Alexis Ohanian is a Gem, and I’ve Got Three Loaves of Bread to Prove It

Successful tech entrepreneurs tend to be jerks. Alexis Ohanian is different.

Take it from a guy who knows; Tony Fadell (Apple, Nest) once threatened me with a lawsuit and Chris Sacca (Lowercase Capital, Shark Tank) stood me up three times in the same week.

With their meticulously crafted public personas, focus group tested authenticity, well rehearsed humbling anecdotes and off-the-shelf passion for social justice, it’s hard to tell who is truly the kind hearted human they present to the public, and who’s just good at faking it.

I’ve known Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian for a long time—before he co-founded the VC firm Initialized Capital and before he was dating his now wife Serena Williams—and from what I can tell, he’s one of the real ones.

Now I’ve got bread to prove it. (Specifically, sourdough.)

I first crossed paths with Alexis in 2013. The then serial-entrepreneur had just published a book titled Without Their Permission, and The Globe and Mail asked me to read it and interview him about it. The book was much better than what you’d expect from a non-writer; it told the story of how the grandchild of Armenian refugees and the son of an undocumented German immigrant learned to code and started a billion-dollar company thanks to the freedom of the internet. It was as much a memoir as it was a rally cry to protect internet freedom, a fight Alexis personally took on a bus tour across America and all the way to Congress (Forbes dubbed him the “Mayor of the Internet” for that effort).

When I got on the phone with Alexis he was genuinely curious of what I thought of his writing abilities, mistaking me (then 25 years old, in my first year as a freelance journalist) for an authority on the subject. The call was scheduled for 20 minutes, but we ended up chatting for nearly an hour.

The second time I crossed paths with Alexis was in Lisbon in November of 2016, the very day Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. We were once again scheduled to speak for 20 minutes, and ended up chatting for over an hour, first about the story I was assigned and then about American politics, the Canadian technology industry and basketball. Alexis is a huge Brooklyn Nets fan, and as a Silicon Valley resident he’s also loyal to the Golden State Warriors, both of who were doing far better in 2016 than my struggling Toronto Raptors. 

With the “gem” himself, after a conversation/interview at Collision in New Orleans in 2017

I happened to bump into Alexis again as he was leaving the venue the next day, and asked whether he was going to return for the final day of the conference. He told me he had to leave to go spend time with his girlfriend stateside. I didn’t think much of it, until I read a headline a few weeks later claiming that he was dating tennis superstar Serena Williams.

“Surprise!” he said with a smile when I relayed that story to him the following May in New Orleans during the Collision conference. The conversation was the same as usual—basketball, American politics, Canadian tech, and a little bit of what we’re actually supposed to talk about—only this time he gave me some writing advice, helping me with a book project I was thinking of pursuing (but never did).

A rushed, blurry selfie with Chris Sacca in New Orleans, 2017

Before he left for his keynote presentation he asked what he had missed at the conference the day before. I told him celebrity investor Chris Sacca had won over the audience by showing up with a case of beer, tossing a few out to the crowd, offering one to the interviewer and drinking a few onstage while answering questions. He also stuck around after his talk, taking pictures and giving advice until the venue closed down and security asked him to leave.

Sacca’s talk was genuinely inspiring, touching on how he helped build Uber and Twitter from the ground up, on promoting diversity and inclusion, on dealing with his newfound fame and on how his humble lifestyle made it difficult for Shark Tank producers to flaunt his success on the show. I left New Orleans assuming Alexis and Chris were cut from the same cloth, but that all changed a few weeks later at an event in Stockholm.

I was sent to the very pretentious, celebrity-packed conference in the Swedish capital to write a story about the very concept of “celebrity in tech.” The event was like none I had ever attended or probably will ever attend again; about 200 celebrities and 20 journalists packed into a small banquet hall. That week I got Nick Jonas to say hi to my little sister on Instagram, met hip-hop producer Boi-1Da after noticing him rocking a Toronto Blue Jays hat, I got a hug from Mario Batali (which seems super creepy in hindsight) and I had a conversation with a nice blonde woman whom I later learned was Rita Wilson. I also got selfies with Action Bronson, Pharrell Williams and another, less blurry one with Chris Sacca, who expressed interest in my story and promised me an interview at some point during the three-day event.

I noticed something was amiss, however, when he got up onstage that morning with another case of beer, handing them out to the crowd and offering one to the onstage interviewer before cracking one open himself; a move less endearing at 10am in Sweden than it was at 5pm in New Orleans. He then proceeded to repeat every answer, every humbling story and every charming anecdote in the exact same words and tone as he had just a few weeks earlier.

After he got off stage he went to a private room to speak with a reporter from NBC, where I heard him repeat those very same answers and anecdotes in the very same words and tone for a third time while waiting for him in the hallway. As he walked out I asked if he had 5 minutes to speak with me for my story, and he informed me that he had to run out quickly to get a souvenir for his wife, but would speak to me when he returned in an hour. I waited for two. He never returned.

The next day I caught up with him again, and he again told me he would sit down with me later that day, this time not specifying a time and place but giving me his word he’d speak to me before the end of the conference. I approached him one more time, on the final day of the event, to request the interview he had enthusiastically agreed to days earlier (and which I had promised my editors by this point). He apologized for losing track of time, gave me his email address and promised a phone call the next week, but never responded to any of my emails.

I ended up going forward with the story thanks to an interview with former Apple executive and Nest founder Tony Fadell, though that interview didn’t go so smoothly either. The day it was posted I got an angry call from his publicist threatening “legal action” unless I removed one of his quotes. A quote that he said. To a journalist. On the record. (A Wired editor later told me that a lawsuit threat from Tony Fadell is a right of passage for tech reporters).

I know it’s not wise to provoke angry, litigious billionaires, but here’s the quote in question, about the new crop of entrepreneurs:

“It’s almost like learning how to have sex by watching porn. When they read it through the media, now that it’s been so sensationalized, they think this is how you create a startup company.”

(It’s still there, and I haven’t been sued yet.)

Anyway, I left Sweden pretty jaded about the whole experience, and began to wonder if Alexis was genuine in his kindness, his passion and his humility, or if he was just another stuck up celebrity CEO putting on a friendly face for the media.

I returned just a few days before the Raptors were eliminated from the 2017 playoffs in particularly embarrassing fashion (swept by the Cavaliers). The next day I received an email from Alexis, featuring a Gif of the Toronto Raptor mascot running onto the court and falling flat on his face, under the words “sorry not sorry.”

I would meet with Alexis one more time in person (back in Lisbon for Web Summit 2018) where we continued our now 4-year long conversation about American politics, Canadian tech and basketball, before getting around to what we were actually supposed to talk about

Then two weeks ago, the day after the Toronto Raptors took a commanding 3-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals, I got an email from my editor at Fast Company asking if I was available to interview Alexis for a story about his new campaign with Dove Men+Care, fighting for paternity leave in the United States. I quickly agreed.

“Alexis, you have Jared on the line from Fast Company,” said a publicist before we began the conversation.

“Oh no,” he laughed.

“I want you to know that I have no interest in talking to you about paternity leave,” I joked. “I orchestrated this whole thing just to trash talk the Warriors.”

We spoke at length about the Raptor’s success this season, likely to the bewilderment of the publicists on the line. Alexis was still confident in his Warriors’ ability to mount a comeback, so he proposed a bet; if the Warriors won the series, I’d send him a bottle of Canadian maple syrup. If the Raptors won, he’d send me some San Francisco sourdough bread.

Basketball fans know how this story ends; the Raptors lost by a single point in game 5 but bounced back to win it all in Game 6. The day after the victory I sent Alexis an email (below)

In his response he CCed his assistant, who sent me the three loaves of sourdough bread I’ve been enjoying all week (so much avocado toast, yet still never enough).

The tech industry is filled meticulously crafted public personas, focus group tested authenticity, well rehearsed humbling anecdotes and off-the-shelf passion for social justice. I know because I’ve met plenty of these types in my now seven-year career as a freelance tech reporter.

After all those experiences I can say with confidence that Alexis Ohanian is a gem; and now I’ve now got three loaves of sourdough bread to prove it.

(I also sent him a bottle of maple syrup; that’s just how we do things in Canada).

A message to media studies graduates, from a journalist who doubted his own career prospects

On June 12, 2019 I had the honour and privilege of addressing the 2019 graduating class of Centennials College’s School of Communications, Media, Arts and Design as their convocation speaker.

In preparing for my 8-minute address I spent weeks considering what makes this moment such a unique time for the industry; how the conversation about media studies and other arts programs have evolved since the time I graduated from one such program in 2010; how my own experiences as a journalist have shown me the true power and influence that the media can have; and the high level of responsibility that comes with that power and influence.

I wanted to share these remarks more widely because I feel they are applicable to anyone graduating from a media studies program right now, especially those who doubt their own career prospects.

Please find the full script below (and I intend to hopefully add video as well once it’s available):

Members of the board of governors, incoming President Dr. Craig Stephenson, members of the dais party, students and guests; I am here today because I suck at math and science, although I did alright in English.

I didn’t want to be an English major, so I did what you all did, and enrolled in media studies. It sounded like fun, not too much work and it involved a lot of writing. Plus we got to watch movies and read comic books and call it homework.

About a year in I noticed my friends were volunteering for the campus radio station or starting web design companies making websites for local businesses, and I started looking around for something I could do. I ended up volunteering for the school paper, and while I enjoyed the writing part the time commitment was a bit much.

I was a little unsure about it, until one-day representatives from the disabled students union came into the office to complain about a lack of accessibility on campus. I went to the student council president and asked him about it, and he shrugged off the issue, explaining there was no room in the budget. Then I wrote a story about it, that story made it to the front page of the school paper and suddenly people on campus were talking about it.

A few days later, some room was miraculously found in the budget. I can still remember walking around campus, watching the construction crews build new ramps and crosswalks, and I knew right then and there what I wanted to do with my life.

I ended up becoming an editor of the school paper, going to journalism school and after struggling for a few years as someone else’s employee I decided it might be more fun to struggle on my own. Today I write for some of the biggest news organizations in the world as a freelance journalist, reporting on what it’s like to work in an office, while working from home in my sweatpants.

When I started writing about the future of work so much of the conversation was about STEM education, that is, science, technology, math and engineering; Basically, all the stuff I sucked at. The headlines at the time were, “how are we going to get more children into STEM?” “How are we going to get more women into STEM?” “How are we going to close the STEM talent gap?” “Are there enough STEM students in the pipeline to meet the demands of the future workforce?”

There I was with my undergraduate degree in media studies and my Master’s in journalism, spending my days writing about how the only skills that mattered were the ones I most sucked at. And if you had asked me seven years ago when I began my journalism career, I would have said the future belongs to the engineers, the scientists, the mathematicians and the technologists of the world.

Today the conversation has changed dramatically, and I can now stand before you and confidently say that the future belongs to the artists, the communicators, the designers and the storytellers. Why? Because of the rapid pace of technological innovation, ironically the very thing that caused people to jump on the STEM bandwagon in the first place.

It was long believed that in a world of technological disruption, the only safe job was to be the disruptor.  It turns out that those hard skills have a pretty short shelf life, and it’s only getting shorter. Industry standards are changing so rapidly and technology is becoming so sophisticated that the hard, technical skills one learns in post secondary school are often obsolete by the time they collect their diploma.

A recent report by RBC predicts that more than 25% of Canadian jobs will be heavily disrupted in the coming decade, and half will go through a significant overhaul of the required skills. Think about that from the employer’s perspective. When half your workforce suddenly becomes obsolete, you have two options: fire half your staff and replace them with those who have the right skills, or retrain the people you’ve got. Most employers will probably choose the latter.

Because those hard skills will have to be taught and retaught so frequently, and because many of them will be automated out of necessity, they have little value. It’s the skills that easily transfer between roles, and the skills that can’t be programmed that are going to have the most value to employers in the future.

Communication skills, creativity, the ability to learn quickly, the ability to solve abstract problems, being comfortable with ambiguity; those will be some of the most valuable skills in the future.   

I remember other students making fun of the media studies program when I first arrived on campus in 2006. The movies and the comic books didn’t help. The value of these skills and the power of these platforms was so underestimated when I began my university career thirteen years ago, that I actually started to believe them, and seriously doubted my own career prospects.

But when I saw the reaction to the article I wrote about accessibility on campus and the actions that resulted it became crystal clear to me that there is incredible power in storytelling and in the arts.

And because our course materials included comic books I knew that “with great power comes great responsibility,” at least according to Spiderman’s Uncle Ben.

As the future tellers of society’s stories and communicators of its messages you have an incredible burden on your shoulders, and I urge you not to take it lightly. You are graduating into a world that casts doubt on the information it receives, especially when that information doesn’t conform to the recipient’s existing worldview. You’re graduating into a world where your work will be under a finer microscope than any generation previous, the chorus raging against you louder and more powerful than ever before, and the temptation to bend to its whims never greater.

I am here to remind you that whatever you do with the piece of paper you are about to receive, know your work will, in some small way, shape how others view the world in which they live. That is incredible power, and like any power there’s going to be a temptation to abuse it.

Sometimes skewing that worldview can make for a catchier headline, more pageviews, more subscribers, more sales or more interactions. You will be tempted at some point in your careers to ignore the long-term implications of your work in the pursuit of short-term gains, but before you begin your career journey I want to remind you that the most valuable currency in this line of work is credibility.

Credibility is not something gained in one day or in one piece of work, though it can be lost in one. Building credibility instead requires a longstanding commitment to the truth; to internalizing the responsibility you have to the public and to not breaking that trust. You can’t program AI to have credibility, you can’t go to school to learn credibility, you can’t wait until its convenient to start building credibility.

You gain credibility by walking out those doors today, and committing yourself and your career to honesty rather than exaggeration, to the public good over personal gain, to sharing the stories that are too often forgotten instead of the ones that are more likely to go viral, to creating art and design that challenges your audience’s perception of the world, rather than reinforcing it.

The world needs more honesty, more integrity, and more credibility now more than ever. As the 2019 graduating class of Centennials College’s school of Communications, Media, Arts and Design you are in a unique position to provide it, and I can’t wait to see what you do with that responsibility.

Thank you and congratulations class of 2019!  

Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara Part Three: Catching Up

Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara: Part 1
Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara: Part 2

“Do you want a drink?” I asked, standing by the bivouac bar. “You certainly earned one.”

“Only if you have one with me,” responded Stéphanie, looking much more relaxed than she did in our previous interview.

“To be entirely honest I’ve already had three today,” I responded. “And it’s not even 2 p.m.”

“You’re not driving,” she joked. “And neither am I.”

“All right, I’ll take a beer. But we have to get started, I’m getting picked up in an hour.”

“You’re not staying for the party tonight?” she asked.

“Unfortunately not. My flight to Casablanca is early tomorrow morning, so they’re putting me in a hotel in Ouarzazate tonight.”

“That’s too bad,” she said. “The party was so fun last year.”

“It’s alright. Once we finish our interview I should have everything I need. This is more important to me.”

“Ah, yes, okay then, let’s begin,” she said, getting as comfortable as she could in the small wooden folding chair of the bivouac bar.

“So,” I said, as I turned on my recorder. “What in the hell happened to you yesterday?”

It was the perfect evening right up until the moment a drunken French redneck stumbled in and ruined it.

I was sitting somewhere in the sand dunes in the middle of the Sahara in a small circle with the rest of the native English speakers, including Brooke, Phil, Jay, Marco, Alex, Kiera and Claudia. The sun had long since set, the cold was just starting to settle in, and many of the small groups of friendly competitors who set up camp around us has had built small bonfires to keep themselves warm.

As soon as we arrived there, a little before sunset, the 80 or so competitors who happened to finish their day at the same checkpoint formed a large oval with their cars, and soon tents began popping up between them. The real action, however, was wherever the staff and media vehicles were parked. Without any heavy rally equipment to worry about, and with no concern for the weight or storage capacity of their massive off-road SUVs, the dynamic suddenly took a drastic turn. We had spent the day chasing after the Gazelles, but now the Gazelles were coming over to check out the amenities these seasoned desert drivers had built into their custom vehicle, each a window into the personality of its owner.

It was like a scene out of the Fast and the Furious, only the drivers were much older, had thick European accents, and instead of flat screens and subwoofers they instead showed off much more domestic automobile upgrades. The Portuguese driver, for example, had some cook-wear in the trunk, including a small propane grill that he used to make a large batch of paella for the group. Another Morrocan driver had used his trunk space for a water tank that connected to a hose that dangled from the side of the trunk, providing both a personal shower and more importantly a way to wash the sand off our feet before climbing into our tents.

Our driver was a bit more selfish; a motorized compartment on his roof popped open to create something of a small bedroom cabin atop the car, while the trunk was almost completely occupied by a fridge packed with beer.

“I’m just a redneck,” he said, when I asked him where his shower and grill were, though it sounded almost sarcastic in his French accent. Unlike the rest of the group Thiery (whose name I couldn’t pronounce properly, so I just called him “Terry”) wanted some privacy, so he parked his one bedroom suite a few dunes over, and after sharing what he felt was too much of his alcohol stash he retreated back to his cabin for some personal time with the depleted collection.

I barely noticed his disappearance, but when he returned sometime later the rest of the native English speakers and I were lying on our backs, feet in the sand, starring up at the undisturbed night sky, enjoying a rare moment of peace at the end of a day filled with chaos.

“I’m going to turn in,” said Jay, just as Thiery appeared over the dune behind us, holding a nearly empty bottle of wine.

“I thought the women were over there,” he shouted in a slur, pointing at the campfires burning nearby and ignoring the three women sitting with us. He continued stumbling over in our direction and took a seat in the sand directly across from me. “Hey Jared, I just heard on the radio, they found car number 107!” he said. “Yeah, I’ll take you to them right now. But first you have to kiss my ass!” he then laughed so hard he fell over on his side, spilling the remains of his bottle into the sand.

“Maybe I won’t go to bed,” joked Jay. “This just got interesting.”

“I knew Canadians were weak,” continued Thiery, after he finished laughing to himself, “but I didn’t think they’d be so annoying.”

“You’re French,” I responded, trying to stand some ground. “I don’t think you get to call out any other country for being weak.”

“I’m not French,” he said, trying to supress his French accent. “I’m American.”

“You’re as American as I am Moroccan,” I responded. His smile faded into a more serious expression, and I began to consider whether I was about to get into a fistfight with the man who was responsible for my safety.

“One more word and I’m leaving you here,” he said, looking deadly serious.

“I’ll hitch a ride with someone else,” I responded.

“Nobody wants an annoying Canadian in their car,” he laughed to himself again, this time embellishing a little more.

“I think that’s enough for one night,”Jay interrupted.

“You’re on his side?” asked the drunk Frenchman who fancied himself an American hick.

“I’m on the side of everyone going home in one piece. Thiery, where’s your car?” Thiery picked up the empty bottle and used it to point over the dune behind us. “We better get you back over there.”

“I don’t need your help,” he said with contempt, and began stumbling back in the direction from which he came.

I awoke abruptly to what sounded like engines rumbling right next to my head, followed by loud honking and cheering. I unzipped my tent to find that it was one of the last still standing at the bivouac, and the rest of the surrounding canvas was starting to come down. It was exactly 6 a.m. and the competitors had already been awake for over an hour; already eaten breakfast, received their checkpoints for the day and mapped out their individual routes. Now was the ceremonial procession from the bivouac, where competitors lined up five in a row and departed in a group while a small crowd of staff and fellow drivers cheered them on. Since there was no real rush to depart—and to ensure teams didn’t follow each other from checkpoint to checkpoint—starting times were scattered, with five cars assigned to five different checkpoints departing in this manner every few minutes until the last group started their journey an hour later.

“What’s going on?” I asked Phil, as I emerged from my tent.

“You overslept,” he shouted over the noise. I guess he was right, but in my defence I really hadn’t done much sleeping that night. After my conversation with Stéphanie I crawled into my tent around 11 p.m., but thanks to some combination of jet lag and discomfort I didn’t fall asleep until well after 2 a.m. The echoing sound of roaring engines, power drills and generators echoing from the nearby mechanics area certainly didn’t help.

I only slept for about an hour before I got a taste of the desert deep freeze. I knew it would get cold, and I had brought what I was told would be an appropriate amount of layers to manage, but the chill I experienced when I awoke sometime around 3a.m. was well beyond what I had prepared for. I quickly went from sound asleep to a state of panic as I peeled open my backpack and fished around for another layer of pants, gloves, socks and even a second had to put over the one I was already wearing. The shivering stopped sometime after 4 a.m., and I remember hearing a few watch alarms going off and some wrestling from nearby tents around the time I finally fell back asleep at 4:30.

“Where’s Joko?” I asked Phil.

“No idea,” he responded. “But we’re probably leaving soon.”

Over Jay’s shoulder I could see the cafeteria tent starting to come down, so I abandoned our conversation and my belongings and made a run for some coffee. I had to duck below the tarps as they were being lowered by staff perched on ladders, until I found the last remaining pot near where the buffet had been set up the night before. There was no milk or sugar, and the coffee was stale and cold, but I didn’t really care. I needed something to wake me up for this all-important final opportunity to see Stéphanie in action.

I downed a full paper cup-worth on the spot and poured myself another before making my way over to what remained of the media tent, which too was being gradually disassembled.

“Do you know where you’re going?” asked Brooke after noticing me scurrying around in a panicked daze. “I need to find Joko,” I said.

“You’re not in Joko’s car today,” she responded. “They’re going to be following Kiera and Pauline, so we’re putting you with two other journalists who are a bit more flexible. They can come with you to find Stéphanie this morning, as long as you don’t mind chasing one of the racers they’re following this afternoon. Go grab your things and come back here and I’ll find Thiery, your driver for today and tomorrow.”

“Yesterday we were still first in the rankings when we left in the morning, and just before we got to checkpoint one we heard a cracking noise coming from the back of the car,” Stéphanie said. “As we got closer to checkpoint one it was just getting louder and louder. When we arrived we found a good friend of ours, another Gazelle who is also a mechanic from Japan, and I asked her if she could help us find what’s wrong with the car. She crawled under the car to take a look, and you know the part that connects the front and back parts? What’s that called?”

“You mean the axel?” I said, naming the only car part I knew other than battery and engine.

“Maybe, but the part that connects the front wheels and the back wheels. We couldn’t open it up and look because we didn’t have the tools, and she said ‘you have to call the mechanics.’ So we called the mechanics and they took that middle piece out so that we could still drive in two-wheel drive, but they said we couldn’t go faster than 40 kilometers an hour, and we couldn’t go through any sand or rocks. At that point we decided not to take any chances; it was finished for us in that moment.”

I awoke for the second time in two consecutive days to the sound of honking in an emptying campsite. The Gazelles had again risen with the sun, and though it had been another uncomfortable rest I was appropriately dressed to avoid the early morning chill, and actually felt somewhat refreshed. At first I was thankful for the rest, but then I recalled the events of the previous evening and quickly opened my tent to make sure Thiery hadn’t made good on his threat. Sure enough his truck was still perched on the neighbouring dune, its visibly hung-over driver slowly disassembling his rooftop cabin above.

I began packing my tent, wondering what Theiry’s reaction would be to seeing me that morning, but when I tossed my gear into the truck he appeared to have none. I, for one, was still angered from the previous night, and so I didn’t say a word as I joined him in the car; I wouldn’t even look him directly the bloodshot eye.

“What’s with you?” he asked after a few minutes of awkward silence, seeming genuinely curious.

“You don’t remember what you said to me last night?”

“No,” he said, looking embarrassed and somehow even paler.  “What did I do?”

I shot him a sarcastic look, assuming he was just messing with me again.

“No, really,” he said. “I don’t remember.”

“You told me you’d take me to find Stéphanie if I kissed your ass,” he looked horrified, though a little amused at his insult. “You also called me annoying and threatened to leave me here.”

He took a moment to process, and then went straight into denial. “No I didn’t,” he responded. “There’s no way.”

“It was in front of everybody, so if you don’t believe me just ask anyone here that speaks English.”

“Damn,” he whispered to himself. “I’m so sorry. I was very drunk, I didn’t know what I was saying.”

“It’s fine,” I responded. “It’s over, and I really don’t care. Let’s just go.”  

I nearly dropped my sunglasses when the car hopped off its back tires as we sped over a bump on our way out of the bivouac. I wiped them off for a second time, put them back on my face, blinked a few times and then finally came to terms with the fact that the blurriness of my vision had nothing to do with eyewear. I had a lot of delirious moments throughout the course of that week, but that first morning in Thiery’s car I was most certainly at my worst.

I barely acknowledged Alex and Marco in the back seat, and probably failed to thank them for agreeing to head directly to Stéphanie’s second checkpoint in hopes that we’d catch up to her there. Marco, a mild mannered and heavily bearded Californian about my age, was documenting the story behind the story, and was most interested in covering the rest of the journalists’ coverage of the race than chasing specific Gazelles. Alex, meanwhile, was sent to Morocco to take pictures of Keanna Ericson-Chang, a 19 year-old American rally protégé with more professional racing experience than the middle aged women with whom she was competing. Keeana, along with Claudia Barbera-Pullen, together made up the cleverly named “team over-hyphenated” in car 149. Alex was a bit of a wunderkind himself, having photographed pretty much every motorsports competition on the planet at a similarly young age.

I didn’t find this out until later, however, because I couldn’t really get my brain to focus on a single thought for more than a few seconds at a time that morning.

We arrived at Stéphanie’s second checkpoint to find it completely empty, aside from a few flags and a sole staff member waiting to check in competitors when they finally did arrive. It was just after 9 a.m. and the sun was beginning its daily assault. As soon as we pulled over we each shed a few layers and got as comfortable as we could. At Marco’s suggestion I requested a two-litre bottle of water and my lunch box from Thiery, and dumbed the contents of the instant coffee, sugar and powdered milk packets inside. It was drinkable enough, though from afar it looked like I was chugging something far less sanitary. Gradually I transitioned from utterly hopeless to moderately functional, though I suppose I was—as one critic would later remark—being a little “annoying” that day.

I asked Thiery numerous times to try radioing in to the command center to confirm the position of car 107, but after a few static-y attempts he concluded the radio was broken. “Try asking one of the other staff members, they have an emergency satellite radio,” he told me.

“I don’t speak French,” I said. “Can you ask them for me?”

“I thought you were Canadian,” said Thiery, looking disappointed.

“I am, but I never paid attention in French class. I guess as I kid I never considered that I might find myself in the sahara surrounded by French people.” I meant it as a joke, but based on his reaction I don’t think Thiery took it as one.

Instead he went to ask the woman manning the checkpoint if she had a radio on her, and then returned to report that while her radio was not working he was in fact a big fan of the staffer’s backside.   

I really didn’t know what to make of Thiery at the time, and I frankly didn’t really put much thought into the strange duality of the man driving me around the desert for 48 hours. With a French-style scarf and American-style aviators, scruffy beard and beer belly, he maintained all the style of his native culture, and none of the sophistication.

Like most of the professional drivers escorting journalists around the desert that week he was old enough to have more grey hairs than not, and a good amount of professional off-road driving experience under his designer belt, which was held together by an oversized state of Georgia buckle.

At some point in our endless hours of waiting for Stéphanie to arrive he explained that he grew up in France but didn’t really feel at home until he moved to rural Georgia, where he lived for almost two decades. If you want to see Thiery get excited, just bring up beer, barbecue, motorsports, women and hunting. If you want to piss Thiery off, ask him politely to try the radio again, or give him a disapproving look when he points out the shape of a staff member’s ass.

“I’m sorry for putting it like this,” I said, “but why do you seem so cheerful today?”

“Because we made a good effort!” said Stéphanie, before taking another sip of her beer. “I’m so proud of how we did. The car is part of the game, and we’ll just have to come back to get first place with a car that works. It’s a little sad, but in the end it wasn’t us that failed, it was the car. We’re still champions in my mind.” She smiled.

“You’re happy now,” I said, trying to get enough details to tell the story of a competitor I never actually saw competing,” but what about in that moment, when you realized you couldn’t finish?”

“Of course I was sad,” she said, getting a bit more serious. “We were doing it for our friend who passed away, and we kept seeing ourselves winning it for her. That was the sadder part. Her husband and her friends were cheering for us, and we wanted to win it for her. But now we know we can come back and win, all we need is the right car.”

“Do you think the car broke down because of how far you pushed it this week?” I asked.

“Honestly, I think it was the mechanic that looked at the car before we left for the rally. We brought it to a Moroccan mechanic before we came to the desert, and he replaced a part near the rear axel, and I think that’s the part that broke. We pushed the car but I don’t think that’s why it broke.”

“So what did you do after you found out you couldn’t finish the race yesterday?” I asked.

“We decided to enjoy ourselves,” she said as the smile returned to her face. “We arrived at the bivouac this morning at 8 a.m. and they said we could not enter until 10, so we went into the village for breakfast. It was lovely. I’ve really had a great week.”

“Really?” I said. “Your friend died and you lost the competition after being in first place because of a mechanical problem, and you had a great week?”

“Yes!” She said, excitedly. “We’re in this beautiful place with beautiful people, and sure it was tough, but I’m happy to have had this week, and I think we’re all lucky to be here. What happened with Florence just reminds me how lucky we are to be alive, and to be healthy enough to enjoy these things.”

With no sign of Stéphanie and no working communication channel that could point us in the right direction I finally agreed to abandon her second check point around 11 am, but only because Theiry convinced me the radio might work from a different location. In hindsight I’m pretty sure he knew that it wouldn’t, but couldn’t stand sitting there any longer, waiting for someone who likely wasn’t coming.

It wasn’t until we caught up to team over-hyphenated at their fourth checkpoint around noon that one of the other competitors confirmed car 107 had in fact called in a mechanic, and likely wasn’t going to be able to finish the race.

The news was equally devastating as it was relieving. By that point I knew something had likely happened, but still maintained hope of finding her eventually. After all, she wasn’t the type to give up easily, nor stay on course, and I had travelled halfway across the planet to see Stéphanie drive. In my sleep deprived state I was stubbornly still holding onto hope that I would get that opportunity.

It was also a relief not to have to feel rushed as we followed team over-hyphenated through the most difficult part of the course that I personally witnessed (though anyone who was around for the first few days of the competition would say it only barely cracks the top three in terms of difficulty). We spent much of the afternoon on all fours, digging the tires out of the sand dunes with our bare hands. After 20 minutes of digging and revving we’d typically only make it a few feet before getting ourselves stuck again, but we weren’t alone. That stretch of desert was littered with SUVs whose tires were spitting sand out behind them without moving an inch. It was almost sun down when we finally reached the checkpoint on the other side, and followed the rest of the competitors in the area to a relatively flat patch to set up camp for the night.

“I’d kill for a coffee right now,” I said as a way of breaking the awkward silence in the car.

“I have an espresso maker in the back,” said Thiery.

“Shut up,” I responded. “You’re not funny.”

“You think I’m lying but I’m not,” he responded, maintaining an even expression that I found difficult to read.

“As soon as we’re out of the dunes I’ll pull over and show you.”

A short while later Thiery pulled the car over and began rummaging through the trunk. Eventually he pulled out what looked almost like a camera lens; poured some of his water bottle out into the top, deposited a little pod into the side, and pushed a button.

“Hold this,” he said, handing me a little plastic espresso cup. The little device made a few noises, and then sure enough spat out a fresh cup of espresso. Thiery just smiled. After it finished I asked if he wanted me to grab another cup for him. “That’s alright,” he said, putting the device back into the car and reaching for a beer. “This is my coffee.”

He then turned to Alex and Marco and asked if they wanted to join him for a drink, and the both agreed.

“How about you, Canadian?” he asked. “Nothing left to do today but enjoy the desert. Have a beer with us.”

“Alright,” I responded.

Marco set up his tripod and took a picture of the three of us holding out our beer cans in an otherwise empty valley surrounded by mountains and large rock formations.

“So what now?” I asked.

“We have a few hours until we have to be at the bivouac,” said Theiry.

“I’m up for anything,” said Marco. “I guess I am too,” said Alex. “I’ve got everything I need.”

“There’s a town not too far away,” said Thiery. “Lunch is on me.”

After a few more pictures we finished our drinks and hopped back into the car. Theiry let me pick the music as we drove for an hour towards a little town that sat at the base of a mountain off in the distance, where he treated us to some tagine and another round of beer, before taking us back to the bivouac.

“I still can’t believe how positive you are being in the face of all of this,” I said.

“What can I tell you?” responded Stéphanie. “We were really disappointed at first, but then I think of the Olympic athletes who train every single day, it’s their whole lives, and then something like this happens to them. This isn’t something I trained my whole life for, I have a whole other life, so yes it’s disappointing but I still consider myself very lucky to even be here.”

“I admire your optimism,” I said. “So what now?”

“Well, there’s the party tonight, which will be fun, but then we have to bring Florence’s car back to her husband in France. That’s going to be the hardest part. Her clothes and tent and everything is still in the truck, even though it’s broken, so we need to bring everything back to Paris. It’s going to be really tough, but again, that’s life.

“Every race brings me to a point of clarity; it shows me what’s really important in life,” she continued. “I think we often miss that these days, with how fast everything moves now, but being here away from it all really brings you back to reality. It just gives you perspective, and helps you understand what life is really about. You have to keep moving. You have to grab life and enjoy every moment of it, and you have to learn to keep going, no matter what happens. That’s what I’m doing now, and that’s what I’ll continue to do for however much time I have left.”

Just then Brooke approached the bar and interrupted our conversation.

“Your car’s here,” she said. “The driver’s waiting.”

I stuck out my hand to shake Stéphanie’s, but she shoved it aside and gave me a hug instead. “Thanks for coming here and tell Florence’s story,” she said. “and mine.”

I thanked her for her time again, and made my way towards the car.

We rode down the highway for a few hours, through the desert and up into the mountains that separate the Sahara from the first signs of civilization, reaching the first peak just before sunset. The journey home was nearly as treacherous as the journey over, only this time everything was in reverse, each leg getting a little more comfortable, and a little less interesting.

As we continued the roads got more smooth and sturdy, and the division between the highway and the sand became clearer. Eventually the power lines returned over our heads, and got thicker and thicker as we continued on.

Over these picturesque mountains was the scenic little town of Ourzazate—where a hot shower and a bed waiting for me—then the return trip to the less beautiful but still exotic Casablanca, until finally returning to all the comforts and predictability of home.

Links:
Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara: Part 1
Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara: Part 2
My story about Stéphanie for Ozy
My story about the race for the Guardian
Macro’s behind the scenes video about the journalists covering the race
Jay and Phil’s Video for Refinery29

Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara, Part Two: A Night at the Bivouac

(Part one available here)

The bivouac was like nothing I had ever seen before. In fact, I hadn’t even heard the word “bivouac” before.

Wikipedia defines it as an improvised campsite or temporary shelter, but that barely does it justice. This was more like a city of canvas bordered on all sides by 18-wheelers. There was a truck for everything: bathroom trucks, shower trucks, water trucks, food trucks (not the hipster kind), electric generator trucks, battery trucks, radio tower trucks, office trucks and a whole series of empty trucks just for transporting equipment, luggage, and other trucks from one campsite to the next. That doesn’t even include the several hundred vehicles competing in the rally parked nearby, or the chopper that lands each night just behind them.

All these trucks and canvas, when put together, make something of a functioning city in the desert, complete with Internet connectivity, bathroom and shower facilities, electricity, a cafeteria, a press tent, a body shop, a souvenir stand, a low-rise-worth of portable office space and even a fully stocked bar.

On half of the competition days the Gazelles depart from the bivouac and spend the evening camping near their day’s last checkpoint, while the entire thing is packed up and transported to the next location. The following evening they return to the bivouac in a new location, and enjoy a few of its comforts before another 36 hours in the open desert.

Joko dropped Jay, Phil and I off at the media tent in the bivouac around 5:00 pm, where Brooke was already waiting to deliver us our gear; a tent, sleeping bag, inflatable mat and an official Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc vest (which had to be worn at all times at the bivouac, lest someone mistakes us for a hungry nomad).

Jay and Phil seemed to be in no rush to do much of anything that evening, seeing as they weren’t interested in shooting footage of the bivouac, but I had no time to lose. I finally had everyone I needed to interview in one location, and I couldn’t be certain I’d see any of them again.

“Where’s Stéphanie?” I asked Brooke, interrupting the small talk with her fellow Americans.

“I haven’t seen her. She might not be in yet,” she said. “Go check in at the command center, they should be able to pick up her car’s locations on the GPS.

“Where’s the command center?” I asked.

“It’s the truck with the biggest antenna. You’ll find it.”

I walked around the assortment of trucks lining the bivouac’s perimeter until I spotted the one with a giant antenna, stretching about twice the trailer’s height.

Happy hour at the bivouac bar

I climbed the stairs and knocked on the door, and someone inside answered in French. When I responded in English I could hear a bit of a scramble behind the thin trailer wall as they called out for someone inside that spoke English. That’s when I met Serge Barbieux.

Serge is an air traffic controller in Lyon, France, but for two weeks a year he sits behind the radar screens at mission control as the rally’s assistant sport director.

I asked if he could help me find Stéphanie, and after a few keystrokes he was able to confirm her position, about 20-minutes away from the bivouac. Then I asked for a formal interview, and before I could ask any formal questions he dove right in. 

“From here we can know permanently the position of every Gazelles team on the terrain, and we receive their position on the radar screen, like the ones we use in air traffic control,” he said into my recorder. “A system installed in each one of the cars sends us the position of each car every five minutes.”

He went on to explain how the race looks from his perspective, tracking each of the 165 teams as well as all seven emergency mechanic teams, four emergency medical teams and the helicopter (which is carrying a medical staff member at all times). He told me that the Gazelles drive between 50 and 180 kilometers each day, and that they randomize which team is required to reach which checkpoint in what order. “Before the race we come with a team of 12 people and we check all of these legs in real life to make sure they are equal in difficulty and distance,” he said, adding that they can’t just have all the teams go to the same checkpoints in the same order; otherwise it would be too easy to cheat.

I asked whether he’s ever at liberty to help the competitors if they’re heading far off course. “If we see a car getting close to the Algerian border, we phone through the satellite box, and we tell them just to check their navigation again,” he said. “We have to stop them before they are intercepted by the authorities, because if they are intercepted it takes hours for them to be freed.”

“Has that happened before?” I asked.

“Not yet this year, but it’s happened before.”

“How do they know how to navigate without a GPS?” I asked.

“I am part of the team who trains the gazelles,” he said proudly. “We have a weekend training course, organized both in France and Utah. On Saturday morning we focus on measuring headings and distance on a map, then in the afternoon we bring them into town. They have a map on which there are several points, and they have to reach different points just measuring the heading of the streets and walking.”

We continued to talk for a little while, occasionally interrupted by a crackling of the nearby radio or by a colleague asking Serge something in French, until I realized it had been well over 20 minutes since I sat down.

“Can you check on Stéphanie’s car again?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “It is car number 107, yes? Okay, let me look.” He typed away at the computer in front of him. “They are here,” he said, pointing to the screen. “Maybe five or ten minutes ago.”

I thanked Serge and returned to the media tent in hopes that someone could introduce me to Stéphanie. “I think she went to take a shower,” said Brooke. “They slept in the desert last night so she may need a little while. You’ll see her at dinner.”

“Sure,” I said, getting a little anxious.

“You didn’t see her out there today?” asked Brooke.

“Nope,” I responded.  

“Oh. Is there anybody else you want to interview in the mean time?”

“What about Dominique?” I said. “Or maybe the princess of Monaco? Or Charlie Chaplin’s grand daughter?”

“Dominique is probably in her trailer, I can see if she’s available,” said Brooke. “And I don’t know where Kiera and Pauline are, but they’ll be at dinner too. Try not to bombard them though, they’re getting a lot of requests from the journalists.”

“That’s fine, as long as I get to interview Stéphanie and Dominique tonight.”

“No problem,” said Brooke. “I’ll see if I can get Dominique for you.”

Serge Barbieux behind his desk at the command center

I awoke abruptly from my first proper sleep in days to Joko banging on the big wooden door of room in the Riad. “Is late,” he said. “You have no time to eat.”

I started to gather my things when I heard two native-English speaking men bickering back and forth between the thin clay walls.

“I almost forgot my hat,” said one.

“What a shame that would be,” said the other, sarcastically.

“What, you don’t like my hat?” said the first.

“Are you kidding? I’m embarrassed to be around you and that thing. Not that I’m not embarrassed enough to be around you anyway.”

“Fuck you.”

“Hey, just being honest.”

I continued to gather my things, still in a bit of a daze.  

“Les go,” shouted Joko. “Vee must hurry.”

I dragged my bags to Joko’s truck behind the riad.

“Can I grab a coffee before we leave?” I asked this time, having gotten just enough sleep to remember my manners.

“Okay,” said Joko, looking around. “Quickly, ah? Vee must go.”

I ran back inside the riad and found the French press on a table in the little kitchen at the back, poured myself a cup and returned to the car, where I found two guys loading their bags into the trunk.

“Is my gear back there? I don’t care if you crush my stuff but be careful with the gear,” said the taller one, wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

“What do you think I am? An idiot?” said the other, looking like a Hollywood director in his baseball cap, aviator sunglasses, scruffy beard and pink button down shirt. “Your gear’s in the back seat.”

“Alright, just making sure.”

“Hey,” said the one in the wide hat as I approached. “Top of the morning. I’m Jay and this is Phil.”

“Morning. I’m Jared,” I responded, sipping my coffee. “If you need me to move any of my stuff let me know.”

“All good,” said Phil, as he slammed the trunk shut. “We made it work.”

“Ready?” shouted Joko from the driver’s seat.

“Ready,” responded Jay, before turning back to me. “You mind taking the front seat? All our gear is in the back.”

“No problem,” I responded, and climbed in.

“Dominique has 15 minutes,” Brooke told me just as the sun began to set over the bivouac. “Just a heads up, her English isn’t great so you may need a translator.”

“Where am I supposed to find a translator?” I asked.

“There’s a few women around who can do it, let me ask. In the mean time go say hi and do what you can, she doesn’t have much time.”

Brooke pointed me to Dominique’s trailer, situated about halfway between the media tent and the command center.

I approached the wide open door to find a flurry of activity around the most comfortable looking vehicle in the bivouac. It was the only one that had an actual bed in it, or at least the only one I saw, along with a wooden desk and a small private kitchen. There were a handful of people seated around the trailer clicking away at their laptops, and more streaming in and out, often slipping into the open doorway, shouting a few words in French and then scurrying off.

“Dominique?” I asked.

“Oui” said a middle-aged blonde woman with shoulder length hair at the far end of the room, without looking up from her laptop screen.

“I’m here for an interview. I’m a journalist with the Guardian.”

“Oui, ze Guardien.”

“Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

“Parlez-vous français?” she asked.

“No” I responded, and she shot me a frustrated look.

“Okay,” she said. “We will try.”

I sat down at the only empty chair in the room, opened up my laptop and turned on my recorder.

“What was the original goal behind the rally?” I asked, but she clearly didn’t understand the question. She looked around the room, eventually grabbing someone by the arm and saying a few words in French. The woman then turned to me and said, “Okay, I will try to translate. What are you asking?”

“I just want to know why she started the rally,” I responded. The woman relayed the question in French, and waited for Dominique to finish speaking.

“She says women were not represented in automotive industry. I have been asked to find an idea to valorize—How do you say valorize? To help women inside the company. I don’t know the right word.”

She looked over at Dominique and then back to me. “We need someone else to translate,” she said.

Not long after Brooke appeared in the open doorway with a fellow Canadian, and evidently one who had actually paid attention in French class, unlike myself.

“Before the rally was started she was asked to find a way to promote women within the company,” said the new translator.  

“What company?” I asked, prompting the translator to repeat the question in French.

“It’s an organization of business leaders, like an automotive industry association. They were looking for a tool to promote women within their companies—this was in the late 90s—so they approached her, and that’s when she came up with the idea of the rally.”

“Why the unique structure of the rally?” I asked. “Why the rules and the navigation and the complexity, rather than just a regular speed rally?”

“Women hate speed,” Dominique answered herself, before continuing in French.

“We wanted to make an intelligent rally,” the translator continued for her. “Something that went just beyond putting your foot on the accelerator and advancing in a straight line. She had to come up with a concept that would in fact prevent people from driving fast. She found the idea of navigation an interesting way of doing that. In general women don’t like the risk involved in driving fast, it’s less natural to them.”

“The website also claims this is the world’s most responsible rally. What does that mean?”

“First of all, all waste that is produced by the bivouac is sorted,” continued the translator, as Dominique spoke quickly in French beside her. “Food waste is fed to animals in the nearby villages, anything that can be incinerated is incinerated and empty water bottles are used to build buildings in the nearby villages. They actually take the empty water bottles, fill them with sand and use them as building materials. All of the C02 emissions for the rally are offset. Even the mechanics area, every measure is taken so not a drop of oil hits the ground. If there’s any spillage they collect it and take it to be treated.”

“So tomorrow, if I retuned to this exact spot,” I began.

“There would be no sign we were ever here,” continued the translator, ad libbing on her own. “The medics that come to support the rally also provide free medical services to some of the villages we pass through, and for many it’s the only access they have to medical assistance.”

“The Moroccan government must appreciate all of those efforts,” I said. “What kind of support do they provide?”

Dominique continued speaking in French, pointing to the crest on the shoulder of her vest.

“There are a huge number of motor sports that go on in Morocco—this is the world’s playground for off-road races—but this is the only one that bares the royal coat of arms,” said the translator, pointing to the identical crest on the vest I was wearing. “Dominique says she met with the King about five or six years ago, they discussed the rally, and he now follows it every year. She told him how we bring aid to people, and Dominique said we would like your support, so he granted the event the honor of baring the coat of arms.”

“Very interesting. Last question; why call them ‘Gazelles’?” I asked.

“Gazelle means beautiful woman in Moroccan,” said Dominique.

Scaring the locals

Riding shotgun in Joko’s car was a bit like driving in Canada in the winter. We ploughed through the sand dunes as fast we could to avoid getting stuck (or perhaps because we were behind schedule), each turn causing the back of the truck to fishtail in the sand behind us.

As soon as we departed Jay confessed that he and Phil were childhood friends from Connecticut who grew up together obsessing over film. While Jay took his talents to the big apple, however, Phil built his career in LA.

“I haven’t seen this asshole in years,” said Phil.

“Phil’s just here because I invited him,” interrupted Jay. “I just started my own production company and I got the call to come out here and make a video for Refinery29, but I couldn’t do it alone, so I called up this bastard to join me.”

Phil eventually revealed that he was the executive producer of the hit show CSI (the original one, he assured me; not any of the spinoffs) and Jay had done pretty much every job in the industry before starting his own production company a few years ago. I told them a bit about myself and my career, but they soon got lost in reminiscing about their hometown and the people they once knew there.

We drove all morning without seeing any signs of the rally, through strikingly diverse terrain that quickly switched from slippery sand to bumpy boulders to palm tree filled oases. Along the way we passed through packs of wild camel, donkey and goats, Joko occasionally stopping to check his GPS or call in to the command center from his radio for directions.

We finally reached a rally checkpoint just before noon, which comprised of a few flags and a staff truck where volunteers checked the names of competitors off the list as they arrived. There were a couple of rally cars already parked around it, and more joining by the minute.

As soon as the car stopped Jay and Phil immediately sprung into action, grabbing some of their gear out of the back seat and asking around for competitors that spoke English and had a moment to spare for an interview. Unsure of what to do with myself I followed closely behind with my little handheld voice recorder, hoping to avoid the awkwardness of the exercise myself.

After Jay and Phil were satisfied that they had spoken with every English-speaking Gazelle nearby (of which there were only a handful) we returned Joko’s truck for lunch.

Joko handed each of us a small shoebox worth of food that looked like it was purchased at a military surplus store. The lunch rations included tuna salad and crackers, apple sauce, two small pieces of chocolate, two packages of instant coffee (with cream and sugar packets) a small bag of dried apricots and a metal tin labeled “Poulet Au Curry Et Ses Legumes,” along with a small metal stand, white coal and box of matches. I was the only one of the group who attempted to make a hot meal using the supplies that were provided, but no amount of fire could make that chicken curry appetizing.

After lunch Jay and Phil set up their tripod along a route we were told every car would have to pass through that afternoon. As they measured their shots and set up their tripods I kept my eye out for car number 107.

After about an hour without any sign of Stéphanie, Jay and Phil were again satisfied with their shots, so we hopped back in Joko’s car and followed the racers towards the next major obstacle; a giant rocky mountain.

The road that lead up to the peak was one of the most treacherous driving experiences of my life, but Joko seemed unfazed as he made his way along the narrow path that separated the mountain to our left from the cliff’s edge on our right.

The reward for making it through that passageway, however, made it well worth the climb. As we reached the peak of the mountain the narrow pathway opened up to reveal a wide open view overlooking the valley below.

From our vantage point it looked as if a meteor had burrowed a massive hole through the mountain range, perfectly encircling the wide-open terrain with steep cliffs on all sides. The only way down into the valley was another narrow snake path that criss-crossed along the hillside, or at least that’s what they told me. Before heading down the snake path most competitors stopped at the lookout point above to pose for a picture. I even had Jay take a couple shots of me. The guys were sympathetic to the fact that I hadn’t yet seen what I had come all this way to see; namely Stéphanie in action. In his broken english Joko assured us that she had to pass through there eventually, but after more than an hour of waiting we eventually had to give up. As it turns out, hers may have been the only one of the 165 vehicles in the competition that didn’t pass us that afternoon.

“Stéphanie?” I sheepishly said in the general direction of the woman Brooke had pointed out to me inside the bivouac cafeteria tent.

“Oui,” responded the tough looking blonde woman whose dinner I was interrupting.

“Stéphanie! Hello! It’s me, Jared, we spoke on the phone a few weeks ago!”

“Of course,” she said in a polite but far less enthusiastic tone.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt your dinner but I’ve been looking for you all day. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

“No problem,” she said, picking at the rice and beef dish in front of her.

“How has the race been so far?” I asked as I took an empty seat at the round table and opened up my laptop.

“Good,” she said, very matter-of-factly. “We are in first place.”

“I was very sorry to hear about Florence,” I continued, “Can you start by telling me what happened?”

Stéphanie finished the last few bites of her dinner, pushed her plate aside and settled in for the interview.

“Okay,” she said. “ We came here to train in the dunes for seven days in February. She hurt her shoulder, and I hurt my neck and my back, but she went to the doctor and the doctor told her ‘you have to get operated on on the 19th of March, you can’t do the Gazelle race.’ She talked to the organization and they said we can’t postpone to next year, because we had already passed the cancellation date. So Florence said ‘look, it’s my problem, do the race and I’ll lend you the car.’

“The first day of the race, at night we arrived to the Bivouac, the organizers came and said ‘both of you come and see us,'” she looked over at the smaller woman sitting to her right, her driving partner Anne Marie, as if confirming her recollection with her, even though Anne Marie doesn’t speak english.

“I said ‘did we do something wrong?’” she continued, “and they had a serious look. Anne Marie and I were ready to fight. Then they told us about the news. It was very sad. I cried so much, I don’t think I can cry anymore.

“I know it sometimes happens when you get surgery. It’s part of the risk. It’s sad, but it’s life. But I think she’s up there with us. Every time we’re in a difficult situation, we never stop because we say look, we’re alive, and we have to do what we can to continue for her.

“What do you want people to know about Florence? What should I say about her in my story?”

“Her joie de vivre, I don’t know the English.”

“Joy of life, I believe.” 

“Yes!” said Stéphanie. “She was 62, I believe, and she just learned how to do kite surfing this summer in Bali. I’m 46 and I’m looking at her like ‘seriously?’ I want to be like her when I get old. She was my idol.” At that point it became hard to tell whether Stéphanie was smiling or holding back tears. Perhaps a bit of both. “It’s very sad what happened, but if you have to die it’s a better death than being sick and old. She wouldn’t be the type of person who could get old and not be able to do things. That would have been hard. Sometimes things happen for a reason. It’s very sad, but it’s life.”

“So after they tell you about what happened to Florence on that first night of the competition, how were you able to keep going?”

“The second day was really hard,” she said. “Everyday is hard, but especially the day after they told us. We have her tent, we have her car, we have all of her things in the truck, so we think about her all the time. It’s like she’s with us all the time. She is—I mean she was—always very motivating, like ‘go, go, go, you can do it.’ Very motivational. After they told us we had to decide if we wanted to do the rally, but I know Florence would want us to keep going. She reminds us that we have one life to live and we have to fully take part in it. Anne Marie and I are very tough, and we won’t let up.”

“Why did you choose Anne Marie as your partner?” Anne Marie perked up at the sound of her name.

Dinner at the bivouac

“Because she’s just like me; she’s very competitive. She pushes me. I think that’s why we’re in first place,” said Stephanie, smiling at the woman seated next to her.

“Just today, you know the big mountain? The very rocky parts?”

“Yes,” I said.

“We cut a path that no one cuts, ever.”

“You went off the path?” I asked.

“Yes!” said Stephanie, excitedly. “The hill was like that,” she continued, holding her hand up nearly straight to demonstrate the angle of the cliffs. “We pushed some rocks away, we made a little path, and we went down the mountainside. I think we gained one kilometer, and now we’re ahead by one kilometer. If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be winning.”

“That’s incredible!” I said.

“We also went in a river that nobody went in. I don’t know why we went there. We had water up to our knees, and the car was stuck in the water with mud everywhere. So Anne Marie backed up, we took an axe out of the car to cut some trees, we put the trees in the river and we went through. Everyday has been like that with her.”

“Well, I definitely want to follow you tomorrow so I can see some of that myself,” I said. “What do you think will be the key to winning?

“I think being steady is important, and not breaking the car. There was one team that was in first, they broke something and I’m not sure they’re going to be able to compete. Another car that was ahead with us had to call in the mechanic, which is a 200 km penalty.”

“Just for calling a mechanic?” I asked. “That’s more than a full day of driving.”

“Yes, and then you’re out of the race. You’re out of the top for sure. So we don’t want to call them. We have to push the car when it’s not doing well.”  

“Is there anything wrong with your car?” I asked.

“It’s not my car,” she reminded me. “My car was a tank. I would be a lot more relaxed with my car, but because of the circumstances I’m in Florence’s car. The motor, the gas pump and the filter, it wasn’t working very well. They checked everything, and it’s working better now, but who knows? Every time I press on the gas I’m scared, like ‘is it going to hold?”

“Well, I’m going to let you get back to your dinner, but thanks again for your time. I’m looking forward to seeing you two in action tomorrow,” I said, before turning off my recorder and closing my laptop. “Keep an eye out for me.”

I walked away from their table, convinced I’d be seeing them again the next day to continue our conversation. I should have known that nothing that week would be so easy.

Eight Days, One Map, No GPS: Her Race Through the Desert
Car 107 – Stéphanie Pérusse, right, checks her map alongside teammate Anne Marie Borg, left, at the 2018 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc. Source: PHOTOS BY MAIENGA

Chasing Gazelles Through the Sahara, Part One: Journey into the Desert

It was 2 a.m. when I placed the call over the spotty hotel Wi-Fi. The odds that it would go through were slim; the odds someone would pick were slimmer. It was already 9 p.m. in New York City, and even if someone did pick-up, they were in no position to help me out, especially not at that hour.

None of that mattered to me though; it had been the longest day of my life, and by god I needed someone to yell at, someone to take responsibility for all the disorganization and poor planning that landed me in the small Moroccan city of Ouarzazate (pronounced were-za-zat) more than 36 hours after leaving my home in Toronto.

Worse yet, I was looking at the only bed I had seen for two days, and the only one I’d see for three more, and it wasn’t much to look at; Two thin single mattresses crammed together with a paper-thin sheet holding them together, and another identical sheet on top. The rest of the room was empty aside from a small square tube T.V., a rotary phone and the power outlet in the corner where I plugged in every device I brought along for the ride. In my delirium I remember being jealous of my devices, knowing they’d be fully charged when the alarm went off four hours later, and I wouldn’t.

I can’t entirely recall the exact words I left on the voicemail, I just know they were angry, visceral, filled with pain and exhaustion and sleep deprivation. I know I refused to set my alarm for 6 a.m., having just completed the longest journey of my life, and I know I said something about being treated like a piece of cargo rather than a human being.

Whatever I said I know it wasn’t in my typical, overly polite Canadian tone, but it evidentially worked, maybe even too well. I had assumed the voicemail wouldn’t even reach the other line, completely unaware that I had just set off a chain reaction that would echo from New York to the Sahara.

I awoke the next morning at 7:30am, half an hour after I was expected to be waiting outside the hotel with my bags already packed, wondering if my message was received. There was a pretty decent chance that the driver would have already given up by this point and gone home, leaving me completely stranded in the middle of nowhere. Of course I didn’t consider that when I turned off my alarm the night before, in some small act of rebellion, but as I waited for the elevator doors to open I realized there was a chance nobody was waiting for me on the other side.   

It’s no coincidence that the town of Ouarzazate looks like a scene out of The Mummy, Gladiator or Game of Thrones; all three were filmed in what has been dubbed “Morocco’s Little Hollywood,” along with countless classic westerns and desert-themed productions. The town of about 70,000 is perched on a mountain that sits on the border between coastal cities like Marrakesh and Casablanca and the Sahara dessert, often acting as the final glimpse of civilization for tourists before venturing out into the vast openness. I guess I fell into that category as well.

Fortunately I found the panicked local scampering around the lobby when I arrived with my bags just before 8pm. He recognized me right away from the blurry photo they had sent him via fax. He barely spoke English but kept tapping on his watch and pointing to the car. I handed him my bag, pointed to the hotel cafeteria and held up my index finger to let him know there was no way I was leaving that hotel without a coffee and a piece of bread. Lord knows how long it would be before I saw my next meal, and he surely didn’t want to spend the next five hours with me in the back seat suffering from caffeine withdrawal.

I got comfortable in the white van as I watched all signs of civilization slowly fade into the rear view mirror. As we drove the roads got thinner and bumpier, and the division between the highway and the sand became less clear. The power lines got thinner and thinner until they eventually stopped dangling above our heads entirely. Pretty soon I found myself further away from home, native English-speakers and Internet connectivity than I had been in my entire adult life, wondering how in the hell I got to that point, and what in the world would come next.

Though I can’t say for sure it’s pretty safe to assume that this all started with one of the many public relations databases I am involuntarily listed on. Someone in France had hired someone in New York with access to a list of journalists, and was likely sending out invitations indiscriminately to all of them. Why else would they contact a business and careers journalist in Toronto for a sports and travel story?

I first got the invite in 2017, but having just returned from the Dubai desert I was all adventured-out. The second time they contacted me—barely three weeks prior to landing in Ouarzazate—I couldn’t resist the call to adventure. I spent the next week pitching just about every editor I’ve ever worked with on the story, and ended up receiving not one, but two positive responses. I confirmed my attendance with the PR firm in New York, and they began putting together the itinerary.

In hindsight I can sympathize with the small team of about four staff coordinating travel and logistics for about a dozen journalists from every corner of the planet and another dozen from Morocco and France, but when I got my itinerary I was less than pleased. To get to the Sahara I’d have to take a flight from Toronto to Montreal, then an overnight flight to Casablanca, where I arrived the following morning at 10am local time, 5am back home. Then I’d have to kill 14 hours in Casablanca with no hotel or accommodations before a midnight flight out to the edge of civilization.

Any relief that could have come from finally gaining access to a bed went out the window the moment the front desk of my little hotel in Ouarzazate relayed a message that was waiting for me, courtesy of the team in New York. The note informed me that my stay would only be about five hours long; a car was going to be picking me up from the hotel first thing the next morning to drive me five hours into the desert, at which point I’d be spending four nights sleeping in a tent before returning home.

It didn’t help that the tour guide I had hired to show me around Casablanca for $200 USD didn’t speak a single word of English. Two weeks later, after leaving a less-than-positive review on the agency’s Trip Advisor page, the owner called me from Morocco to explain that the English speaking tour guide he arranged got sick and, unbeknownst to him, sent his friend in his stead, assuming that as a Canadian I’d speak some French (I do not). He refunded me the full fee and apologized profusely, but at the time I had no idea what was going on. There I was in Casablanca, deliriously tired from an overnight flight; eating fried fish across from a stranger I couldn’t communicate with. After taking me to the Casablanca cathedral and a few spots around town whose significance I couldn’t grasp thanks to the language barrier, he drove me to the local mall, where he spent the remainder of the afternoon shopping for shoes. Then he dropped me back off at the airport, and I was on my way to Ouarzazate, already sleep deprived and fuming when I landed, made my way to the hotel and received a note containing more bad news at the front desk.

Getting a tour of the Casablanca mall, thanks to the “tour guide” on the left.

I woke up in the back seat of the stranger’s car as he pulled over to the side of a dirt road near a gas station in the middle of the Sahara. We waited there for a few minutes until out of the blue a truck approached—not from the road, but from the middle of the desert. The truck itself was covered in stickers and markings from brands I’d never heard of, propped up on enormous shocks that required it’s two passengers to jump down some ways to exit.

The male passenger, an older-looking Frenchman with greying hair, a green vest and aviator sunglasses, approached the driver who had brought me this far, while the female passenger—a young, blonde American woman—came over and introduced herself as Brooke.

“How has your journey been so far?” she asked, and I almost laughed at the question.

“Less than smooth, but it’s fine. I made it,” I responded.

“You’re the Canadian guy, right? You’re here to write about Stéphanie?”

“I’m doing two stories,” I responded. “One’s a profile on Stéphanie for a magazine called Ozy, the other is a broader story about the race itself for the Guardian.”

“Well, crazy what happened to her,” said Brooke. “I mean, I guess it’s good for you, right? I know you never want to be happy about a thing like this, but you’re going to get a great story out of it.”

I gave her a puzzled look and she realized I had no idea what she was talking to.

“Oh right, you’ve been travelling the last couple of days, of course you haven’t heard! Oh my god, you don’t even know!”

“Know what?” I asked.

“Her partner died. Florence, the woman she was originally going to be driving with. She got injured a few weeks ago while they were training and we just found out a couple days ago that she died in surgery.”

“That’s terrible,” I said. “How’s Stéphanie doing?”

“It’s been an emotional few days,” said Brooke. “But she’s doing surprisingly well. She’s actually in third place, I think. I know she was yesterday. They haven’t posted today’s scores yet.”

I first spoke to Stéphanie Pérusse three weeks prior, as I was preparing the pitch I was going to send along to my editors. Ozy wanted a specific competitor to hone in on, someone who had a good shot of placing well, and so I asked the PR team in New York for some recommendations. They gave me a list of likely contenders, and upon some further research the choice became obvious. Not only was Stéphanie a fellow Canadian but she’s also the daughter of Jean-Paul Pérusse, a celebrated rally car champion from back when the sport was popular on my side of the world. When I called Stéphanie for a pre-interview she told me that she had never even considered following in her father’s footsteps, until she heard about the annual event in the Sahara dessert.

The 46-year-old marathon and biathlon runner was plenty competitive, but didn’t inherit a love for the raw speed and adrenaline of motorsports from her father. She lived a relatively quiet life as a mother of two flipping houses in Montreal; that is until she discovered the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc — an eight-day all-female off-road event through the Moroccan Sahara. But this wasn’t your average race; competitors had to make their way to checkpoints hidden throughout the desert, and were judged not by how fast they drove, but on the directness of their route.

In other words, if your next checkpoint is on the other side of a mountain, or a river, or a series of sand dunes, you have the choice to drive around them, but the winner is ultimately the one that reaches their destination by driving the fewest total miles. The catch? There were no GPSs or cellphones allowed; competitors had to navigate by map and compass alone. To make it even more challenging, they only received the coordinates of their unique checkpoints at 5 a.m. each day, and had one-hour to plot their course on a paper map before approaching the starting line at 6.

In 2017 Stéphanie competed in her first rally, and came in third. If there was anyone among the field of nearly 200 teams who was most determined and most likely to reach the podium, it was she. The fact that she was Canadian and spoke pretty decent English sealed the deal, and my editor agreed.

When I spoke to Stéphanie over the phone from Toronto she informed me that she was struggling to find a new partner for the rally. Her father had agreed to help her win the competition but only if she played by some of his rules. One of those conditions was that she would have to fly out to the desert and practice navigating the terrain with her partner at least twice before the actual race.

So in February Stéphanie and her driving partner Florence Deramond put Florence’s decked out FJ Cruiser in a shipping container and headed for Africa. During that practice run, however, 62-year old Florence—an 11-time Gazelle veteran and former champion—ruptured ligaments in her shoulder, and needed corrective surgery the week of the race.

Stéphanie told me she nearly backed out but ended up partnering up with a French woman she had met at the rally a year before, Anne-Marie Borg, a ski instructor from the French Alps. Florence was also kind enough to let the pair use her FJ Cruiser, since it was too late to get Stephanie’s truck to the starting line on time.

“The team in New York got your message last night,” Brooke told me, as we waited for the next driver to arrive. “You caused quite a panic.”

“Really? I didn’t even think the message would get through.”

“It definitely did. The whole team has been scrambling to figure out your accommodations for tonight. I can’t blame you for wanting another night in a hotel before you head out to the desert. We’re working on figuring something out for you.”

Maybe it was manners or maybe it was guilt, but I suddenly went from feeling righteously infuriated to feeling like a prima donna. Somewhere nearby 400 middle aged women were setting up tents for their 5th of 8 nights in the desert, and here I was demanding a hotel room and a full night’s rest before joining them for the final two. It was too late though; the wheels were in motion. Calls were being made across the ocean and over walkie-talkies across the desert. There was no stopping the scramble now.

“We’re not exactly sure where we’re going to put you, but we know wherever it is will have to be close to tomorrow’s starting line,” explained Brooke. “The next driver will take you out in that direction and we’ll let him know where to drop you off as soon as we figure out where you’re spending the night.”

When the next driver arrived, about 20 minutes later, Brooke and her driver got back in their truck and peeled off into the desert, and I continued down the main road through a series of small villages and towns. After a couple of hours we turned onto a dirt road and another half hour or so last we stopped at a lone building in the middle of nothingness. The driver went inside and returned with a young man, the only hotel employee who spoke English. He explained to me that the hotel was completely booked with other reporters and sponsors following the race, as well as the families of some competitors. As we spoke the driver got back into the car, and continued on his way, and I felt stranded once again.

The young man escorted me past the front desk and into an open atrium with a rock garden in the middle, two stories of hotel rooms wrapped around all sides with only the open sky above. “Wait here,” he told me, “the Americans are going to call soon.”

I sat there for about 20 minutes until the phone at the front desk rang. The young man picked it up and after a moment motioned for me to grab the receiver from him.

When I picked up a panicked staffer on the other end told me they had received my message and were doing whatever they could to find me a bed somewhere close to the rally for the night. Not wanting to cause any more trouble than I already had I volunteered to forgo the accommodations and begin my journey in the desert that evening. The exacerbated voice on the other end explained it was too late for that; there weren’t any drivers left to take me to the race. They asked to speak with the young hotel staff member for a moment and when he returned the phone to me the voice on the other end explained that the hotel would provide me with lunch while they figured out where to put me.

The young hotel employee in the blue sweater speaking with one of my many drivers that day

The young man escorted me again through the atrium, this time telling me to make myself comfortable on the patio out back while they prepared my lunch. Shortly after sitting down, however, he pulled up a chair across from me, and formally introduced himself.

I forget the young man’s name, but I remember much of our conversation. It was one of those interactions where you begin assuming you’re from completely different worlds, and leave with the thought that humanity is pretty much consistent every place you find it. He told me that the hotel was family-run, and that he was destined to take over the business one day, but wasn’t thrilled about being tethered to his hometown the rest of his life. He told me that he had dreams of seeing Europe and America, but had never ventured beyond the Moroccan border. I asked him what he likes to do for fun, and he said very simply “drink wine and dance with girls.” He was 24, and if you had asked me the same question at that age, I probably would have given you the same answer.

We sat there and chatted for over an hour, the young man occasionally running into the kitchen to bring out more food; first the bread basket, then some fresh olives and olive oil, and then a beef tagine—a Moroccan egg dish served bubbling hot in the ceramic saucer it’s cooked in, under a cone-shaped lid that wafts with an incredible aroma when lifted.

After lunch another driver arrived, this time in an off-road SUV, and the young man explained that I was going to be taken to another hotel nearby. I loaded my things into the truck and we continued along the dirt road until it turned into two tire tracks, before disappearing entirely. Half an hour later I started to think about how I had voluntarily let a stranger drive me deep into the middle of the desert, with nobody around for miles, no phone reception, no way of reaching the outside world, and nobody (other than maybe one or two people in New York) aware of where I was, myself included.

The driver kept his foot on the gas as we sped through the sand, and I kept wondering how in the world there could possibly be a hotel in the direction we were driving. Even more puzzling: if there were one hiding amongst all this nothingness, how in the world would the driver know how to find it? Of course he didn’t speak any English, so I couldn’t ask.

My nerves calmed as he slowed down the vehicle in order to pass through a pack of wild camel. He grinned as I pulled out my phone to take pictures and videos of the animals grazing in the desert shrubbery, looking at me the same way I might look at a tourist in Canada taking pictures of the snow.

A while later I noticed that one of the mountains in the distance had a word spelled out in white rocks on the side facing us. As we got closer I was able to make out the word “riad,” which I later learned is the name for a type of traditional Moroccan hotel. As we neared the mountain I noticed a small, one-story building at the base. “No way,” I though to myself as the driver pulled up.

As we pulled the car around a man came out of the little building and greeted the driver. The two exchanged a few words in a language I didn’t recognize (likely either Arabic or Berber), pulled my bag out of the truck and then the driver took off back the way he came.

The man at the hotel walked me over to a big open room inside the structure with about five beds in it, a single working light bulb, a bathroom in the corner and not much else. There were a few solar panels on the roof for electricity, and a wood burning stove out back that heated the water.

I put my bags down on the bed and walked around the building, not really sure what to do with myself. The building, like the previous, was a big square with an open roof in the middle and rooms on all sides. A single open door at the far end revealed the wide-open desert outside, and so I pulled up a chair and stared out into the wilderness.

Two competing thoughts that had been simmering all day started to boil over the moment there was nothing else to distract me. The first; that this might be the most breathtaking scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on. The second; “is anyone coming for me?”

I was awestruck and nervous watching the sun slowly fade behind the mountains when I heard the sound of an engine roaring in the distance. Shortly thereafter a rally car went driving by, then another, then another. They all had similar markings, though they were going in different directions. I sat there for a while until eventually one stopped right outside the building, and a slender, wrinkled man with grey hair and a big grin walked out wearing a vest with the official logo of the Gazelle rally.

“Are you Jared?” he said in a French accent, stressing the “ja.” “I am Joko, your driver for tomorrow.” He shook my hand.

“I will stay here for ze night with you, and vee vill vake up erly to-mo-row to join ze rally,” he said. “Where are ze others?” he asked.

“What others?” I responded.

“Ze other Am-er-icans. Are zey not with you?”

“No,” I responded, “Just me.”

“Ah, okay,” he said. “Zey will maybe come tonight. I don know. I hope.”

He smiled at me and went over to speak with the man who worked at the hotel.

I shared a few words with Joko through the evening but he seemed keener to speak with the only individual there that could converse with him in French. Every once in a while he would turn to me and translate what they were saying to the best of his ability, but I felt more like a part of the scenery than a part of the conversation. It didn’t matter though; I was just happy to know things were going to work out. The New York team had pulled through; I had a bed for the night, and a driver to take me to the race the next morning. It seemed like the most difficult part of the journey was finally behind me. Little did I know it hadn’t even begun.

Why You’re Here

When I was younger and people asked me what I wanted to do with my life, it took me a long time to figure it out, but eventually I landed on the following answer:

I wanted to do cool shit and write about it.

(Of course I changed it to “stuff” when the question came from a parent or teacher, but you get the idea).

A blurry post-interview pic with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, taken in Lisbon at Web Summit, November 2016

The interest in writing came naturally to me, and after discovering that I can’t stand non-fiction I started chasing after experiences that I felt were worthy of writing about, and that people would actually want to read about.

Through my career as a freelance journalist I feel like I’ve done my fare share of what younger-me would define as “cool shit.” As far as writing about it, well, that’s a little less straightforward.

I’ve published a story about skydiving for the for The New York Times and another about off-roading in the Sahara for the Guardian; I’ve even had some of my work published in Rolling Stone—But many of my best stories are yet to be told. Furthermore, those that have found a home were often cut down and heavily edited to fit the publisher’s mandate. That’s all well and good, but lately I’ve been looking for a venue to tell the full version of some of my better stories in ways that I haven’t been able to in the past, as well as some others that never saw the light of day. That’s where this website comes in.

Chugging beers in the Moroccan Sahara, March 2018

Whether you know me personally or not I want to sincerely thank you for coming to my new blog and taking a look around. Though I can’t expect much to come out of this website—at least in terms of freelance work or monetary compensation—your presence here makes the effort worthwhile. By visiting you’re giving me a venue and an excuse to continue telling the stories I want to tell in the way I want to tell them.

I’ve got a lot already planned for this blog so keep an eye out for future entries. My goal is to publish a new story every week, but please don’t hold me to that.

In the coming months I plan to write about backstage interviews with musicians, movie stars and celebrity entrepreneurs, two separate feuds I’ve gotten myself into with high profile billionaires, and a couple of private parties I’ve snuck into, with the celebrity selfies to prove it.

DJ Kaskade, Splice CEO Steve Martocci and me, on stage at Collision in New Orleans, May 2017

Along the way I want to provide a little bit of advice and maybe even some inspiration to others that may want to consider a similar path in life, either as a freelance writer or an independent worker of any kind.

Since I began my freelance career about seven years ago, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience some really cool shit. Now it’s time to tell the full story behind those experiences.

Welcome and thank you for visiting No Word Limit.

Betting My Music Journalism Career on a Poker Tournament

For much of my 20s I was obsessed with music festivals.

Like any collectors item I wanted to experience them all, and even enjoyed duplicates of some of my favorites. Since my first music festival in 2011 I’ve attended Bonnaroo in Tennessee, Coachella in California, the New Orleans Jazz Festival (obviously in New Orleans) on two separate occasions, Montreal’s Osheaga three times and New York’s Governor’s Ball twice, but the one I want to tell you about today is a little-known festival called Life is Beautiful, held in downtown Las Vegas.

The first time I attended the event with two friends I was blown away by how the event pushed the boundaries of what a musical festival could be. The second time I attended the event it was one of the best weekends of my life, despite significantly crippling my music-writing career. It would have been much worse, however, if not for a poker tournament and a Dave Grohl guitar solo I will remember the rest of my life.

I first heard about LIB (which is what the cool kids call it) the winter before the inaugural event in 2013. Though it didn’t have the same prestige to the festival-going community as Coachella or Bonnaroo there were a few elements that made it irresistible:

1) It was being held in the empty lots of old downtown Las Vegas as part of a revitalization project

2) It had a pretty incredible line-up for an event of its size

3) The food was supplied by some of the top chefs on the Vegas Strip, who weren’t allowed to charge more than $10 for any dish (no matter their cost a few blocks over)

4) It was being produced in partnership with Cirque du Soleil, whose acrobats and performers joined musicians on stage for surprise collaborations

5) It was in Las Vegas, and what 20-something doesn’t like an excuse to head to Vegas with a couple friends for a weekend?

Despite my passion for music and my career as a freelance journalist I had never covered a music festival before in any official capacity. At the time contributing to Rolling Stone was still a pipe dream, as was interviewing a genuine rock star, but I had started doing some freelance music coverage for a little-known publication out of Chicago called Consequence of Sound. In spite of a rather painful falling out with the publication’s founders I’m still an avid reader, and strongly recommend the website to any music (and now film and TV) lover, especially those based in and around Chicago.

I first reached out to the publication to do a “music festival survival column,” and later pitched them on an interview with the founder of Life is Beautiful, a man named Rehan Choudhry. I spoke to Rehan just a few months before the event’s second iteration, and as he spoke about the headliners (including Lionel Richie, Kanye West and the Foo Fighters) about this year’s food lineup and the Cirque du Soleil Beatles tribute, I knew I had to find a way to attend. The fact that I couldn’t afford to go, and that none of my friends could either, wasn’t going to deter me.

Beatles Tribute — Life is Beautiful, Las Vegas, 2014

I pitched Consequence of Sound on the idea of covering the festival, and they agreed, though they only offered me a total of $200 to write 500-word blurbs on about a dozen artists. To put that into perspective, I’d normally expect closer to $1 or at least $.50 per word, putting the assignment’s true value somewhere between $3,000 and $6,000.

There were also other red flags that I was too excited to acknowledge at the time, including the fact that they wanted me to cover multiple shows that were scheduled to take place at the same time, and the fact that they wanted me to write a total of about 6,000 words in one weekend while also attending the festival. Half a decade later I’d still consider that an impossible task, even with an otherwise empty schedule for the weekend.

Still, they were the only music publication willing to give this inexperienced freelancer a shot at covering an entire festival on his own, and their letter of assignment was all I needed to get a free media pass to the event, which itself saved me $350 on admission. Despite having to pay for my own flight and hotel I didn’t consider the assignment a loss; someone was paying me (even just a little bit) to cover a music festival. That in and of itself was a dream come true.

In hindsight, I was at best naïve and at worst a little stupid for not even entertaining the idea that it might be a complete disaster.

The first sign of trouble was when I arrived in Las Vegas straight from a major tech conference in San Francisco and checked into the hotel, only to discover that I only had enough funds to pay for the first of my four night stay. I had plenty of cash in my account ready for the trip, but failed to anticipate the high cost of living in San Francisco.

I paid for the first night at the Paris hotel in Las Vegas and was told that they could hold my reservation until the next morning, at which point I’d have to either come up with the remaining $600 or vacate the hotel. With the festival kicking off the next morning I couldn’t afford to spend any time switching hotels the next day, assuming I could even find somewhere to stay on my remaining budget of about $50 a night (less if I wanted to eat that weekend).

It was like a ‘90s sitcom plotline come to life: I had one night in Las Vegas to come up with the money, or I’d never realize my dream of covering a music festival as a professional journalist

I only had about $65 cash on me, so I did what I felt was the most logical solution at the time; I entered a poker tournament with an entry fee of exactly $65.

There were about 35 competitors in the tournament, each trying to place in 4th or better to get a share of the prize money. For me, however, fourth wouldn’t have been enough for another night at the hotel, and second or third would only buy me one more night. I had to go for broke.

After the first hour of the tournament I was down to the last of my chips, but a few lucky cards and a few unwise moves by my competitors turned things around for me. After the second hour we were down to only a dozen or so players, and I had the most chips by far.

One by one the remaining players were taken out until it was down to just myself and two others, duking it out for the top prizes. By the start of the fourth hour we were down to two, and I had a commanding lead. It didn’t take long for my chip pile to swallow theirs, and four hours later I was crowned the champion.  

Poker tournament payout sheet, Las Vegas, 2014

I remember literally shaking in disbelief as I approached the counter where I received my prize: $758 in cash, minus a generous tip for the dealers. I took my winnings and ran as fast as I could to the hotel lobby, where I paid for the next two nights in crisp hundred dollar bills.

I had a Muhammad Ali-sized ego as I arrived at the festival the next morning, high off a series of unlikely victories, sporting my purple and green “media” wristband (see obnoxious selfie below). Despite the enormity of the professional challenge ahead of me I felt like I could accomplish anything, even afford to have a few drinks as I ran from stage to stage with my little red notepad jotting down a few lines about each performance as I went.

Obnoxious selfie with media wristband. Life is Beautiful, Las Vegas 2013
Obnoxious selfie with media wristband at Life is Beautiful, 2014

After each day of the festival I’d return to my hotel room and punch out as many words as I could about each of the artists I had seen, but could barely get through my daily quota of 2000 before nodding off and doing it all over again.

When I recall the festival now, five years later, only two things really stand out; running between stages to catch enough of each show to jot down a few notes, and Dave Grohl. After bolting to the headlining stage on the third and final night of the festival midway through the Foo Fighters performance I found myself so far back into the crowd I could barely see the legendary frontman, but fortunately he was kind enough to come to me. I didn’t even notice the pathway that split the crowd into two until he ran through it and stopped about 5-feet away from where I was standing, and busted out an extended solo (see pic below) .

Dave Grohl, Life is Beautiful, 2014

I thought there was no way COS could expect me to submit this giant report the day after the festival ended, but I was wrong. At the airport the next day, still a few thousand words short, I asked the editor in chief when he needed to see a draft to which he responded “this afternoon.” I asked if he could wait until I landed 5-hours later, and he reluctantly accepted, not that he had much of a choice.

I was exhausted from a marathon week on the west coast as I wrote the remainder of my reviews on the airplane. I know the draft I submitted was sub-par, but I felt it was still usable. Evidently the editor in chief felt differently.

“Okay. Well, I’m only paying $100 for the coverage,” he wrote in an email the next day. “I rewrote entire sections and there were typos galore. I spent two hours on it this morning.”

I responded with an apology and an explanation, and thanked him again for the assignment. I offered to help in any way that I could, and swore it would never happen again, but it was too late. Consequence of Sound sent me $100, and has never responded to my emails since.

Girl Talk performing at Life is Beautiful, Las Vegas 2014

That was the end of my music-writing career, at least for the time being. After that I refocused on my careers and future-of-work reporting, that story next. In all my years freelancing I’ve never submitted work so bad that a client refused to pay me my full fee, and I probably would have been more upset about the whole situation if I hadn’t just won a few hundred in a poker tournament, and gotten 5-feet from a Dave Grohl guitar solo in Las Vegas, all without having to buy my own wristband.

Five years later, I still look back on it as both one of the best and worst weekends of my career.