I could see nothing but the sky above me as my body was carried higher and higher. My heart was pounding in my chest; I could hear the roar of my own blood in my ears. I was in mortal peril. How, oh how had it come to this? Would this be how it all ended, with me stuck inside a car about to free fall off of a mountain?
"At what point are we too old for roller coasters?" my friend asked.
"I'd say about right now," I answered. We had waited in line for an hour for the privilege of feeling our own impending doom. Why had this seemed like a good idea?
And so went my ride on the Diamondback, the newest, tallest, biggest, baddest coaster in my former childhood haunt, Kings Island amusement park. We survived, and I can honestly tell you it's the best ride I've ever ridden. But I can also honestly tell you that, if I could have chickened out about halfway up the first hill, I totally would have.
It wasn't always this way. For several glorious years in adolescence, my family purchased season passes to Kings Island, which is less than an hour from my hometown. When you can go to a big amusement park any time the family gets bored on weekends or for a few hours on lazy weeknights after work, even the big rides lose some of their thrill. I became a kid who would try any ride at least once and not feel so much as a flicker of nervous butterflies. The only time I can remember being certain I was going to die on a ride was the time a girlfriend and I rode the Beast (still the world's longest wooden coaster) right after a downpour; we knew the ride had felt out-of-control, and when we pulled into an empty station, one of the ride workers congratulated us on being the last ride of the day and informed us the train had jumped the tracks on more than one occasion during our ride.
Now that was thrilling.
I grew up, and so did the park. I haven't been since before Ainsley was born. Fighting oppressive river valley heat and long lines hasn't appealed to me in a long time. But we knew someday it would be time to introduce Ainsley to some rides a little bigger than the festival tilt-a-whirl and the flying Dumbos at Disney World.
That day was Saturday when we found ourselves invited to a company picnic during the park's fall festival. The centerpiece of the park now is a huge new metal coaster that you can ogle from anywhere inside the grounds. It's a far cry from the coasters I grew up with.
And I may never have ridden it. We got Ainsley on a few "starter coasters" within the first hour we got there, and I learned that I have acquired a vivid and morbid imagination. I can see all the ways a thrill ride could go wrong; aging, possibly rotting wood supports, lax safety inspections, a loose screw here, a sagging bolt there. I couldn't enjoy my old favorite Racers. I was too concerned that the three of us would succumb to the laws of motion and gravity and find ourselves careening off the side of the first turn.
Ainsley herself had been overjoyed at first that she met the height requirements for every single thrill ride there. But after coming out of her seat on a couple of smaller coasters, she made an astute comment about the new Diamondback, that monster that dominates the landscape:
"I'm just not ready for that thing yet."
But then we were joined by a couple of friends, and a seed was planted.
"You know, I think the ladies should go ride the Diamondback," someone said.
The other lady in the group shrugged and looked my way. Ah, peer pressure.
We were joined in line by a couple old enough to be our parents and kids as young as Ainsley. It's hard to chicken out under those circumstances. Though we both discussed it.
"We could get out of line now and tell them we rode it and they'd never know."
But we would know. And so would the AARP-subscribing couple behind us.
The ride itself is a blur. I know my scream got stuck in my throat on that first hill; I know that after that I laughed more than I screamed because it felt so good just to still be alive. The bones in my legs turned to rubber from the adrenaline surge and I could barely use them to get to my family, who were waiting for us at the exit.
"Well?" Jason said.
"Momma, was it fun?" Ainsley asked.
Someday I may even have the guts to ride it again.