Locals get serious in this year’s Gambler 500

Ever play that childhood game in which the  floor was hot lava?

The only way to get around the house was to jump on couches and climb over furniture, or else die in an  imaginary fiery pit.

Gambler 500, an Oregon-based off-road challenge, takes that nostalgic fun and recycles it into an adult version of “pavement is lava.”

The object is to use a cheap car to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ by driving off road as much as possible. The point of the game is to explore public lands, have a good time, and clean up the environment while you’re at it.

Jennifer Larsen, of Lebanon, was pretty excited to participate in her first Gambler 500 ride this year, which took place June 28 to 30. She and her team drove three cars from Lebanon to “Gamblertown”  – Chemult, in central Oregon, a rally point and camping location for all participants.

“We find places we want to explore and do it in a group – because the more the merrier – and go haul out some really awful things like abandoned cars and tires and garbage,” she said.

Their Dodge van, appropriately called a “van-vertible” for its missing walls, includes 13 seats, roll bars, a mannequin head, and the team mascot, “Chucky,” a stuffed squirrel.

While outrageous cars draw the most attention to the sport, Tate Morgan, principal founder of Gambler 500, likes to make it clear that those who participate should be legal, responsible stewards of public lands and the communities they drive through.

He promotes the removal of any litter found while out gamblin’, and says Gambler 500 is “the world’s largest and most competitive trail cleanup” event. However, he did receive some flack from forest management services early on.

When Gambler 500 consisted of only about 20 to 30 cars, Mount Hood National Forest approached them with some concerns, Morgan said.

“They thought we were doing something that we really weren’t, like we were running a race or something.”

Then a video of the event went viral and interest exploded. Morgan and his friends turned their focus toward stewardship of the environment, but Mount Hood still wasn’t impressed, he said.

“They just didn’t feel like the added amount of people using the national forest up there was a good idea,” he said.

“To a degree, I agree, and what we do is we don’t go where we’re not wanted. So that is what directed us down toward the Santiam Pass and then ultimately out into Klamath County, which is the southern part of Deschutes National Forest.”

Though it’s not a race, gamblers can win bragging rights and prizes for embodying the “gambler spirit,” building the most interesting vehicle, picking up the most or the weirdest trash, taking the best route, and driving the highest percentage of off-pavement roads.

Larsen calls it a “choose-your-own-adventure adventure.” Find appropriate off-road places to explore, figure out how to get there, and eventually make it to the rally, so long as the vehicle doesn’t completely break down.

Rick Reed, of Lebanon, thought he was out of the challenge when his “luxurious sedan with a new mission” broke down out past China Hat somewhere south of Bend.

“A little part of the radiator broke off and we just basically boiled over out there in the middle of nowhere. Were it not for some Crazy Glue on board, we glued that back on and put a gallon of fresh water in it and nursed it back to Bend.”

That was Reed’s first Gambler trip. He bought “Ursula,” a 1995 BMW, from a coworker for $250 and spent nearly two months getting it ready for Gambler.

“It already had the top cut off of it,” Reed said. “I put the cage in it, and my buddy Greg (Nolan) added all the lights to it.”

After the radiator was fixed, Team Ursula was able to spend more time focusing on trash pickup.

“We probably picked up about 20 pounds of beer cans and bottles and what-not that were just laying on some roads that hadn’t been traveled forever,” Reed said. “We picked up beer cans that had been in the lane that had been run over so many times it was thinner than aluminum foil, and finally somebody come along and picked that crap up and put it in a garbage sack.”

Reed said the challenge was an adventure worth doing.

“I felt really good about what we were doing, taking these old cars and trying to achieve 500 miles off-road with them, and doing a good thing picking up the forest as we went.”

Nikki Swanson, district ranger for the Sweet Home Ranger District of the Willamette National Forest, appreciates what Gambler 500 represents.

“We are very thankful that they picked up so much trash across our forest,” she said. “If everyone who visited the forest took home their own trash, the woods would be so much nicer.”

In fact, this year the United States Forest Service gave Morgan a list of waypoints (navigational GPS points) that hosted dumped items in need of pick-up.

Matt Cowart, owner of Conversion Brewing, also posted a list of waypoints for gamblers to consider finding. He partners with Gambler 500, setting up as a starting or pass-through point, and selling Gambler 500 beer originally made with Morgan last year.

To avoid any potential trouble with the Forest Service, Cowart chose developed gathering areas with parking lots. He said the Forest Service probably has a legitimate concern for an event that draws more and more people every year, but he hopes that won’t cause them to look down on Gambler 500.

“We just encourage people to use public lands, which is really the only way that ultimately you’re able to retain them, because people don’t vote to keep them when they don’t care about them,” Morgan said.

“We got a ringing endorsement from the Forest Service this year, and they are campaigning to keep us there in North Klamath County, given the amount of increase in tourism dollars – it’s about $1.1 million we generated over the course of three or four days down there.”

Now that the annual event has come and gone for 2019, Larsen is setting her sights to other, smaller Gambler rides, like Fall Brawl east of Portland, Cupid’s Curse south of Brownsville, and Fambler in Lincoln City.

“I could never imagine my life without Gambler,” Larsen said. “It’s something I totally believe in. It’s super-empowering, and if you think you can’t do it, think again, because you can.”