From the back seat, free of a seatbelt and full of unspoken worry, I studied our driver. His right wrist casually rested on the shift lever ready for his next challenge, and in turn, gear-change. Fingers clutched both a lighter and a cell phone glowing with updates from the Facebook feed which he, coolly, scrolled through. Never missing a beat on this beaten path, he – to my horror – formed responses! I grew more nervous. Trying to hide the fact from our companions, it was a constant effort to rid concern from my face while my eyes darted back and forth. Driver. Road. Cliff. Repeat. I tried hard not to shift in my seat and to hold myself upright at hairpin turns. “Today” was the first stage of the rally which Justin and I had the good fortune of attending, and therefore our first real encounter with these bonafide Rally Photographers – in this case motorcycles and quads were the focus. This ride was a quiet one. Ignorant as I was, I didn’t dare conjure up distraction with any friendly conversation for fear that our captain, Edoardo, would drift his attention further away from managing our safe passage. So I sat, silently.
It was a hot morning, sure, but the sweat that pooled between my hairline and brow was a response to something a little more self-induced. I squeezed Justin’s leg, and he soothed me in response. To take my mind off of my clear and utter lack of control (and I need control), I stared passed Justin’s ever calm features out onto the wilds of Sardegna. We were invited here not just to witness this race, but to be affected by everything that surrounds it. We were hired to tell a story. So, intently, I observed. The cliffs that displayed our impending doom were surprisingly quite calming. Modest, coarse trees lined our path and blanketed the horizon; a sea of olive green distorted by lime, forest, purple, gold and silver. To say the scenery was epic would be a grand understatement. The sheer exposed drop on our right in all of its luring drama forced me, instead, to accept that I had chosen to board this Land Cruiser with complete, albeit kindly, strangers. In my defense, I was under the distinct impression that they regularly champion roads like these which make even the most adventurous of four-wheeling pioneers take caution, all for the sake of the “perfect” photo. I made my choice. You have a job to do, I concluded. And so, it was time to trust.
Day after day, during our week-long stint posing as “Rally Photographers,” I enjoyed [read: endured] this sort of death-defying ride along the race-course of the Sardegna FIM Rally, forged into its namesake’s back country. On the journey in or up or away, I would have the same inner dialogue then, ultimately, resolve. I was a foreigner: to the land, to the people and to this sport. Dirt roads are typically a joy, but I don’t often, er, ever ride the challenging, narrow types on four wheels. Nor am I ever a passenger, for that matter, so I felt out of my element. Anxiety was sent to Justin’s blessed hand most mornings, and I’d clutch hard to not betray an ounce of discomfort to our new friends. I couldn’t have them know that their indifference to the perils outside made me a bit uneasy. It was about respect! And, gratitude! They were generous enough to let us tag along in the first place, no sense in taking that for granted. Besides, despite my unspoken monologue, I would’ve given anything to do it again. As we edged an ancient roadway sculpted into a teal and grey spotted cliff side, my teeth finally unclenched long enough for me to ask some questions.
Edoardo, frequently a wordless spectator, was a weathered vet specializing in the field of Racing Photography – rally or otherwise, and has been in the business some 20 years. Why? “I often tell people that taking good photographs is the least important part of the job,” he said to us. Edo was trying to explain that with events such as the infamous Dakar Rally, your talents must be multifaceted. He loved documenting rallies because they took skill beyond the written description of a photographer – at least to be really good. A driver confident off-road can access locations most other members of the media on the scene, especially ones shuttled by the organization, couldn’t access if they tried. A cordial, clever and outgoing person can make the connections needed to acquire insider tips, sell photos… or just find some fantastic fish and wine when it was time for lunch. The latter we found in an unassuming, quaint little bistro boasting outdoor seating and tuna carpaccio so good it would make the Japanese jealous. The name: “Flamingo.” One of his more important tips to top us off, spoken as always in his confident and almost anti-Italian cooool fashion – with not a trace of arrogance, “if you can’t speak the language or you’re ugly” – cue the laughter – “you will not get far.” Advice noted.
Many years of experience developed this knowledge, and we were privy to it. Why exactly? I still don’t know… Cristiano, the long time friend and business partner, appeared as a lanky, fresh-faced fellow who obliged us with short chuckles, subtle but hilarious jokes, a sincere smile and, as generously as Edo, his wisdom. On the last day, it would be at least another hour until any motorcycles would sound in the distance. We had found ourselves a line of sight to that “perfect” photo a little too quickly. Justin and I, novices as we were to the Pro Rally Routine, sat upright and alert a top a gathering of boulders, waiting. Cristiano, however, seized this opportunity to remove his shirt (a common practice), gingerly sprawled out on the flattest rock-face, and began to “bathe.” Edo soon followed suit. I stared momentarily before bursting with laughter. Lesson some-odd-number: leave no moment to waste, and don’t forget to lighten up. This work can become grueling quickly, so grab some peace, quiet and a tan at any available occasion. Maybe it’s just common sense, but Cristiano’s take on insight was a welcomed one.
If the photographers were funny, then the videographer was hysterical! Attila was in fact named after his more famous predecessor, an unlikely title to such a cheerful character. With the lift of his chin and a decided clap, he would regularly announce that it was “HAP-py hour!” Though, he had no idea – or so it seemed – that in America this nomenclature referred to a period of the day when alcohol and morsels of food at a bar are actually affordable. “Happy” indeed. English wasn’t abundant in his vault of vocabulary, but that never discouraged him from speaking every word of it to us. Just after sunrise, he would greet us with an exuberant “Are you ‘appy?!” laced with a rich Italian accent. “Of course we’re happy! And you?” To which he would respond in big gestures and a far bigger grin, “If you are ‘appy, then I am ‘appy!” And so we’d begin our day. It was a ritual I looked forward to as an energy booster, and tranquilizer, before our ascent into the next set of uncharted territories. All of us experienced long busy days, but because of our duties to the ‘If You See Kay Wines’ rally team and our WESTx1000 clients, Justin and I had a distinct lack of sleep to show for it. Exciting and enjoyable as the experience was, it was still work, nonetheless, and we intended put our all into it.
Our last ride in the trusty red Land Cruiser, which I had come to know so well, was a much more jovial one. Champions were named, awards were given and the race had long since passed. Justin and I were amidst a grand celebration in the town center having drinks and people-watching while our now familiar friends pushed syrupy liqueurs in shot glasses into our mitts which, thankfully, they sipped slowly. Wandering through the streets was a giant of a Catalonian man I had affectionately dubbed “The Gorilla” during the rally. His presence – or maybe his racing titles – quickly lured a small crowd, including us fools, to hear his drunken proclamations. “Vamos a la playa – Let’s go to the beach!” He waved us all in some unknown direction, apparently towards the only four-wheeled vessel anyone was willing to drive… Edo’s. Edoardo and what we can only assume was a well-intentioned ‘groupie’ parked it in the front seats. Justin and I were once again perched on the bench seat in the back, although this time we were wedged firmly against a door and a couple of German girls also sharing a lap. The Gorilla rounded out the end of the bench. Attila, Cristiano and two other unnamed bodies were crammed into the trunk. A multicultural clown car, I thought. I smiled to myself.
The noise engulfed me, and the bumpy ride shook me in and out of reality. To think, only twelve hours prior, the last of my many heart-racing moments were over now. Too many taken for granted, I’m sure. Every day the descent from the course and into a town to seek out Wi-Fi became more and more effortless. It’s odd sometimes how retracing your steps can turn a terrifying experience into something meaningful – In my case, inspiring. Maybe it was exhaustion; I was sun drenched. But I’d recount the day: the moments we’d caught on camera, then the ones we’d missed. I reminded myself to bring more water next time. And a snack! When my mind would quiet, the feeling of serendipity would well up and lull me into a stupor until we’d reached our destination. Even now, the days blur together. Yet seated on my Honey’s lap – sea bound – listening to the nonsense flying around me, breathing in sweat and booze and breath, I appreciated where I was at that moment, and where I had been. I admired the glow from the dashboard which enabled me to see that madness. I gripped the cloth headrest that kept me stable. I vibrated with the rumbling engine. Bumping and bouncing blindly, I let go of all control, once again, resolving inwardly that Edoardo knew his limits. And hopefully not for the last time.
Conceived in a coin-op laundry room in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, what started as an excuse to ride dirt bikes in Baja has become a portal into the lives of two cultural anthropologists, authors and photographers. Whether documenting the infamous Baja 1000 off-road race, searching for surf in the Pacific Northwest, investigating Japan’s eclectic motorcycle culture, exploring the West Coast by bicycle or riding their dual-sport motorcycles from Barstow to Las Vegas, the idea stays the same… “If you get far enough away you’ll be on your way back home.” – Tom Waits