Travel & Adventure The Best Way to See Iceland Might Be On an $800 Coleman MinibikeThe Gambler 500 hits the Icelandic lava fields.
- Words & Images Chris Nelson
We are a horde of yawping savages, horned invaders from the farthest corners of Vinland, tearing across volcanic desert in the Highlands of Iceland beneath a midnight sun. This would’ve been a terrifying sight several hundred years ago — when Vikings ravaged this island nation, ruthlessly pillaging and killing — but not now, and we’re seen for what we truly are: an unintimidating group of juvenile men riding $800 minibikes in costumes.
This is the first overseas event of the Gambler 500, the navigational rally that started six years ago after Tate Morgan and his friends invited the rest of us to join them and drive inappropriate, ill-running $500 cars off-road for the pure and perfect fuck of it. Minibikes became part of the Gambler family three years ago after Tate and his closest friend, Andy Munson, wanted to drive a Chrysler PT Cruiser across arid and unforgiving Ocotillo Wells in Southern California but figured they should take “life boats,” so they went to Walmart and bought two 196cc, 6.5-horsepower Coleman pull-start minibikes. They fell in love, as they do with all nonsensically enjoyable machines, and now there’s an annual 100-mile Gambler Mini Moto off-road enduro and an annual minibike TT race at Sturgis. Since minibikes are cheaper to ship across the Atlantic Ocean than cars, we’re now putt-putting through one of the planet’s most active volcanic regions.
Less than nine miles into the Highlands, our pack of eight minibikes stops so we can bypass our bikes’ speed governors with zip-ties. When I look over at Tate, I see the eerie and beautiful landscape reflected in his ostentatiously ugly sunglasses. Iceland was formed hundreds of millions of years ago by the spreading of tectonic plates and molten-hot lava flows; the very thinly inhabited interior of the country, the Highlands, is a plateau of black sand, where ancient glaciers conceal 7,000-foot-tall mountains. The jaggedly cut roads are all but impassable anytime other than summer, and vegetation is sparse because the ground is so porous that precipitation runs through it like air. The Highlands is as fragile as it is threatening; it takes decades to heal damage to moss, juniper, and lichens, and the incredibly soft sand sucks down 4×4 tires, which leave behind deep ruts that cause unnatural erosion. It’s why off-roading is strictly prohibited and drivers must stay on marked trails, and those who don’t pay the equivalent of thousands of dollars in fines.
We ride two abreast across a desolate flatland that stretches to the horizon, ripping wheelies and hopping off boulders, and no one considers the consequences of what would happen if we crashed.
Our de-governed bikes harmonize in a raspy, farting shriek and rev higher than ever intended, causing them to shake like heart-shaped beds in roadside motels. They won’t hold together for 175 miles, assuming our bodies don’t fail first. Off-road minibiking is as much of a physical assault as it sounds: the foam-brick seat slowly collapses over time, the balloon tires ricochet off rocks, and the hard-plastic grips do nothing to mute vibrations. But there’s something about it that awakens a long-forgotten adolescence in any person dumb enough to give it a try. We ride two abreast across a desolate flatland that stretches to the horizon, ripping wheelies and hopping off boulders, and no one considers the consequences of what would happen if we crashed.
My minibike starts to sputter and stall, and with my left hand I unscrew the fuel cap, and the tank is dry, another downside of uncorking the lawnmower engine. I wait in the lowlands for the jerry cans in our support vehicle, a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4 driven by Tate’s dad, Dave. Through a swarm of midges, I look out at a discordantly lush scene that didn’t exist only a few minutes ago: a green oasis with branching rivers fed by the meltwater of the glacier Hofsjökull, far in the distance and fading into the light gray sky.
It’s 2 a.m. when I arrive at the first night’s campsite. There’s only the suggestion of a sun, and all the world looks as if it’s stained dark blue. The minibike is out of gas again, my ass is tickling numb, and my knuckles are swollen shut, which makes it difficult to pitch a tent on the black shore of a man-made lake. A dirt ramp is built so minibikes can jump over an open fire and the four legs of lamb roasting in it, and all imbibe as dinner is cooked. I’m not sure when I go to bed, because it looks the same as when I wake up. My internal clock is broken, I can’t figure out why the minibike isn’t starting, and I have a feeling it’s going to be a long day.
My chain snaps a mile after a deep river crossing, and Tate doubles back to give me a new master link. When we rejoin the others they’re sitting politely on the side of the trail as dozens of horses trot and run by. The dapper tourists at the reins look at us in confusion and mild terror, and the horses pay us no mind. We restart in a horrible chorus of mechanical retching — five of the eight mufflers have broken off — and after only a few miles my chain breaks again, and I take off my helmet for the last time. The big white van creeps up behind me, and Dave gets out to help me load the abused minibike into the wooden trailer.
Dave has huge, manly hands. A retired hydrogeologist, Dave worked for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) for 32 years, so he’s appropriately in awe of Iceland, and he makes hilariously dry jokes about rocks every hour. He drives calmly and precisely and tells me how he used to take young Tate and his sister on off-roading excursions up and down the West Coast in the family Land Cruiser. “This is exactly the kind of thing a dad wants to do,” he says. “Like Tate says, ‘I think our eight-year-old selves would be happy to see we never grew up.’” Dave got his first minibike for Christmas at age 11 and on New Year’s Day, he rode along the train tracks and his chain snapped, so he had to walk to a pay phone and beg his hungover dad to come pick him up.
We find Andy on the side of the road with a broken chain. The gangly, sweet-hearted giant hoists his minibike into the trailer, shakes the rain from his pelt, and as he ducks into the van says, “I want a Mr. T chain of master links.” He tells me he’s never been brought to his knees before this trip, like he’s slipped from reality into some sort of a dream state. Andy has driven the same bone-stock, ‘78 Cadillac Fleetwood every year since the Gambler 500 started, and it won’t die no matter how many times he jumps it. He’s Tate’s “brother,” and Dave tells stories about the Munsons and how they taught his son to shoot paintball guns and ride dirt bikes and “blow shit up.” Dave slows down when he sees a soaked ball of fur sitting on a broken minibike. Tate climbs into the van, chain in hand, and he and Andy swig from a bottle of Brennivín, Iceland’s home spirit, known also as “Black Death.” When we finally catch up with our horde, they’re sprawled out around their minibikes, cold and bruised, and when we smile at them from our warm van, they leave without a word.
We follow waypoints across a monochromatic moonscape where cratered lava rocks came to rest after some prehistoric eruption, and where tiny pink flowers grow out of an infinite black sea. Andy says something dumb that makes Tate laugh, and then Dave laughs, and then I do too; in a moment I feel like I’m part of this family. I listen to their hilarious and heartwarming stories that sprawl back through time, and I find myself sharing things I don’t talk about: my opioid-addicted brother who was born without a conscience, the unlit house I came home to after school, the quiet nurturing of self-loathing, and my best friend and father who, four years ago, lost his battle with cancer. We talk about Tate’s cancer and how four years ago it stole one of his testicles, and how that experience motivated him to leave behind a comfortable career to build the Gambler 500 into what it is now. We talk about Dave’s heart attack, which happened a few years back while he was competing in the traditional Scottish Highland games at age 62. We talk about Andy’s open-heart surgery to fix an enlarged aortic root, discovered only because Andy went to the ER after falling off a train car and hitting his head; if Tate hadn’t been there to catch Andy, he probably would’ve died. The mood inside the van is somewhat weighty until camp appears in the distance.
It’s an ebony paradise where soot sand meets the milky waters of Thorisvatn — Iceland’s largest lake, the main reservoir for two power stations on nearby rivers — and it is hell to get to. There’s a long, gentle descent to the shore, and the deep, silty two-track is worse than anything we’ve driven through. There’s a Subaru wagon stuck in front of the Toyota FJ80 in front of us, which is spinning its tires and just making things worse. The driver hops out and asks us to reverse because if he goes down to the campground he won’t be able to leave, and we tell him that this is a problem for tomorrow. Most everyone gets to camp, thanks to a tow rope and a Land Rover Defender, which does wonders until its front-axle housing snaps in half. I hop on a minibike and ride down to a double-wide fishing shack down the beach, in ruins and half buried in black sand. Another leg of lamb goes on the fire as a soft, steady rain starts, and soon everything inside my crappy rented tent is moist with bone-chilling rainwater, including my shitty rented sleeping bag. I lay motionless with open eyes for maybe hours, and then suddenly turn over and write in my notebook: “I’ve always wanted to feel the love I feel in this place, around these people.”
In the morning we put all eight minibikes in the trailer, and we pack for our trip back to the capital city of Reykjavík. Andy and I figure it could be hours before any car climbed out of camp, and that we couldn’t do much about it, and decided to start walking back the way we’d come in. We talk about the house Andy has been building for two years that’s nearly done, and how he hopes to raise a family in it. I tell him I’ve been considering what the word “family” means to me, and how I’m looking forward to starting a new family with my soon-to-be fiancée, Mallory Anna, and how I hope to let go of some memories and build better relationships with the very few relatives and siblings I have left. I don’t tell him about what I wrote in my notebook, because I feel like I’ve said too much. He listens as I talk, and I listen when he does, and we talk and walk for miles, until Dave, Tate, and the rest of our horde roll up in the Sprinter.
“It’s disarming. You know you’re in a safe place and you’re immediately accepted,” Tate says as he describes the Gambler 500 and its community; he calls it the Olive Garden of motorsports. “’When you’re here, you’re family.’ Nobody is making fun of your car or making fun of you, and you’re immediately accepted, because we’re all in the same place doing this dumb thing and we depend on each other.” The dumb thing we’re doing is riding minibikes, the place we’re in is as alien as it is incredible, and as idiotic as these savages can be, they’re steadfast and dependable.