Karen Hoehn in the Driver’s Seat
in February, the lawn at The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe is a lush emerald green, the sky is blindingly blue, and the patio outside Morada restaurant is filling up with so many people eager to savor a cup of coffee and the privilege of living in paradise. And while San Diego is the envy of much of the country currently experiencing all the elements of real winter, the woman sipping iced tea across from me is preparing to ditch our little haven and head out to the Moroccan desert in search of real adventure.
“I’ve got a big birthday this year, so this is my ‘year of adventure,’” Karen Hoehn says as she settles into her chair. The adventure will come in the form of the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc — the Moroccan Gazelle Rally — a nine-day, 1,300 kilometer, women-only off-road rally weaving through the western African desert that will stretch from March 18 to April 2. Success is measured by navigation of the shortest distance rather than by speed along the course, all without the use of any modern navigation equipment beyond a compass, plotter, and maps to help rallyers reach daily checkpoints. If this story sounds a bit familiar, it’s because her daughters, Jo Hannah and Susanah, first competed in the rally in 2014, with this year marking their third entry in the annual race. In fact, Hoehn will be driving her daughters’ car from that first rally, a 2014 Land Rover LR4, but featuring a fresh Moroccan tile-esque wrap inspired by their host country, with a helmet to match.
While it’s husband Bob, Jo Hannah, and Susanah who are firmly planted in the automotive industry, it seems a natural decision for Hoehn to take on this race. Never having visited Morocco prior to accompanying her daughters on their first rally, she was struck by the country, seemingly unchanged for centuries. She tells of seeing women leading donkeys through the desert, almost frozen in time — making it all the more surprising when they produce a cell phone from beneath their wraps to take a phone call. The reception of the rallyers there is warm, due in large part to the charitable element of the race, the nonprofit Coeur des Gazelles (the Heart of the Gazelles), which provides meaningful help, primarily medical, to the most disadvantaged of Morocco. No stranger to exotic travel and touring developing countries (she goes on safari in Africa “about once a year”), Hoehn didn’t have the reservations others who lack that kind of experience might have. “I am a naturally adventurous spirit,” she says, her blue eyes twinkling almost mischievously. So it makes perfect sense when she says that when she first mentioned she wanted to do it, her husband pretty much knew there was no discussion — she was going to do it.
Both Hoehn and partner Maureen Gibbons are first-time rally racers. With so many entrants, many of them professional drivers, what is their goal in entering the race? “Just to experience it,” she says, equal parts wide-eyed girl and experienced traveler. “I’m not going to do it again, so I really want to just enjoy and experience every part of it.”
For the time being, she’s swapped South Coast Plaza for REI as her shopping destination of choice, though you wouldn’t know it from her chic head-to-toe black ensemble
Hoehn will be doing the driving, with Gibbons navigating. “She’s got the hard job,” says Hoehn, shrugging off any possibility of the pressures of the race impacting their friendship. There’s a strong element of camaraderie amongst the competitors that extends beyond the confines of their cars; the women are encouraged to help fellow rallyers along the course, whether it’s changing a tire or digging out cars trapped in the sand. This spirit, says Hoehn, has a deep impact among all the women who participate and creates a lasting bond between them. With a laugh, she adds, “They tried it with men and it didn’t work — they just want to drive fast and don’t want to bother with navigation!”
When her daughters set out on their first rally, Hoehn was quoted as saying her biggest concern was “safety, safety, safety.” Now preparing to be out there herself, and with the travel climate even more unsettled than just two years ago, it’s easy to wonder if she’s frightened of the risks, but she’s quick to shake her head. “I don’t live in that place of fear. You can’t be naïve,” she says seriously, “but there’s a lot of security in place for this race for us.” But not everyone is so assured; Hoehn says the race did lose at least one team after the November 2015 Paris attacks. Still, her concerns are of the more practical kind. “My biggest fear, really, is getting sick,” she says. “Food poisoning, dehydration — it happens. Some people can power through, but if I get sick, I’m down!”
And then there’s the wildlife. She recalls her daughters telling her of waking up after a night of camping out on the course to find tracks in the sand from sidewinders right next to where they’d been laying, but she brushes it off, saying simply, “They must have just sensed their body heat.” (Gasp!)
As for preparing for the rally itself, Hoehn’s been avidly studying up, including taking behind the wheel off-road training in Ocotillo Wells with experienced off-road driver and instructor Emily Miller, as well as navigation classes, and even spending time in the gym. (“These women are literally digging their cars out of the sand! I’ve started doing strength training to prepare,” she says.) While it might seem she’d also benefit at least a little from the wisdom of her daughters’ experience, they may disagree. “They say, ‘Mom, you think you know what to expect, but you know thismuch,’” she laughs.
Though how deeply this race, with its adventure and challenges, may truly impact Hoehn remains to be seen, she’s already noticed a few changes. She now always carries a compass in her handbag, producing it as proof in a zip-top bag. And for the time being, she’s swapped South Coast Plaza for REI as her shopping destination of choice, though you wouldn’t know it from her chic, head-to-toe black ensemble and strappy heels. One thing that hasn’t changed: who’s behind the wheel at home. “I always drive and my husband is the passenger, but it’s been that way for the past ten years. I’m a very bad passenger and that’s why I decided to be the driver in the rally.”
As she hops into the driver’s seat of her own Land Rover, pristine and gleaming as though it just left the showroom floor, Hoehn’s gentle confidence and enthusiasm, coupled with a world-wise savvy, are ample assurance that she is ready to take on the adventure that awaits her, half a world away. DEANNA MURPHY
Karen Hoehn: Photo by Bob Stefanko All other photography courtesy of ©Maienga 2014