The Rebelle Rally Is a 7-Day, 1200-Mile, Women-Only, GPS-Free Test of Endurance, Brains, and Heart

A first-person account of all the off-road dirt—and in-car drama—from the 2017 Rebelle Rally.

My navigator, Nicole, and I sit on the crest of a 15-foot heap of shifting sand somewhere in Dumont Dunes, California. Above us towers a thousand-foot dune, but I can’t see it in the moonless night. We’d spent the last hour lost and screaming at one another. I refused to drive in the sand dunes after dusk, and she thought I was quitting, and I thought she was being reckless—pushing me to do something I didn’t have the skill to do. 

We stare up at the stars in the dark sky. It looks so much like the L.A. city lights from Mulholland Highway on a clear night.

Day 1

On paper, the Rebelle Rally sounds pretty straightforward. It’s an all-women’s off-road navigation rally, the only one of its kind in the United States. But Rebelle originator Emily Miller, a professional off-road legend in her own right, and former racer for Rod Hall Racing, created this event to challenge women in more ways than just driving off pavement. “You can’t win until you learn how to finish,” she told me when I first signed up to drive. 

Why did I sign up to drive? I was a screenwriter, not even a year into my new career as an automotive journalist. While I had a few off-road drives, those were with an instructor sitting right-seat, guiding me over obstacles, shifting into low gear and locking differentials when the terrain called for it. Like anyone in a new endeavor, I wanted credibility. The Rebelle had it. It was an undoubtable credential, something I'd be able to point to as proof that I belong.

3:33am: It’s below freezing inside our tent, so bitterly cold I can’t sleep. I can’t check to the exact temperature on my phone, because the night before I surrendered it for the week. "Navigation rally" means GPS is not allowed. Not having my phone might be bothering me more than the cold. The navigator for Team 157, Nicole, a mother of four, is buried in her mummy bag next to me. We first met just four weeks ago, on FaceTime.

Basecamp is a massive main tent circled by various RVs, our food truck, and brightly colored gumdrop competitor’s tents all wedged near the Inyo National Forest. After driving from tech inspection in Lake Tahoe, we'd spend the next three nights there—the first nights of the competition. It would be our longest basecamp stop, and the coldest.

7:00am: Without fanfare, 72 women in 36 off-road vehicles of various vintages, makes, models, and modifications officially kick things off with an uneventful highway drive to our first Rebelle Enduro Challenge (REC). Nicole and I don’t really understand what an REC is. Something about driving at a set speed, over a certain distance, using a roadbook to navigate. At this point, the foolishness of taking on the Rebelle with just two weeks to prepare—to pull together my gear, familiarize myself with the vehicle, and make sense of the event—becomes clear. I should have at least read the rulebook more closely.

9:16am: Full of adrenaline, I hit the throttle too hard off the line. My straight-from-the-dealer Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Recon—it qualifies us for the Bone Stock designation—flies over the dirt. We tank the challenge before the first waypoint, scoring only two out of 15 possible points. A twinge-y feeling needles at me. We clearly overestimated our level of preparation. I embarrassingly imagine friends watching our progress, from the comfort of home, on the online web tracker. (Wait—is anyone even watching?)

RECs account for only part of a competitor’s total rally score. The rest is earned locating checkpoints, dotted across various terrains, using only map-and-compass navigation. The majority of our day is spent plotting and finding those checkpoints, which are handed out each morning.

Green checkpoints are easiest, and mandatory. They’re marked by big green flags and manned by Rebelle crew. The more challenging blues and blacks—the former marked by small blue flags or a rebar pole sticking out of the sand, the latter bearing no mark whatsoever—are optional. Only after you ping your satellite tracker do you know if you came remotely close to hitting the black checkpoints. Points are assigned based on checkpoint difficulty. The team with the most points at the end, wins.

7:47pm: At dinner, we feel great about our day. The terrain wasn’t a challenge for me, or the juggernaut Rubicon. This is the truck that's been upholding Jeep's lofty off-road reputation since it first appeared in 2003.

We went for all 15 checkpoints, and came back to basecamp with 86 percent accuracy. Our performance lands us 19th in the 4x4 Class. Our confidence is high. We joke that, since there are only three contenders in the Crossover Class, we should have just brought an SUV without a low gear. A Jaguar F-Pace was currently in the hunt—we’d podium for sure!

Over dinner of roasted pig, shrimp ceviche and zucchini, we excitedly discuss our chances of breaking into the top ten by the middle of the rally. A few days later I remember that conversation, and wish we hadn’t had it.

And then the wheels come off. I wish that was literal instead of figurative; if the wheels came off the Jeep, at least I would know how to fix it.

Day 2

5:20am: We pick up our checkpoint list for the day. Start times are randomly chosen the night before, at the finish line. Those who pulled low numbers hurriedly flap around the main tent in preparation. For those with later starts, their headlamps are already trained on their maps, plotting the day. The tent buzzes with murmurs like a courtroom in suspense of a controversial verdict. 

We score 11 points out of 15 on our second REC—a huge improvement from the day before. We figure it out, even though my struggle to convert kilometers to miles, to calculate time, distance, and speed, makes me feel stupid. Count von Count on Sesame Street has more advanced math skills than I do.

The second day takes us on a bastardized figure-eight that swings across Kibby Dry Lake, in west central Nevada, and around the nearby Monte Cristo Range. Throughout the day we’d see other teams’ dust trails in the distance. I won’t lie: when we aren't quite sure where to head next, seeing a signal cloud kicked up by our competitors, who’d come from 18 different states and five countries including France, Senegal, and New Zealand, is reassuring. 

Some of these women have driven in the Gazelles Rally, in Morocco, and King of the Hammers, the world's premier insane desert racing-and-rock-crawling competition in Johnson Valley, California. So, no, in case you're wondering, the Rebelle isn't some gaggle of girl-power wannabes wandering around the desert on a vegan-themed moon-goddess retreat. It's hard as nails.

Day 3

9:41am: And then the wheels come off. I wish that was literal instead of figurative; if the wheels came off the Jeep at least I would know how to fix it.

The drive from Tonopah, Nevada, over the California state line and on to Dumont Dunes, is some 200 miles. We get turned around twice, early on. The best part of our detours is meeting Pat Shirley, a 77-year old driver whose son signed her up for the Rebelle—unbeknownst to her. She tells me this is far more than she bargained for. 

The worst part is the more than two hours we lose.

Our prolonged delay makes us miss a mandatory green checkpoint in the bizarre Car Forest of the International Church just outside Goldfield, Nevada, which in its heyday saw more than $86 million worth of precious metal gouged from its real estate. Over 40 cars, covered in bright graffiti and buried front-end down or stacked on top of each other, look spectacularly weird in photographs—which was as close as we got to seeing them. 

'You got us stuck,' Nicole blurts out. I know it’s a frustrated reflex, but it cuts me. I feel like I’ve let my teammate down. It wouldn’t be the last, or worst, time.

"It’s fine," I say, tryng to reassure us both, to turn around the disappointment in ourselves that we feel for missing a green checkpoint. "This stuff is hard."

Per the rally rulebook, missing a green means we lose any future points we'd capture for the rest of the day after the green is missed. Frustration and doubt percolate.

5:56pm: It doesn’t matter how hard I push the Rubicon over the sandy rutted roads, or how violently the kicked-up rocks clank off the heavy-duty differential covers and skid plates: Those two hours are gone. It puts us into Dumont Dunes with the sun painfully low in the sky.

My previous hour-and-a-half of experience driving on dunes proves woeful. We’re suddenly stuck in the sand. In the rush, I failed to air down the tires enough—they still linger somewhere around 20psi. Already flustered, I even forget to put Rubi into four-wheel drive.

“You got us stuck,” Nicole blurts out. She’d had a rough day navigating, and I know it’s a frustrated reflex, but it cuts me. I feel like I’ve let my teammate down. It wouldn’t be the last, or worst, time.

Just before checkpoint 10, the sun disappears and we’re lost behind a mountain of dunes—dunes that we should be in front of. I’m not willing to let either of us drive at night, in sand, with only stock lights. Tempers flare quickly. We scream our sides at one another in exasperation, like some bad reality show reunion episode.

7:01pm: Tensions don’t ease. Nicole wanders off. It’s so dark the only way I can see her is to watch her headlamp slicing through the blackness, like a lightsaber. I decide to ping the emergency button on our satellite phone. The staff knows we haven’t moved because of our tracker location. At the very least, I want people to know no one’s bleeding. But also, I see no way we’re resolving this ourselves.

Twenty minutes later, help appears in the form of Chrissy Beavis, head judge of the Rebelle and former X-Games gold medalist and rally driver. A gaggle of safety guys, including Jimmy Lewis, who designed the Rebelle course and knows it like his own back yard, show up. They tracked our day and know why we were there.

Our implosion is on full display. We're both so overwrought we can't even tell Chrissy which way is north.

We have a two choices: get towed and be out of the competition, or camp where we are and try again in the morning. Quitting isn’t an option, so they leave us alone, in the middle of the sandbox. 

7:27pm: Sitting atop the 15-foot dune, there is no hiding from each other. My lack of driving experience and Nicole’s lack of navigating experience both got us into this mess equally. To our credit, we quickly apologize, through a torrent of tears, and we mean it. Owning your flaws in front of anyone is an exercise in pride-swallowing.

I've stopped caring about the standings. I'm starting to understand what Emily meant about knowing how to finish. First step: sleeping in a Rubicon.

Day 4

4:47am: I wake up face-down on the rear bench seat of the Jeep, one leg jammed against the door as the other dangles into the foot well. Passed-out frat guys look more comfortable. When I take off my Ugg boots, my feet smell like a junior high boys' locker room. There were great showers at basecamp, but no time to actually use them. I haven’t showered since the first night.

As the sun rises, Nicole and I navigate our way out of the dunes almost as well as we’d navigated ourselves out of the previous night’s cage match. We find some of the morning’s checkpoints, but with each missed flag I feel our confidence erode even as we laugh about how we couldn't find water if we jumped out of a boat. 

Bent tie rods, broken shock mounts, gouged oil pans and seized engines, sidewalls slashed on vicious rocks: day five takes its toll on a lot of teams. Rubi remains unscathed.

3:43pm: The transit drive to our second basecamp, through the spectacular Mojave National Preserve, is a respite for raw egos. This 1.6 million acres of protected land is the third-largest preserve in the contiguous U.S. It goes on as far as the eye can see, and then some.

6:40pm: Finally, at basecamp two, I slip the Jeep into impound for the night. Rubi is our stalwart, silent partner. We never feared running out of gas, like some other teams, and she gripped rocks with her beefy BFGoodrich tires and bounced over whoompy washes as fast as my insides would allow.

Unless they need the mechanic, every team has an hour after crossing the finish to tuck in their rig. No touching your ride (or anyone else’s) during the night, for security reasons. Getting to know the other women over dinners, sharing their small triumphs or near misses, hearing their supportive words to us—like a dozen different moms, proud of their kids despite all setbacks—thoughts of sabotage among competitors feel far-fetched.

Day 5

6:04am: Today is a driver’s challenge. A rock-crawling day in Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicels (OHV) recreational area. We have the option of an easier route, but I want to go for it. For the more difficult ascent, the front side is steep and sustained—a loose, low-range climb. When we crest the mountain, the view is exhilarating. The valley stretches spectacularly for mile after dusty mile. The descent is narrow, tight, and technical.

But the best part of the day isn’t our finish accuracy of 81 percent, and it isn’t my feeling of finally living up to my personal expectation as a driver. It comes in the form of a 2006 Toyota 4Runner, stuck on top of what looks like a scaled-down replica of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, all jutting, jagged rocks. It takes all four of us an hour to get the truck clear. It’s the best-spent time on the rally so far.

Bent tie rods, broken shock mounts, gouged oil pans and seized engines, sidewalls slashed on vicious rocks: day five takes its toll on a lot of teams. Rubi remains unscathed.

The rally gets technically more difficult as each day pases. The harder-to-find blue checkpoints are placed painfully close together now, to insure teams plot accurately. We lose out on 20 points because we aren’t careful enough today. Competitors are separated into A and B groups, and we pinged our tracker at the other group's checkpoints. Even though they're close together, they're wrong, so those points don’t count.

As the end of the rally nears, we will meet a number of tests, and not all of them will be successes. The largest test I have yet to face looms above me, like a towering sand dune hidden in the dark.

"You’re a great driver," she said. "Now you can start to learn how to win.”

Day 6

7:15am: I am already nervous.

I find being lost more uncomfortable than standing in line at the DMV when I badly have to pee. As much as I don’t want to admit it, my confidence in our team wanes. We rely too heavily on the Rubicon’s vague dashboard compass when we get turned around. And because of my fear and inexperience, I can’t help us by driving out of big problems in the dunes. Which is where we’re headed.

The Imperial Sand Dunes sounds like a place Darth Vader would maintain a hideout. The drive from Johnson Valley takes over four hours. We roll through Joshua Tree National Park. The prickly, misshapen species of Yucca plant that grace my favorite U2 album cover explode as far as I can see. Nicole and I joke that Hall of Horrors, the park’s crazy rock formation, would be a great name for a brothel if you slur your words just right. Nicole has an ear for accents, and her perfect imitations give me a giddy delight.

Just east of Palm Springs, on the drive through Box Canyon, we expect the cast of Planet of the Apes to jump out and give chase. It is eye candy from another world.

When we arrive after our mammoth, 175-mile transit, the wind is already howling, wantonly reshaping the sand mountains just east of San Diego, more commonly known as Glamis: Gigantic Looming Absolutely Menacingly Impossible Sand.

I air down the tires properly this time, to around 13psi, and thanks to the packed sand highway that circumnavigates these shifting kitty litter death mounds, we easily find our final green and blue checkpoints for the day. 

Maybe, I think, my lack of confidence is unreasonable. Maybe we’ll be fine.

Day 7

6:06am: Wind gusts at 50 mph in sand dunes are no joke, and that’s the forecast for our final day of competition. 

“If there is a flag down, it doesn’t change anything—force majeure,” Emily says at the morning briefing. 

“What does 'force majeure' mean?” asks a competitor from the peanut gallery. “Tough shit,” Chrissy says by way of translation. 

“Just be safe,” Emily says.

Her eyes burn a hole into me when she mentions the double-starred checkpoints on the day's list. Sticking to these will make for a challenging, but safe, experience for anyone uncomfortable driving dunes. I consider my main job to be delivering us home outside of body bags, and I instantly make up my mind we should only go for these checkpoints. But I’m afraid to tell my Nicole, my teammate, for fear she’ll think I’m quitting again, this time before we’ve even started.

In my gut I know I’m doing the right thing, but I go about it all wrong. I approached another team about pairing up and sticking to the less challenging checkpoints. And instead of talking it through with Nicole, I railroad her. When she realizes I’ve already made the decision unilaterally, another eruption occurs. She yells at me in a way I haven't experienced in years.

But, yet again, we bounce back from a precipice. Instead of getting derailed by bickering, we forge ahead, make a plan, keep moving. We find the double-starred checkpoints, but by the time it’s all over, we're emotionally spent.

2:59pm: As we cross the finish line in 27th place, we’re tongue-tied and exhausted from another overcharged day. But we finished. We accomplished more than we failed. Only, somehow, our failures feel larger.

Laughing and crying now feel like the same thing—a release. “I don’t know how I feel,” Nicole says. It echoes my thoughts exactly.

Later that evening, the 2017 Rebelle Rally comes to a raucous close. Kaleigh Hotchkiss, who’d navigated to victory last year, and her teammate, Teralin Petereit, take home the top 4x4 prize in a 1999 Wrangler they built themselves. And, wouldn’t you know it, the Jaguar F-Pace wins the Crossover Class.

Nicole and I drive home the next morning. We talk about the lessons we learned, what we’ll do differently next year.

"I’m bringing more Gatorade, that’s for damn sure!” Nicole says. Words seem lame, save for asking each other things like, “What the hell did we just do?” I tell her that I’ve come to care more for her in the past seven days than I have for people I’ve known for years. It's true.

I finally understood what Emily meant by "learning how to finish." I'd proven myself, to myself—I belonged. 

The night the Rally ended, Emily told me she was glad the experience was difficult for me. 

"You’re a great driver," she said. "Now you can start to learn how to win.”

The Rebelle is anything but straightforward. It’s no sleep. It’s bitter cold and unhealthy heat. It’s dirt and sand in every orifice. It’s seven days of getting ego-checked over dizzying terrain, with ruptured tires and expectations both. Done right, it’s a "holy-freaking-sugar-puff-I-did-that" experience—it asks everything of you, then takes everything from you, and blows every fuse in your brain in the process.  

If you want the real dirt on the Rebelle Rally, it’s this: first trudging, then stumbling, then finding your own path through the desert, over and around and even through any obstacle in the way, laying down everything you are, for everyone to see. For yourself to see most of all.