The Imperial Sand Dunes in the southeast corner of California is one of the most breathtaking places on Earth. The remote location has been used as a backdrop in many iconic films, from Lawrence of Arabia to Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. It also happens to be where the final stages of the Rebelle Rally take place.
At around 6:00 am local time, rally founder Emily Miller took to the stage for the final morning briefing. She had a series of instructions, four last bits of advice for the 108 Rebelles heading out that day: Find the path; don’t drive what you can’t see; make decisions based on your confidence level and skill; and, finally, heading and distance don’t lie.
The excitement and the nerves were palpable and coarse as the sand as navigators plotted trails around 20 checkpoints in the dunes, some of which could only be found (or not) among the larger west side dunes.
As a precaution for competitors in fully-electric vehicles, a recharging truck from Renewable Innovations would be stationed in the area from 11:00 am to 01:00 pm for those who needed a charge to get through the challenging day. Up until that point, the mobile EV charging station had been mostly available for use overnight.
Nena Barlow, who’s an experienced off-road trainer, gave a brief primer atop one of the dunes overlooking the final base camp for drivers who were anxious about getting through the day. “The dunes are about choosing the right line, and riding the waves,” she said, “Figure out your heading and a back heading. Find your way through.” Barlow represents one half of Jeep-backed Team 129, the leading team in the 4X4 class this year. At worst, her advice is welcome; at best, it’s gospel for the Rebelles.
As Miller noted on the morning livecast, this day at the dunes typically makes or breaks teams. “Today is the day to watch scores all day,” said Miller to livecast host Emme Hall. “The ladies that don’t have to dig will have an advantage.”
The temperature at the dunes climbed toward 100 degrees Fahrenheit as the sun inched higher overhead. Periodic rain and scattered showers had changed the firmness of the dunes throughout the area, making them harder to read.
The livecast kicked off again at 02:00 pm as competitors began to roll in after a long, hot day in the dunes. The battle for third place in the 4X4 class came down to a handful of points between one returning team and a rookie team.
As expected, Nena Barlow and Teralin Petereit’s Team 129 came in first place overall at the rally, marking the second time in a row that the Jeep-backed team won the competitive class. Second overall went to privateer Team 188, with Laura Wanlass and Maria Guitar piloting their 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited through 10 days and hundreds of miles of difficult terrain.
Third place overall went to a second-year team from Toyota, a pair of talented engineers who happen to be talented drivers and navigators piloting a 2022 Toyota Tundra: Becky Brophy and Samantha Barber make up Team 152. And fourth place went to rookie Team 187 from Rivian, with Lily Macaruso and Alex Anderson behind the wheel of a Rivian R1T.
This year marks the first time Toyota placed on the podium at the Rebelle. The point spread, or score difference, between Team 152 and Team 187 was small: 29 points, or the equivalent of one green and one blue checkpoint. Or, also, just one (high-value) black checkpoint.
In the X-Cross class, first place went to Ford-backed Team 200, with Chris Benzie and Melissa Clark. Second place went to Team 216, made up of returning Rebelles Lyn Woodward and Sedona Blinson, who are backed by Nissan; Team 216 was behind the wheel of a 2023 Nissan Pathfinder Rock Creek Edition. And third place went to privateer Team 204, with Carey Lando and Angela Lux, who drove Lando’s 2014 Subaru Outback.
Saturday is the last day of the Rebelle Rally, when current competitors are joined by former competitors, and by family, friends and sponsors who visit the dunes to get a glimpse of what it means to be a Rebelle. The rally culminates in a lovely awards ceremony and dinner on Saturday. All the competitors come dressed to the nines, and spend the night celebrating their accomplishments.
But Friday night was a farewell to the sojourn proper, as competitors celebrated their last day on the course. The women unwound, and their mood was celebratory. Former Rebelles came together to sing a song, and Founder Emily Miller provided context for this year’s rally, inviting course director and famed Dakar finisher, Jimmy Lewis, up onto the stage to make a speech.
“Emily came to me and said, ‘I want to do this thing called the Rebelle Rally.’ I told her it was a great idea, but it would be really hard to pull off,” said Lewis, addressing the crowded room — packed with Rebelles, no less. “And seven years later, we’re still doing this crazy game.”