The afternoon begins as it always does: with us lost in the desert searching for a flag.
I’m in a candy-red 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon riding shotgun alongside Olympic skier Wendy Fisher. With a topographical map on my lap and my face squeezed between the earflaps of a helmet, I need to find checkpoint No. 5 somewhere between a canyon and a valley.
Even for former Olympians, this is a tough competition. And even though I drive cars for a living, I’m not much help. The Rebelle Rally is the first women’s off-road navigation rally raid in the U.S., a punishing course for four-wheelers through the wilds of Nevada and California.
This year, for the rally’s third iteration, 84 women surrender their cellphones in exchange for a set of maps and depart from Lake Tahoe for the 10-day, 1,600-mile course. Instead of GPS, we have compasses, plotters and lists of geographic coordinates that correspond to locations in the wilderness. Green and blue flags mark beginner and intermediate checkpoints. Black checkpoints don’t even have flags.
Got nerves of steel?
Participation doesn’t require prior rally experience, but competitors do need something north of $20,000 for registration fees, vehicle rentals and supplies; nerves of steel; and a cheerful demeanor toward 4 a.m. wake up calls and sleeping outdoors. Jeep provided our vehicle.
It doesn’t take long to fall into a routine, scouting the landscape by day and returning to the bivouac for dinner after sundown. By the third day, camp is in full swing before the sun rises.
Competitors spend the dawn hours frantically plotting points on the maps illuminated by their headlamps and trying to guzzle coffee and scrambled eggs while listening to the daily 6 a.m. briefing from Emily Miller, decorated race car driver and founder of the Rebelle Rally.
On most mornings, Miller reminds the group that it’s a game of strategy, not a race for speed. Today the rally covers 20 checkpoints covering 150 miles. “If you stop half an hour looking for each checkpoint, that’s 10 hours of looking around, not even driving,” she said.
She ends with a warning to beware of rattlesnakes. “When you get out of the car, check first around your feet.”
The competitors are interested in Miller’s advice but itching to go. Most had already been up for hours, breaking down their tents and carrying their supplies several hundred feet in the dark to their cars, where they’ll spend the next 12 to 14 hours. They must be belted in – helmet on head – and in line 15 minutes before their designated start time.
And, we’re off
Fisher and I are the last ones off the line – starting positions are drawn at random – and we set out on a route that takes us to Goldfield, Nev., past the International Car Forest of the Last Church and south to Rhyolite, a ghost town considered ahead of its time 110 years ago. The route skirts Area 51 and the soft sand of the Amargosa Sand Dunes. Except we know none of that. All we see are squiggles on a map and a shifting landscape out the window.
But for now, we have one goal in mind: checkpoint 5. We slow to a crawl through a canyon, scanning the horizon for that vaunted flag until we are completely disoriented.
“You can convince yourself of anything,” Fisher said. “When something isn’t right, you can convince yourself that it is. You have to go to the basics. Put your map down, find north.”
Finally, we spot it – a skinny, three-foot pole painted blue and camouflaged among the tumbleweeds – and complete the day feeling victorious.
We return to base camp just before sunset and chat over dinner with Teralin Petereit and Kaleigh Hotchkiss of Team Blondetourage, ranked first in the overall standings. As winners of last year’s Rebelle Rally, they are teamwork personified, even sharing a tent so that they can pack faster each morning.
Mistakes can be deadly
“Consistency is key,” Petereit said. “We’re up early; we just focus on the rally; we’re not wasting time. The year we won, we were the first ones up and packed every day. Little mistakes will take you out of the game.”
Petereit, who works as the chief financial officer of a hospital, built her own 1999 Jeep TJ, the VIN and motor the only original parts. “The rest is just Craigslist stuff,” she said. “For example, the doors came from Oklahoma.”
In this competition, not driving the latest model isn’t a handicap. “My car is old enough that if there’s something wrong you can tie it together,” Petereit said. “There’s no screen yelling at you.”
Unlike most teams, who choose a designated driver and navigator, Petereit and Hotchkiss alternate roles. “We both drive, and we both navigate,” said Hotchkiss, who works in sales and marketing in Hurricane, Utah. “You can get tired of one thing, and when you get tired, you make mistakes.”
The next day, I am awakened around 1 a.m. by 17-degree temperatures and spend the next three hours shivering violently inside my tent. It’s very easy to get tired on the Rebelle.
It gets tougher
Over the next several days, the competition and fatigue intensify, as participants drive through the Mojave National Preserve to Johnson Valley, searching for checkpoints amid shifting elevations and rocky canyons, and Glamis, where the rally culminates in a day of intense dune driving.
In the end, the Rebelle Rally awarded its first tie for first place in the overall standings: Michelle Laframboise and Elise Racette of Team Clearwater Design and Team #140’s Emme Hall and Rebecca Donaghe, who narrowly missed the top spot for the past two Rebelles. This year they suffered another setback on the way to the rally when thieves broke into their 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and stole their navigational equipment, but that wasn’t enough to keep them from victory.
Team Blondetourage placed third.
Though the rally moves slower, it can be just as intense and dramatic as the Olympics, Fisher said. “In ski racing you have 60 seconds or two minutes to spontaneously put your abilities together.”
“In the rally, there’s more room for doubt, like when you’re standing in place for an hour trying to find the checkpoint,” she said.