One of my rules about traveling is that I have to try things that are unique local experiences even if the old lady in my head is sure she won’t like it. I say “old lady” because the only reason time seems to speed up as we age is that we have fewer and fewer novel experiences. The tried and true will make your life speed by and you will be old before you know it. I am not ready for th my life to fly away without a fight. So when I drove past the Lakeside Amusement Park and saw a sign touting the Cyclone, one the the last wood-rail roller coasters still in operation, I had to stop for a ride.
This monstrosity built in the 1940’s offered an iconic roller coaster experience from before the days of steel-railed loops and body harnesses. Rickety, loud, and featuring some nearly-vertical drops, it promised an ultimate ride. This might not seem like such a big deal except I am deathly afraid of roller coasters. I have not been on one since I was four when they had to stop the kiddie roller coaster at Myrtle Beach because I was desperately trying to get off mid-swoop, I was so scared.
I know for most people it’s a wonderful thrill to ride a roller coaster. I told myself I could find out I was one of them. I’d been only four the last time. Maybe this would be the day I changed from afraid to avid.
The day was chilly and bright. There was no line at the ride at all. I bought my ticket and something in me balked. I wandered off, going around the whole rest of the park, looked at all the other rides, and finally found myself back at the entrance to the roller coaster. I knew it was not deadly. I knew that people loved roller coasters. Children loved roller coasters. I took my ticket and walked through the gate.
I told myself I had permission to turn around. There was no duty to get on the roller coaster. Then I saw some 12-year-old kids getting off. They were laughing and glowing with happiness and their mom agreed to let them get on for a second time around. They ran around the gate and got in line behind me. OK, I figured. 12-year-olds not panicking. 60-year-old grown woman… I can do this.
As I was getting on the ride and I saw that the very front seat was open. Well, I figured this way I would have the full experience. I sat myself and the front row. I buckled in thinking, “this is not so bad.“
We pulled away from the platform chugging slowly upward until I saw the place where the track dipped. All I had was a metal bar in front of me and then blue sky. It was the end of the world. Even writing this now my heart is pounding. I tell myself now as then to just breathe. Only next I can see over the edge and my whole body clenches. I was sure this was a deathly drop. Not in my conscious mind but my body was reacting as though it faced death.
We crested the highest drop and there I was clenched and shaking as much as the car itself rattled and rocked. The kids were doing that laugh-screaming thing that said they were having fun. I didn’t have breath to scream. Instead of an out-of-body experience, I had the complete reverse. My consciousness pulled inward until I was nothing but a mass of insensate protoplasm holding its existential breath. I came back to myself only as we slowed to the gate. I was limp and desperate to get out. It was not as fast as I wanted because every muscle in my body was clenched. I had to figure out how to stand up and exit. My legs, once they started working, were weak. So were my arms. They didn’t stop hurting for a week.
So I didn’t enjoy it. Not one bit. However, it was an experience that wasn’t really dangerous and one which I won’t forget. Denver was pretty, but I’ve walked mountains and seen modern downtown development, been to coffee shops and restaurants all over the world. But my first and certainly only roller coaster ride as an adult, experienced on an iconic remnant of a past time, that’s not ever going to fade from memory.
One curious thing about life and memory is that when people are dying and are asked what they regret most, people list the things they failed to do. “I wish I’d tried” this or that. Get on the roller coaster, people. Do the thing that you’re not sure you’re gonna like or you’re pretty sure you won’t like but it is a unique experience shared by the rest of your human family and enjoyed by some. Instead of using your imagination to “know” experiences without having to go through them, use your life to have them. As they accumulate, they slow the river of time, and the rushing water may polish some to gems you never expected, while others will shine gold from the moment you step out of your habitual rut. But you’ll never find the gold unless you risk the roller coaster, don’t enjoy it, and do the next novel thing anyway.
Susan diRende travels the world on her own and has been living with no fixed abode since the end of 2014. This twice-monthly column aims to encourage others to try going solo and explores what can be gained from the experience. All photos ©Susan diRende