The Undertow

vintage roller_coaster_75% resize by_0llril-d5nzsxjI state categorically at the Santa Cruz amusement park that I want to go on The Most Terrible Ride. Hopefully I didn’t reveal too much about my present state of mind with that utterance. The vintage rollercoaster is my first choice. But there’s a distinct absence of terrifying screams coming from it—my optimal ride determinator. No, it must instead be the more modern rollercoaster called The Undertow whose “racy turns and sudden drops will push you to the edge…!” The Immelmann 80-degree turn: Check! Speeds up to 40 mph: Check! “scream downhill in a disorienting sideways position”: Check! It not only swoops and careens but the cars flip backwards and forward like the attention span of so many of us in this millennium.

Although terrible enough, it is not the actual ride I desired (once again, I compromise). That was The Fireball: a terrifying towering crane-like construction with a long pendulum appendage that boasts “thrilling disorientation at its finest!” It has one long metal arm with a row of seats at the end like a huge claw, swings with sickening G-forces ever higher whilst the seats swirl round viciously, emitting blood-curdling screams from the riders. This was my ride of choice. It maxed out on the scream-o-meter. It met the requirements for causing a hideous upheaval of one’s mundane existence. Kind of like what I’m craving in my life right now, but then again avoiding. But if only I can just feel it by going on a ride and be done with it! Yes, ye gods! Fling me up, throw me down, spin me about! I welcome it!

But no, The Undertow it is, which sounds decidedly more terrestrially evil than the claw-waving giant. Apparently others also have this sick desire to be thrown about unnaturally for pleasure. There is a long lineup. Ahead of us is a wiry 60-something man. Is he quirky and clownish or mildly agitated? He waves his fingers around his face as if trying to remove cobwebs, and smiles at everyone, either mischievously or perhaps maniacally, it’s hard to tell. But the closer we get to my almost-ideal terrifying ride, the more frantic and crazed he becomes. Beside him is a teenage girl who must be his granddaughter but who is assiduously pretending to not be with him. The webs seem to be getting thicker and stickier. We notice the patch on his lapel which reads “Disabled Veteran.” Perhaps this man has already gone on a longer more terrifying ride. The second he sits down in the seat and the bar goes down—the ride has not even started yet—he starts screaming and waving his fingers in front of his face like a bad actor in an equally bad horror flick. As the ride goes round we intermittently hear his cries swooping over hills and hurling around the Immelmann banked corners. Is he thrilled or scared? Oddly, we—and others in the lineup—can’t stop laughing at this effect. It has somehow made us hysterical, too. We know we shouldn’t laugh but we just can’t stop. We’re like people cracking up at a funeral or surgeons who mock an anesthetized patient on the operating table. We are fighting a comi-tragic compulsion.

We get in our seats facing backwards, confident we will not scream. The ride starts with a harsh jerk, then the heft of a G-force drag uphill, then a terrifying downhill hurtle at breakneck speed. We both involuntarily, instantaneously start laughing and screaming and do so for the entire ride, which is much too short an excursion into madness for me—I could have done it four more times easily. I might even have emerged sane at last.

Five minutes later, walking back to the hotel, Robin and I look at each other, he opens his mouth in a mock scream and once again we launch into hysterical laughter. Unhinged laughter. It’s gotten into us. This momentary craziness that only cost us $6 each on a humid summer day. For others it lasts a lifetime.