What Goes 95 Miles Per Hour for 17 Days Straight?
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Insanity – while seemingly accurate, in the doldrums of poststage exhaustion – is too reductive and facile an explanation for why otherwise rational people shell out minor fortunes to suffer like mad and take the fierce chance of losing their lives. Something else is at work here, something I'm just beginning to comprehend. Today is January 15, a golden-hued day, and we're rolling fast on a 140-mile special between Tambacounda and Dakar in Senegal – the last true leg of the rally. The car, it seems, is going to finish, despite its endless traumas, and we are too, despite our traumas. "Double-down hole in 300 meters," I tell Darren, eyes darting from the roadbook to the road and back again. "Then it's shitty and bumpy in the vegetation for 1.5k."

"Does it actually say 'shitty' in the roadbook?" he asks with a smile.

"My loose translation of the French," I reply.

A ticklish new sensation is washing through me, vastly different from the low psychic valleys I mined just days ago – not enjoyment, necessarily, or contentment, but more like understanding. I'm recalling something Darren told me, months ago, when I first met him in California to plan our long voyage. "Will this thing ever be fun?" I asked him. "No," he said, "not fun. Not at all, really. But a few weeks later, or maybe a few months, you'll think back on it and wonder if maybe it wasn't actually fun, because you'll have this great feeling of satisfaction about it." Satisfaction: It's a weak word, the bland stuff of consumer survey cards, yet it's precisely what I'm starting to feel, a kind of past-tense high. You do not race the Dakar to experience it, I'm beginning to see, but rather to have experienced it. What I've been through has plainly been awful, an acid bath for the body and soul. Yet that I'm going to survive seems glorious.

Senegal whizzes by in a greenish-brown blur, the desert having given way to dense jungle, mud huts, windy shaded trails, the promise of water and life. "Keep to the right when you see a well, about 400 meters," I tell Darren. "Double-down descent following, it'll be stony. Then you've got a village, check speed." Villagers line the course on both sides, cheering, dancing, egging us on. What a vast difference from Mauritania, where the women cowered behind burqas and young boys pelted us with stones. Our every slow pass through a village feels like a parade. With the mud huts in our mirrors, and open earth before us, Darren guns it. The car rockets forward, its metallic scars gleaming in the African sunlight – a bright red symbol, like all the vehicles about to pour into Dakar, of speed and survival. "Nice fast trail for 4.5k," I say. "Open it wide."