On Wednesday Colleen flew across the country to arrive in Phoenix, AZ. While Colleen was in the air, Shea was driving her Jeep, Clementine, across TX and picked Colleen up at the airport. This was the first time we had seen each other in person in over 6 months since our last training session in October 2021. We were both super excited for the weekend ahead! We proceeded to the grocery store with our list of necessities and stocked the Jeep full of food and water (and Shea’s life water, also known as Diet Coke 🤣) in anticipation of an awesome weekend camping, Jeeping and navigating.
Fully fueled, we embarked on the next leg of our trip, driving to Ocotillo Wells, CA to find a place to camp out for the night, as our training session was set to begin early the next morning. We arrived late in the afternoon and found a wonderfully secluded grove of trees on BLM land where we set up camp for the night. Clementine is outfitted with a Gobi Rack upon which Shea has mounted a rooftop tent, so Colleen set to work unfolding and unpacking the tent while Shea began cooking on the camp stove and trailgate. We enjoyed a relaxing dinner and discussed our short term and long term training goals and caught up on life. With minimal cell coverage and no other distractions, it was easy to unplug and focus on training. We had no idea what tomorrow would bring, but we were ready to take on the challenge.
On Thursday we awoke to a gentle sunrise and pleasant desert sounds quickly drowned out by gunfire… turns out our “secluded” camp was just down the road from an active military training range! And today sounded like qualifying day! We would have enjoyed stopping to meet fellow green-suitors on the range but we had to pack up quickly and get on to our first day of driving training. So away we went! We met up with a handful of other teams also registered for the Rebelle Rally, many returning competitors and some newbies like ourselves. After quick introductions we got back in our vehicles and headed deeper into the desert to our base camp training area.
Base camp for driver training was a couple of easy-up tents set inside a semi-circle of instructor vehicles. We set up camp chairs and started out with some chalk talks about basic vehicle functions, understanding various terrain and how to translate uneven surfaces into vehicle tuning for optimum driving. Then we broke up into small groups of like-vehicles and did some drills and practice over soft sand versus harder turns and blind crests. Clementine was performing well but we could tell she was working pretty hard when we started to smell the clutch after a few hours of drills. After a brief break for lunch and more chalk talks, our small group set out for more practice and drills. The last drill of the day took us to an area of several short but steep up and down hills alongside a string of power lines. Early in this out-and-back drive Clementine started to give warnings about the clutch being hot, so we took it easy and periodically rested her until she could cool off and the warning lights stopped. On the return trip, however, the warning signs became more apparent as it was harder to crest the hills and the clutch smell intensified, until finally the clutch wouldn’t engage a gear at all. And this was where our excitement for adventure quickly refocused and became a rescue mission to get Clementine out of the desert and into a shop.
Being so far away from state roads with a dead vehicle is not an ideal way to spend the evening, but since the first rule of Jeeping is never Jeep alone, thankfully we had plenty of new friends who flat-towed us several miles through the desert back to the main road. We had just enough cell signal to call AAA and were picked up by a pleasant tow-truck driver who helped us get Clementine back to the closest Jeep dealer, about 45 miles away in Imperial, CA.
Although we came prepared for a weekend of possible mechanical issues and had an arsenal of tools and replacement parts stowed in the Jeep, as seasoned overlanders do, unfortunately carrying a spare clutch kit is not in our (anyone’s?) habit. A call-ahead to the dealer had already identified that this particular clutch kit was not in stock locally, so while riding in the tow truck we continued stressing the limits of our weak cell signals and called other suppliers in other states. By this time word of our misfortune had gotten around to the other training groups and we had a handful of people calling shops and dealerships all along the southwestern US looking for this clutch. Nothing available for at least a week, maybe more, no one could be certain. Colleen called in some favors and was able to secure an after-market clutch kit that could be overnighted to the Imperial Jeep dealer for arrival on Saturday, so this is where hope turned a little brighter. The service manager agreed to do the install on Saturday assuming the clutch kit could be delivered before noon, and we could potentially be reunited with Clementine in time to make the drive home on Sunday and Monday as scheduled. Colleen had a plane to catch in Phoenix on Monday morning, and so far it was looking like she would make it after all.
Meanwhile, back at the Imperial Jeep dealership, we unloaded Clementine and our bare necessities (snacks, clothes, and the nectar of the gods known as Diet Coke) and set out looking for a place to sleep. We had planned to camp in the desert in the rooftop tent all weekend, but with Clementine in the shop 45 miles away from our new friends and base camp, there was no way we could make that work. We settled on a hotel and Uber took our weary, moderately-depressed selves to the land of running water and WiFi. It had been a long and emotional day that started with such promise and ended with more than a heavy sigh. But we were determined to find a way back into the desert for day 2 of training, so we regrouped and started brainstorming.
One benefit of unexpectedly having to sleep in a hotel was that we found ourselves in a city with an airport, albeit a small one, but with multiple rental car companies serving the traveling community. Shea rapidly identified an Enterprise Rental Car just up the road and was able to go online and book us a rental for the weekend. The location had long since closed for the night so we weren’t able to confirm exact vehicle options, but we went to sleep hopeful that we would be able to make do with whatever they had to offer.
Our friendly Uber driver picked us up bright and early Friday morning and we got to Enterprise as they were unlocking the door. Quick discussions and expert negotiations on Shea’s part put us behind the wheel of a stock white Toyota Tacoma. We threw in our day packs, cracked a Diet Coke and headed out to meet up with our friends at Imperial Sand Dunes. We quietly apologized to Clementine for having to leave her behind and temporarily rebranded ourselves as Blanco Taco. We made it to the meeting point ahead of our new friends and celebrated our minor successes for getting our training back on schedule. It was dune day! We were ready to go.
Once the rest of our friends arrived, we aired down our tires and headed off on the sand highway deep into the heart of Glamis. We took turns driving, spotting, digging and laughing as we drove up and down (and one time even launched Dukes of Hazzard style over 😬😎) the majestic dunes. We got stuck and we recovered; we failed and we renegotiated. We had the best day and got so much practice done despite working in a completely foreign vehicle and without our usual creature comforts. We 2RedHeadRebels were right on task!
Saturday began the navigation portion of our training weekend, and was also a big day for Clementine because it was the day the clutch kit was to be delivered and installed. Shea and Colleen met the training group at base camp and fine-tuned our compass skills, practiced plotting longitude and latitude, and brainstormed future training exercises and schedules. We had been used to training apart for the past 6 months while Colleen has been stationed in NC and Shea in TX, but with the needs of the Army moving Shea to Korea later this month our training was going to be looking a little different. We had already proved we can adapt and overcome, this weekend’s shenanigans being a case in point, so we are certain we will make it work again.
In Morgan Freeman voice, Fate would have other plans. The Jeep dealership called Shea shortly after 1000 local time to ask if the clutch kit tracking indicated it was delivered because they had just received their presumably last FedEx delivery of the day and the kit was not with it. Colleen willed her one bar of cell signal to load the tracking page and discovered the kit had been marked as delivered an hour prior and had been signed for by a particular employee. Armed with this info, Shea called the dealer back and they began a manhunt for said employee and package. Within an hour the package had been located and Clementine was back on the lift. Shea and Colleen went on with our lessons. Things were looking up.
And then they weren’t, when shortly after lunch the dealership called again to let Shea know the aftermarket clutch kit didn’t fit in Clementine. While the part numbers aligned, the bolt pattern did not. There was no way to make this clutch fit. So we were back to the drawing board. Transmission was dropped, no new clutch available to install, time quickly passing. With day jobs and service obligations necessitating our prompt arrival back home, Shea and Colleen started reaching out to rental companies to try and secure a car hauler and use Blanco Taco to tow sweet Clementine back to TX. Did we mention we’re in a remote area of the desert with limited cell signal? And it’s Saturday evening? During prime moving season? Needless to say, the closest rental company with an available trailer was over 3 hours away, wanted $3000, and was closed until Monday. We’re down. Way down. Like 8 Diet Cokes, no water, down. But we had been able to salvage our groceries and made tacos for dinner, so at least we were full.
Determined to stay in the fight, Shea and Colleen discussed shifting their departure to the right to accommodate the Monday trailer pickup and towing Clementine back home to TX. Shea decided shifting the timeline was less ideal given her impending PCS across the world, so her husband loaded up their dogs and their car hauler on his F350 and prepared to drive 9 hours to Imperial Jeep and load Clementine on Sunday. He had a small hiccup in that a hose blew on his truck’s steering column late Saturday night as he was loading the trailer, necessitating a brief trip to AutoZone for parts and an hour and a half of his labor using flimsy tools since we had all the good tools with us in CA, but he’s not one for the spotlight. So we’ll limit the discussion to say he fixed it and he departed and we looked forward to seeing him on Sunday. The Jeep dealership, normally closed on Sundays, agreed to leave Clementine in their front lot to facilitate an after-hours pickup. We are so thankful for them!
Sunday morning came with a tenuous calm as Shea and Colleen spent the first few hours of training discussing and making road books. Then we set off on a short road book enduro challenge each taking turns navigating and driving. For our final afternoon of training, we were provided with an opportunity to put all of our freshly-honed skills together and plotted 2 checkpoints in the desert on our map, then had to navigate to the checkpoints using just our odometer and compasses. These ‘X’ checkpoints were unmarked, so once Shea and Colleen felt like we were physically on the points, we radioed to the instructors who would verify or correct. Our favorite photo of the weekend was a selfie we took standing on our X checkpoint, map and compass in hand, having successfully driven Blanco Taco across the barren desert to the precise coordinates we had determined using just a ruler and plotter. The joy, determination and success were palpable. We had triumphed! We were exhausted but renewed in our confidence and competence. And the best part was that we had done it together!
Back at base camp for the final time, Shea and Colleen said goodbye to our new friends and prepared to head back to the Jeep dealership to reunite with Clementine, but not before helping a fellow Rebelle Rally novice team who had gotten locked out of their running Jeep. A slight misfortune, easily overcome in comparison! Shea and Colleen met Shea’s husband at the Jeep dealership, used Clementine’s WARN winch to load her onto the car hauler, returned Blanco Taco to Enterprise, and headed to Phoenix. Colleen made it to her flight with hours to spare, Shea and her husband made it back to TX without further ado, and the 2RedHeadRebels looked ahead to our next training opportunities. Success favors the prepared, and we are even more prepared for success after this incredible weekend in Ocotillo Wells.