One week ago, I blasted my little Toyota Hiace home base through the remote stretches of Nevada so early in the morning that the Milky Way was giving me more light than the dawn itself. I was headed to the Rebelle Rally, the off-road competition that kicked off its weeklong endurance event on the precipice of the Hoover Dam. I had, mostly, no idea how to cover a rally like this. Motorsports that take place on a track are pretty easy to follow: Find a hill and stare at the circuit; write about what you see there. Worst case, at least find a few interesting corners, and focus on those. With the Rebelle, the course is spread out through the Mojave; competitors are intentionally spaced out and all choose their own paths to a variety of checkpoints hidden in the dunes and hills. It is not a spectator event; the most you’ll see without running the course is the base camp, which is just a tiny sliver of what life on the rally is like.
The base camp is jovial and it’s an enjoyable time talking with the competitors, but it shows me nothing of what this event is truly made of out there on the dusty trails where points are scored and women’s fortunes are decided. I had satiated my curiosity a bit with the media Jeep I rode in; it was great for photos, but I had just ridden in the back and allowed our talented driver to finesse the challenging trails all day. It gave me nothing but a tiny taste of what actually running the event would feel like. In the interest of good journalism, I decided I needed to pilot a vehicle through the Mojave alongside these women. That, assuredly, would give my writing the punch it needed. I’d see this event from the best seats in the house.
It just so happens my Toyota Hiace I brought down to Vegas is no slouch for a domicile. Full-time all-wheel-drive, 3.0 liter turbodiesel engine, and a two-inch lift kit round out the van that’s been my home for the past four months. I’ve driven and camped on BLM trails before with it — surely I could follow along for a day.
There was one complication: The course is a well-kept secret, and outside media are not allowed to follow along. But I had to get the story. I had to feel like I was competing. The only problem was that was impossible.
Well, unless you ask nicely.
After some assurance that I can trail-run my all-wheel-drive home at least well enough to stay out of the way, Emily Miller, the Rebelle coordinator, gave me permission to follow teams through the back-country BLM access roads for some of the stages, including yesterday’s. My objectives: Don’t lead anyone to a checkpoint, so stay behind competitors, and don’t get stuck. I have somehow never gotten stuck on my travels, and youthful hubris immediately overtook me: you won’t even notice me out there.
My days all week have began at the same time as the competitors, waking to Emily’s cowbell alarm at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m. Our day for this specific stage started on the banks of the Colorado River, in Needles, California. I had a map for the day on my phone, but of course the women competing had no such luxuries; all devices are confiscated and the only directions that are allowed are from paper maps and each stage’s course headings and checkpoint guides.
In the predawn darkness as the day began, I shuffled my van over towards the start line and immediately sunk into the banks of the Colorado up to my wheel hubs. So much for going unnoticed. The silt had swallowed my van’s underbelly, and after twenty minutes of futile digging, one of the live crew had to come yank my van out of the sand with their Ram TRX. A humiliating way to begin the day, for sure, but worse, I feared that I’d spent all of my limited credibility knee-deep in the sand. From here on out, I really didn’t want to waste competition resources on getting my media van — you know, the one that shouldn’t really be here — unstuck.
As teams lined up, I eyed the X-Cross competitors. Competition is split into two main groups at the Rebelle: 4x4s, and X-Cross. X-Cross trucks don’t have a transfer case, just like my van. I figured that if they could run the day’s course, so could I, and I’d just follow one of them through the desert to get pictures and a story.
The beginning of the day was fairly straightforward. The team I followed to start my day was the first X-Cross team off the line: #201 Sol Seekers, a ‘15 Crosstrek that had less ground clearance than I did. The course consisted of mainly hard-pack dirt and loose stones; we’d slow down for a washout occasionally but it was clear here with no map-marked landmarks that the challenging part of the run was all on the navigator’s shoulders.
I’d follow and grab shots as they stepped out of their car to line up distant mountains on their compass as they slowly progressed from checkpoint to checkpoint. The Rebelle has varying course speed limits dictated by BLM land restrictions and a general eye towards competitor safety, so even if I’d been following a 4x4 team, there’d have been no racing through the desert. With no concerns for me about getting lost, I found it downright relaxing.
Then we headed deeper into the desert, and that relaxation quickly faded.
In the distance, I could see a medley of teams had all parked at a blue Rebelle flag indicating an optional checkpoint. The Crosstrek crested the hill and the team — Noelle and Lola, who I’d chatted with several miles back as we turned off the main highway and they regained their bearings — stepped out and surmised the situation. Noelle, kind as ever, came over and let me know that the next path they’d be taking was the uphill wash to our right, and if I was to keep following, I might want to consider airing down. The uphill wash comprised mainly of silt that seemed, well, basically the same as the bank of the Colorado I’d gotten stuck in not even six hours earlier.
Immediately, my stakes jumped. The entire field was coming through this wash behind us. If I got stuck here, I’d not only require another embarrassing extraction, but I also threatened to block the competitors and cause a serious problem for the rally. Still, I needed to keep following.n What kind of writer shies away from the story? I swore today I’d run the course to completion, and dammit, I was going to. I watched as Lola floored it and accelerated up the dry riverbed, and I steeled myself and followed. Foot on the mat, don’t hit the brakes, and try not to slam the van off of anything.
Steering in a wash like this was vague at best, so keeping the van on course required dramatic corrections; I was see-sawing my Momo steering wheel back and forth attempting to follow corners without losing crucial speed. Every time I’d lift for a corner, I felt the van drop momentum and begin to sink further into the sandy dry riverbed, along with my heart into the pit of my stomach.
Finally, we reached a blue checkpoint on some hard-packed silt. I pulled the van off to the side, heart pounding through my chest after following the little yellow Subie up the hill, and tried to regain my breath. I had passed multiple competitors on the way up that normally I’d stop and get pictures of, but I didn’t dare lift my foot the entire time, and neither had Noelle and Lola. Unfortunately, their momentum-conservation had come at a cost.
The Crosstrek was flirting with dangerously high temperatures from continual high RPMs up the grade; Noelle walked over and let me know that they’d be parking for a while, and then turning around and heading back to pavement. The wash would be vastly simpler on the way down, with gravity assisting in carrying momentum, but the course still had miles to go deeper into the desert. I had made it this far. I had to go further. Journalistic integrity, admittedly, was fading. I’d seen enough for a compelling story, but adrenaline took over, and I wanted to venture deeper into the unknown.
Further ahead of the overheated Crosstrek and my van was team #204: MtnSubi, driven by a team of Rebelle rookies. Their Outback has a 2" lift and some off-road knobbies, but otherwise looked stock, and I knew they, too, were in the X-Cross category. They were headed deeper into the mountains in pursuit of more points, so I waved goodbye to Noelle and Lola, and joined in behind the white Subaru.
They continued further up the wash, but the grade had finally evened out a bit, and it got a little easier to follow without feeling like I’d block off the entire course. A few u-turns in some tight spots and we’d found our way to the dirt road, and I exhaled a sigh of relief. No more sinking into the desert for me.
Of course, the only downside is there were still fifty kilometers of “Jeep/4x4 Required” roads to go until we hit pavement again, and I had to pilot my home through all of it. Rapidly, my relief turned to a dawning realization that by continuing up the wash, I had committed to getting through whatever came next. There was no pavement for 25 miles in any direction, and the wash still had a steady flow of competitors coming up it, preventing me from chickening out and heading back down. The only way out was through, and through was not looking promising.
At this point, I steeled myself for the run. There were a few cars behind me, but I’d laser-focused in on survival, and that meant I would follow the Outback ahead of me. If she could do it, I could too, I told myself. Carey, the pilot of the Outback I followed, may be a Rebelle novice but she is a god-damn wheeling expert. I watched in awe as she navigated the Outback over trails that practically demanded 35"s and a foot of ground clearance with nothing but perfect wheel placement and delicate application of throttle in her Subaru.
I, unfortunately, am not that talented at overlanding, and the top-heavy nature of my narrow, tall Hiace meant that I flirted with tipping as I tackled off-camber rutted washes that scraped at my skid plates. How the hell was that Outback getting through this? I slammed my front corner off a rock trying to keep the van from ending up on its driver door; as I pulled off to check and make sure I hadn’t destroyed anything crucial, one of the competitors who was behind me pulled off to check and make sure I was okay. It was a nice reminder that even if I did bin the van off the side of a cliff, I wouldn’t die alone in the desert. Every woman here wanted to make sure everybody — rivals, crew, and even the overly-ambitious reporter in her silly little van — made it back to base camp safely.
The most memorable part of the course was terrifying: a fifty-foot off-camber drop into a dry wash bed, followed by a fifty-foot summit back to the floor of the desert. I braced myself and tried to carefully wheel the Hiace through it; I had seen the Subaru in front of me two-wheel its way through, and I hoped I could pull it off with a fraction of the finesse Carey had shown. The next 150 feet were the most adrenaline-filled 5 mph I’d ever experienced as I drove into the canyon. The front window of the van showed nothing but the floor of the riverbed as my drawers and bins full of my clothes and supplies slid around the back of my home. The van dangerously leaned over towards the abyss and guaranteed ruin.
Somehow, I made it through and emerged on the other side next to a blue checkpoint, where I once again tried to regain my breath. Several teams had stopped to watch, both to make sure I didn’t die and to see if my Hiace could actually pull through this. The team behind me, Dana and Karen of No. 108 Hoehn Adventures, had told me I’d briefly had the van balanced on one tire as I kept it from tipping over and rolling into the wash. Their plaid-checked Land Rover had even experienced a little difficulty on the descent, and they told me that they were okay with continuing to follow me as I tried to keep up with MtnSubi. If I crashed the van, they could take me to the next green checkpoint, still another 20 kms away from us.
They are six-time Rebelle competitors, out here for every running of the event. They’re definitely competitive, but the Rebelle itself is never cutthroat. I appreciated the kindness and the fact that I was in such caring company. I told them that actually sounded quite nice, because I honestly wasn’t sure how on Earth I’d make it out of here.
The next twenty kilometers were a blur of desperate wheeling, attempting to follow in the MtnSubi’s careful tread placement with the Hoehn team following me. I had abandoned photography entirely; my objective was now survival. Any distractions from that goal were cut from my focus. After a few dozen more tricky washes where I’d settled into a rhythm of pure concentration on descent, pure triumph on victorious ascension, we all finally reached the last green checkpoint before the pavement would take us back to the base camp for the night. I stepped out of the van with adrenaline flowing through every vein in my body. I had never even approached the course speed limit for the section — I think it was 40 kph — but it was still one of the most intense drives of my entire life. I chatted with the teams who were airing up. They all were riding the high of having tackled the challenge, too. Somehow, I escaped all of this with nothing more than a messed-up wheel alignment and a small dent to my unibody at the front end of my van, which I took as a victory.
After this, the teams were running a precision time enduro on the pavement, where their arrival time would be scored in seconds at various checkpoints on the long drive down California Route 78 to the dunes of Glamis on the southern border of California. I was spent. I had been trying to follow this rally for a week and the intensity of that trail had exhausted me. I fell in behind the Outback again for several hours of paved driving, thankful I didn’t have to keep an eagle eye on my speedo to actually succeed in the enduro.
As I drove down the pavement, thankful to no longer be in constant danger of totaling my van, the true nature of the Rebelle dawned on me. If every competitor had a tube-frame Baja truck, sure, the course of today would be quick work. If they had a course map, they could focus on nothing but getting through the obstacles ahead. If it was only one day of this, instead of an entire week, it would be vastly more manageable. But these women had been driving courses like this in Subarus and Jeeps with license plates for a week. Most of the field daily-drives their trucks when not at the Rebelle. The stakes for vehicle preservation are as high as possible.
I was exhausted from following along for only four of the six stages run so far, and I’d only really driven the full course once, and came out of it with a dent in my van and a few years likely shaved off my life from pure stress. I had a map, and I’d still gotten lost a few times on previous days when I’d lose track of competitors and cell signal forsook me out in the remotest reaches of the Mojave. That the navigators kept track with nothing but paper maps awed me. This event is a test of endurance for everyone involved. The mental acuity, focus, and keen ability to not only keep your truck shiny-side-up but also win is absolutely staggering.
Today, as I write this, seated comfortably in the base camp tent on the outskirts of the dunes, every team is out driving through the ever-shifting sand dunes searching for the final points of the event. It’s the most challenging leg of the rally yet, and it comes after a week of waking up at 5 a.m. every day, driving for 10 hours every single day through a combination of insidiously unnavigable terrain and roads that stock vehicles were not meant for, and then repeating it all over again.
Out on the course, I saw some incredible driving, of course (looking at you, MtnSubi), but what I really found is how resilient the teams are, and their incredible kindness juxtaposed against such harsh terrain. It’s an event unlike any other I’ve attended, and the only way to fully understand it is to get out there. Just try not to roll your van over.