The cliff, for us, was just the start of it. While I ran-slash-tumbled down the cliffside after the car, fully expecting to watch it roll below me and smash headlong into a rock face at the bottom, Darren crab-walked it down the sand – a twisted feat of technical driving. He was waiting for me, calmly, at the bottom. "You're fucking insane," I said.
"Welcome to the Dakar, mate," came his dry reply. "Get in."
In northern Mauritania we got another welcome. As Darren and I were slowly climbing a boulder-strewn path, about 15 tribesmen appeared out of nowhere and descended upon the car, opening the doors, yanking everything out that they could. They rifled through my backpack, even tore out the Kia's hood pins. When Darren slammed the car into reverse, then forward again, rocking through the boulders to unsettle the men's grip on our stuff, a grapefruit-size rock hit the Plexiglas driver's side window with a loud thwack. The window remained bowed for the rest of the race.
In Mali we hit a low-hanging tree limb, which shattered the front windshield; for days afterward we raced al fresco, gathering leaves, twigs, and a thick coat of desert dust inside the car. In Senegal we hit a hole too fast and the car went airborne, flying nose-down over the trailside foliage.
Our mechanics, driving slower and steadier, fared even worse. In the dunes of Mauritania the truck flipped onto its side. Barrie cracked his head hard enough to lose some blood, and the duo had to spend the night in the Sahara until they could wrangle help to get the bruised truck back upright.
Even the few calm, collected moments of racing were shadowed by threats: In Mauritania a rumor spread through the bivouac that the U.S. embassy had contacted the race organization, having intercepted a terrorist plot to ambush an American team.
When I lay down to sleep that night, I couldn't help but wonder what the hell I was doing here. Risking life and limb for pleasure is at least defensible. But risking it all for misery is another matter altogether – a demented subset of masochism. The adrenaline that had been sustaining me for more than a week was going rancid, like milk left in the hot sun. I wanted to quit. It wasn't simply that I was bloodshot-eyed, sand-encrusted, physically spent, that my hips were bruised from the violent up-and-down smashing of the camel grass crossings, that I had barely slept in two weeks and was surviving half the time on hot Red Bull and baguettes. Nor was it just the machine gun–fast disasters: the three hours spent digging the car out of sand as fine as talcum powder, the midnight roadside repairs, the bad GPS heading we followed that took us through a nightmarish series of virgin dunes and more and more camel grass. It was all of this, yes, but also something more: I'd lost my will. At some point, when you've been hanging by your fingers from a cliff, letting go begins to feel like the better choice.
I learned of the rally's first fatality the next morning: Jose Manuel Perez, an amateur Spanish motorcyclist who'd been sharing storage space on our support truck, had died following a crash. I watched one of his teammates, a woman, get the news: She fell to the sand wailing. The next day Fabrizio Meoni, a 47-year-old motorcyclist who was in second place in his 13th Dakar, crashed his bike a hundred or so miles out of Atar, Mauritania. He died in the desert.
"This is not a true rally," a Spanish racer told me several days later in Bamako, Mali. It was 3 am, and we were standing at a table in the bivouac, washing down our dinner with warm French beer from a can. "This is a contest to see who is tougher than who. How many dead already? Two? Every year I vow never to do it again. But then every year I do – for 19 years. Why? Because maybe I am crazy. That must be it. I am crazy."