Many of us long for adventure—the opportunity to grab a friend and hop into that four-wheel drive sitting in your driveway and head into the unknown. Enter the Rebelle Rally, the first women’s off-pavement navigation rally in the U.S. and ultimate test in self-sufficiency, created by Emily Miller and presented by Hoehn Motors. A total of 72 competitors making up 36 teams assembled from four countries gathered on October 13, 2016, to set off and explore some of the most beautiful scenery Nevada and California have to offer. This endurance event is a test of navigation, not a race for speed. It challenges a team’s ability to communicate effectively, and manage time, speed, and distance while navigating to hidden checkpoints using only map and compass. The goal is to reach a list of designated checkpoints within a set time frame and gather the most points along the way.
The spectrum of competitors was diverse and brought varying skillsets: new mothers, stay-at-home and working parents, musicians, lawyers, engineers, medical professionals, business owners, and explorers. Novice drivers and navigators with minimal background in off-highway exploration competed on par with accomplished rally drivers. Teams came together from far and near, some just meeting for the first time at the event. Team 119 (Why Not), Taylor Pawley and Micaela Windham with a 1997 Jeep Wrangler, met each other just 3 days before the event. Both are adventurers and love exploring, however, neither had experienced anything like the Rebelle before. Their second-place finish goes to show how open communication, trust in your own skills and honoring those of your partner, and understanding the capabilities of your vehicle can go a long way.
Emily Miller was trained by off-road racing legend Rod Hall, and debuted as a team driver for the 2006 Baja 1000. Early on, she was frequently the only female competitor in male-dominated racing events. In 2009, she won the Stock Mini Class at the Baja 1000. In 2011, Emily and teammate, Armelle Medard, took second place in the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles in Morocco. In many ways she has made history with the Rebelle Rally, and once again helped pave the way for women in vehicle-related sports. In collaboration with Jimmy Lewis, (Dakar Podium Finisher, International Six Days Enduro Gold Medalist, overall winner of both the Baja 1000 and Dubai International Rally), Emily designed a course that professional drivers would want to drive. Traversing two states, the course provided grand views and dramatic scenery through and around the Monte Cristo, Sierra Nevada, and White mountain ranges, Humboldt–Toiyabe National Forest, the southeast edge of Death Valley, the Mojave Desert, Lucerne Valley, the Mojave National Preserve, and Joshua Tree National Park.
Even with permit and access support from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service, and state and county partnerships, it was a formidable challenge to pull the rally together. To enter Glamis alone required 36 permits. The Rebelle even had two biologists on staff to educate participants and work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the safety of the endangered Mojave desert tortoise.
With no outside assistance or technological support allowed, the 7-day, mostly off-pavement navigation course created an atmosphere designed to take racers out of their comfort zones. Emily states that the course is not easy. “It has been designed to highlight the competitor’s greatest strengths and at the same time accentuate their greatest challenges.” Often speaking in metaphors for life, she said, “The lessons we need to learn most in our day-to-day routines will become apparent tenfold in the Rebelle.”
The Rebelle includes two vehicle classes, the 4×4 and crossover, and highlights how much influence a driver can have on the capability of a stock vehicle. One of the goals was for competitors to understand and truly connect with their vehicles. The rally’s media director, Kirsten Tiegen, explains, “After experiencing an event like this and having an opportunity to test and see the true capabilities of their vehicle, women learn to trust that the car or truck they have in their driveway is a much more powerful tool than they realize.”
Each day brought about new and unique challenges. The Dumont Dunes were paramount in teaching racers to slow down, manage time wisely, pay close attention to the task at hand, and take care of the vehicles. Too often people get so focused on winning, that they lose focus and discipline. Emily quoted Rod Hall as saying, “You can’t figure out how to win, without first figuring out how to finish.” Furthermore, “As competitors we need to focus our energy on finishing the event skillfully and efficiently, and with that, the rewards will follow.”
In the event of vehicle failure or breakdown, mechanical support was provided for reasonable minor breakage, with the intent to get racers safely back on course and ready to compete in a minimal amount of time. A 2-hour window at the end of each competition leg was provided for repairs. Anything above and beyond that resulted in a penalty. This became an invaluable resource for some. On Day 4, while driving to the final green checkpoint in Dumont Dunes, Team 126 (Sugar High), comprised of Andrea Shaffer and Michelle Davis, drove off an 8-foot dune. Their vehicle had to be towed back to basecamp for repairs to a bent axle and leaking differential. Staff mechanics returned them safely to competition, allowing them to continue and successfully finish the rally. Andrea and Michelle expressed a deep appreciation for their teamwork, the overwhelming support of the staff, and the competitor community. “Winning is not always about coming in first. We realize we have the ability to persevere. When things get difficult, we can rely on each other and ourselves to overcome these challenges. This event was difficult, but what we accomplished taught us so much about ourselves.” Both women expressed a deep understanding that the experiences shared together in the Rebelle have a definite correlation to their experiences in everyday life. “We know that when things seem low, we are fully capable of getting back up and taking on the new day and challenges as they come.”
As the event unfolded many racers became humbled by the expectations of the course, enhancing the culture of camaraderie and sportsmanship. Teams were observed assisting each other, sharing equipment, helping with vehicle recovery, digging out from sand dunes, and offering words of encouragement. Nena Barlow of Team 129 (Squirrel Girls), performed an alignment adjustment in the field for a fellow competitor, while Team 112 (JPFreek), Julie Covert and Jennifer Peine, and Team 104 (Torq-Locker), Cora Jokinen and Melissa Fischer, repeatedly towed and assisted stuck competitors. Emily explained that who you are at the root is going to be intensified in the face of adversity during the rally, bringing forth both strengths and weaknesses. As the days of rivalry unfolded many racers realized that the Rebelle exemplified competition against your best self, as opposed to other teams.
For many participants, it was a rediscovery of self, away from the role of caregiver, mother, wife, partner, professional. In the Rebelle, no one will come and rescue you. You and your teammate’s abilities are the only guarantees. The intent is to cause you to look inward and use the tools and skills you already have in order to overcome challenging situations.
The true test of a successful adventure comes in the challenges being overcome when something does not go as planned or expected. The entire event staff was also put to the test every day. As racers were planning for Rally School and Basecamp 1, the forest on the west side of Lake Tahoe caught fire and forced an evacuation in the early morning hours just before the start of the event. High winds provided changes in environmental conditions and for many, sleepless nights. Active military test bombing ranges near the course mandated some rerouting, with some competitors getting to see ordinance drops—never did the course designers expect for air to ground weaponry to be part of the landscape. With communication shut down for a few hours due to a temporary glitch in the Iridium satellite system, eliminating the only method for tracking competitors, Andy, John, and Rob from Rescue 3 of Barstow, California, were able to exercise their search and rescue skills. They were essential in locating vehicles and coordinating needed technical support.
And then there is the impressive power of a protected endangered species. When a desert tortoise decided to take a stroll across intended navigation roadways, the mandatory 100-foot safety zone resulted in a traffic jam with over five trucks waiting for nearly 2.5 hours while the tortoise crossed the road. This scenario played out not once, but twice. With each challenge, greater design and learning opportunities developed to the benefit of the Rebelle and it’s participants.
After the Tahoe fire and rerouted Rally School, competitors left South Lake Tahoe for Basecamp 1. Significant terrain change took them toward the dry, windy lake bed of Rawhide, Nevada. Along the way, they were introduced to road books, odometer checks, and time, speed, distance (TSD) trials. TSD’s are stages during the event in which you receive points based on the completion of a distance, in a certain time period, at a specified average speed. The navigator must determine if the team is travelling early or late at any location (distance) along the route. It can be considered relatively easy if you remember that Distance=Time x Speed. However, many found this to be one of the greatest challenges, overheard to be called “an exercise in controlled boredom.” It is also the navigator’s job to keep on course and on time toward specified checkpoints, necessitating good communication. After Day 1, Charlene Bower of Team 125 (Ladies Co-driver Challenge) expressed that this is different from other events she has competed in, and recognized how important it was to positively support her navigator, Kaleigh Hotchkiss, throughout the day’s events. This attitude proved beneficial in supporting their first-place finish.
The marathon legs of Days 3 and 4 brought on fatigue and oversight. Here, the field began to separate. Emily pointed out that, “When you stop paying attention to your road book, your navigation becomes sloppy and mistakes will be made. When teams become tired and frustrated they tend to look outward as opposed to looking inward for the blame.”
Leaving Dumont Dunes for Johnson Valley and the Mojave Desert, teams were left shaken from physical damage to their vehicles or simply exhausted from digging out of the sand. Team 129 came off of a 10- to 15-foot dune crushing the front end of their Ram truck. According to Nena Barlow, the change in depth of the surface of the dune was simply not evident given fatigue and the angle of the sun. Fortunately, her understanding of vehicle mechanics helped her identify and address the conditions and needs for successfully moving forward. With Barlow’s perseverance and Kande Jacobsen’s navigation, they finished in third place.
Johnson Valley offered its own unique challenges. With the famed open OHV area starting at Soggy Dry Lake, cross-country travel is permitted allowing navigation from point to point as opposed to following designated routes. However, many experienced disorientation due to the number of possible routes and difficulty with technical driving challenges.
Teams traveled through Joshua Tree National Park, and Red Canyon to Glamis and the Imperial Sand Dunes. During the final 2 days, navigating, TSD trials from Johnson Valley, and the challenges of the Glamis dunes increased the point spread. The Glamis dunes have more features for navigation and triangulation, but the features can be difficult to drive if you’re not comfortable in the sand. As a result many lost points due to missing checkpoint time lines.
Even though there were several experienced drivers, many teams identified that it was difficult to figure out a consistent strategy for navigating the course. Each day was completely different. Shelby Hall and Amy Lerner of Team 134 (Team HD), expressed that even with all of their training and experience they needed to take each day as a new challenge. They reflected, “You could not compare your experience or race to anyone else’s. We couldn’t tell how long someone was at a checkpoint, or if their headings were accurate. You could only rely on each other.” Working with each other’s strengths contributed to their fourth-place finish.
Impressively, after 7 days in competition, the entire field completed the course, although some narrowly escaped irreparable vehicle damage. In the 4×4 class, Team 125 (Ladies Co-driver Challenge), Charlene Bower (pilot) and Kaleigh Hotchkiss (navigator) in a 2016 Jeep Rubicon, took first place with 815 points. Team 119 (Why Not), Taylor Pawley (pilot) and Micaela Windham (navigator) in a 1997 Jeep Wrangler, came in second place with 785 points. And Team 129 (Squirrel Girls), Nena Barlow (pilot) and Kande Jacobsen (navigator) in a 2016 Ram 1500 Rebel, finished in third place with 772 points.
The crossover class finished with Team 204 (Hoehn Quail), Meli Barrett (pilot) and Sabrina Howells (navigator) in a 2016 Honda Ridgeline, in first place. Team 202 (Hoehn Garibaldi), Sandy Conner (pilot) and Lisa Wolford (navigator) in a 2016 Porsche Cayenne, took second place. And Team 203 (Hoehn Golden Poppy), Jaimy Grigsby (pilot) and Josan Badillo (navigator) in a 2016 Jaguar F-Pace, won third place.
Cora Jokinen and Melissa Fischer of Team 104 (Torq-Locker), won the Team Spirit Award for character embodying the Rebelle Rally. Even though they were running fierce competition in the top five, they never hesitated to help their peers get out of the sand. While out at the Dumont Dunes, in their free time they picked up trash to leave the environment in a better state than they found it. Their win granted their charity of choice, Best Friends Animal Society, a $5,000 donation on behalf of the Lerner Foundation.
Nena Barlow and Kande Shrum Jacobsen of Team 129 (Squirrel Girls), received the Bone Stock Award. After sustaining a lawn dart launch off one of the Dumont Dunes, their Ram Rebel successfully finished without having any modifications beyond off-road tires.
Unique to the Rebelle Rally was the rugged yet refined approach to the event design. Long, intense, unpredictable days through rough terrain in harsh environments were contrasted with luxury at the end of each day’s competition. The nomadic basecamp provided showers in a beautifully designed community tent. Michelin-starred chef Drew Deckman and his amazing crew cooked over an open fire and out of a 30-foot food truck. With over 60 dedicated staff members supporting the event, competitors were well-cared for. Even so, dirty, tired, and achy racers rolled into San Diego, California, for the final night of the event. For the pinnacle celebration of their achievements, the extraordinary experiences of the week were complemented with a black tie gala at the Del Mar racetrack. What an amazing and spectacular ride.
Rally driving takes perseverance and in the Rebelle, winning obviously takes a team—good communication, strong navigation skills, and respect for the vehicle and conditions of the environment are imperative. Most importantly, the Rebelle is for all women, adventurous women who are ready to challenge themselves and grow in confidence, learning skills for their journey through life.
Be part of history, grab your partner, and join the 2017 Rebelle Rally. Events and engines start October 12 and continue through October 21.
With the support of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal, Amy McVickers had the fortunate opportunity to witness and experience the 2016 inaugural Rebelle Rally. Throughout the event she was able to observe, listen, and learn from all of the amazing women involved. She has been inspired by their hard work, grace under demanding circumstances, dedication to their teammates, and camaraderie with their fellow competitors. The Rebelle Rally highlights the best in women and competition.
Check out the Rebelle Rally and their Support Team: