I spent my childhood in Southern California, the land of cheap thrills: Universal Studios, Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Magic Mountain. In 1978, when I was nine years old, one of the tallest and fastest wooden roller coasters in the world opened at Magic Mountain in Valencia.
My 48-year-old grandmother, who loved coasters, stood by my side in the long line for Colossus. My brother and grandfather stood behind us, trying to find an excuse to not ride as they watched the train cars speed by the tracks above us. They stared longingly at the “chicken exits” positioned along the queue route, which I felt compelled to tease my brother about. Once on board and restrained by a flimsy buckle seat belt and single metal bar, the side-by-side train cars ratcheted up to the top of the first hill. You could see out over the entire park from halfway to the top. My brother was just ahead of me in the train to my right. I held my arms high over my head, preparing for the first 100-foot drop, while my brother clung for dear life to the bar in front of him with his eyes closed. We had obviously inherited different genes.
For the next two and a half minutes, Colossus rumbled and swayed as we careened along the turns and climbed another 100-foot hill speeding down it at over 60 miles per hour. I sashayed off the ride, exhilarated, eager to go again, which I did. My brother staggered off and threw up.
In my earliest-thrill-seeking memory, I am five years old and tying the shoelace-like straps of a too-large canvas life vest around me. After sneaking into my vacationing neighbor’s backyard, I planned to run and jump into their swimming pool. I didn’t know how to swim, but I loved swimming pools. I knew the neighbors were away, and this was my chance to try out their pool. We had one of those pop-up pools with the flimsy sides and only three feet of water. I was tall for my age, and I wanted to experience “the deep end.”
Running from the lawn to the water’s edge, I jumped as far as I could and landed in the middle of the 8-foot end of the pool. The so-called life vest immediately swam up around my head, completely useless and unreasonably heavy. It seemed to serve no purpose. I kicked my legs and splashed my arms crying and yelling. As I started to sink under the vest, my uncle scaled the six-foot concrete brick wall between our yards and dove in after me. He grabbed me around my waist and pulled me out.
After I learned how to swim a couple years later, I rode my brother’s Big Wheel trike around and around our apartment’s swimming pool, pedaling faster with each circuit. When I finally reached escape velocity, I turned the plastic handlebars sharply to the right, launching myself and the trike into the middle of the deep end. For a moment, I was suspended in the air, flying, until the Big Wheel and I made a tremendous splash. I floated, still seated on the trike for a few seconds before starting to sink. Grabbing hold of the handle bar, I swam with one arm pulling the Big Wheel out of the pool with me. When I encouraged my brother, who could not swim, to give it a try, he did not land on the water upright as I promised him he would. Instead, he and the Big Wheel immediately tipped over, and I dove in after him as he started to sink to the bottom.
The summer before Colossus opened, I also discovered how to do a back flip off a swing set. I would swing as high as possible, then wriggle onto my back, threading my ankles around the chains above me, so I was essentially upside down on the swing hanging on by ankles. Then, I would sway my body to keep momentum, and, at just the right moment, release my feet and flip over backwards off the swing to the ground. My mother hated when I did this.
My days as a daredevil were numbered, and I soon outgrew my yearning to do back flips off high places but not my love of coasters. In the year 2000, I stood in line with my step daughter for nearly three hours to ride the newly opened Millennium Force steel roller coaster at Cedar Point in Ohio. The Millennium Force was briefly the tallest and fastest complete circuit roller coaster in the world. With a top speed of about 93 mph, a 45-degree lift hill, a 300-foot drop, and over-banked turns, it was well worth the wait for the 2-minute, pure zero gravity thrill.
A couple years ago, my husband, son, and I went to the Glenwood Springs Adventure Park, and I rode the longest alpine coaster in Colorado. The speed of the coaster, which you control, is not what thrills. It’s not that fast, actually. The thrill is in the g-force felt at the curves in the track and the fear that the coaster, which is a personal sled of sorts attached to steel rails, will go flying off the mountain. I knew, intellectually, that the manufacturers would not create a ride that people could perish on. There would be no profit in that. But I could make up stories, newspaper headlines, perhaps in Japan where they love fast rides, in which someone did not make it down the mountain alive — his or her coaster flying off the edge of the world. I might fly off the edge of the world. But, I didn’t. Instead, I rode that edge again and again, daring myself to not pull back on the brake as I came upon the hairpin turns, trusting the coaster to hold me onto the track while I let go of control.
This year, we returned to the adventure park, and I rode a ride that scared me in a way I had not anticipated. After my roller-coaster-riding-Big-Wheel-flying-swing-set-back-flipping youth, I was surprised. I had never been so scared. The Giant Canyon Swing sounded like a peaceful way to view the Colorado River valley below, suspended over the edge of a mountain, gently swinging into thin air. But, no. This ride was far from peaceful or gentle. They should call it: The Canyon Thrust of Near Death. For one, the swing does not swing. Swinging would imply a certain passivity. A gentle push, then release as the device glides through the air of its own volition. Second, this ride had no release and did not glide, of its own volition or otherwise. There was only brutal force.
I climbed onto a plastic bucket-like seat that was formed to my body, curving under my thighs and behind my back. The middle-aged man operating the ride pressed a thick, round, padded bar down hard on my abdomen. I was glad I peed before getting on the ride. Facing out toward the canyon and staring down 1,300 feet below, only a few feet from the mountain’s edge, I tried pulling up on the “belt” as hard as I could to ensure it really was secure. The operator came back around and checked the belt again. Now, the newspaper headlines started writing themselves in my brain: “Woman and child die tragically in mountain adventure ride — pneumatic lock failure to blame.” I suddenly didn’t trust this restraint. I longed for a good, old-fashioned seat belt with clips and buckles or, at the very least, some redundancy.
But, it was too late for second thoughts. The so-called swing started to push. The loud, tree-size piston pumped and thrust us forward, out over the valley. So far, so good, but then, it pulled back, harder than it pushed, then thrust out again with even more force. This time, when we “swung” out over the valley, my son cried out in a threaded voice, “Mom, I can’t breathe.” I turned to look at him seated next to me, and he looked scared. The g-force took the wind out of us. When we were pulled back again, I was gratefully for how tight the pneumatic bar was across my waist, as surely Newton’s first law would have me flying into the world’s largest hot springs pool below (hopefully into the deep end).
When we were pulled back the second time, we were turned completely upside down suspended for a moment at zero gravity. Again, grateful for the bar, the newspaper headlines still flashing in my head, I realized, “I must surrender. I am either going to die or not going to die, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I may as well enjoy the ride.” As we hurled forward the third time out over the yawning valley below and then up to the clouds, I exhaled audibly, so Daniel could hear, “Aaaaaahhhhhh.” As we were pulled back and upside down again, I breathed in deeply, “Mmmmmmmm.” With each push and pull, I breathed. I surrendered completely. I let go of living or dying. I actually enjoyed it, like those back flips off the swings when I was eight years old, only going 50 miles per hour.
Even now, writing this, my hands start to sweat, and my heart races. I did not ride the swing a second time. That moment of surrender stayed with me. I am a woman in control, most of the time, or so I think. I seldom let go. And, yet, when faced with death or the possibility of it or simply the inability to get out of an insane amusement park ride, I realize I have two choices: freak out and scream the whole time; or let go and breathe. I have never been a screamer. I am the one who throws up her arms in sweet surrender. Aaaaahhhhhh. Mmmmmmm. In that moment, as I gave into whatever would be, I was no longer in the movie of my life. I glimpsed the frame’s edge.