My navigator Rebecca Donaghe and I stood on top of a dune in Glamis, California, billed as the Sand Toy Capital of the World. It was the last day of the Rebelle Rally, and we were searching for a checkpoint marked with a green flag. We had driven over 1,200 miles off-road, through rocks, dunes, silt and whoops, and now had just five minutes to find the checkpoint.
Donaghe used her compass to triangulate off points in the distance to determine our location on a 1:50,000 scale map, while I double-checked our distance traveled, but it was no use. The flag was nowhere in sight and our time was running out.
As the seconds ticked by we realized that our chance of winning the first-ever all-female navigational rally in America was quickly coming to an end. We couldn't find the flag in time and, per the rules, couldn't continue with our day. After starting the day a mere three points behind the leader, we had lost.
Going old school
Unlike a typical rally, in Rebelle teams must navigate all off-road using only a compass and a map. No GPS, cell phones or chase crews are allowed. The easiest, and highest valued, checkpoints are marked with a green flag, while blue checkpoints are harder to find, worth a little less, and marked with either a flag or a simple blue stake in the ground. Black checkpoints garner the least amount of points and are not marked at all. Teams must navigate to within a certain radius, often as few as 25 meters, to receive full points.
While it may seem counter-intuitive to have the easiest checkpoints worth the most, it means that the leaders end up being very close in points, forcing teams to spend time on the more difficult black or blue checkpoints to get an edge. It's a game you must play very, very carefully.
At each checkpoint, we hit our Yellowbrick tracker, an officiating device that sends a signal back to Rebelle Rally HQ. While there are time limits, the rally is not a race for speed. It is all about navigational accuracy and time management.
We also had a few time/speed/distance sections where we had to maintain an average speed and complete a distance in a specific amount of time. Trust me, it's harder than you think.
Donaghe and I had never rallied together before, but decided to team up for Rebelle in a, borrowed (OK, pretty much stolen) from my father. The truck is outfitted with Total Chaos Fabrication suspension components, BF Goodrich KO2 tires, Raceline wheels, Maxtrax recovery boards, King Shocks and a Sierra LED light bar. We also had a Terra Trip rally odometer that we calibrated so we knew exactly how far we had gone. It's not a Trophy Truck, but neither is it stock.
Each day of the Rebelle was an exercise in controlled chaos. Upon awaking in base camp at 5 a.m., I packed our tents and camping gear while Donaghe used a scale ruler to plot that day's checkpoints based on the latitude and longitude noted in the checkpoint book. After a 6 a.m. briefing, we could be off the line as early as 7 a.m. Two hours may seem generous, but on more than one day she and I barely had enough time to brush our teeth, let alone shower. It was essentials only for the seven straight days of competition.
After we left base camp, we had anywhere from 10 to 12 hours to find as many checkpoints as we could. Time management was key, as it was impossible to get to all of them. Navigating to a black checkpoint could take over an hour, and with upward of 15 checkpoints a day, well...we had to choose what we spent our time on.
That's not to say we didn't try for black checkpoints. We received full points on a few; Donaghe even navigated us to within 16 meters of one, and to within 3 meters of another. In other words, we knew exactly where we were on the planet within 3 meters. Three. Meters.
On other black checkpoints, we were only 1 meter away from getting full points. Had we taken one step closer we would have gotten the maximum amount of points. It's frustrating to be so close and yet so very, very far.
The blue checkpoints were the most fun to find, as the course officials placed them in really weird places. Once we had to get out of the truck and hike through a herd of cattle to a dilapidated shack straight out of "Deliverance" to find the stake. Another time we thought the blue stake was on the other side of a large, steep hill.
"So, should I drive to the top of the hill, just to show off?" I asked Donaghe.
She agreed and up the trail we went, only to find the damn stake planted right at the summit.
Each day, we had to make it back to base camp within our designated time or lose points. After failing to find a blue checkpoint in Johnson Valley, home of the notorious King of the Hammers race each year, we had to put the Total Chaos suspension, and my driving skills, through the test as we flew over whoops on our way to that night's camp on Soggy Dry Lake bed.
As we made a long sweeping turn out of the whoops and towards the lake bed, we found ourselves in a giant silt bed. Silt is a super-fine sand, almost like baby powder. The only way to get through it is to keep the throttle pinned and pray. Some of the silt bed was rutted out from previous races, so if I chose the wrong line I could have found myself high-centered on a berm with no wheels touching the ground at all.
Fortunately, I drove like a rock star and we hit the lake bed at over 80 miles an hour, hustling our little butts to base camp with four minutes to spare.
Each night as we arrived, Donaghe set up our tents and I got the truck fueled. Luckily, I never had any problems with the truck, but mechanics were on hand to help out if needed. Then the truck went into impound and we went to the rally judge to see just how well we did that day.
The next day, we got up at 5 a.m. to do it all over again.
Sand dune city
We chose not to look at each day's standings, but on the final day of competition we knew we were running high.
Day 7 took place in Glamis. Located near the Mexican border, these dunes are wicked gnarly with plenty of sheer razorback drop-offs and steep and deep sand bowls to end your day. We started early, aiming to get to the dunes while it was still relatively cool. Nevertheless, the temperature quickly rose to 100 degrees and the dunes turned soft. I aired the tires down to 14 psi, spreading out my footprint for better traction.
After capturing a blue checkpoint, we attempted to go up and over a dune, but caught the rear driver-side tire on the edge of the razor back. It pulled us down and we found ourselves stuck sideways, at a tilt easily over 45 degrees. I couldn't point my nose downhill and get unstuck because we were essentially in a dune valley, so I had to reverse. Donaghe climbed out the passenger window (the angle of the truck made the door too heavy to open) to see if team 132, who had just arrived at the blue checkpoint, would come yank us out, while I got out the Maxtrax recovery boards and prayed.
The ladies in 132 immediately agreed to come help us, bless them, but through careful throttle control and my trusty Maxtrax I was able to get the truck unstuck in less than 30 minutes. It's scary to be at that kind of angle, knowing that the sand could give way at any moment. You should try it.
The truth comes out
After we timed out while trying to find the green checkpoint, Donaghe and I went to the infamous Glamis Beach Store to console ourselves with ice cream and a Diet Dr. Pepper. While there we saw the Hoehn Adventures, competing in the crossover class and nearly done for the day. We told them our tale of woe and they knew immediately what we had done.
The reason we couldn't find the green checkpoint is because it wasn't where we were looking. We were supposed to get on the highway and continue our day on the other side of the dunes. We misread the map and spent precious time looking for a non-existent flag, while our competition was 5 kilometers west of us, racking up points like madwomen.
As a result, we fell from potential winners to tied for 11th place.
Our goal during the Rebelle Rally was to have fun. In that sense, we had a very successful week. Donaghe and I laughed so hard at times my stomach hurt and I couldn't breathe. She is an amazing woman with all the analytical skills that I lack, and I think we make a great team. But our second goal was to make it to the podium, and that is where we failed.
It may be that in a month or so I'll have some grand revelation of what the rally meant to me and what I learned from it. In fact, if my experience in the Gazelle Rally is anything to go by, I will emerge from this a stronger and more confident woman and driver. But for now, I would be lying if I said I didn't have a good crying jag in a San Francisco airport bathroom on the way home.
It's safe to say that I will be back next year. I can't let this be the end of it. I will not let this mistake be the way I remember the Rebelle Rally. I will remember it as a winner.