Day 13: Barstow to Newberry Springs (25 miles)
Today was to be the biggest yet: a 25-mile near-marathon through the desert. I thought I could handle it because it came off the back of a rest day and my body had, in the main, been holding up well. Nevertheless, I was anxious to get moving early – so was packed and ready to roll by 8.20am.
After a few snaps outside the iconic Route 66 Motel with owner Ved (brilliantly deadpan as he posed), I was off and moving – leaving behind the earliest remaining motel in Barstow from back in its Route 66 heyday. I was carrying a lot of weight too – at the next stop I was scheduled to be camping and couldn’t know for certain I’d have access to shops, and the guaranteed next time I’d be able to was in three dancing days’ time. So I had to carry three days’ worth of food with me (and at 6,000 calories per day, that’s quite a bit!).
I began with a good pace dancing out of the city, past malls, supermarkets and my first ever in-the-flesh sight of a Wal-Mart store. Cars were beeping and tooting me as I went, and I was soon dancing down 66 parallel to Interstate 40 – which I was to basically track for the next fifty or so miles to Ludlow, my final destination for this California stage. I danced past Barstow Humane Society dogs’ home, which caused a racket as the occupants caught sight of me and my billowing tutu, and was soon approaching Barstow Marine Corps Logistics Base. Thanks to Victor who I’d met on the road into Barstow, I had permission to go through the base, through which Route 66 cuts and which is usually off-limits to members of the public. The military police at the checkpoint seemed aware of my arrival and were happy to let me dance my way through – except I couldn’t film anything as I did so. I was a bit nervous going in (I’d had visions of the extremes – me either dancing slightly timidly past lines of marines or having a whole load join in) – but the reality was a pretty much deserted base, with buildings set a long way back from the road and everyone I saw travelling in cars. Nevertheless, I cued up some great tracks on my playlist and gave it all I had.
Maybe I was otherwise distracted, but it took me a while to see that my left tyre was flat and bumping along. That ultimately may have sowed the seed of damage which was to later bite me back. I stopped at the side of the road, put Barbara on her side, and removed the wheel. By this time I was getting quite used to puncture repair so thought nothing of it and expected a quick fix – so much so that I kept my stopwatch/GPS running as I didn’t think the time would be affected much. On went the wheel when done – the tyre had appeared to stay inflated – and I went to put Barbara back upright. Perhaps I was rushing but I did so in the stupidest way I could, bending over with my back (not legs) and part pulling, part pushing the buggy upwards. With massive force being transmitted through my lower back, a sharp and shockingly painful dagger of pain swept through me. I gave out an audible ‘shit’ and knew right there that I’d reignited the back pain that had me laid up in bed for days just days before my flight out to L.A. (and which has blighted me on and off since my teenage years). I didn’t really have any choice but to continue and see what happened – I’d done something similar along the South West Coast Path in my dance across the UK back in 2013 and I’d kept going then, dancing through the pain – and was never going to stop now just in case. The difference was a 150lb buggy to push, pull and lift this time around.
The news got worse though – as I finally righted the buggy and the its weight was immediately transferred to the wheels, the repaired tyre went flat in an instant. Out came the tools and pump, over went Barbara, off came the wheel, and the repair process began again. Approaching midday, by now the sun was getting higher in the sky and was beating down on me. I checked my watch and it said 100. I couldn’t believe it – that’s over 35 degrees – so I sought shade from a nearby wall and continued to work on the rubberised culprit. It was one of those punctures where you can’t see or hear the air escaping, partly because of the escalating wind – I had to pass the semi-pumped tube past my face to feel the air escaping. It was then I realised the damage – a row of holes that would need more than another patch. I got busy with the repair kit though, and thought I’d be fine – thanking all of those who stopped to assist but saying I’m sure I’ll be fine as it was just a puncture. This scene was repeated once more (making it three repairs and three failures in total) before – worried and apprehensive that I didn’t have the best way out of this problem if the repaired tube didn’t work – I bit the bullet and used an ill-fitting tube instead. It was a risk and wouldn’t fit inside the tyre properly, but with a little adjustment when pumping up it seemed to be ok. Off I went again, now an hour behind schedule. As I danced through the Base I got waves, cameras recording me and requests to put footage up on snapchat.
After the base the road split and I was back on the public part of Route 66. I stopped shortly afterwards as I was an hour late for my first break. Sheltering in the small amount of shade afforded to me by Barbara, I worked out timings and distances to cover – about 19 miles to go. I was basically OK so long as I had no more trouble. And that was based on a fully functioning back. I really felt it getting up from that rest break – it had begun to seize up already.
On I danced and with the help of a visor too – that sun wasn’t getting any more forgiving. My movement was more and more restricted and I was in some discomfort. Sharp pains shot through me regularly as my back twisted and turned in a way it didn’t agree with. Everything began to seize up as the muscles surrounding the injured area tightened to try to protect whatever I’d damaged.
The road was long and only gradually undulating today. The wind had began to pick up and was largely blowing behind me (thank goodness) – though that was forcing my heavier Planet Prancer flag to crash into the tripod mounted on the rear of the buggy.
Overall things weren’t going particularly well. I looked to my right and saw in the distance an abandoned home or trailer. Amazingly, or perhaps ironically, the words ‘smile… there’s hope’ were emblazoned on the inside in graffiti. I gave a chuckle given my luck so far today. Deep down I was worried – that the tyre wouldn’t hold, and more significantly that my back wouldn’t hold, forcing me to cut short this leg of the challenge. If I could avoid it at all, I wanted to.
Onwards I struggle-shuffled, with the road now tracking downhill for the next couple of kilometres. I saw in the distance some houses set slightly back from the road. Houses out in the sticks always caused me a little apprehension – they often were a home for dogs and in the middle of nowhere there isn’t quite the incentive to ensure fencing is impregnable. I hear that it is a very rare event for people dancing the length of the country in a tutu to flail their way past and so incite the dogs’ vitriol. As I approached level with one of the houses I happened to glance back at my left wheel. Flat. Hrmph. With a sigh I resigned myself to playing amateur puncture detective, piecing together what had happened and fixing whatever I found. With Barbara once again on her side, I took off the wheel and examined the evidence. An open and shut case – the tube had split and there was no hope of repair. The ill-fitting tube had been ill-suited to the job and me chancing it had only given me about an hour’s extra life in the tyre and distance covered for me. But now I was in a pickle – no additional spares; one sieve-like original tube that I’d failed to mend three times already. Yet it was the only game in town, and fix it I must. It was my only hope of making it to Newberry Springs, today’s planned destination, now 17 or so miles away.
The unerring thing about the whole scene was that house – I could hear, and then through the shrubbery see, a collection of large dogs around it. They looked fenced in, but they were large and they had clearly noticed my presence. With memories of a previous roadside encounter just a few days back, and subconscious imaginings of being ripped apart by this particular group of carnivores bubbling away, I was perhaps understandably nervous and wanted to get moving as soon as I could.
So out of my tool bag I dragged the seemingly lifeless body of the old tube I had tried but failed to fix three times before. I ripped off the old patches and decided a fresh start was needed – not fixing all at once but methodically working through each puncture hole, and each new patch in turn, to ensure I had the best fix. I opted for the biggest patches I had and an hour of sandpapering, gluing, waiting, pressing and holding later (and seven patches later, with my repair kit worryingly down to one medium and two small patches left) – I had a fix. I slowly pumped the tyre up when not attached to Barbara to see the outcome of my work. It held. Onto the buggy I slotted it, up to vertical I once again pushed her (by now the back was almost rigid and the pain getting unbearable), and onward I danced, all digits crossed, anxious to get as far away from the mutt-house as I could manage given my painful prancing state. Music off so as not to arouse the pack unnecessarily, I hobbled off.
And made it twenty metres. The tyre was down once more. Cue visions of the whole challenge coming to an abrupt end with an emergency roadside call for help. I thought of what to do. Maybe I could patch the tube that had split? (My remaining patches weren’t big enough.) Maybe carry on with just the solid plastic rim against the ground (The risk of damage to an irreplaceable part of the buggy too great). So, remembering back to an old Haynes bike manual I had when I was kid, I took its advice and sought to replace the tube + air combination and fill the tyre with whatever material would allow the rim and tyre to keep on rolling. My options were sand (too loose – would surely fall out), vegetation (too dry and prickly, not dense enough) or pieces of old rubber tyres discarded after blow-outs by the side of the road. To me, this sounded like the best option, although looking around there were none in my immediate vicinity. I opted to keep going until I had found enough to give filling the tyre a go. So on I danced, slowly combing the verges with my eyes as the rim and tyre combo did its best with the weight of Barbara bearing down upon it.
In the next half an hour I surely became a world expert on the properties of abandoned vehicle tyre pieces. Some were too wide. Some too splintery – a type of reinforcement material fanning out and making the necessary cutting and shaping impossible. Most was too brittle and old to bend and shape into the channel of a wheel rim. But every now and then I spotted a piece that might just work. I collected as much as I could, and knew I’d struck gold with a fairly long yet narrow, bendy piece in particular. My search complete, and with penknife in hand and the house of dogs now a mere spot in the distance behind me, I again tipped Barbara onto her side and prepared to MacGuyver this wheel into shape.
I first took the tyre off, removed the offending flattened tube, and sought to arrange the pieces of tyre I’d found inside the tyre before somehow working it back onto the rim. The long piece was perfect, slotting into the tyre easily – leaving about 25 or so centimetres to fill. My other options weren’t as luxurious – I ended up fashioning three pieces about the right size to fill that gap. Happy with the potential of my bodge, it was now time to get the tyre onto and into the rim.
A much easier feat with a deflated inner tube than solid pieces of car tyre. So difficult in fact that I could only push, pull and cajole one side of the tyre into the rim. The other poked out as the pieces of rubber were all slightly too wide. Impressed with scrapheap challenge skills I didn’t know I had, I thought I’d give this a go, so righted Barbara and set off again.
As usual on this day, my best laid plans were short-lived. As it rolled on the ground under the weight of my kit, off came the tyre and out came the rubber pieces. I needed something to hold the tyre to the rim – and in such a situation I knew I had two allies with me who might be able to do the job: zip ties or duct tape. I opted for the zip ties (these being the most solid of the two) – tying my last remaining five spares around the rim and tyre about equal distance apart. I tested it and it seemed to hold – so I was ready to roll again. I gingerly pressed on with the prancing, somewhat glad that I was in the middle of nowhere and no-one could see my pathetic pain-induced excuse for dance moves on display.
With all of this having taken up serious amounts of time all-in, it was now past three in the afternoon and I wasn’t yet half way through the distance I needed to dance to get to the nearest signs of civilisation. Yet I was also starving, and an old fenced-off structure up ahead, complete with siding and some slightly taller almost-trees gave me the shade I needed for a much-needed break – and also an opportunity to dig out the Voltarol from my first-aid kit and apply liberally all over my back. It was still in the nineties and everything was really aching now as the realisation of how late I was, and the necessity of me getting to my destination before dark, fully dawned on me.
Twenty minutes later I was back with my on-the-road boogie and things were going relatively well – I’d had no stoppages or breakages for 4 kilometres. It was a growing sense of confidence as to the ability of both my body and buggy that didn’t last. Barbara started to list to her left and I looked behind to reveal an ominous sight: the zip ties all gone and pieces of rubber falling out of the tyre into the dust. Momentarily I cried out in frustration and turned to my second ally in the fight to keep Barbara rolling: duct tape. Where before there were zip ties binding the tyre and rim – and encasing the pieces of vehicle tyre – now I put tape. Ten times in total and it looked pretty secure. I just wondered how long it would take for the tape to wear down between the tyre and road surface, as I was down to about a quarter of one roll of tape remaining. A few more steps forward and then I realised my tripod was wobbling up and down; thanks to the wind getting worse and battering the flag all day against it, one of the legs had detached itself about half way up the tripod. It was an essential fix – without the tripod I couldn’t get footage and the film I’d hope to make of the journey was out of the question. So out came the allen keys and I was done in about ten minutes. Yet emotionally I was by this time getting pretty close to being done myself. I still had 11 kilometres to dance. My back was in all kinds of trouble and I could barely move my upper body. And I had a buggy which was on its last legs. And right now I was in the middle of nowhere, save for a massive interstate highway roaring past unsympathetically on the horizon. Then, it was as if the final straw hit me – a house up ahead with a dog bigger than me scrabbling at the fence to try to get to me. I quickly – as I’d become accustomed to doing – scanned the line of the fence to check for gaps and saw huge spaces underneath the gate parts of the fence that the dog could surely fit underneath. It roared at me and began sprinting along the fence and back towards me, each time getting closer to
I trundled on and happened to check my phone – to see messages and missed calls from my fiancé Trishna. I hesitated in calling her straight back – contact with loved ones during challenges gets me seriously emotional and I was low already and bound to burst into tears (just what she didn’t need – thousands of miles away in Spain as she was, unable to physically do anything to help). I managed to hold it in for the call by keeping things short, relaying the situation, but just saying I’ve got to keep moving so I make it before nightfall and I’ll check in again once I’d made it.
But after the call it all came out. I’m not sure what the music was but as I lolloped slowly on, something uplifting came on – I think Dido’s White Flag – and I was gone. Blubbing into my sunglasses for the next few minutes, all the tension and frustration of the day and the pain I was in came out. I sang along at the top of my voice with words that couldn’t have been more apt… “I will go down with this ship”, “I won’t put my hands up, and surrender” and the like. And oddly, that was the moment the tide began to turn. My playlist had come to my rescue momentarily – taking me out of myself and recharging body and mind in an instant – yet for the next two hours it continued to rescue me. Tracks such as ‘Ain’t no stopping us now’, ‘Strong’, ‘Straight Ahead’, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’, ‘Just Dance’ and Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’ filled the air and powered my moves. After the slow, stuttering and shuddering progress of most of the day, I was literally ecstatic – emotions heightened by being in both the heart of a challenge and right on the edge. Reborn, I made great pace and had most of the eleven kilometres done in the next two hours, without interference or buggy breakdowns of any description: the duct tape held fast.
By this point I knew I was getting close to a real landmark of 66 in California – The Bagdad Café, surviving nearly intact and filling and quenching the thirst of weary travellers since the early twentieth century. By now I was in Newberry Springs, which meant from me having lots of set-back houses, out-houses and miscellaneous buildings running off the one very long road I was dancing down. I checked my GPS, looked up, and there it was ahead to my left – and old (and now destroyed) ‘MOTEL’ sign announcing the complex to which the café used to be a part. It was now 6.55pm, the sun was quickly on its way down and yet I’d decided that, with the RV Park I had booked into supposedly just another mile and a half up ahead and no guarantee there would be any food available there, I would stop for my only guaranteed chance of a good meal that night. Yet the sign outside clearly said 7am – 7pm, and doors and windows were being shut when I arrived.
A local had just ridden by on his bike and headed in the main entrance so there was only one thing for it, to bring Barbara in with me – flags and all – and explain what I was doing in the hope they’d let me have something in the few minutes left before closing.
I needn’t have worried. Gilbert and Emily were delighted to stay open and offered me the full run of the menu (albeit severely vegetarian-limited). I chose and Emily set to work out back rustling up one of the finest cheese, mushroom and tomato omelettes with hash brown patty and toast that I’d ever eaten, washed down with unlimited refills of Sprite. I was truly in heaven and how my luck had changed.
Whilst eating I got chatting to the local man who’d come in seconds earlier and must’ve seen me dancing as he passed me on his bike. He took an interest and I explained about the problems I’d had during the day. He mentioned that he had a few old bikes back at home which had smaller wheels that might be of a similar size – but after I’d gotten back on with the essential task of eating I’d seen him disappear into the kitchen with Emily and never saw him again.
After getting some photos with Gilbert and Emily I headed back out – refreshed and revitalised and ready to take on the last few kilometres to the RV park. By now the sun was setting so I turned the buggy round so the camera could catch it as I danced and pushed Barbara forward. The great tunes kept coming and I remember recording a good few tunes-worth of dances along that long, straight, end-of-the-day road. It seemed to go on forever though – way more than a couple of kilometres – yet I finally saw the little bridge I needed to go over before the RV Park would be there on my left, as Emily had instructed. Crossing the bridge it wasn’t immediately on the left, but another kilometre on, and by now darkness was almost totally on me and the wind was gathering force even more. My six lights were in full flashing mode and really stood out against the blackness enveloping me.
Just a hundred or so metres left to dance and I was there.
And that was when I saw it. A dog, silently watching me as I danced past. A shiver went down me and how ironic I thought it that I was to get this close to the finish on such as day and only then be taken down by a canine foe. Its silence didn’t last, snapping into life as I passed and chasing me down the road. It meant business and I could feel it getting closer to my legs on one side. But this time so did I. I wasn’t going to let this one bully me into submission, not after all I’d gone through today. I danced as quickly as I could on and past what must have been its owners place, where I could see the outline of another dog barking away.
I didn’t look back again, and in an instant was into the RV Park compound and heading towards the office sign with music on full volume, triumphantly signalling my arrival after a crazy day on the road.
The day wasn’t done with me yet though. In the time it took me to get booked in and explain my challenge to Christine the manager, the wind had seriously whipped up and the palm trees were bending and shaking. Seeing that I had a tent reservation, Christine looked apprehensive about my chances, explaining “we’ve just had a weather warning come through of winds up to 90mph tonight – I expect it’ll last until tomorrow night too”. Worried that any tent I pitched wouldn’t hold up to that (and she was right), she said I could sleep in the ‘caboose’. Not knowing what that was, I asked for an explanation and she pointed outside of the office – revealing a dusty red 1929 Santa Fe Railway Car standing proudly before me, unflinching in the wind. I was amazed and overjoyed. Memories of my love of hiding and sleeping out in dens, under lego tables, in the garage or in the loft as a child came flooding back and I was totally sold in an instant. It would be the perfect end to the ultimate day of adventure! Venturing in, both doors were open at either end (and didn’t lock), dust was everywhere and the wind was howling through, but it was my perfect place for the night. I soon had the doors under control and was being shown a calmer spot to rest Barbara for the night and another place to charge all my tech ready for next time.
The icing on the cake was the reappearance of Craig. He’d cycled from the café back to his place and then all the way to the RV park in pursuit of me through the building storm, as he clasped an old sixteen inch tyre and inner tube. Phenomenal, I thought – thanking him and taking a picture to tell the tale for posterity. Like that, he was back on his bike and cycling off into what was now a sandstorm. My day of adventure was now complete – after a shower eased my back pain a bit and gave me a little more movement, I lay down in my sleeping bag / camping matt combo and said goodbye to the world for the night, almost choking on the extremes of emotion I’d felt on this one particular day.