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Life Lessons

Reflections From An Aging Roller Coaster Fanatic

The Cyclone Roller Coaster at Coney Island

On my second-to-last weekend of living in New York City, I rode 12 different roller coasters. It was important to me to celebrate the city I called home for 16 years in the right way, which was with a bonanza of drops, launches, inversions, and body-warping high-speed corners. On the Saturday of that weekend, some friends and I went to Coney Island's Luna Park, because it had been something like 13 years since I had last ridden the Cyclone, the iconic wooden coaster—it is literally on the National Register of Historic Places—that gave the nearby minor league baseball team its name. On Monday, after working the World Cup final on the Sunday between these two glorious days of coaster action, I went to Six Flags in New Jersey, to ride the recently reopened El Toro. If it's not clear by now, I am a roller coaster fanatic, and these two days were my pilgrimages to the holy lands.

Before I go any further, let me just list the coasters, for the benefit of those who might recognize their names and get a glint in their collective eye. In Coney Island, I rode the Cyclone, of course, and also the Thunderbolt, the Soarin' Eagle, the Steeplechase, and the new hotness that was the Phoenix. At Six Flags, it was time to revisit some old favorites: Nitro, Kingda Ka, the aforementioned El Toro (three times), the Jersey Devil, the Batman ride, and Skull Mountain. I also rode the Green Lantern stand-up coaster for what I hope is the last time ever; whether due to my height or just poor ride design, I have always walked off that ride in full body pain, and never has it felt as bad as it did on this fateful Monday afternoon.

I wasn't always a roller coaster guy. In fact, I was terrified of them for the longest time. I grew up in Miami, a brisk two-and-a-half hour drive from the theme park wonderland that is Orlando. My dad, my older brother, and I used to go up to Central Florida for weekends at the parks, but I was always too scared to join them on, say, Dueling Dragons, or the Aerosmith coaster at Disney World. Can you blame me? Roller coasters are intimidating marvels of engineering, standing hundreds of feet tall; they emit the noises of steel scraping against steel, whooshes of heavy things moving at high speed, and the keening of so many screaming riders. For most of my early childhood, I was perfectly content kicking and screaming my way off of various rides.

It took some good old-fashioned peer pressure, or at least the adolescent boy imperative to Seem Cool, to change that. On an eighth-grade class trip, my school went to some weird camp in the same Central Florida region. Hearts were broken, campfires were lit, shenanigans ensued, all as might have been expected, but on the way back down to Miami, we spent a brisk November day at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. It's important to note the time and maybe more so the weather, because the park was empty. I'm talking "go on any ride you want as many times as you want with no line" empty.

This presented a problem for me. All of my friends wanted to ride the Incredible Hulk coaster as many times as possible, or until someone threw up, or more likely until we were barred from going on it again. I had a choice to make: Did I chicken out and go do stuff by myself, or discard my years-long fear of a speeding coaster and go on this green-and-purple monstrosity? The fact that you're reading this blog 21 years later should answer that question, but I'll make it clear. I rode the damn Hulk coaster, absolutely scared out of my mind. And then I rode it 10 more times.

In that moment, on that day, I fell into a silly type of love that has never quite gone away. Since that first marathon Hulk session, I have ridden 40 other coasters, mainly in Orlando and at Six Flags Great Adventure. I convinced two of my friends to stop in Ohio for a day at Cedar Point while we were driving from New York to Chicago for a music festival in 2013, and we rode everything that sacred ground had to offer. (Millennium Force, and its initial 300-foot drop, will live in my dreams until the day I die.) I watch POV videos of roller coasters I might never get to go on. I have made a list of the coasters I need to ride across the United States, which feels normal, and also a list of the ones in Europe and Asia, which perhaps is less so. While I am not quite as much of a roller coaster sicko as my friend Claire, who accompanied me to Six Flags on the Monday trip I mentioned earlier and who can name different types of coasters by their manufacturers, I do think that I love them more than most people. On our trip to Coney Island, only my friend's boyfriend braved every coaster with me, and thank god for that; roller coasters are more fun with at least one other person hooting and hollering beside you.

I think my love of roller coasters, and my ability to drown out the survival instinct that screams at me not to get on those rides, comes from something I have in common with my grandma. My dad's mother was game for anything. She was an indefatigable adventurer and a world traveler—my favorite stuffed animal as a child, a stuffed hippo that I named Toto and carried everywhere, came from one of her trips to the Netherlands; strangely, this is why I always tend to support that country in soccer. This spirit never flagged; even as she got older, she would go on every ride whenever we took a big family trip to the theme parks.

Once, during my early days of riding coasters, we were seated together on Dueling Dragons. During the big, slow lift hill before the first drop, she could tell I was still terrified. The anticipation of that first drop to this day still makes me feel more anxiety than I've felt on any coaster with a lift hill. She grabbed my hand and told me a secret that both has helped me to this day and also unlocked my love of roller coasters. She told me that I should, at the very apex of the hill and in the second before the drop, hold my breath and keep holding it all the way until the bottom.

That advice is good, and I recommend it to anyone who is scared of big drops on coasters to this day. It is also a reminder that, whatever other defiant and ridiculous things lead people to create and ride these things, roller coasters are about conquering the forces of physics. Humanity has done so much, too much, to conquer the natural world and its rules; we all live in the consequences of those decisions. Roller coasters are the happiest possible expression of that defiance, a safe way to face things that should not be faced, and to not just survive them, but enjoy them. Firing off every bit of adrenaline in your body should be exhausting and terrifying, and it is, but it's also exhilarating in a way that few things can be while also being (mostly) completely safe. Every time I hold my breath for a big drop, I think of my grandma and the one weird trick that calmed her petrified grandson. I also think about how magical it is to drop 200 feet at 80 miles per hour and live to tell the tale.

As I have hit my mid-30s, though, I can start to see the limit. In my younger days, I could ride coasters all day, riding my favorites as many times as lines and weather allowed. On the most recent trip to Six Flags, though, that changed. I was exhausted, in pain, and fighting a migraine after banging around on El Toro's wooden track. I kept doing it, of course, two more times including once in the front row. I did this because the ride had closed due to track issues over the last two summers and I'd missed it, but it hurt. It hurt that day, and it hurt on the car ride back to the city, and it hurt for days after as I started packing up my life for the move to Philadelphia. (I will not be saying "Go Birds," please stop asking me.)

Does this pain mean I will stop riding roller coasters? Absolutely not. If my dad is any indication, I will still go on these until my 60s; only on our last trip together to Six Flags, in the summer of 2021, did he show any signs of slowing down on the number of coasters he planned to ride with me and my stepbrother. But I think the days of pretending that I am still in eighth grade and riding a roller coaster 11 times just because I can are over. That's fine. As I've gotten older and have gone on roller coasters more times than I can count, I've changed my approach somewhat. The idea that a life's roller coaster rides are both unknowable and finite in number, and that I should therefore ride as many an as much as possible each time I stepped through the admissions gates, has given way to an enhanced appreciation for each individual ride.

I feel every bump, every drop, every breathless moment a lot more now, and that has changed my relationship with coasters. I value smoothness more, which is why Nitro remains near the top of my personal rankings.

Individual elements of each ride live more readily in my memory: The airtime hills on El Toro's first half, the moment at the top of Kingda Ka's world-record top hat where you are in the sky and the world feels so far away, the zero-G stall over the water at Velocicoaster—experiencing these just once is worth going on 10 rides of another coaster simply because I can. Given that these are rides for children, or I guess more accurately for teenagers, the idea of having a mature relationship with roller coasters feels silly. This is not a mature person's game, and it feels like placing too much meaning on something that's meant to be enjoyed and then forgotten the second you're back in the car.

More and more, though, I feel like that's not what roller coasters are for, or about. Roller coasters have been such a big part of my life for so long that I can't help but feel like redefining how I feel about them amounts to redefining certain aspects of how I relate to the world. Maybe coming to terms with my own aging and mortality, or just acknowledging the reality of the joint and muscle pain caused by too many rides, is my way of experiencing personal growth. I think that's fine, and I know it won't stop me from planning more trips to these behemoths, or keep me from being filled with wonder at what these steel and wooden juggernauts do to my mind and body. The reality of that last part won't stop me from holding my breath before the drops that make my stomach want to go up through my brain. Nothing makes me feel as old as stepping off a roller coaster, but nothing makes me feel as young as the first ride on a new one.

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