Emily Miller was in the dunes outside of Las Vegas scouting base camp locations when registration for the inaugural Rebelle Rally opened on Dec. 15, 2015. Within minutes, the ping of Miller's cellphone announced that the first two-woman team, Marty Hopkins and her step-mom, Pixie, had registered to compete in the first all-women's off-road navigation rally in the United States.
"We were getting a registration every 10 minutes for the first two hours," Miller said. "I was blown away." That day, 18 teams signed up to participate.
On Oct. 13, 2016, 72 women arrived at the start of the Rebelle in Lake Tahoe, California, turned in their cellphones and GPS devices and began competing in a seven-day, 1,200-mile off-road competition that required them to navigate across the demanding desert terrain of Nevada and California using only maps, minute rulers, a compass and a roadbook.
The Rebelle was the vision of Miller, 50, a sports marketing professional and off-road racer who, in 2009, won a class of the Baja 1000 in Mexico and the Vegas to Reno Rally. She was also the first American to compete in the Gazelle Rally, a similar competition held annually in Morocco. Like the Gazelle, the Rebelle is part navigation challenge and part off-road driving competition, and it covers some of the most grueling and scenic terrain each country has to offer.
At the Rebelle, there were drivers in their teens and navigators in their 60s -- women with no off-road experience competing alongside seasoned racers and former Gazelle finishers. There were mother-daughter teams and new moms who were away from their children for the first time.
Ashley Lee, 32, took a second job driving an Uber around Las Vegas to raise the $5,000 entry fee. Her teammate, Valerie Crockett, 29, solicited sponsors and set up a GoFundMe page to pay her way. "We understood the cost of the rally is high, but the payoff is greater," Crockett said. "You have to take a chance on yourself."
So what drives a woman to disconnect for seven days and go truly off the grid, spending her precious vacation to push herself to her emotional, physical and mental limits in a seven-day off-road navigation rally? That's what we wanted to find out, so we headed to the finish line of the Rebelle in Glamis, California, and asked competitors what compelled them to pull up to the starting line and what they learned on the 1,200-mile drive to the finish.
Team 125: Champions, 4x4 division
Driver: Charlene Bower, 40, founder of Bower Motorsports Media
"When Emily [Miller] called and said she was organizing this rally and that she wanted me to be here, I said absolutely I would cover it. But drive in it? I didn't know about all that. I've done some driving competitions but nothing like this. Then I went to the navigation training, and once I understood the navigation, I realized this challenge could be a lot of fun."
"We can live without our cellphones, and life continues without you. That is the No. 1 thing I'm taking away from this. Life continues on and we don't have to be 100 percent connected."
Navigator: Kaleigh Hotchkiss, 29, hospital CFO and CPA
"I love off-roading. I'm not naturally directionally inclined, but I love learning new stuff. I knew if I tried hard enough, I could figure it out and these would be skills I could hold onto the rest of my life."
"We learned something new at every checkpoint. But in the grander scheme of things, we learned that attitude matters. Every day we were pumped, and that helps. We would make a mistake or see that we missed a checkpoint and laugh about it."
Team 140: 11th place
Driver: Emme Hall, 44, off-road racer and automotive reviewer for CNET
"I did the Gazelle rally three times, and I came back after each Gazelle with more confidence, and not only in my driving. It's amazing how it transfers over to different parts of your life. You don't expect it to, but it does. Why wouldn't I want more of that? And it's amazingly fun. We got to see so much of the country that most people don't get to see. You can't pass up that opportunity."
"When you rush, things become even more rushed. When you chase points instead of staying in control and competing in your rally, you make mistakes."
Navigator: Rebecca Donaghe, 45, commercial producer
"It didn't matter how I did it. I just wanted to get here. After competing in the Gazelle, I knew I wanted to do something like it again. I wanted to be part of the first Rebelle. It's historic for the U.S. and for women's off-road sports. I wanted to repeat the personal experience I had with the Gazelle and do it even more properly, work even harder and have the best performance I could."
"Learn from your mistakes. No matter what the pressure is, no matter what your goal is, you should play the game the same way every day. We had an amazing run until the last day. We were in first or second place every day until the final day, when we did not strategize like we did the other days or keep to within our own limits."
Team 106: 17th place
Driver: Maria Clay, 28, nurse
"Sedona and I have been best friends since we were 5. We've lived no more than 11 streets away from each other in Tempe, Arizona, until she got married and moved to Sierra Vista. She could have asked me to do anything, and I would have said yes. I'm a nurse and work two jobs, six days a week, and go to school for my master's degree. But I knew it was important to her."
"I didn't know this would change me the way it has. It was eye-opening for me to see that you can have a full-time career and go to school and enjoy the thrill of learning something new and do something as exciting as the Rebelle. Watching Sedona, I learned you can have a baby and do something like this if you have the right support system, the right partner and the right mindset."
Navigator: Sedona Blinson, 29, mother of two
"When my 4-year-old son was born, we started doing more adventurous stuff like I did when I was a kid. I've wanted to do the Gazelle Rally in Morocco for a few years, but when they announced the Rebelle, I knew it was a lot more attainable. I have an 8-month-old son and was pregnant when I signed up for the Rebelle. I wanted to get my feet wet with this rally first."
"I've learned it's a lot prettier in Nevada and California than I knew. I learned Maria is even stronger than I've known she is and capable of driving better than she thought she was and that we can navigate ourselves out of scary situations we wouldn't have pushed ourselves into otherwise. I made a commitment to breast-feed for a year, so I've been pumping all week. It's been hard to remember and be consistent to keep up supply, but I learned it's doable. Working moms do it all the time."
Team 101: 22nd place
Driver: Marty Hopkins, 35, lawyer
"I follow a lot of people in the off-road and overland communities on Twitter and saw someone repost an announcement about the Rebelle. It said novices were welcome. I showed my partner, Chelsea, and said, 'Wouldn't this be awesome?' I have no professional rally or driving experience, but she was so supportive and convinced me to find a teammate. I called Pixie, my step-mom, because she was the only person I knew who was crazy enough, adventurous enough and tough enough to do it with me."
"I learned totally new skills and that you're never too old to learn something new."
Navigator: Pixie Hopkins, 41, oncology nurse
"I said yes right away. I want to do anything for my kids. I wanted to hang out with Marty, and I thought this would be a lot of fun. I grew up four-wheeling and riding in the dunes, and whenever I have an opportunity to do something like that, I like to say yes. But we were most excited about unplugging for seven days."
"There is always something I can learn. I learned about navigation, how to plot and find a heading and navigate without GPS. I'm an oncology nurse and the manager of a cancer center. This has been the most relaxing thing I've done in a long time."
Team 120: 25th place
Driver: Valerie Crockett, 28, operations manager at Ralph Lauren
"I like to push myself to be better than who I was yesterday, and that was what this rally was designed for. You think you want to give up many times, but you don't. To be part of a group that said we should take every opportunity to be great was so cool. That was what brought me here. I also wanted to have a story to tell when I'm 90, and this is a good story."
"On Day 1, we thought a lot about the fact that there was a satellite tracker on us and that everyone on the Web could see us -- our friends and family and sponsors -- and we wanted to do well for them because they brought us to this point. But on Day 2, you realize, 'Who cares what anyone else thinks? This is our challenge.' No one will remember the place you finished. They will remember how you finished."
Navigator: Ashley Lee, 33, market outreach coordinator at REI
"I live in Las Vegas, and I love camping and being outside and have done a little off-roading in Death Valley in my Subaru Forester to get from campsite to campsite. But I wanted to get more into it, go faster, get a bigger vehicle. I looked into becoming a rally car driver, but the price and commitment was overwhelming. Earlier this year, one of my coworkers at REI, where I do community outreach, said, 'My wife wants to do this women's rally.' I said, 'Sign me up. I don't care how much it costs. Sign me up.'"
"I'm a lot more patient than I give myself credit for. Precision was key and I don't know myself to be a precise, detail-oriented person, so being the navigator was a huge challenge. But I have a lot more skills than I thought I had. Also, I thought recovery was something you have to learn to make sure you got home safely, but what I learned is recovery is part of the enjoyment. There's an enjoyment in getting out of a stuck situation."
Team 112: 29th place
Driver: Julie Covert, 48, massage therapist
"I love adventure and challenges. I drive a Jeep off-road year-round in the upper peninsula of Michigan, and this was a really good way for me to test my abilities in an environment I'm not familiar with. As time progressed in the lead-up to the rally, I realized I was also doing this to show women that if you understand your vehicle and its capabilities, something like this isn't scary."
"I knew what I knew. My navigation skills have improved in terms of plotting and reading topography. And I learned I need a whole lot more sleep than four hours a night."
Navigator: Jennifer Peine, 47, library circulation clerk and sci-fi fantasy writer
"I have two teenagers, a girl who's 16 and boy who's 14. I want my daughter to know there are no boundaries in life just because you're a girl. And I need my son to know the exact same thing."
"This tests every part of you. It was emotionally and physically exhausting, and the number of calculations you have to make after getting up at 4 a.m. and driving for 12 hours tests you mentally. But I can't think of anything in my life, other than having my children and watching them grow into amazing people, that compares to getting to this finish line."
Team 111: 33rd place
Driver: Jenn Zipp-Richmond, 44, mother of two
"I spent years of my life, starting in high school, off-roading in Southern California and loved it. I've always wanted to do the Gazelle rally, but after I got married and had two kids, who are now in school, I had anxiety about leaving my kids for two weeks to go to Morocco. But when I turned 42, the desire started knocking on my door again. When I heard about the Rebelle, which is in my backyard and is one week instead of two, I signed up and started looking for a teammate. I wanted the experience."
"You and your teammate have to have common goals. I learned how much I love driving and being out here. For 20 years, I forgot what it means to me, the smell in the air. It's gonna take me a while to take in all the places I've been this week. I've seen the moon come up; I've seen the sun come up; I've seen the moon go down; I've seen the sun go down and I'm overwhelmed and humbled I got to do this and grateful I have a supportive family who made it possible."
Navigator: Nick Bloom, 41, registered nurse
"I have been off-roading since I can remember and got into racing. I'm analytical and like the intellectual aspect of these rallies, navigating without technology. The Rebelle was a perfect entry for me to commit to something, get the training, skills, knowledge and experience to see if I want to take it further. Throughout my life, I've not met many women who are interested in camping and road trips and motorcycles and sleeping in the dirt and under the stars. I knew by doing this, I would make lifelong friendships because we would have that in common."
"Your weaknesses and your strengths come out in a competition like this. I learned how to use a compass, global positioning, where and how the latitude and longitude system was created. What I learned about myself is I am cool under pressure and not just in situations I'm used to being in. I've been an acute care registered nurse for 12 years. In my work, I learned you can't think productively when you're panicking. Here, I learned that is a strength of mine."