy, the quietness of the earth, the thick wet mulch so dark and friable. Traction for days, a massive carpet of forgiving loam, nature’s most rewarding riding surface. It’s the soil - that special mix of granitic dirt, decomposing plant matter, and some of that precious moisture that shellacks the entire coastal region from somewhere north of the Golden Gate Bridge up into Alaska with such imposing, dependable regularity – more than anything else, it’s that dirt that defines mountain biking paradise on earth. To me, anyway. Maybe I hold it in such reverence because I don’t live up there. I don’t need to pressure wash the moss off my siding. I don’t need a mud room. I don’t need waterproof shoes. But I need that dirt. Mountain biking is less without it. And down here, the dirt is never like that. At best, the local soil here is maybe a thin facsimile of The Real Thing. But it’s the decaf version of the good soil. And, shit, even then it’s only like that for maybe three months of the year. Maybe. If we get lucky.

The rest of the time, it’s that baked dust that only the British (and bookish kids in small towns in New Zealand) dream about.


The kid from New Zealand is older than he was in this photo, taken by Alan Ofsoski about 8 years ago in Rotorua. This - mulchy black soil, grippy granitic slab, dense walls of ferns, cicadas chorusing their static in humid summer air - is what I dream about when I'm digging dust boogers out of my nostrils and wondering if it will ever rain again...

This column came about after Alanis Morissette popped up on the radio the other day; “it’s like raaaaaiiiiiiiinnnnn, on your wedding day.” Hearing those bubbly lyrics of timing and irony spun me into thinking about the great ironies of mountain biking; like when you show up for a ride on a carbon hardtail with 2.2 Ardents and all your buddies have Double Down casings and the day is going to be a diet of nothing but slippery wet steeps. Or when you dressed for winter, because it’s December, God Damn It All, and find yourself red as a tomato, swimming in pools of your own sweat because it’s 80 out. Or that time you got caught out in a lightning storm on the north rim of the Grand Canyon in August, wearing nothing but bib shorts and a sleeveless jersey, and the temperature dropped 50 degrees in a few minutes and you realized in your increasingly confused mind as you sluggishly sprinted the miles back to camp with an urgency that suddenly felt very intense but also maybe urgent enough that this, here in the red and gold desert where you have spent so much time being sunburned and thirsty, would be a very ironic place to die of hypothermia.

But then it occurred to me that maybe you’d think I was trying to suck up to you guys, being as Alanis is Canadian and all, and how it just seemed too trite to really work as a way to tie a concept together. Yet here I am, kicking dust and fretting about sunburn in December. And there you are, with all the good dirt.

And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?

There's no way I could have ended that with Alanis Morissette. So let's have Ludacris walk us out...

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+2 kcy4130 Mike Ferrentino
Beau Miller  - Dec. 6, 2021, 10:16 p.m.

August on the north rim of the Grand Canyon is a mother! Our trip there we got pummeled at the top by a hail storm so ridiculous it blanketed the ground like snow.


+5 Mammal Todd Hellinga cheapondirt Pete Roggeman Beau Miller
Mike Ferrentino  - Dec. 7, 2021, 9:01 a.m.

I'm "big boned", so to speak, and I hate hot weather. So I kinda falsely assumed I was hypothermia-proof. That day was a perfect storm of poor decisions on my part.

Hot and sunny day, I didn't bring any sort of warm or waterproof layer. We stopped and ate lunch on an out and back, and I sucked down a huge sandwich. All my blood was busy in my stomach as we started riding back. The storm hit right before we entered this huge meadow, and we cowered under some trees as it started hailing. Lightning was striking and making trees sizzle and pop in spite of the hail on the other side of the meadow, so it seemed risky to continue into that. After about 20 minutes, the storm was still raging and I was getting really fucking cold, even standing surrounded by a not-very effective bro-hug. It was about 12 miles back to camp, mostly open going. I figured if I really pinned it, maybe my core temperature would stay high enough through exertion to be okay. If I stayed there any longer, it wasn't going to be good. I figured the chances of getting struck by lightning were still lower than the chances of going hypothermic.

About halfway back to camp I couldn't really feel my face or my arms below my elbows, and my mind was definitely slowing down. I was counting my heartrate, and in spite of pedaling as hard as I could, it seemed to be stuck around 100. And I couldn't really hold my line for shit anymore. Camp, when I finally got there, was wrecked. But I had a down bag in a drysack, and we had a van. The sun had just come out. I stripped down, got in the bag, got in the van, cranked the heater, and then when things dried out I lay outside in the sun, in the down bag, for the rest of the day. My body thermometer was totally wrecked for the next several days. 

Not really keen to try that experiment again.


+3 Pete Roggeman Mike Ferrentino ZigaK
Beau Miller  - Dec. 7, 2021, 11:25 a.m.

Dear lord. Coming from the tropics we were similarly blind sided, but didn't almost die. 

Gas station attendant at the top outlined by strobe lightning wearing full snowboard gear in August was completely non-plussed by our epic tale.


+11 Metacomet Carlos Matutes roil IslandLife Pete Roggeman Mike Ferrentino Mammal Greg Bly LWK Niels Kos
Duzall  - Dec. 7, 2021, 1:19 a.m.

Hi Mike

Life is a trade off, I've been fortunate enough to experience some of what you describe, living in Auckland, being able to ride in Rotorua, but been to some of the meccas of Nth Vancouver, Whistler, Whitehorse, North Rim, Moab, The Maze, etc. The next ride is the best. At 66 years old it is all a gift, enjoy each moment.


+4 Paul Stuart Carlos Matutes Pete Roggeman Mike Ferrentino
SteveR  - Dec. 7, 2021, 6:02 a.m.

Starting with the early days of the Grimy Handshake, I have always enjoyed your perspective on riding, Mike. Great to see you here!


+3 Carlos Matutes Pete Roggeman Mike Ferrentino
Vik Banerjee  - Dec. 7, 2021, 6:03 a.m.

Sweet hardtail! :-)


+7 Mike Ferrentino Mammal Vik Banerjee Andrew Major Alex Durant Niels ZigaK
Carlos Matutes  - Dec. 7, 2021, 7:49 a.m.

Wait, no one’s gonna mention that it’s laying on the drive side?

Great column once again, Mike!


+2 Alex Durant Carlos Matutes
Mike Ferrentino  - Dec. 7, 2021, 8:49 a.m.

shit. i should be better than this...


+1 Carlos Matutes
Vik Banerjee  - Dec. 7, 2021, 10:11 a.m.

He's just hiding the SS conversion until he's ready to drop that on us! ;-)


+2 Vik Banerjee Carlos Matutes
Mike Ferrentino  - Dec. 7, 2021, 10:39 a.m.

I'm not one to never say never... but I think my one speeding days are safely behind me.


+2 Carlos Matutes Velocipedestrian
Maximum Radness  - Dec. 8, 2021, 6:06 a.m.

Show us the bike, mike!!!

+1 Mike Ferrentino
kcy4130  - Dec. 7, 2021, 8:28 a.m.

The grass is always greener. Especially when the grass here is covered in snow and ice like now. Sigh...


+3 Greg Bly slimchances57 kcy4130
Steve Barrett  - Dec. 7, 2021, 11:13 a.m.

The grass is greener on the other side.... because it's usually fertilised with BS....

Embrace what you have....


+5 Greg Bly Mike Ferrentino Andrew Major Mammal Deniz Merdano
Todd Hellinga  - Dec. 7, 2021, 11:13 a.m.

heat dome drought, biblical flooding, snow to sea level....come to BC, experience it all in 5 months!


+5 ZigaK Mike Ferrentino Pete Roggeman JVP capnron
Andeh  - Dec. 7, 2021, 6:14 p.m.

I grew up in BC and the Seattle suburbs, and now live in the Bay Area, and am also guilty of longing for The Real Stuff.  Websites like this one certainly do nothing but fuel my nostalgia from growing up. 

But I'm certain my memory is selectively excluding the 9 months of the year when it drizzled, the moss that grew on my fucking car, the 6 hours (if it wasn't cloudy) of daylight in the winter months, and how awful it was for the 1 week a year when it actually did get hot in August.

Of course, it was only 45 minutes to go skiing (instead of 4.5 hours), we never locked our doors, my childhood home cost $80,000 instead of more than 10 times that, and only weirdos sent their kids to private schools.


+1 Mike Ferrentino
fartymarty  - Dec. 8, 2021, 4:01 a.m.

I do miss feijoas.  I'm still to find one in the UK 21 years after moving here from Auckland.


Mike Ferrentino  - Dec. 8, 2021, 8:44 a.m.

I have two feijoa trees trying to survive here in the sunblasted hellscape I now call home. This year they actually produced enough fruit (albeit small) to enjoy with breakfast for a few weeks. They are worth their weight in gold! My family and friends in NZ laugh at how tiny and sad my feijoas are in comparison...


+1 Mike Ferrentino
Duzall  - Dec. 8, 2021, 9:14 p.m.

Feijoas are being gentrified made into wine and fancy sodas. A true native if you love them. Maybe you really did spent time in NZ!


+1 Mike Ferrentino
Velocipedestrian  - Dec. 8, 2021, 2:15 p.m.

No chance of sunburn in Wellington right now. Misty precip and 17°C. Everything's looking pretty green.


+2 Mike Ferrentino capnron
papa44  - Dec. 9, 2021, 12:01 a.m.

That’s not fair we have dust in the UK, it accumulates in the corners of my stairs and the corner where my dog sleeps. Where do you have your dust? Outside or something? Pff yeah right


+1 capnron
slimchances57  - Dec. 9, 2021, 7:14 a.m.

Isn't it all about timing and location? Location. Location..... And the ability to conveniently and quickly change both. In CA, unless you're lacking a driver's license, a vehicle and bit of imagination, on any given day, you're not more than @ three hours from any number of ecotypes with good to great riding. Thou doth protest a bit too much Mike. Maybe celebrate your embarrassment of riches? And, LOL, the ability to rub your friends noses in it. ; D


Velocipedestrian  - Dec. 9, 2021, 1:44 p.m.

Ride to the ride.


+3 slimchances57 Mike Ferrentino capnron
Fahzure  - Dec. 9, 2021, 1:30 p.m.

Excellent observations, especially as I range from the PNW to UT to Calderdale lately. However, while I don't dispute the oppressive nature of the Cancerball south of the 38th parallel (and moving north at .1 degrees per year), you did omit the perfect and consistent riding that is open sandstone of the Four Corners. Everything else is just a trail.

Someone built a bikepark that never gets braking bumps.


+1 capnron
Mike Ferrentino  - Dec. 10, 2021, 8:22 a.m.

I think it was on a ride with you and mister Chippendale back before the turn of the millennium that I was first enlightened to the sandstone "your line is whatever you want it to be" yoda knowledge... Thanks for that lesson!


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