The Rebelle Rally Is the Real Deal11/13/2020
It’s 4:30 a.m. and a freight train just woke the entire Rebelle Rally Base Camp. Emily Miller is milling about the competitors in the main tent as they plot GPS points on paper maps. She jokes that being woken by the freight train is better than the usual bell that rouses the 72 competitors from their tents on other mornings during the Rebelle.
Miller is a longtime rally racer and the founder of the Rebelle Rally, a navigational competition that is a combination of geocaching and off-roading that covers more than 1,200 miles (2,000 km) in the California and Nevada deserts over eight days. What makes it truly unique is that it’s an event for women only.
Miller matriculated under famed off-road legend Rod Hall, who died in 2019. She spent years riding along with Hall and his co-driver as he raced, and says she tried to learn everything she could from him. She became the first woman to solo drive the grueling Vegas to Reno off-road race in 2005 and she and her partner, Sam Coburn, won. Since then, Miller says she’s trained upwards of 4,500 people to race, navigate and drive, off-road—many of them women.
“I love women and women’s energy,” Miller said as we gathered in the Rebelle Base Camp in the large dune complex known as the Algodones Dunes. “I believe in women a lot more than they believe in themselves and I wanted to create something that was special for women and really hard. People assume if it’s a competition for women it’s not hard but that’s not the case. I wanted to do something for women that made them go, ‘I want to be that woman!’. Many times, they don’t realize that they are already that woman and it simply takes a difficult challenge to bring it out.”
Miller started the Rebelle Rally just five years ago after competing in the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroca, another rally for women that takes place in Morroco. She says that she wanted to start something similar in the U.S. to give women the opportunity to explore off-roading and learn about the sport. After spending just two nights with the Rebelle Rally on the final two days of the competition, it’s clear she’s created something unique.
The Powerhouse Who’s Empowering Women
Miller is a small, lean, strong woman with a commanding presence. The respect the teams and support staff have for her shows as they listen closely to her 6 a.m. morning briefing, Miller bedecked in clear protective glasses to keep the blowing sand out of her eyes—and a facemask. Operating the event safely in the time of Covid-19 is crucial for the Rebelle. Between competitors and support staff—everyone from the gourmet chef and his team, to the medics, mechanics, pre-runners, video teams, and photographers—there are more than 150 people on the ground for the event. Most of the women working to support the event have competed in previous Rebelles and loved the experience so much that they take vacation time to help make it happen for other women.
Miller’s tone is stern and direct on the final morning of the competition, warning the 36 teams and 72 competitors that the driving and terrain would be some of the most difficult that they’d faced. “This is the toughest rally yet,” she tells the teams before they head to their vehicles for a staggered start. “You need to learn how to push the rules. Not break them. I’m not here to judge your intention, but whatever you do, do not speed, keep your eyes up, and err on the side of caution.”
A cheer goes up from the competitors as Miller finishes her briefing and the teams head out into the still-breaking dawn to prep, plan, and further caffeinate before spending their final 10 hours of the Rebelle driving, digging out, and navigating with nothing more than the maps Miller prints on a large format printer she has at her home, a compass and a few plotting tools. GPS navigation is strictly prohibited.
While the event takes place over eight days, the teams are out of contact with the outside world for a full 10 days. Competitors’ cell phones and anything with a GPS are locked in Pelican cases for the duration of the event.
In non-pandemic times, women come from all over the world to compete in the Rebelle. Most of them come from STEM backgrounds and many are mothers and entrepreneurs. This year the field included preschool teachers, chocolate makers, and mother-daughter teams.
The Rebelle isn’t necessarily about speed but, as Miller puts it, it’s like playing a moving game of chess. Teams are given a list of checkpoints each day—and each team’s checkpoint list is different based on the class they are competing in and their start time. Checkpoints (or CPs), range in difficulty based on location, how large the geofenced area is, and how difficult it is to get close to it. Green checkpoints are required and also score the most points. They are marked by flags that are visible from a distance and a Rebelle staff member is there to check on competitors, offer water, and pass along any messages that might have come up as a result of weather, closures, or other events. Blue checkpoints are marked by a small blue pole that could be well hidden beside a bush or tree. Black checkpoints have no physical marker. The competitors have to get as close to a checkpoint as possible and use a GPS tracker to check in. The farther you are from a checkpoint, the fewer points you get. Points are deducted for everything from needing rescue and running out of gas on the course to widely missing a checkpoint. The goal is to complete the rally with the most points, and each year the organizers are working to make it more challenging. This year, according to the competitors and organizers, was the most difficult by far.
“When these women finish this rally they’ll walk away knowing that they can go anywhere. They can get a map and go and drive,” Miller says. “ Anyone can do something for three days, but, when you’re talking eight days, you’re going to have an experience that will change you. The rally teaches independence and interdependence at the same time. We need each other to get through it.”
Miller is quick to emphasize that the Rebelle isn’t only for those who have experience driving and competing off-road. There are plenty of true beginner teams on the course. For some teams it’s the very first time they’ve ever camped or changed a tire, for others it’s the first time they’ve spent any extended period of time away from home without a cell phone or GPS.
“If you can drive to work or to the grocery store and you know the direction you’re traveling, you can do the Rebelle.” Miller says. “This competition narrows down the bullseye of what you’re doing, and you learn how to read the land and the map. Most people haven’t held a compass or thought about direction unless they’re following the GPS directions on their phones. You’re trusting your life with tech and you’re out of the position of control. If your app makes a mistake you don’t know where you are, you can’t get unlost. I want the women who do this competition to feel safe and confident finding their own way without relying on a stranger.”
Through the Competitors’ Eyes
Rachael Ridenour, an Army veteran who has been deployed three times and a four-time Rebelle competitor, is laser-focused on the map on the table in front of her, her camp light still strapped to her forehead. Other teams nearby are similarly focused working together to locate the elusive checkpoints, sipping coffee and water, and eating breakfast. The tent is quiet even though 72 women mill about, prepping for the day.
As the navigator or “Caffeinated Compass” of Team Record the Journey, it’s Ridenour’s job to precisely locate the CPs for the day and plan a course to secure the most points, not run out of gas, and keep the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV that she and her driver, Kristie Levy, AKA “Leadfoot Levy,” are piloting, upright and unstuck. Levy, too, is an Army veteran and Ridenour chose her from a host of 21 other people who applied through her nonprofit, Record the Journey, an organization that teaches veterans and their families to use photography to help them readjust to civilian life.
During her deployments, Ridenour spent time “outside the wire,” working directly with the local populations in Iraq and Afghanistan. She’s lost friends and colleagues on the frontlines in extremely violent ways. Despite the horrific things that Ridenour has seen, she has a kind, patient, compassionate way about her, especially when it comes to teaching total newbies how to navigate or drive off-road. Her fellow competitors speak highly of her and her constant willingness to lend a helping hand. Ridenour refers to the women that she competes with in the Rebelle as “Tribe Rebelle.”
“You go through a unique experience on the Rebelle and your life is on hold for 10 days. It’s like a very short military deployment, there are no distractions and there is a support network that allows you to do that one thing, whether it’s driving or navigating, exceptionally well. You don’t have to cook, or figure out where you have to sleep, you don’t have to go get gas.” Ridenour says. “I have learned from these ladies just as much as they have learned from me. There is this inspiring, empowering, independent and interdependent world, and there is the tribe, a family unit that goes through this experience.”
Despite only knowing each other for a few short months, Ridenour and Levy operate as one in an almost uncanny way. Because of their military backgrounds they share the same language and quickly and efficiently communicate with one another whether talking over walkies, as they give quick, basic lessons on navigating without GPS, or while winning the tire-change challenge on Saturday morning after the end of the competition, completing the change in under five minutes. They have an easy rapport and they laugh and joke with one another during downtime but when it’s time to hit the road, they’re all business.
“We have more than 50 years of combined military experience,” Ridenour says after a rough final day that required rescue from another team and cost them time. “The Rebelle offers a safe place where you can feel free to make mistakes,” she laughs, and Levy finishes her thought as if they were the same person, “You are going to do this thing and you will probably fall down. You can either go a** forward or face forward. Which way do you want to fall?”
Ridenour looks at her driver and smiles broadly. “I think we fell face forward today.” Team Record the Journey finished third in the X-Cross class, this year.
Both women say that while the Rebelle isn’t the most difficult thing they’ve ever done, they both head home slightly changed.
“This is the first time I’ve been surrounded by so many women,” Levy says. “Full stop. This was the first time I felt like I found a place that I belong.”
As the sun sinks on the final day of competition, the competitors and staff run to the top of a nearby dune that borders basecamp to pose for photos and celebrate. The mood is ebullient. This group of women has just completed an extremely demanding event and bonded over ant bites, mechanical failures, dehydration, and brutal temperatures. Suddenly a call goes up from Ridenour and the women chant back in a military-style cadence in celebration of what they’ve just done. These women have become a family, part of Tribe Rebelle, and in that moment, it’s clear that this off-road rally offers so much more than just competition and adventure.
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