Road to Morocco

Af­ter tak­ing on the threat of can­cer full throt­tle, two sis­ters switch gears and test-drive a dif­fer­ent kind of bond

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Lor­raine Som­mer­feld

Two sis­ters test drive a dif­fer­ent kind of bond

Who Lor­raine Som­mer­feld (me) and my sis­ter, Gil­lian Le­mos What Ral­lye Aicha des Gazelles, a one-of-a-kind women-only off-road rally Where The Sa­hara Desert, Morocco When 7 days in March Why Ah. That is where things get in­ter­est­ing …

THE GAZELLES RALLY, hosted in a beau­ti­ful, bar­ren, be­wil­der­ing – and re­mote – part of the Sa­hara desert in Morocco, is a mag­net for women look­ing to test their driv­ing and nav­i­ga­tional skills, phys­i­cal fit­ness, men­tal met­tle and, in many cases, their san­ity. Driver, nav­i­ga­tor, truck; pa­per maps, com­passes, rulers; spare tires, wa­ter, first-aid kits. No GPS, nav­i­ga­tional sys­tems, phones, lap­tops, binoc­u­lars or zoom lenses.

I write about cars for a na­tional news­pa­per and about my kids for the lo­cal one. The Gazelles Rally is a dream as­sign­ment. The cost can hit 40K eu­ros per team; when the of­fer came, I had a once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity. I also knew who to take. Grow­ing up, I de­scribed my sis­ter, Gil­lian, as be­ing two and a half years younger, as if stress­ing the half year could put more space be­tween us. She jokes I now pre­tend there’s no gap at all. Af­ter the death of our par­ents, Gilly and I and Roz, our older sis­ter, pulled to­gether tighter, know­ing love and shared his­tory could help us weather what­ever would next be flung at us.

Our mom died of breast can­cer in 2000. I’ll never for­get the an­gry scars that tore up her chest, from a time when sur­geons did lit­tle to mit­i­gate the im­pact of such a dis­ease on a wo­man’s body or emo­tions. I started get­ting mam­mo­grams when I’d barely fin­ished nurs­ing my youngest son.

When news of another di­ag­no­sis of an es­tranged sis­ter fi­nally reached us, every­thing ac­cel­er­ated. A high­risk pro­gram added an­nual MRIs, but the re­cal­cu­lated odds were not good: I started re­search­ing pro­phy­lac­tic dou­ble mas­tec­tomy and re­con­struc­tion, the same surgery An­gelina Jolie would fa­mously write about a few months later. I was my usual head­strong self go­ing in, hav­ing the first surgery just af­ter my 50th birth­day. The pathol­ogy re­port af­ter surgery came back in­di­cat­ing car­ci­noma in situ in my left breast and mu­tat­ing cells in the right. I was stunned. Some­times re­ferred to as Stage 0 (I wouldn’t re­quire fur­ther treat­ment), my sur­geon just said, “Great tim­ing.” Given our fam­ily his­tory, we had no doubt can­cer was set­ting up shop. Gilly fol­lowed suit six months later, telling my sur­geons, “I’ll have what she’s hav­ing.”

Gilly is mar­ried with two kids and works for a bank; I have two grown sons and write about cars. We’d al­ways looked alike, but the sim­i­lar­i­ties ended there. Now, we talked about things no­body else un­der­stood, like drains and pain, and do these im­plants look lop­sided to you? We de­bated sizes as we shopped for new boobs; if there could be an up­side to any of this, we were go­ing to find it. We cel­e­brated never hav­ing to wear a bra again (the im­plants took care of that) and got 3-D nip­ple tat­toos. We pre­tended we were war­riors, but fear drove us.

A FRIEND WHO HAS done the rally was suc­cinct: take some­one you won’t kill. I have de­cent of­froad­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but this rally is about nav­i­ga­tion. You’re given lon­gi­tude and lat­i­tude co-or­di­nates for your first check­point each morn­ing. Find it and get your re­main­ing co-or­di­nates.

It’s a dis­tance rally; those teams that man­age the short­est dis­tance be­tween two points and main­tain that over seven days, win. You can nav­i­gate through ter­ri­fy­ing moun­tain ranges or around them. Ev­ery step from that straight vec­tor on pa­per in­creases the like­li­hood you will get lost.

Par­tic­i­pants take nav­i­ga­tional train­ing, plot­ting on pa­per maps of the re­gion with sym­bols of what the ter­rain will com­prise but that do lit­tle to pre­pare you for the re­al­ity: over­whelm­ing open­ness and treach­ery. Giant jagged fields of vol­can-

ic rocks; tow­er­ing sand dunes gleam in the desert sun as if lit from within; rock-strewn dried-out river beds; in­nocu­ous look­ing fields cov­ered in prickle bushes that will flat­ten a tire: this is the Moroc­can desert.

Rules for the rally are strin­gent. The or­ga­ni­za­tion knows ev­ery­one’s lo­ca­tion through GPS mon­i­tor­ing. Par­tic­i­pants – Gazelles – are easy to spot in their iden­ti­cal vests, which must be worn at all times, as must hel­mets. You can only re­ceive help from other Gazelles. Dur­ing the day (4 a.m. start), we would go hours with­out see­ing another team.

The rally is fa­mous for bring­ing out the best and worst in com­peti­tors. En­ergy is high go­ing in, teams made up of life­long friends, co-work­ers, sis­ters, cousins, even a mother and daugh­ter. Some are com­plete strangers, put to­gether in the ex­pert class – the hard-core ral­liers. We were not hard-core. For two months be­fore the event, we tasked my trainer, Mike Castel­lano, with push­ing us into bet­ter shape (you change your own 90-kilo­gram tires), while my me­chanic, Chris Muir, made sure I could han­dle me­chan­i­cal is­sues, prac­tis­ing in my drive­way. We were still way more ex­cited about get­ting match­ing pink shoes.

Two huge gear bags and 36 hours – and four flights – got us to Ouarza­zate, Morocco. I only wanted to flop into bed be­fore head­ing to meet the other 164 teams in Er­foud, but Gilly said she would tell me when I could sleep. Push­ing off jet lag would be crit­i­cal. She would spend the next two weeks mak­ing de­ci­sions like this, her work­load ex­tend­ing far be­yond the com­passes and maps she was in charge of. The warn­ing to take some­one I wouldn’t kill? This is why. One driv­ing er­ror could send us crash­ing, but the nav­i­ga­tor bears the brunt of keep­ing us on course, as well as the care and feed­ing of a tem­per­a­men­tal driver.

The rally bases from a bivouac, a por­ta­ble town that re­minded me of a MASH set. Din­ing tent, med­i­cal tent, bar tent, press tent, show­ers – re­lo­cated as the rally pushed through the desert. The goal is to find your check­points (usu­ally six to eight) and make it to the bivouac be­fore dark. The sun fades around 5:30, then plunges the desert into black­ness an hour later. Driv­ing through the desert is threat­en­ing in the day, but we dis­cov­ered a whole new des­per­a­tion when fac­ing it in the dark. Teams camp out alone when stranded.

Nei­ther of us likes to cop to aging, but when my nav­i­ga­tor an­nounced her op­tometrist said with­out her glasses she was legally blind, I gave her a lit­tle side eye. When we were stuck camp­ing in the desert one night, I of­fered to heat up our meal ra­tions with a menopausal hot flash, which seemed more re­li­able than the lit­tle camp stove we had.

The day be­fore the race is pro­logue, a test run to find three check­points. It seemed a lit­tle easy. Sure enough, on the of­fi­cial Day 1, we nabbed our first check­point al­most im­me­di­ately and headed off to num­ber two. We should have en­joyed that sec­ond one more; it was the last for the day. In­stead, we spend hours lost, mas­sive sand dunes the only thing we could iden­tify on our maps.

The driv­ing is in­tense, the sleep fleet­ing. We un­der­es­ti­mated the food game, con­sum­ing too few calo­ries for the ex­er­tion. You’re out of the truck con­stantly, es­pe­cially the nav­i­ga­tor. Dunes re­quired Gilly to be climb­ing giant walls of sand look­ing for safe lines for me, then hus­tling to catch up as I rock­eted through. Or got stuck. You get stuck a lot. You dig like crazy in desert heat, hop­ing another team doesn’t land on you.

Day 2 was our epic ad­ven­ture. Check­point af­ter check­point told us we were chart­ing cor­rectly and driv­ing well. We nailed seven check­points by mid-af­ter­noon. Care­ful to keep an eye on the fad­ing sun, we looked at the time and gam­bled a run for the fi­nal check­point.

I’d low­ered the tires for sand dunes – I was rid­ing at about 0.8 bar (11.6

psi). Once clear, I went to air back up – and was faced with a de­stroyed noz­zle. I’d checked the com­pres­sor on our truck (the Toy­ota Land Cruiser we were us­ing was a spe­cial rental) but not the fit­ting. Flat­tened tires and an end­less sea of vol­canic rock. We could only creep along, ter­ri­fied that blown tires would iso­late us fur­ther. Lost and perched on the edge of a jagged canyon, we made it down as dark­ness fell. By now to­tally lost in the pitch black, with hours since we’d seen another team, I hit the but­ton for help.

We found out later we’d been run­ning in third place. We couldn’t have done that over seven days but, on that day, for those hours, Gilly could have cir­cum­nav­i­gated the globe, and I could have driven through any­thing.

Call­ing for help cost us our rank­ing, mean­ing we were now com­pet­ing but not for points. If I ran the rally again, I would have waited it out, but ex­pe­ri­ence mat­ters in this game. We saw teams in tears and teams not speak­ing to each other. This event draws women who are strong, smart and used to be­ing right. The desert will show you in­stantly who’s in charge, and I’ve never been so hum­bled in my life.

We shared a tiny tent, my lit­tle sis­ter and I. She kept it tidy and or­ga­nized her hope­lessly dis­or­ga­nized sis­ter. One night in frus­tra­tion, I tossed things around. She asked what I was look­ing for. The peri­win­kle, I replied. She handed me the witch hazel, know­ing ex­actly what I meant. I didn’t know how she knew that, only know­ing this is what we are to each other.

ON DAY 3 WE MAN­AGED to find our mo­men­tum again, reel­ing in five check­points be­fore our trans­mis­sion got stuck in low, and we limped for base camp.

The next day, we roamed for a few hours, be­yond frus­trated, the desert heat re­lent­less on our black truck. As the sun started to de­scend, I abruptly pulled over. I grabbed the map. We’re go­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion, I told her. The sun is set­ting, so that’s west, right? I no longer trusted my own gut, even about some­thing that should have been a cat­e­gor­i­cal truth.

Gilly blinked into the set­ting sun, her in­ter­nal com­pass re­fus­ing to mesh with what we were see­ing. I begged her to give me 13 kilo­me­tres to get us un­lost. She shrugged the shrug of some­one who doesn’t see the point but doesn’t have the en­ergy to ar­gue. I drove. We found our way out. We were both quiet for a few min­utes un­til she spoke. You’re a bet­ter nav­i­ga­tor than I am, she said qui­etly. I looked at this wo­man who I have gone through a life­time with. Of squab­bling, of match­ing dresses, of shared loss, of Christ­mas din­ners and cot­tage week­ends, of fac­ing tow­er­ing fear and knock­ing it down. We’d tack­led the threat of can­cer to­gether, no way was a game go­ing to push us apart.

Our hap­pi­ness at find­ing our bear­ings was short-lived, as another mis­cal­cu­la­tion sends us off track. A lo­cal on a mo­tor­cy­cle of­fered to lead us to our check­point, but he spoke no English, and the only sign lan­guage we un­der­stood was he wanted money for the in­for­ma­tion. He left us in dark­ness, and we set up our tiny tent to ride out the night alone.

On Day 5, we cel­e­brated our Mom’s birth­day, miss­ing her but know­ing her loss 18 years be­fore had given us the head’s up we needed to pre­vent her grand­chil­dren from los­ing their mothers to this heinous dis­ease. We got lost that day, of course, but the next day we suc­cess­fully made it into – and out of – high dunes. Day 7 brought the rally, for us, to a quiet, con­tem­pla­tive close. We were ex­hausted but we’d done it. It also mir­rored what we’d been through: tested be­yond mea­sure against some­thing far big­ger. Do­ing it with Gilly just re­in­forced we would al­ways have each other’s backs.

We’d been war­riors all along, and now we’re Gazelles.

Desert Storm: Those sands are shift­ing and chang­ing all the time. Yes, it’s that for­lorn.

Two Gazelles find the down­side of not us­ing quite enough throt­tle; (be­low) sis­ters Gil­lian (left) and Lor­raine

A glo­ri­ous 5 a.m. sun­rise, and our truck on the start line: (be­low) the au­thor on lo­ca­tion in Morocco

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