Saturday, June 13, 2015

Rollercoasters: A Rite of Passage (Stephanie Kuehnert)

The traditional end-of-the-school-year eighth grade trip at our junior high was to Six Flags Great America. Everyone was so excited about it. It felt like it was all anyone talked about during the last month of school. (Okay, maybe not, there was also the graduation dance, and yanno, high school.) For years, we'd been going to the lame class picnic or maybe the pool, but This. Was. Huge.

It was particularly huge and secretly intimidating to me because unlike EVERYBODY ELSE IN THE ENTIRE SCHOOL (at least, so it seemed). I'd never been to Great America, only Kiddieland, which was a lot closer to home and a lot cheaper. I still thought it was pretty fun--in fact I'd had my last birthday party there--but the overwhelming majority opinion on it was that it was for little kids. "Kiddie" was in the name after all and the big roller coaster there was "The Little Dipper." Not exactly a thrill ride by most people's standards:

I still thought it was pretty fun, though. Also I'd only braved Kiddieland's big swinging pirate ship last summer and I'd heard that the one at Great America went all the way around. Like upside down. This sounded terrifying to me. In fact, my big secret at the end of eighth grade was that dread actually eclipsed excitement for me when it came to the Great America trip. In fact, I was straight-up resentful of it because like my lack of cable TV in grade school and the absence of boobs and a boyfriend in junior high, it symbolized yet another thing I felt socially behind on and I was pretty sure my lack of experience would end in my humiliation. I mean, at least unlike my mom I hadn't puked after riding Space Mountain when my family had finally gone to Disney World over spring break. But I knew that the Great America rides would be a lot more intense--they all had loops that actually took you upside down, which was something I'd never experienced before--and I had inherited Mom's nervous stomach so the likelihood of my puking in front of or possibly even on my eighth grade crush seemed dangerously high.

As the Great America trip approached, my classmates became OBSESSED with the weather because it did not look like it was going to be in our favor. The idea of the trip being canceled was DEVASTATING to them. I had mixed feelings. I wanted to go. I'd been wanting to go for a couple of summers but I'd always gotten the "too expensive" line (which may have been partially true, partially a way for my mom to avoid what had ended up happening to her at Disney World). But if we didn't go as a school, maybe my first time could be with a select group of friends who would not make fun of me if I chickened out of Batman or Shockwave, or worse, puked.

The forecast didn't get any clearer the day of the trip. There were possibilities of sun, rain, and... tornadoes. In other words, it was typical Midwestern June weather and in typical Midwestern style, the school decided, "Eh, possible tornadoes? Whatever. Let's take these kids to the amusement park before they riot." After inspecting everyone to make sure no one was sporting gang colors, they let us on the bus and we headed off into the sunshine.

Of course when we got to the park an hour later, the clouds rushed in and burst. Everyone was devastated, but I was secretly relieved. That was short-lived. Since there was no lightning, the park was still open. Fortunately, I still got a short reprieve because my friends decided that since we were going to get soaked, we might as well go on the water rides. Yes! Water I could do. I loved water. I could swim. I'd even been to a few water parks. The trip was off to a great start. If only I could convince everyone that they just wanted to stay on the water rides all day...

But as soon as the sun came out and quickly dried us, everyone else was ready for the roller coasters. After some line length to thrill ratios were calculated, they decided that our first one would be Iron Wolf, which at the time, was the fastest stand-up roller coaster in the world, and until the year before it had also been the tallest. And did you notice that word stand-up. Yeah, I'd never done a major drop or a vertical loop on a roller coaster and I was going to do it standing up.

"Sweet! They are running it backwards today!" One of my friends declared.

Shit, scratch that. I am going to do my first major roller coaster standing up AND backwards.

So I stood in line, watching all of the kids before me eagerly do this:

I really felt like I was going to puke. Or pee. Or cry. Possibly all of those things. The line kept moving. My mom had told me, "You know if you get up there and you're too scared, you can just walk on through to the other side where people get off." And my best friend had assured me, "People do that all the time." I didn't see anyone do that though. I didn't want to do that.

So when it was my turn, I stepped on to the ride, knees shaking, feeling like I was going to pass out. Before I could, the attendant secured my harness. I took a deep breath, fairly certain that in the next two minutes, I would either die or lose all control of my bodily functions. I honestly hoped that it was the former. And then it started....

I screamed at the top of my lungs.

But in a good away.

It was the most exhilarating experience of my entire life!

I went on it again before we left the park. I also went on Batman, the American Eagle, and Shockwave. The only I didn't like was Shockwave because it banged my head back and forth against the restraints the entire time causing a massive headache. But overall, I was as pumped as my classmates on that ride home. Hail pounded against the bus--it would leave dents on the hood of the car I'd basically take over inherit from my parents when I was sixteen and I'd run my fingers over them fondly from time to time, remembering both the thrill of the rides that day and of facing and conquering a risk.

For better or worse, this was pretty much how I approached all of the other teenage rites of passage that I would encounter over the next few years. I got in line, often feeling like I was in way over my head, but once I was there I was determined to ride the ride whether it was cigarettes, alcohol, pot, ditching class, sex... Sometimes there were regrets, but at the time usually the thrill superseded everything else. I think that one of the main reasons I write YA is because it allows me to revisit that moment again and again--putting my characters in line for the ride, letting them decide if they are going to take it (they usually do), and then feeling every twist, turn and upside down loop with them, seeing if they come out like I did after Iron Wolf or after Shockwave, seeing if they'll decide like I ultimately did, that I really like Kiddieland better than Great America. (Or I did. May Kiddieland rest in peace. Sniff.)

Another funny thing about me and roller coasters is that I still got the same feeling of anticipation every time I went to an amusement park. Even though I handled it last time, I have my doubts about this time and this ride and I seriously consider just walking right through to the other side (and I consider that a lot more seriously now that I am older and don't give a shit what people might think if I do chicken out). That is EXACTLY how I feel every time I start a new book, too. But I hope I'll have a stomach for writing much longer than I think I will for amusement parks. I'm pretty sure my mom's grown-up weak stomach is in my very near future!


  1. Reading this, I have to say I'm thankful that our eighth grade trip was to Washington DC, where we walked around museums, and the only thing close to a ride was an Imax movie about beavers. But then I'm an amusement park chicken.

  2. Know exactly what you mean about the feeling of starting a new book...