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Automotive Traveler Magazine: 2011 03 Gazelle Rally Day Five Page 1

2011 Gazelle Rally, Day Five

As the teams take on their first marathon leg, a look at what compels one Gazelle to make the journey into the heart of the Moroccan dunes.

By Carmen Madrid

American Emily Miller owns the Dunes of Merzouga. No, not literally.

Perhaps not even competitively, although Miller and teammate Armelle Medard of France nailed every X checkpoint in Sunday's Leg Four of the Gazelle Rally. You rock, ladies!

For the past two days, the Gazelles of the desert have been on a marathon ride across Morocco, spending 48 hours away from the bivouac with no overnight mechanical assistance.

It promised to be a grueling two days for the 220 women. We'll have all the details and latest rankings for Team Miller Medard and Americans Amy Lerner and Tricia Reina in my article tomorrow.

In the meantime, let's take a look at what compels one of the American competitors to return to this beautiful, remote part of the world.

Miller, the U.S. half of Team 109, is more than a dune-driving dame. The magic and inspiration of these Moroccan mountains of sand can only be truly felt if you are blessed to live among them, if just briefly. The first time Miller caught a glimpse of Erg Chebbi something stirred deep inside her.

The large dune fields known as ergs are not simply challenging terrain for Gazelle drivers, though many find them too daunting to tackle. They can also be a conduit for awakening buried emotions. Or, your encounter with the dunes might allow hidden memories to take shape like the drifts of the desert.

For this world-champion off-road driver, it was a little of both.

Her brother Jim was long fascinated with Morocco. He dreamed someday of leaving Colorado and moving there to work. He never made it. After he died in a motorcycle accident, Emily wondered why she was unable to make a connection with her beloved older brother. "I never 'felt' him after he died," she says. "I wanted to, I tried, but he felt so far away." And so he was.

In 2009, Miller traveled to Morocco with her good friend Wendy Fisher to participate in their first Gazelle Rally. From the moment she set foot on the northern African soil, she says she sensed that the winds of the Sahara carried a message for her.

The first day of the first marathon leg took the U.S. Gazelles into the Erg Chebbi Dunes. They had a great day, hitting all checkpoints and only needing to use their shovels once on their own vehicle. How differently we measure success when Nature is our only adversary--a refreshing change, I think. But I digress.

Team Miller Fisher had just made it to the final checkpoint at the top of the dunes that day. Having driven their stock truck for hours and hours, with her championship-like intensity, Miller was left emotionally wrung out. "I hiked up to the high point right above the flag and sat in silence," she recalls.

What better place to end up after such a stressful undertaking than high atop a sand dune, a place so quiet you can almost hear heaven. Looking out at the sandy mountain peaks over which they had just journeyed, Emily Miller found her brother.

"I felt him. Finally! I felt him! I sensed him. I felt close to him. Not his physical presence, but a spiritual one. And it was a feeling of peace." She says she felt he had her back, and he was cheering her on. The tears came as she sat and cried for 10 or 15 minutes.

Even back in the States as she bustles through her busy life of owning a business, racing, traveling, and everything else she undertakes, she never forgets the serenity of the dunes, especially that first encounter in 2009.

I recall sitting down with her last spring after the 2010 rally, and how completely enamored she was with Morocco. Her enthusiasm was contagious, but it was the glow that radiated from her face as she spoke of the dunes that I remember best. Her voice projected the same fervor, but her eyes twinkled as if she held a secret...one of spiritual proportions. Now I understand.

Her story is just one example of why many women who participate in the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles come away from it changed. Their journey is not necessarily life-changing, but somewhere along the way the sand in the hour glass shifts.

Who knows what epiphany or outcome awaits Emily Miller at the 2011 Gazelle Rally, but whatever happens, I have no doubt her brother Jim will be smiling proudly from high atop Erg Chebbi.

Safe travels, Lady of the Dunes.