‘Tack-tack-tack-tack-tack!’ – the steady clacking sound of the chain-lift vibrates through the metal below us and into our bones. We are pulled forward, lifted slowly up the steep incline, out of the noise and clutter of the park below and into an open space filled with sky and apprehension. Ahead of us, the length of track shortens, from yards, to feet, to inches. And then the wait is over. We reach that tipping point where gravity becomes momentum and any illusions of freedom we may have carried with us into the sky are stripped away in the thunder and the screaming and the heart stopping plummet toward the world below.
And in that last moment before the stomach churning drop into oblivion, we raise our hands into the sky, surrendering ourselves utterly and completely to whatever awaits us.
As part of my birthday celebration last week, a friend treated me to a day at Six Flags Over Texas. We absolutely love roller coasters, she and I, but we’ve never managed to visit the park together, so it made for a great day.
Of course, after a late start and a long lunch, it was early evening by the time we got there, meaning we’d be hitting most of the rides after dark, which was an all new experience for me.
Me: “Okay, it’s a little after 4:00, so what’s the agenda?”
Her: “Well, the park closes at ten, so we’ve got a lot of roller-coastering to do before then.”
Me: “Roller-Coastering? I don’t think that’s a verb.”
Her: “I think it is now.”
The roller coaster is a strange creation for a species which seems to focus, more than anything else, on being in control of everything around us.
At some point in the distant past, one of our ancestors picked up a stick, sharpened the end of it, and set us upon a path that would find us reshaping the landscape of the Earth – if not always to our liking.
We are a race, dedicated to the proposition that we will control, the the full extent of our abilities, everything that we come into contact with. Even in recreation, whether we climb, ski, swim, hike, hunt, or shoot the rapids, we seem to be pitting ourselves against nature in a contest of control.
But a roller coaster is all about giving up control.
Oh sure, you chose to stand in line. You chose to sit in the car and lock yourself into place. But once that car starts moving, your ability to make decisions, ANY decisions that will affect your fate, has passed. From that moment on, you belong to the engineers who designed it, to the workers who built and maintain it, and to the pimply-faced kid running it. But even those people are mere shadows, because the reality is, the moment that chain engages and begins the draw you haltingly forward, you belong to the wood and steel below you, and the physics that keep it all going, and those things don’t give a damn about you.
So what is it about this reckless abandonment of our hard won control that thrills us so?
I love it, but I don’t profess to understand it.
I have always looked askance upon those religions which demand their followers to surrender themselves completely unto their supreme being. But I have to wonder if the desire to do so is rooted in the same reckless instinct that makes my blood race when I gaze up at the monstrosity I am about to ride.
I love those brief moments of abandon, but I don’t think I could live that way.
It’s the last ride of the night.
Just a few minutes ago we rode in the last car of the ‘Titan’, and now we’re on it again, perched in the front two seats as we are drawn slowly up toward the 255-foot drop. The sun is long gone, and the wind is gusting heavily through the 57º night. It’s cold up here, but we don’t really feel it. Off to our west, there is a huge fireworks display that seems to be located near the Ballpark. The bursts of light and color are exploding at eye level, lighting up the sky around us as we watch.
Glancing forward, the crest of the great metal hill looms forward.
Fireworks forgotten, the track seems to vanish into the darkness ahead of us, and as the car drops away below us our hands are raised, reaching for nothing at all except for the thrill of letting go.