After my heart-pounding experience on Thursday trying to shadow the Rebelles through the deserts of California, the final base camp was a drastic change of tone. The final stage of the grueling event takes place entirely in the gargantuan dunes of Glamis, in the Imperial Sand Dunes, where getting stuck is practically guaranteed and navigation is nearly impossible even with a cell phone.
The first thing that struck me about Glamis was how dramatically different the challenges of this final stage were from all that I had experienced previously following the Rebelle. Landmarks are virtually impossible to find in the dunes; navigators relied almost solely on precise headings and distances to find the flags scattered throughout the repetitive terrain. There were no mountains to line up with on the distant horizon, no marked paths to head down, no rivers to run alongside—just an otherworldly amount of sand, arranged in undulating but deceptively steep hills and valleys. Even with our phones and some occasional cell reception, I struggled to find paths through the dunes to where competitors were, because driving straight is an impossible task.
Those looming dunes and soft sand also mean that getting stuck is a matter of if, not when. Driving on sand, as I learned from when I buried my van axle-deep in the banks of the Colorado, requires an entirely different skillset and driving style than driving technical rock trails or narrow canyon paths. The difference between sinking and floating over the dunes can be a matter of a few PSI of tire pressure, careful line choice and car control, and delicate throttle and brake inputs, and still, sometimes some bad luck and hidden soft spots can bury the wheels of even the most seasoned offroaders.
And with these daunting challenges combined with my lack of experience in dune-driving, I parked my van for the day. I figured I couldn’t tell a good story if I died alone of dehydration neck-deep in the soft sands of the towering dunes.
So instead of nervously tip-toeing my Hiace around the course praying to the van gods to not get me stuck, I got to ride shotgun in this. This glorious dune-runner was my chariot for the day, the Total Chaos-built 4x4 Toyota Tundra piloted by their skilled fabricator and driver Mikey. After racing to submit my last story first thing in the morning, I immediately hopped into the passenger seat and Mikey, I, and the medical team riding along for any competitor emergencies headed out to find Rebelles already deep in the heart of the Glamis dunes.
The thing about hitting the dunes for the first time is that they’re absolutely terrifying in a way that was completely foreign to me. There is absolutely no parallel in any other kind of environment in the desert. Early in the morning, as the dramatic low-flung sun painted the dunes with the kind of nature-documentary, it was easy to see what was coming, but the feeling of the entire 15 inches of travel on the Tundra loading and dropping out as we’d snake over crests and dodge hidden soft spots is not something I could prepare for no matter how clearly the shadows painted the incoming topography.
Around noon, though, as the sun approached its zenith and the shadows on the deceptively steep dunes faded, navigating became a matter of picking a line and praying that we didn’t end up tipping the truck off a steeper-than-expected drop or planting the nose directly into a witches’ eye hidden in the blinding sunlight. All depth was completely erased without shadows, and the topography was nearly indecipherable to a novice observer clinging to the “oh shit” handles (like I was). The suspension was soaking up bumps that I couldn’t even see.
Mikey, however, has been out running the dunes for most of his life, and building trucks to dominate the sand with the folks at Total Chaos for over a decade. With his skill, heavy right foot, and the Tundra’s incredible dune-tuned suspension, we powered through situations where I was absolutely positive I’d be grabbing a shovel to excavate the fully-loaded-down 4,000 lb pickup truck. I spent the entire day awestruck and incredibly psyched with both this truck and his driving. Getting to ride on the dunes made my final Rebelle day great all on its own; doing it in a perfectly-prepped truck with a dune-running expert was the best possible introduction to the magic of Glamis.
While I was cackling like a maniac watching the V8 Toyota throw out thirty foot rooster tails, the competitors in their stock trucks were having much more mixed days. Several teams — including the Rivian team that I had covered very early on with two six-time-Rebelle participants in the cockpit — had difficult times in the dunes and dropped in the standings, losing crucial points and positions in the final hours of the weeklong rally. Others used the challenging terrain and their competitor’s missteps to attempt a Hail Mary at the final moment and jump onto the podium, as the third-place Jeep team did, jumping a few places to snatch a podium position in the waning hours of the rally. By the final day, however, the top two teams in the 4x4 class — a pair of bone stock Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xEs — had amassed a solid lead and hung onto that sizable points margin through the dunes to win the event. For most teams further down the board, though, Glamis represented a final chance at success or heartbreak, adding a rare heart-pounding quality for a weeklong event’s final day.
But more interesting to me than simply the final leaderboard or how the dunes impacted the teams was what such a hostile and challenging environment did to the competitors themselves. With such stressful conditions, I feared I would see some of these kick-ass teams of women finally meet heartbreak that would cause week-ruining stress. I’ve been in situations where the final seconds truly matter, and I would find it incredibly easy to crumble after spending an entire week in a grueling endurance challenge where one stray soft patch of sand can ruin a podium run. But, of course, the Rebelle is not a typical rally challenge and its competitors are just as atypical as the event itself.
As I’ve noted throughout my attendance at the Rebelle, despite the high numbers of OEM entries and past-champion Rebelles going for repeat victories, the competition still remains friendly and jovial. But here at the final stage where getting stuck or lost is virtually guaranteed, the calm, collected teams and the help they offered each other — even when they had truly nothing to gain from it — is what really spoke to me.
The most vivid example I saw was in the dying light towards the very end of the day. In the Total Chaos truck we had two medics with us who had to stay out in the field until the very last of the competitors had come back to base camp. As a result, we stayed out late into the evening with the very last two teams still out on course, who we followed through the dunes to ensure they made it out safely. As we caught up to the pair, the #102 Sunset Chasers team, in their Jeep, was winching out the other, the #115 Resilient Riders. Kristle, the driver in the white Sunset Chasers Rubicon, was a little more experienced at dune driving, with her pedal inputs and line choice more fine-tuned to not getting stuck in the sand. Fonda, the driver in the cockpit of the Resilient Riders’ Jeep, was having a rough time navigating the crests and valleys of Glamis, no doubt about it.
As the daylight began to fade and both teams slipped further away from the possibility of gaining the final, ever-more-valuable points of the day, it would have been very justifiable for #102 to leave. Go home towards base camp, pick up any points they thought might still out there and preserve their leaderboard position, leaving the #115 to muddle their way through the sand as the daylight faded. But they didn’t. I watched as Kristle gave Fonda a crash course in full-throttle commitment. She kept winching and giving advice and digging and genuinely helping her competitor get through this. They’d stuck together earlier in the day, and daylight be damned they’d make it out of there together.
Finally, we had to call their evening for them, as the sun setting would make it too unsafe for them to navigate back. Mikey had the two teams follow him back in the Tundra, and they continued sharing tips back and forth, and by the end, the Resilient Riders finally had gotten the hang of it. The #115 Jeep didn’t get stuck the rest of the way out, and Fonda’s driving had improved dramatically since we had first rolled up and saw the two teams trying to excavate the Wrangler.
The sight of the #115 finally slaying dunes with the help of their ostensible rivals was not just incredibly heartwarming, but it illustrated the entire character of the Rebelle. The winners deserve to be incredibly proud, and Jeep is undoubtedly very happy to own the 4x4 podium, as they should be. But I truly believe the Rebelle’s allure and glory runs deeper than who grabs a trophy and how many points they scored in a day. The Rebelle is more like the Iditarod than the WRC; it is undoubtedly made up of incredibly motivated women all seeking to win but it’s an event where finishing is a source of pride. That mentality makes it more accessible. It helps bring new people into the hobby and motorsports we all love, and it does that for a demographic — women — who have more or less never had a fun, competitive, and accessible entry to rally raids without having started as a child or already being part of a race team. The field has varying levels of motorsports background, but for a significant portion of the teams, this event was their introduction to rally RAID driving.
And what an introduction to rally raid the Rebelle is. Respectful and non-destructive use of over a thousand miles of gorgeous public trails in basically stock trucks, for both vehicle and land preservation taught in the most natural way possible. No cell phones and no contact with loved ones; the only people supporting you for the entire week are the fellow women crazy enough to run such a grueling event and stick it out for a week in the middle of god-forsaken-nowhere. It’s addicting and fun and challenging and a joy to witness.
The final awards ceremony, a true gala held on the dunes of Glamis, was not terse or uncomfortable or a formality. It was a moment to revel in the incredible week we’d all just been witness to in one form or another. As much as I loved ripping my van through the trails with the rally and tried to capture as much of the action and and excitement as I could, that is still a sliver of what 104 women on 52 teams experienced over the course of a week. There were many more stories to tell, rivals to congratulate, moments to be shared, and joy to be had that the challenge had been conquered by all who entered, and the gala was a perfect moment for all of it. It was jubilant regardless of finishing position or how dinged-up the truck had gotten or how many points had been scored; there was a communal excitement that was palpable in the air.
This was the most memorable event I’ve ever covered, and I hope that the stories I’ve told have conveyed how unique and fun this rally is. Truly, my only disappointment was in myself. I want to cover this better next year. I want to bring my audience into my passenger seat and make them feel like they’re there next to me, running these trails, pointing out the rocks I slammed my van off of. But I fear the only way I can dial it up from here though is to enter, so… See you in 2022, Rebelle.