The Southern California Gambler 500: First place gets a bowling ball through their window, the Grand Prize goes to whomever "gets it" the most. The cars are questionable at best, and the drivers are said to have mental problems.
Still, on the weekend of April 1st, hundreds of people will descend upon the Ocotillo desert in sub-500-dollar cars, aiming to drive the entirety of a course laid out by a team of dedicated professionals. The course is designed to test the endurance, reliability, spare tire-ness, endurance, aptitude, line choice, skid plate integrity, and endurance of drivers and (not) race vehicles alike.
The foundation of this dedicated team are none other than the So-Cal Gambler 500 Founders Stephanie _______ and Gibby. We’ve had both Steph and Gibs on the podcast before, and let it be known, they are a joy to be around and no one is more qualified to run such an event.
When I received a text message from Gibby, inviting me on the Pre-run for the upcoming So-Cal event, you bet your sweet tow straps, I was in. As it would turn out, he also needed a 4x4 that would be up to the task; fortunately, waiting in the stable, was our 1996 jeep ZJ. The ZJ, due for an extensive shakedown in it's stock trim, is quickly turning into the shop "go-to" for anything abuse related. With vehicles sorted and a very rough timeline in place, we were a go; I patiently waited for Saturday.______LINK AWAD____.
Gibby and I met at Bent, threw everything in the jeep, and headed out. Our packing list looked to favor beverages over garments. This was not planned, however, it was appreciated by all parties involved. After a short amount of time in the car Gibby and I were swapping our weirdest stories, which is a great foot to get off on. John, who had also met us at Bent, was a new face on the trip; freshly 22, on leave from the navy, and, despite being from Austin Texas, he quickly earned himself the nickname “Nebraska Roadrunner” due to an old sticker on his car and a certain way about him. Later we would learn, the kid just loves thrashing his truck, and running some trail.
Stephanie, Austin, and their 2 pups Nala and Layla met us on highway 78 on the way out to Ocotillo, the radio’s were dispersed, and we got back on the road. As the radios quickly devolved into Joke Transmitters we found ourselves rolling through the desert, easily shedding the suburbs from our minds, and giving into the allure of dust and rock. We skipped most of Ocotillo, being as how it’s well known and fairly easy to navigate, and headed straight to the Salton Sea area to meet with our trail guide, Jeremiah.
Jeremiah is 39. He’s been living in Salton Sea for 4 years, and he has one arm. He says he "doesn't need the other one", and I believe him. He’s explored nearly every trail on the west side of the Salton Sea and states he’s starting to focus on the east side as of this year. He’s very well known in the recovery scene and is not afraid to talk about how he’s “single handedly” rescued more vehicles from the trial than you or I could ever dream of. Although he rode with Josh this trip, his usual weapon of choice is a first generation Bronco, he is everything you would expect in a good desert trail guide.
We all met at Arco, just west of the Salton Sea, a popular spot for gas and whatever else you forgot at home because you were just too excited to get out to the desert. After lunch and some map review, Jeremiah gave us the rundown on what our weekend would look like. There are a myriad of trails available in the Ocotillo/Salton Sea area. It's up to Gibby and Steph to decide the difference between fun, hilarious, challenging, and trip ruining trails while also dropping waypoints, worrying about campsites, bathrooms, and how many cars can do brodeis at any given area. This information they have to then separate into 2 days worth of trails and package it as a semi organized event. The result is the So-Cal Gambler 500, and you can rest assured, the Gambler always satisfies.
Down the road, off the highway, a right, a left, and now we’re on a semi-paved stretch of road leading towards the Salton Sea. This road abruptly gives way to the sandy offerings of the trails adjacent to the Sea and serves as a threshold to remind us just what we're getting into. I had no idea where I was and officially accepted I probably wouldn't until tomorrow morning when we reached the next gas station after running some hundred odd miles of trail.
This is the point where your Gambler 500 begins; relinquishing control of your fate to the powers that be. And those powers just happen to be a 25 year old woman they call The Chancellor (Steph), Gibby who is fully Gibby, and a one armed ginger with a propensity towards trail recovery. If that doesn't intrigue you than you're dead inside.
When you show up to the gambler 500 you will never know the trail, it's different every time, and if your afraid of getting stuck, well, this might not be your kind of sport. If your blood starts pumping when you're led to a bunch of sand dunes in a car you know from experience is trash in the sand, then Gambling is for you.
Gibby and I aren't scientists, but we know you shouldn’t lift in the sand. There are many reasons your brain might tell you otherwise, like large variations in trail topography, or better yet the lack of a trail at all. So we put the pedal down and told our brains to send their self preservation messages elsewhere. As far as the data went, it was found to be good fun. The real fun was imagining hundreds of beater cars trying to make it into, and then out of this sand trap. With our first obstacle down Gibby and I began to settle into our rig. And so went the rest of our day, deeper still into the desert.
The Gambler 500 is a fantastic way to become acquainted with your risky side without going over 45mph. It's also arguably the most affordable way to become aquatinted with your local outdoor playground. The desert is usually associated with being desolate, arid, and hot. It doesn’t necessarily invite someone to stay for a night, and overall most people would pass on an extended stay in such a place. This is exactly what makes it so intoxicating. You stumble upon things you would never expect to find in the middle of the desert. And sharing those experiences with others makes it all the more memorable. Usually you would need a trail rig for such an adventure, but it's much more fun in a car, or really anything considered to be ill equipped. Now there's the danger of breaking down, getting stuck, having to forage for food and water, and deciding which one of your high school buddies you're going to eat first.
Minus the Donner party thing, all of this adds to the journey. And realistically there's no better way to try your luck out on the trail. At the Gambler you're surrounded by hundreds of like minded people. You'd probably get mixed reviews if you showed up to a trail ride in a 92' Chrysler LaBaron. People might say things like "what are you doing?", "are you lost?", "you cant make it up this trail.", "Stop doing donuts and listen to us!", but The Gambler invites you, and your hoopty, to say "not with that attitude" as you high center on a small rock and laugh.
Being these like minded people, Gibby and I talked about The Gambler, the abandoned building Jeremiah told us was used to test the "shapes for the atomic bomb" which seemed like an apt waypoint, and about how every so often The Nebraska Roadrunner would do something to absolutely thrash has truck in the name of all things trail. We also talked about life and learned we have a lot in common. Spend hours in a truck with someone and you’ll find someway to pass the time. Not that running trails isn't interesting. But meeting someone new is also an adventure.
Off-Roading invites this type of camaraderie. You have to trust the people you’re with. You never know when you might have to rely on them. All the more so when you find yourself miles and miles (and more miles) away from the accoutrements of society you regularly rely. Gambling is exactly that. Something about potentially being in, or just barely avoiding, a stressful situation seems fun to those of us who are afflicted with whatever disease this is.
And you never seem to recall as vividly, or with much passion, that one time everything went right.
Trail running can really take it out of you. With a fair amount of the area explored and miles upon miles of road ran and considered for the Gambler it was decided we needed to start thinking of when and where we would camp. All day these discussions of where to go and how to get there would play themselves out over the map but it was found pointing at things and places was much easier, and faster, than getting to all these things and places. Sections of trail would have to be re-ran, or a detour be made. Nobody was complaining.
Jeremiah again laid out before us what our options were for that night, we would have to leave soon to get to camp before dark. Again we were back on the highway, headed to another secret entrance to some trails, only this time we would be headed deep into the mountains.
And who doesn't love mountains.
On the way to the trailhead, Gibby and I took a short detour, following a truck we mistook for Steph and Austin's silver Dodge. We realized our mistake only after following the truck into a neighborhood that itself seemed to express it’s distaste for tourists. After getting back on track we saw the team waiting at a railroad crossing off the highway. The passing train was blocking our way, and so we sat for a minute, waiting for the show to start. And a show it was. Back in the trucks and into the hills we came upon a gate and more than one no trespassing sign. I thought this was game over. Instead The Nebraska Roadrunner and Jeremiah hooked a hard right hand turn taking off up what looks like a service trail. Are we supposed to be here? Is this legal? Does it matter? and so the gambling continued.
With Jeremiah leading the way, Stephanie and Austin tailing us, and nothing but fast gravel bends and fading sunlight to urge us on we ignored the warning signs and what implications they may have held and trusted our trail guide. After all, we had a duty to the Gamblers of Southern-California to Pre-run these trails.
Having no idea where a trail goes, how long it is, or what obstacles it may pose is always a hell of a ride, especially at high speeds, and we were flying. All we knew was ahead was camp, and every time you looked behind, the light was playing tricks with the dust. The desert had taken a form. A desert run in the golden hour is a real treat. Your mind whispers to itself leis about being a Baja legend as you become friendly with broken traction and the limit of your suspensions travel. All this in a car we bought for $300 dollars. I call that living the dream.
As we merged onto another trail, the sun fell behind the mountains. This trail, however, was nothing like the trail prior. It was slow. It was bumpy. And after 30 minutes, everyone hated it. There’s nothing better to bond a group of people together like sharing an incredible experience shortly followed thereafter by the endurance of something horrendous. At the end the group rewarded there spines with a break. Everyone stretched there legs and took a minute to look up before pushing through the last leg of trail that would eventually lead us to camp.
I had wondered where we were going. We came upon a campsite nestled into a sizable corner created by a large rock formation. It looked very nice. It had wind protection, a nice view, and it was right off the trail. It reminded me of many campsites I'd seen in brochures of the Grand Canyon. This was not our campsite. Later Jeremiah would inform us, "oh yah, you have to show up on Thursday to get that spot.". What else could be back here? As far as I could tell we were driving up a large wash and we were about 30 minutes from nightfall. Were we just gonna' camp on the side of the trail?
A rouge group of RZR's was kicking up dust in the distance, their LED light whips whipping like LED light whips tend to do. Once they scampered off past us and the dust settled you could make out a very strange set of shapes. It was an old roadlroad bridge. At one time this railroad hauled ore from a mine out in the Colorado Desert to Coachella Valley. We were cowboys, navigating trails and sleeping under old railroads. We circled the trucks on the side of the wash and somehow a campfire started. A beer found its way into my hand. Steaks started to cook over open flame. We all sat around the fire and waited for the stars to remind us what the night sky is supposed to look like.
This is what everyone in LA is missing out on. I pray for those people. If you’re willing to dig rocks out of your nose for a couple days you can have a heck of time outside. No fees. No tabs. Just some gas and a cooler of what was on sale at the supermarket and you and five strangers can get to know each other. You could even become friends if you want. Something that might take months back in town, but not in the desert.
Gambling was turning out to really pay off. I barely knew Steph and Gibby before this and I only just met Josh, Austin, and Jeremiah. But if you walked up to our campsite that night you would have thought we were all old friends.
The night drew to a close. Gibby and I didn't feel the need to pack a tent and as it would turn out neither of us are strangers to sleeping two up in the back of a small SUV; It's an art form. One developed over countless trips like these. As the firewood burned out , the team slowly disappeared to get some rest.
Tomorrow we would need it.
We were up with the sun. After camp was cleaned up and packed away we slapped a sticker and headed out. It was morning in the desert and we had a fair amount of trail needing to be run. Without much in the way of breakfast food and a group that looked like they would gladly trade there trucks for a mother loving cup of coffee, Jeremiah once again knew exactly the ticket. A 30 minute detour and we could be eating breakfast sandwiches and drinking coffee at the Chiriaco Summit Coffee Shop. There was no argument against this, but there was an urgent issue that needed to be addressed before we reached breakfast.
Some quick notes on pooping regarding multi day, self supported trips through the wilderness:
1. Poop is human waste, and just like your normal trash, if you bring it into the wild, you must also bring it out. It is understood, however, in dire circumstances this might not always be an option.
2. Bring a groover! If you don't have a groover, for the love of God, dig a hole or something and cover that shit up when you're done.
3. The rookie is responsible for transporting the groover, and cleaning said groover at the end of the trip, unless otherwise specified.
4. Wilderness poops are rated on a 30 point scale. 1-10 points are awarded to three separate categories, the sum of which results in the poops final score.
- What you wiped with. e.g. A soft leaf, a pinecone, rocks, or if your lucky, actual toilet paper.
- What you sat on. e.g. A ledge, a rock shaped like a horseshoe, or that groover you brought.
- What the view was like. The best part of pooping in the wilderness, is looking at some nature, while you answer it's call.
This desert deuce was rated at or around 25.
It should be noted that I had to be somewhere. I had told The Gambler crew before the trip I had found a killer deal on a engine/trans set for a project i've been trying to build for the last couple of years and I was supposed to pick it up on Sunday. I regrettably would have to leave before the Pre-run would be completed. Jeremiah was gauging everyones plans for the day and I informed him I had to be in Riverside by 3:00pm, to which he replied, "Well... thats' not gonna happen.". Why would he say that? It was around 9:00am when we left the gas station which left me with more than enough time to run a couple more trails and still make it to Riverside on time. If I had 2 halves of a brain in my head I would have asked myself what Jeremiah knew that I didn't. But Gibby assured me it would be fine, so we headed back to the trails.
It was day 2 and everyone was feeling pretty loose. The Pre-run was going great. Thoughts of Gambler car shenanigans were rolling through our heads. Everyone was going to love these trails. Gibby and I were arguing over who was a better driver. Austin Jumped on the Pit-bike and started roosting everything he saw. The trail was getting rougher as the day went on. We had some high speed run ins with a couple ruts and dips, maybe we blew out the rear shocks. Who knows? There was nothing we could do about that. But all of these good times were just distractions from a very important truth I had nearly forgot.
Sometimes you Gamble, and sometimes, you lose.
Stephanie's voice came in over the radio and said something indistinguishable. "Say again." we replied. "hey...(static) somethings' wrong with your drivers rear. Pull over.". Something indeed was wrong. And so began a very different day than the one we started.
Jeremiah and The Nebraska Roadrunner eventually caught on and doubled back. The situation was assessed and the tire was found to be, what we in the business call, "totally boned". We then realized we didn't have a spare. We then also realized it was because the tire in question was in fact, itself, the spare tire we were looking for. We put out some APBs with what little phone reception we had, reaching out to the local community to see who might be able to help us. It was decided that Josh and Jeremiah would head into town and find us a tire somehow. But until they returned we had nothing to do but wait.
But the founders of the Southern California Chapter of the Gambler-500 don't just wait. This is what it's all about! You blew a tire hours away from anything, in the middle of the desert?! Sweet! And now you've set up camp on the trail and are cooking hamburgers off a plate of steel you found back at that railroad crossing you took a shit at?! Perfect! You're gambling! You did it!
The So-Cal Gambler team thrives in these conditions. When circumstances are not optimal or when expectations change, It is people like this, that come together and make the best of it. Expectations are silly things anyway. They seem helpful when you're packing your car or shopping for food, but when plans change and reality throws a deviation your way, you're expectations aren't going to un-shred your tire. Everything was fine.
And then, very quickly, everything was not fine.
Gibby and I started to play a game. We drew two circles in the rocks, about 30 feet apart. We then thew rocks into each others circles. There was a Cornhole-esq points system. It had bonuses and penalties. It was actually a very advanced and well thought out game, given it consisted of a rock, two circles, and was made up on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere. I won this game by a very slim margin. It was a nail biter. More importantly it killed around an hour and that was fair enough by our standards. I grabbed the camera to take a picture of this rock game and on my way back to our make shift court I felt a pain on my leg.
Pain? Very quickly I thought, "it's a rattlesnake, or a scorpion, or whatever, I DON'T CARE WHAT IT IS BUT IT HURTS LIKE A MUTHERFU...". I was a Whitewater Raft Guide in Northern California for 6 years, when something bites me, I swing at it. As it would turn out, this was an unfortunate reflex. The cause of this pain was a cactus referred to as The Jumping Cholla. It is part of the Cactaceae family and when it is lodged deep within your skin, it hurts, a lot. The stems of this cactus are thin and dry. They tend to break off in small ball like sections and are somehow charged with static electricity. This allows them to stick to things, like your pant leg. Think of it like when you rub a baloon on your head and the hair sticks to it. You are the baloon, the hair is the cactus, and I has just cris-crossed around 60-80 needles between my fingers. Look kids, education.
Everyone jumped into action. I asked in a concerned yet polite tone "Can someone please, very quickly, get me something to pull this out before it really starts to hurt?!" tweasers were promtley delivered. Gibby did me the service of pulling out an entire Cholla at once. The other ball was not so cooperative. The remainder of the needles would have to be pulled one by one. I would do this myself. A man in the middle of a desert, screaming the F word at the ground with an uncomfortable amount of distress in his voice. The team gave me space and went back to the truck to laugh at what, after the 30th or so splinter, was something that was unexplainably comedic. Later we would all laugh about it when Gibby told me he officially named our made up rock game "Splinter Ball.".
The shadows grew longer and our creativity grew thin. It had been over 5 hours of waiting. The group, for a while, stared into the desert, waiting. Then a dust in the distance. If you cupped your ear, you could hear the muffled tones of someone driving like a banshee. The Roadrunner was setting a record. Jeremiah and Josh showed back up with a 32" spare tire borrowed from a local. You would have thought they had fresh water and we were all about to die. We thought we were home free. But there's a tricky thing about varying tire sizes and Full-Time All Wheel Drive systems.
The new tire was mounted and everything was packed back up. If we hurried it was possible to make it out of the desert before nightfall. Making fun of light-bars is all good and great until you realize you could really use one. The race was on.
The attitude had shifted. Nobody expected to be out on the trails this late, we still didn't have a very good idea of how far out of Slab City we were, and we were praying our new tire wouldn't become an issue once we hit asphalt. We would have to wait and see. The trail would require almost all of our focus. This was a wheeling trail. We picked lines up and down small hills for miles. The trail would eventually turn into a wash, and then into something of a dirt road. Our arrival in Slab City
Our arrival in Slab City was surreal. Tired, hungry, and out of cigarettes, I was ill equipped to fully realize what this place was. A lawless town in the middle of the desert would usually catch my interest but the dust and wind mixed with fading light cast a vibe over the area. We didn't stay long.
The Nebraska Roadrunner left us at Slab City. He had to be somewhere early the next morning. Jeremiah jumped into Steph and Austins truck. The road turned to asphalt. My Jeep started to skip and chirp. That 32" tire wasn't agreeing with our drivetrain. So we headed into Niland, to figure out what to do next.
It was dark, cold, and windy in Niland. We found a nice dirt lot to park in and started to field ideas about how to solve our dilemma. I knew I was worthless at this point. I hadn't smoked a cigarette in 5 hours, we ran out of water a while ago, and I could feel my body crying out for something with sugar and artificial energy. I made a bee line for the store across the street. A few minutes passed and I found Gibby in the liquor store with the same shopping list. We were on the same page. If Rockstar and cigarettes couldn't fix it, it was beyond repair.
Everyone had viable ideas when we arrived back at the trucks, but it was my truck causing the problem, and that made it my decision. Jeremiah had to get home, but being Jeremiah, he didn't much care about when. Austin and Steph had a pretty long drive ahead of them back to North County San Diego. Our Jeep was going nowhere in it's current state. The different sized rear tires coupled with the pavement was causing our driveline to bind. More than a few miles off the dirt and our differential would eat itself alive. I made a couple quick phone calls, weighed out everyones priorities, and set a plan of action.
Everyone would leave, except Gibby and me. We both felt responsible. The only thing to do was wait for help to arrive. We said goodbye to the team. We, on the other hand, still had a night ahead of us.
Gibby and I had dinner at a classic American Diner that served Mexican Food. We were waiting on a phone call. He asked across the table, "You're sure you buddies can help us out?". "yes.", I have been blessed with certain friends. These friends you can call to grab the spare tires from Bent Motorsports on a Sunday night, and drive almost 3 hours out to the Salton Sea to deliver them to you. These friends are named Kenneth Mitchell. We got the call and the boys back home started moving. It was 9:00pm, all we had to do was be patient.
Back in North County San Diego David Beckett, the owner of Bent Motorsports, shot over to the shop to remove the tires from our parts Jeep. He also assembled a tool kit. Kenneth met up with him, grabbed the gear, and jumped on the road. It's a long drive out to the Salton Sea, and Gibby and I were reaching the end of our abilities.
More waiting. Hours in the car watching the wind kick up sand across the street. After a while a Police officer pulled up to us and threw his high beams at the Jeep. He then proceeded to pull around back and Gibby and I got ready for a special visit from the local PD. Would we get a ticket? Were we doing something wrong? At this point we didn't want to press our luck. The cop left. There were no words, or questions. He had better things to do. Maybe things were looking up? But the hours were growing longer, and Kenneth wasn't picking up his phone.
A short time after 1:00am a white 4-runner pulled into the dirt lot. It was Kenneth. He had a floor jack, Impact gun, breaker bar, spare tires, and most importantly 2 Monster Energy drinks for Gibby and I, and some white cheddar pop-corn. Kenneth is a class act. We swapped the tires as fast as possible. The wind was pelting us with small rocks and sand. We were not phased. We were home free.
We snaked around the Salton Sea and made it back to the 78. Going through Julian sounded like a better idea at the time. Our other option was to head north before we hit the mountains and drop back into North County from highway 76. This route was longer and we were trying to get home as fast as possible. Something we didn't account for was the weather. Half way up Banner Grade, which leads you into Julian, it started to rain. It didn't seem like a big deal. Banner Grade is a somewhat dangerous road but we were familiar with it. Then it really started to rain.
The wind picked up again. Then the fog rolled in. Before we reached the top of the mountain we were in a situation. You couldn't see 20 feet in front of the truck at times, the road was slick, and the cars were getting pushed around by the wind. It should be noted that this is highly irregular. Julian is not a Mountain Town a mile in the sky. Its a normal Southern California destination. The weather is usually around 10 degrees cooler than down in the valley. People drive their convertibles up to Julian to eat pie on the weekends. We kept speeds down and two hands on the wheel, eventually making it to the top only to realize Kenny was almost out of gas. Julian is home of the worlds slowest gas pump. So 20 minutes later, we were headed down the mountain. The weather was still terrible.
The next hour consisted of Gibby spouting off road notes to me so we could get home quicker. He used to ride the road on his motorcycle every do to work. We made it back to bent to get Gibby's truck. Unloading our things and saying goodbye. We both went home to sleep. It was 4:00am.
The Southern California Gambler 500. First place gets a bowling ball through their window and the grand prize goes to whomever "gets it" the most. The cars are questionable at best, and the drivers are said to have mental problems. Why on earth would anyone subject themselves to something like this?
A lot of what Gibby and I talked about in the Jeep, wheeling around all weekend, was how much we enjoyed meeting good people. The Gambler is a conductor for this. I had talked to Steph and Gibby for 1 hour before this trip. And at the end we were friends. Gibby and I text each other now. I have a sticker of his face on my car with his catch phrase next to it ("Balls!", Balls is his catch phrase). I know Jeremiah now, and Austin. And the Nebraska Roadrunner. We all went out together with a plan, and as a group of people traversed across the desert. Nothing connected us except for our love for cheap cars and a willing to gamble our personal time and effort all for the payoff of a weekend to get out and do something different.
The Gambler is nuts, It's hard and sometimes you loose. But even when you do, you don't really care. You got out there and when the chips were down you kept it rowdy. Thats life. You gotta' know when to hold em'. And luck be a lady, ya' know? Viva Las Vegas and all that jazz. Okay, I think i'm out of gambling references... Never go for an inside straight. Bet big win big. Know your tells. Okay, now I'm done.
Now go buy yourself a 500 dollar POS and send it. It's worth it. I'll see you out there, and remember, A.B.G. BABY! ALWAYS BE GAMBLING!