It was a classic autumn day in the Ozark Mountains. Dalene Ketcher and I were enjoying the brilliant red, orange and yellow tapestry of Mother Nature's fall colors as we drove the gravel backroads of White Rock Mountain.
As we rounded a curve, our leisurely outing took an unexpected turn. We met a rusted, old, woodie stationwagon equipped with a menacingly oversized metal cattle-guard bumper. Its hood had been removed to make room for a turbo-charged injector system, and a suspension lift kit had been installed to make room for oversized tires. The homemade roof rack covered the length of the vehicle and was stacked with plastic bags and old tires.
It resembled something from a low budget Mad Max sequel.
Instinctively, I pulled to the side of the road. As the vehicle passed, the driver gave a casual wave and continued on his merry way, sending a clear message, "Nothing weird going on here."
I gave Dalene a quizzical look before turning back to see a stretch Cadillac limousine with United States flags attached to the front fenders, a set of Texas longhorn horns mounted on the front, a skull painted on its hood, and a large metal roof rack, also piled high with plastic bags.
Six more unique vehicles in various stages of renovation passed by. Many of the passengers greeted us with smiles and waves.
"What was that?" Dalene laughed, as we waited for thick dust to settle.
I have experienced some memorable encounters on backroads of the Natural State, including meeting up with a Bigfoot research expedition. This Mad Max caravan ranks up there with the best of them.
Everyone appeared friendly. After they disappeared in the rear-view mirror, we regretted not flagging them down to find out what was happening.
As the day wound down, we decided a fitting end to our outing would be one of Turner Bend's homemade sandwiches. As we crossed the Mulberry River bridge to enter the store's parking lot, we met another congregation of outlandish automobiles. A glance at the campground across the highway revealed even more.
Not wanting to miss this second opportunity to find out what was going on, Dalene and I joined the friendly crowd. I approached the driver of a small, multicolored subcompact. Most of the front end was missing, plus the hood had been removed to allow room for the inverted exhaust manifold. I asked what all the weird cars were about.
"It's Gamblin' the Ozarks weekend," was his enthusiastic response.
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Gamblin' the Ozarks follows the original formula of the Gambler 500 (OG500) started in Oregon in 2014 by "The Godfather of the Gambler," Tate Morgan (see gambler500.com). That first event began with a competition Morgan and his friends created to determine who could put together the most "creative" vehicle for less than $500. They next decided what better way to enjoy their creations, while promoting forestry stewardship, than to cruise the countryside collecting trash?
The first year, a cheap, creative assortment of 13 vehicles attended the event. The number increased to 28 the second year. As word spread through videos showcasing the fun, in 2017 some 800 vehicles attended. In 2018, more than 1,600 vehicles and 4,000 attendees collected enough trail trash to fill three 40-cubic-foot containers.
Currently, Gambler 500 has collected more trash off public lands than any other organization in the world.
Other Gamblers spawned across the United States, Canada, Mexico and Iceland. In summer 2016, Branndon Terry came across a YouTube video from the OG500 and decided this would be a great "vehicle" for people to enjoy the Ozarks. That fall, he and his buddies held the first Gamblin' the Ozarks.
Living in Greenwood at the time, Terry was familiar with the Ozarks. He decided Turner Bend campground would be the perfect location to host the event. It is centrally located for the gravel roads that criss-cross the area. Attendees would not have far to drive to haul their clunkers — which were certain to break down during the event — back to camp.
After explaining his idea to Turner Bend's proprietor, Brad Wimberly, and receiving permission to rent the facilities, Terry set the wheels in motion. By way of a friend's wife who worked at Clarksville's Greensource Recycling, he arranged for a dumpster to be delivered to Turner Bend. He next contacted Keep Arkansas Beautiful to sponsor trash bags, gloves, T-shirts, etc.
Gamblin' the Ozarks
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KEEP IT FREE
He also contacted "The Godfather of the Gambler" for guidance in organizing Gamblin' the Ozarks. Morgan's advice was to keep it free and pick up trash.
Morgan is a man of few words. But his brief response sets the theme for what a Gambler event is all about. Not charging a fee means no permit or insurance is required. And who wouldn't want to support the good stewardship of picking up trash in our forest?
Terry's responsibility each year is to contact Wimberly to work out a date, arrange for the dumpster and collect the support packages from Keep Arkansas Beautiful. He also assigns GPS waypoints targeting trash dumps. Other than that, participants are on their own. Terry is not in charge and is just another member of the Gamblin' community.
A community best describes what Gamblin' the Ozarks has become. Ashley Eriksen of Van Buren and her husband, Jesse Weddle, have attended since the inaugural Gamblin'. Many of their current friendships began there -- something she never dreamed she would be admitting after her first exposure to the event.
It was 2016, just two weeks before their wedding when Weddle saw a Chubbies Media video featuring the OG500. Hearing that an Arkansas version was happening, he asked Eriksen if they could attend. She halfheartedly agreed. Three days later he invited her to check out a vehicle he wanted to buy to participate. It was a van that a local mental institution no longer needed.
"A paddy wagon for a nut house!" she exclaimed. She told him she had no interest in looking at the van or going to the Gamblin'. He responded he had already bought the van.
The couple's money was tight. With their wedding coming and already short of cash, she asked where he'd got the money. He had used their honeymoon stash.
She was dead set against attending the rally, but Weddle talked her into going. As they pulled into the campground, her opinion did a 180. They have returned each year. They enjoy the entire Gambler atmosphere so much they have participated in the OG500 and other Gamblers across the country. She even attended the one in Iceland.
"It is a mashup of forestry stewardship, Burning Man and vehicle off-roading," she explained.
THE RALLY BEGINS
The parade of "custom" vehicles begins rolling into Turner Bend campground Nov. 4, a Saturday morning. Some are hauled in on trailers. Part of the challenge is to select the cheapest, historically most impractical vehicle as your bomber.
Terry posts the waypoints and rules on a bulletin board. The rules: Vehicles must be insured, street legal and carry a fire extinguisher. Participants must obey traffic laws and be courteous to others. And the golden rule, "Don't be a d**k!"
This is not a race. There is no mass start. Vehicles roll out in a group or individually with the GPS waypoints of trash locations in hand. Teams collect trash alongside the road as they navigate to the coordinates. Upon arrival, they take a picture and post it on Instagram. Then they move on to the next way point.
Terry determines some of the waypoints based on messages he receives throughout the year about abandoned vehicles and other refuse. But most of his waypoints are determined by reviewing maps identifying hiking trail heads, roadside turnouts, off-road trails and any other location that would entice people. Because, unfortunately, where there are people, there is usually trash.
He currently resides in North Dakota, and it has become more difficult to determine areas in the Ozarks that need cleanup. He encourages people to use the "Sons of Smokey" app to report trash. This helps him direct the Gamblin's resources more effectively.
HE PAID $160
Terry's Gamblin' vehicle is a 1983 Dodge B250 van. He paid $160 for it but has invested more than $6,000 getting it road ready for his 23-hour drive from North Dakota. He painted it with lime green chalkboard paint, making it the world's largest message board, for anyone with a piece of chalk. That is, other than Eriksen and Weddle's "Beerbulance" van, which wears black chalkboard paint.
Awards are presented for teams who navigate to the most waypoints and for collecting the most trash, but the coveted "Scepter" trophy goes to the team that most embodies the spirit of the Gamblin'. This year's Scepter winner was "Team Ballin' on a Budget."
More than 100 people, from as far away as California, New York, Oregon and Washington state, attended this year's rally. They filled a 30-foot dumpster and collected more than 50 tires.
THE FUN STARTS NOW
Gamblin' the Ozarks is not only about making the forest a better place. At the end of the day, after all the trash has been placed in the dumpster, adult fun begins. Use your imagination to picture the types of activities people who build such wild vehicles would do for entertainment, then double it.
"Uncontrolled organic chaos," is how Terry describes the two nights of partying.
Various "bomber" competitions have evolved over the years to determine whose project vehicle is toughest. Push-offs are a popular means of dueling it out. Vehicles meet, front bumper to front bumper, and push. Spinning tires sling gravel skyward until one of the vehicles pushes the other 10 feet back, or one of the combatants bursts a gasket or blows a tire.
When everyone "tires" of head-to-head competition, turn the vehicles around and hook a chain between them for a pull-off. And burnouts are always a crowd pleaser. Lock up the front brakes, put the pedal to the metal until sparks are flying when the rubber has been shredded to the wheel rims.
I asked Wimberly what he thought the first year they held Gamblin' at his campground. Following a long moment of consideration, he replied, "Intrigued."
A SLOW WEEKEND
October is his off-season, so he thought it would liven up an otherwise slow weekend. After seven years of hosting Gamblin', he believes it's a great event. Attendees get a little wild at night, but they are considerate people. No trouble. They leave the forest a better place with all their cleanup work.
Joining in the spirit of the event, Wimberly has a tradition of his own. After the night of partying he starts the day playing Waylon Jennings' "I Ain't Living Long Like This" over the store's sound system.
"Each year there seems to be a little less trash in the woods," Terry declared. "So, it seems to be working."
Note: The Gamblin' the Ozarks Facebook page includes dates of future events. Terry does not advertise.
Bob Robinson of Fort Smith is the author of "Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail," "Bicycling Guide to Route 66" and "Bicycling Guide to the Lake Michigan Trail."