Posted by: jgurner | April 11, 2010

Roller Coaster

I have a hard time remembering exactly when I went to my last amusement park. I think it was the summer after I turned 15 and I spent a day at the Six Flags Over Texas.

Now, just a couple of years ago, I went to Epicot in Florida. I don’t really count that as an amusement park, since so much of it was educational. WHen I think amusement park I think roller Coasters, log rides and the like. Stuff that I used to love to ride when I was a kid. I have a vague memory of going somewhere maybe when I was a senior in high school or something like that, but I just can’t remember.

It all boils down to the fact that I have not ridden a roller coaster in about 30 years.

When I was growing up, I love them. For a number of years we’d take a family vacation up to Opryland, now Dollywood, and I’d look forward to riding all the rides. It was there I rode the first roller coaster I’d ever ridden that went upside down. Not something I enjoyed. The first roller coaster I ever rode was Space Mountain in Disney World when I was about 5 or 6. Not really sure how I got on it because I’m sure I wasn’t “this high.” But, I remember getting on it with my dad. I scared the hell out of me, but once I got off, all I wanted to do was go again.

My favorite roller coasters were the old wooden ones. Of course, you have to remember that this was the 70s and 80s and the extreme roller coasters we see now were not so commonplace. At Libertyland in Memphis, I’d ride the Zippin’ Pippin constantly. In fact, on one trip when I was in junior high, a friend and I spent almost the entire trip riding it over and over and over again. A few years later, I rode The Judge Roy Scream at Six Flags in Dallas. I’d ridden its twin, The Great American Scream Machine, several times on the two trips I’d previously taken to Six Flag in Atlanta.

And it was Six Flags in Atlanta that, this past week, I intended to break my roller coaster drought. I’d looked at the rides on-line and had decided that, for my 43rd birthday, I was going to once more get back on a roller coaster and pursue the thrills I’d so vehemently pursued all those years ago.

So, we packed up and headed east. When we arrived at the park Wednesday, by the time we got our season passes, it was getting too late to really try and ride anything. The lines were too long, so we settled for a nice ride around the park on the train.

Thursday came and we headed out early. The season passes would allow up to get in an hour early, which, in theory, sounds great. Of course, what they don’t tell you is that while you get in an hour early, you can only go to one section of the park and there are no rides, shops, food stands or games open. You <i>might</i> get to ride a little early, if you’re lucky. But, we were lucky, in  a way. The skies were overcast and the threat of rain hung over our heads. Crowds were sparse and, lo and behold, some of the rides came online early.

And, one of them was a roller coaster. A nice, old-fashioned wooden roller coaster. We zig-zagged through the empty maze of railing, climbed up to the ramp, where we were the only ones waiting to ride the ride. We got into the ever so snug seats, pulled down the bar and the coaster started creeping out of the platform toward the first hill.

That’s when I first realized I’d made a terrible mistake.

A number of things have happened in the intervening years since I was a teenager. Some physical, some mental. But, within about 30 seconds of leaving the gate I realized I was no longer someone who wanted to ride roller coasters. In fact, I realized I was someone who ABSOLUTELY did not need to ride roller coasters.

Let’s starts with the mental aspects of all of this. First, I now have an extreme fear of heights that I didn’t have when I was a kid. I’m not really sure how this developed and it doesn’t always apply. When I flew for the first time last year, it was fine. Going to the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago, fine. Going over the Mississippi River bridge in Memphis – I can’t look anywhere but straight ahead. Climbing a ladder – almost impossible. I was aware of this fear, but I though the roller coaster might tend to go into the first category of heights rather than the second.

I was wrong.

Then, of course, as you have the cars creeping up to the top of that first hill, you realized that once you reach it, you’re going to drop, and really fast. That didn’t help.

That brings on my second  fear that has come on later in life, the fear of not being in control. I’m not talking about the whole fear of not being in control of life, or the things that happen to you. I’m talking about the fear of not being in control that makes you drive for 10 hours straight rather than letting someone else take the wheel for a while. Someone else was in charge of this ride and, when I wanted it to stop, they didn’t stop it.

Not pleasant.

Of course, I’m pretty sure that both of those are issues that could be overcome. In fact, while plummeting down that first hill on the roller coaster I was thinking to myself that I’d just work through those issues, possibly on The Great American Scream Machine, once the rest of the park opened up. It would be good therapy for me and it would help me confront some of these newer issues I have.

That took only a fraction of a second to go through my brain, then we stared hitting more hills, and curves and the ride went from mentally unpleasant to physically unpleasant.

For those who know me, you know I spend a lot of time dealing with gout. It’s not just in my feet anymore, but in basically every joint in my body. And, while it seems I’m finally on the right track for improving my condition, I’m not there yet. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago saw me unable to walk at all, even with crutches. The fact that I was able to get to the point where I could spend three days walking around Six Flags was pretty amazing. Of course, I had some help by way of a couple of different medications. But, still, I’m pretty proud I was able to do it.

As it stands now, many of my joints are at least somewhat swollen and most of them ache, even on a good day.

I hadn’t really thought through that part before I set foot on the roller coaster. But in the minute or so it took to finish the ride, that was the main thing on my mind. By the time it was all over, it had turned from a chance to relive a little bit of my youth and possibly regain something I used to love, to a very painful and traumatic experience.

It was actually kind of funny.

As I drug myself from the car and down the exit ramp, I watched the 12-year-old as she excitedly talked about the thrill of that first roller coaster ride of the day. Though I wasn’t feeling great, I couldn’t help but laugh a little at thinking that I’d be able to recapture that moment from my life so many years ago. It was still there in my mind. It was now fresh and sharp because I’d just cleaned a little dust off of it. I realized I didn’t need to recapture it. I just needed to enjoy it and accept the fact that it was already there as a part of my life and instead of trying to recreate a moment, I just needed to find new moments to weave into the tapestry that is my existence.

And, for the rest of the day and the next, as I watched the roller coasters zipping along their tracks, plummeting from their impossible heights into loops and corkscrews and through turns that would send me into shock, I became comfortable with the twinge of vertigo I felt when I looked up at the rides and the shivers that went through me as I imagined what it would be like to actually be on them.

And, I decided I’d stick to the water rides.

And they were fun.

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