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Only the ‘Most Hard-Core Women’ Go Off-Road for Rebelle Rally

Over 10 days, they will drive across 1,600 grueling, off-road miles in the Nevada and California deserts, where the afternoons can reach 100 degrees and the nights can dip to 15. On their hunt for just under 200 hidden checkpoints, they will rely on map and compass skills, as well as driving prowess, physical stamina and more.

They are the roughly 100 women who will compete in the annual Rebelle Rally starting next week, armed with analog navigation tools: a map, a compass and a road book, but no cellphones or GPS devices.

Last year, Emily Benzie and her mother made up the Jeep Thrills team. “It was an amazing experience that tested my skills under sleep deprivation and long, dusty hours,” Ms. Benzie said. “Imagine summer camp for off-roading die-hards, where every day you drive an insane obstacle course and every night you camp around a fire hearing stories from the most hard-core women you envision — that’s Rebelle.”

Ms. Benzie, a genetic immunologist in San Francisco, drove, and her mother, Christine Benzie, navigated.

“Being the navigator is like solving hundreds of puzzles for 10 hours per day, for eight days straight,” said the elder Ms. Benzie, an aerospace engineer and company founder in San Diego.

It’s October 2018, and I’m headed down the worst off-pavement road I’ve ever driven: my body tossed around like a rag doll inside my pickup, my fingers sore and hands throbbing from gripping the steering wheel.

The bumps finally give way to a road that appears to dart straight toward the horizon. This dirt trail is well elevated, above a dried-up canal. My relief at a simple drive quickly flips, as the road reveals its numerous crevasses large enough to swallow my tires.

This road — Coachella Road in California’s Sonoran Desert, which several teams nicknamed Death Canal Road — becomes my nemesis.

I breathe deeply, take a moment and carry on. Miles later, large white signs near the middle of the road state: “DO NOT ENTER. This area is a bombing range.”

Do I turn around? Do I keep going? There’s no other way out. I’m certainly not going back — I just came all this way.

I drove in last year’s Rebelle Rally, and like my navigator, Elise Bent of Bozeman, Mont., I was a first-timer. We were known as Team Free Range Dames.

Emily Miller, a veteran racer, started the rally in 2016, aiming to create a serious competition and an ultimate adventure for women.

Ms. Miller was the first woman to “Ironman” (drive and navigate solo) in the longest off-road race in the United States, known simply as Vegas to Reno. She finished third in 2008, then won the three-day 2009 edition — both years driving solo.

The Rebelle Rally, whose fourth edition will begin on Oct. 10, features women from all over the world, including, in previous years, Canada, France, Japan and Kenya. Teams accumulate points by finding the checkpoints. Speed counts, too, of course.

It’s all a grind for the organizers, as well.

“It’s extremely challenging,” said Ms. Miller, who has nearly 70 people helping her put on the event. “We have a rally ourselves, with longer days, longer nights, and the hard work to ensure that problems are kept to a minimum, our public lands are respected, and competitors and staff are safe.”

The logistics can be daunting. The organizers must haul to the middle of nowhere enough potable water for staff and competitors, as well as food and fuel.

And unexpected situations, like mechanical problems or safety issues, can arise. They keep Team Rebelle on its toes.

The organizers must make sure the route is responsibly maintained, said Jimmy Lewis, the rally’s course director. “Off-road motorized recreation often comes with a stigma and preconceived idea that is not typically positive,” Mr. Lewis said.

But Rebelle Rally has pushed to change that stigma, working closely with organizations like the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Forest Service and the National Park Service to comply with all laws. Competitors tread lightly and obey all speed regulations, and there are penalties if they don’t. The organizers pack up all the garbage to take away, leaving the base camps cleaner than before the crowds roared through.

Trophies are awarded in a number of classes, including overall winners in the 4-by-4 and Crossover vehicle categories.

The vehicles, in fact, are as diverse as the people driving them. They include showroom-stock Jeep Wranglers and Subaru Foresters, highly modified Toyota trucks and even a $300,000 Mercedes-Benz G550 4x4 Squared. Honda and Nissan sent factory-backed teams to compete in their latest vehicles, and Mitsubishi is sponsoring a vehicle.

Ms. Miller stressed that street-legal autos could be extremely capable in the hands of a great driver, that a serious competitor didn’t need a highly modified rig.

Christine Benzie read an article about Rebelle last year. Six months later, she and her daughter were crossing the finish line.

The Benzies expected the event to be fun and mentally demanding, but they didn’t know the level of camaraderie and number of amazing, like-minded women they would meet.

Laura Hardesty-Butcher, who lives near Sacramento, was the driver of Team Locos Mocos. She said the rally was a great way to step outside her comfort zone.

“It gave me a purpose,” Ms. Hardesty-Butcher said. “I forgot how great that can feel.”

She said the rally was one of the toughest things any woman could ever sign up for.

“The highs can be some of your highest, and the lows can be some of your lowest,” she said. “At the end of it, you realize how awesome you feel about yourself.”

Kirsten Tiegen, the event’s media director, said she had noticed changes in the women afterward: gaining the confidence to ask for a promotion, traveling alone to exotic locales or even working on vehicles themselves.

“It’s rewarding to see the transformations take place in their lives,” she said.

Channel Williams, a mother of three and a lung cancer survivor, did last year’s rally in a 2005 Land Rover LR3 with her partner, Marie Campbell. Since her diagnosis in 2013, Ms. Williams has had half of one lung removed, four months of aggressive chemotherapy and five brain operations to remove tumors.

“I had folks telling me I wasn’t healthy enough to do the Rebelle,” she said. “I had been in the hospital the week prior to starting the adventure with bilateral pneumonia. They were afraid I’d have a medical emergency and not be able to receive help.”

She continued: “There were times in the midst of the rally I’d tell myself they were right and I should quit and head home. I’d remind myself I got lung cancer at 41 while being in the best shape of my life, and also I had never been a smoker.”

But Ms. Williams was no longer willing to let cancer steal anything else from her. At the end of the rally, she said, “I felt so alive and no longer a sick cancer patient.”

“I was back,” she added. “I was living again, not just surviving.”

Ms. Williams and Ms. Campbell were given the Team Spirit award, a major acknowledgment from fellow competitors.

The Rebelle is about community, confidence and competence.

Even with capable vehicles and the know-how to drive them, finding checkpoints can be exceedingly difficult. Checkpoints 8 and 9 from Day 2 still haunt me. Sandy landscapes and open skies gave way to a gradual hill climb and twisting trails. Darkened earth hugged our modified 2012 Toyota Tacoma as we searched for checkpoints. Seconds turned into minutes, minutes into eternity.

Glittery black onyx littered the ground as we hopped out to review our topographical map and plotted points, which had been completed early in the morning. We knew we were close — but not close enough. We decided to throw that opportunity away; too much time was wasted, placing us in danger of missing mandatory future checkpoints. We had to move on.

Competitors get dirty, worn out, fatigued. They laugh, they focus, they may even throw their helmets or break down emotionally. Sheer determination is needed to finish. Passion, inner “fight” and dedication to cross that line will set us up for success. (Since the Rebelle Rally, I’ve bought my own 4x4 vehicle to work on with my husband, Andy. Next year’s plan? A 5,000-mile time-speed-distance competition.)

Ms. Miller said this pushed women and exposed their weaknesses and strengths, and gave them an opportunity to improve their driving and navigational skills.

But, more profound, is how they decide to communicate, organize, and handle the stress and challenges the 10-day rally presents.

It’s a highly communicative and helpful atmosphere. No matter their team, the women are there to help one another.

Ms. Miller said it best: “It’s great to see so many people from diverse backgrounds come together and work together to get to the finish line — forming unbreakable bonds along the way.”

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