These two women took their fledgling pilot/co-pilot relationship--begun during Skype conversations a mere 10 months earlier--and turned it into a second-place ranking overall driving a stock Hummer H3.
"It was truly a test of vehicle management as a driver," says Miller. "And Armelle was spot on with the traditional dead-reckoning navigation."
What's next for this resolute duo? Besides a new friendship, I'd say the expanse of the desert is the limit.
And what about the American sisters who reached out to embrace this all-women rally and its many challenges? Reina and her sister Amy Lerner came out of the gate confident they'd find the finish line. They stayed focused on enjoying the journey, achieving a final ranking of 55 out of 110 teams.
These two novice participants left behind family, work, and the comfort of home to pursue an adventure in their own Hummer H3. Did the drifting dunes and rocky terrain of the mighty Sahara disappoint?
"It was more challenging than we anticipated in so many ways," says Lerner. "It was an incredible adventure from start to finish."
I concur. I had a ball covering this unique escapade. Perhaps next year I can live the Gazelle Rally for myself while once again writing for your vicarious reading enjoyment. We shall see....
The first time Emily Miller, the U.S. half of Team 109, 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. Encounters with the dunes can also 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, Miller 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. Having driven their stock truck for hours and hours, with her championship-like intensity, Miller was left emotionally wrung out by the time they made it to the final checkpoint at the top of the dunes. "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.
As Emily Miller returns for the 2011 Gazelle Rally, I have no doubt her brother Jim is smiling proudly from high atop Erg Chebbi. Safe travels, Lady of the Dunes.
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