I'm going to be ok, I think to myself as sweat drips from every inch of my body due to both the blazing sun and the acute fear coursing through my veins. They know what they're doing. Right? Oh god…RIGHT??
"Hold on. We're just going to send it," my driver says with a maniacal smile before flipping her hat backward, taking her foot off the brake, and slamming it on the gas. And like that, we're off down an embankment in the middle of the sand dunes in Glamis, California, a dusty stretch along the U.S. and Mexico border, in a lifted pickup truck filled with so much gear I don't even know what's what.
I let out an expletive-laden response as the sand flies in all directions around us, which is only drowned out by the roaring of the engine. I grab the sides of my seat and smile from ear to ear because I'm getting to experience just a glimpse of what the women in the Rebelle Rally get to do for eight days straight. And it's freaking awesome.
The Rebelle Rally is an event unlike any other. To sum it up in its simplest form, it's an off-road navigation rally. Participants work in teams of two to get from place to place each day, collecting points along the way for finding checkpoints on the route. Sounds easy, right? Well, try doing it without a cell phone or GPS. Oh, and there's one more no-no in the world of Rebelle — no men.
"I wanted to make something for women," Emily Miller, founder of the Rebelle Rally and longtime racer shares as we sit at basecamp waiting for the day's race to begin. "Men spring forth from the womb thinking they're the next Mario Andretti. Women tend to not believe they have the skills. It would be great if they could meet in the middle."
As Miller explains, the race isn't about time, but rather about skills, and frankly, about digging deep to find a mental fortitude to keep going.
"I wanted to make something for women and something that's really hard," Miller says, "so it couldn't be belittled."
From our quick glance at the race over its last few days, it appears Miller more than succeeded. Here's what a typical day on the course looks like.
The women get up at the bleary-eyed hour of 4:30 a.m. At this point, they're given coordinates to the various checkpoints for the day. Each one is color-coded green, blue, or black. Each color counts as a different points level based on how difficult it is to find. It's impossible for the women to find them all in a single day. So, teams break off and plot their own course using low-tech tools including a compass, map, and a ruler. (Think of it as low-tech geocaching.) After deciding which markers they'll attempt to find, the women head to their cars and out into the wilderness. They won't return until close to sundown, or until they just can't take it anymore.
"I will say childbirth — all four times — was easier than this. It at least takes less time," participant Alice Chase said.
At just five years old, the race is certainly already attracting a lot of attention from the car community. But, perhaps most importantly, it's also attracting plenty of women who may never have dreamt of participating in something like this before.
In prior years, women traveled from across the globe to take part. However, the 2020 race, like everything else, was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, that didn't stop preschool teachers, scientists, mothers, and women from all walks of life from safely taking part. Because really, this is some extreme social distancing. Not only do the women say goodbye to their families at the start of the race, the also sleep in tents with their team members at night, far away from any public gatherings, relying on just one another for company and support. For participants and team members Rachael Ridenour and Kristie Levy, both Army veterans, the idea of unconditional support for your crew is old hat, as is their healthy perspective on what "winning" looks like.
"You have to put the finish line in perspective," Ridenour says. "We're both combat veterans. So, yeah, it was a good day in the sense that everybody made it back safe."
What's perhaps most compelling about this dynamic racing team is the fact that they had never met prior to the rally despite their seemingly lifelong bond. The pair came together to drive the plug-in hybrid Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, kitted out with all the gear they'd need to succeed, which had been supplied to Ridenour who was participating in honor of her own nonprofit, Record the Journey, an organization dedicated to assisting veterans and their families in readjusting to civilian life through the art of photography.
"We put the call out on social media and set up an application process," Ridenour said. She then narrowed down her choices to a few applicants to move on to Zoom interviews. But upon meeting Levy, she knew she was the one.
"When the Zoom camera flipped on, I was already in the car with driving gloves, a helmet, ski goggles, and a t-shirt that said 'team 207 Record the Journey,'" Levy says. "My dad always told me to dress for the job you want. So, I said, and 'I want to be your driver.'"
And sure, to them, the race was the right mixture of intensity and fun, but as Levy says, one of their greatest Rebelle lessons was adapting to a room full of women.
"This is the first time I've ever actually been surrounded by so many women," Levy said, pausing to think and adding with a laugh, "yeah, full stop, this is the first time I've been surrounded by so many women." From her childhood as a tomboy, she adds, to her career in the military and law enforcement, she's always been surrounded by the opposite gender. But coming here and seeing how excited the women are to help one other — be it small things like looking over the vehicles together at camp or pulling over to help one another out of a ditch out in the dunes — is something she didn't know she could expect.
"It's been a huge thing for me, because we're not in high school anymore, and we're grownups and people are acting like it and it's amazing," she said. "It's a wonderful feeling that I've experienced here. That's what I'm taking from it and I'm really thankful for it. And it showed me that maybe I do fit into the women's world."
If this sounds like something you'd like to try yourself, you can. Seriously. You, out there, with little-to-no off-road experience can get in on the fun too. The general rules state that teams must consist of a driver and navigator. (Teams can switch off roles during the competition.) Teams may only use maps, a compass, and a roadbook along the way. Teams are not allowed GPS or cell phones, so if you can't put your phone in a lockbox for a week it may not be for you. Teams can assist fellow competitors, however, they can't receive any outside assistance.
Competitors are also responsible for general vehicle maintenance including tire changes, tire pressure, and fluids, which also means it may be a good idea to get lessons in this prior to the race. Both Levy and Ridenour also suggest trying out some backcountry driving, first with a reliable GPS system, then learning the ropes when it comes to navigation through a skills course, to see just how much you need to learn before getting into the race. Then, find the right car with all the right gear like theirs, and put the pedal to the metal.
"One thing I always told my soldiers is you're going to fall down, it's your choice whether you fall on your face because you were rushing forward so hard and trying so hard, or you fall on your ass because you got tired, lazy and fell asleep. Which way do you want to fall? You're going to fall. So just go forward, so you can pick yourself up, and keep going," Levy says, "You don't know where your limits are until you reach them."
Stacey Leasca is a journalist, photographer, and media professor. She's hoping to be brave enough one day to join Levy and Reidnour as a racer herself. Send tips and follow her on Instagram now.
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