The straight, relatively featureless landscape of Interstate 5 was probably the inspiration for the creators of handheld video games. For us boomers, back in the day there was no such distraction to mitigate the crushing boredom of endless car rides. Road trips were the torture of my childhood. Ironically, they became one of the most treasured activities of my life with my own children and now my grandchildren. So last week, when I was charged with taking my grandson to the California State Science Fair at Exposition Park- right in the heart of L.A., I was more than stoked.
My grandson Jalahn’s science project was entitled, “The Physics of Roller Coaster Friction,” which combined his love of coasters with a burgeoning interest in engineering. The exact nature of his experiment confounds me, but I know it had something to do with newtons, friction and potential energy.
Months before his project was selected by Mendocino County Science Fair judges to compete with others at the state science fair, Jalahn asked me if we could go to Magic Mountain if his project “made it to State.” Being the cynical and unsupportive grandma that I am, I said, “Sure!” I was confident that his project, though good, would not stand up against those created by older, more experienced students with obsessive parents who probably spent hundreds of dollars on elaborate displays in order to win the golden ticket to SoCal.
I was wrong. My grandson made it to State, and that is why I found myself cruising toward the interstate with Jalahn ensconced in the back seat and my daughter Orysha dozing in the shotgun position. A deal is a deal, and I was hardly going to deny my first-born grandson his day in the sun, so we left for the Science Fair a day early to spend one day at Magic Mountain. Prior to our departure, Jalahn even put on a little fundraising concert at the Himalayan Cafe where he raised a couple hundred dollars from family and friends to help offset the (astronomical) cost of the trip.
If you live in California, Magic Mountain is the West Coast’s roller coaster Mecca. The truly definitive coaster parks are located in Ohio and other eastern states, but this 260-acre park boasts a number of world class rides which are definitely and absolutely not for the faint of heart. Jalahn has memorized all of the stats for the top coasters on the planet, and as we were driving south, he rarely dozed and constantly chattered about how I was “gonna love Tatsu, grandma.”
“What is Tatsu?” I asked for the 10th time.
“Grandma,” he says, and then pauses, “You really are losing your memory. You know, Tatsu. It’s the one where you’re flying,” Jalahn repeats for the eleventh time, speaking a little slowly like he’s trying to communicate with someone afflicted with mental disabilities.
“Oh yeah, that sounds pretty fun,” I respond, apparently without the requisite enthusiasm demanded by a 12-year-old roller coaster devotee. It is dawn. We are passing the wind farm just east of Interstate 5. It’s going to be a long drive.
“Whatever, grandma,” Jalahn retorts, clearly hurt to the quick that his grandmama does not sufficiently share his love of thrill rides.
I did have some trepidations about Magic Mountain and about returning to LA- my birthplace. As with anything these days, one can’t embark outside your front door without consulting our virtual critics on Yelp or TripAdvisor to acquire real people’s advice on how to maximize your experience at selected destination spots. I conducted a little research on Magic Mountain and to my horror was confronted with scores of decidedly negative reviews.
Here is a typical example: “Overpriced tickets, food and drinks? CHECK. Dirty? CHECK. Ridiculously long lines? CHECK. Half of the rides being shut down? CHECK. The worst combination of teenagers, tourists and unsavory company? CHECK CHECK CHECK. Go get your thrills and touristic satisfaction elsewhere.”
Most people typically said something like, “The ONLY reason to go to Magic Mountain are the roller coasters. They are great and everything else sucks.” The excoriating comments about the cost, food and lines were a feature of nearly every review. I could feel my dread rise the closer we got to the Grapevine.
My daughter Rish- Jalahn’s auntie, announced she was ditching me to visit an old friend and would not be accompanying us to the park. My ire was supreme and was linked to a similar time at a similar theme park over a decade ago, when Rish was caught between her fear of free-fall and the pressure from her older siblings to ride the big coasters at Great America. Then, as now, I volunteered to join my (sensibly) cautious daughter on her first roller coaster ride- a “baby” coaster designed for kids under 42 inches in height. We made it, and rapidly progressed to larger and scarier rides. Her fear of coasters was conquered, and Rish was blissfully unaware that for me, as for her, that day marked the first time I had ever ridden theme park screamers.
Since then I have ridden coasters a few times and enjoyed them, though they have not been something I have sought out. I’m not one for the Zipper or the other offerings of our local fairs. My daughter’s brief love affair with coasters lasted only a year or two. Today her aversion to stomach-lurching heights has overshadowed her duties as an aunt. Thus grandma will be left to brave the rides alone with Jalahn.
As we climb up and down the Grapevine, we are now only minutes away from our destination. Seven hours of driving in dust storm conditions has given me hope. Perhaps the park will be closed due to high winds, I say to myself as I veer around a semi struggling to protect his load and his brakes as we careen toward The Valley.
And then it appears- miles of swirling, twirling, luridly colored metal tracks, hundreds of feet in the air. “There’s Goliath!” yells Jalahn, and “There’s Tatsu!” Ugh. A sidelong glance at the coasters as I attempt to change lanes brings only thoughts of abject terror. Rish doesn’t help matters. “Wow, you guys are gonna have a lot of fun tomorrow,” she quips, making no attempt to veil the sarcasm. It was lost on Jalahn, but not on me.
Because I am a doting grandma, I have spent hours perusing YouTube “POV” roller coaster videos with Jalahn, created by adoring fans who sneak cameras onto roller coaster rides to bring the thrill to landlubbers too timid for the tracks. Thank goodness I could no longer remember which was which. What I did recall was lots of spinning and turning, lots of strange locking-in devices which I am sure have been replicated in someone’s sex dungeon somewhere, and lots of screaming. There’s even a whole YouTube collection of roller coaster “hurls” which are exactly that.
After a night of fitful sleep (during which I make the horrific discovery that my grandson is grinding his teeth to stubs all night long), we arrive by motel shuttle at Magic Mountain- Jerusalem for Joyriders. The gates are not open and we are standing in an excited crowd of about 500 people. Two young men- clearly paying their dues with the hopes of landing a part on the Disney Channel, are providing “entertainment” for the crowd as we wait about 20 minutes for the park to open. Giant beach balls are tossed into the air. Familiar music blasts through loud speakers and the boys urge the crowd into the “YMCA” arm motions, and surprisingly, about 25 percent of the crowd responds. I am the oldest person I can see within miles.
The gates open and we funnel into and out of the turnstiles. Our first order of business: procure the Fast Passes.
In my search for helpful hints for survival at Magic Mountain, scores of reviewers echo a gloomy caveat: “Don’t even frickin’ bother to go unless you get a premium fast pass, unless you like waiting over three hours for one ride.”
Is this true? Are these people corporate shills herding me into spending astronomical sums of money for the privilege of line cutting? There was only one way to find out. We stepped into our second line of the day.
The conversation in our line was all about fast passes. Turns out there is not one but three tiers of line cutting available, ranging from an additional $40 per person to a whopping $99 for the premium pass. As we snaked along the line, I sent Jalahn over to the locker area to grab one before they were sold out; the rules state no items may be carried onto coasters nor stored at boarding areas. I left everything at the hotel except for cash and a debit card stashed into a fanny pack. Sweaters were popped into the locker at a cost of (!) eleven dollars.
As we neared the fast pass purchasing room, a woman notified us that we would be taking a class prior to purchasing our fast passes. Say, what? My line-mates were incredulous. Apparently there was no other way. We shuffled through the metal bars and turnstiles into a small alcove adjacent to the payment area where the same woman explained the difference between the three passes, and how the pager-like devices were used to reserve a time on the rides or to be notified that your wait time was completed. Then we watched a video. There were lots of questions, to which my line-mates quietly grumbled about wasting an hour to purchase a fast pass that was supposed to save time on the rides. The woman staff person had an almost saint-like emanation of patience, for which she deserved admiration.
The door to the fast pass checking area opened with a star-trek-esque “swoosh” and we were positioned in front of a row of salespeople, each with a cash register. Behind them, little cubbies contained bright yellow devices resembling something between a pager and a small walkie-talkie.
Suddenly, I realized I had made a critical mistake. I had left my driver’s license at the hotel. Your license was your deposit for the fast pass device. What could I do? I got to my salesperson and proceeded to beg. I had a debit card, after all, and we all know how much that was worth. I pulled out all the stops. I told the cashier the whole story- the science fair, the roller coaster project, that we had travelled for a day to get here. Amazingly, she deferred to her boss, who got his boss, and the three huddled together while all my line-mates abandoned me to my fate, raising their eyebrows and shrugging their shoulders as if to say, “Oops, your bad.” All my planning and research had brought me to this moment of imminent disaster.
But the gods of G-forces were with us. The boss walked over to me and said, “This is a very exceptional situation, but if you are able to provide a sizable cash deposit we can make this work.”
“How much are we talking about?” I asked.
“The same amount we require if you lose or break the device — $250.” I handed over every penny we had and in seconds we were headed to our first ride.
At my request we chose one of the more “vanilla” coasters called The Revolution, built in the seventies and one of the first coasters to include a single loop. A mere 100 feet tall, the Revolution is more historic than hysteric. Still, the clanking of the car on the track as it ascends and the inexorable pause at the top of the ride is enough to push one’s heart and stomach into the throat. What could I do now? Let go. I stopped gripping the hand rests and put my arms aloft. Away we went, first down one steep slope, then another, and finally into the full rotation- over before it began. I survived my first coaster and was immediately ready to try another.
We continued on to larger and bigger and more convoluted coasters- tackling them one by one. At one point, I happened to look over at Jalahn and saw him white-knuckling the handrails at his side. “Let go!” I screamed as we slipped into the third loop-de-loop of the coaster aptly named, “Scream.”
“I can’t!” yelled Jalahn. Ah, I thought. Time for a little chat.
Once on terra firma, we sat down for sushi (I’m not kidding). “Jalahn,” I said in my most serious, parent-like voice. “Did you not know that roller coasters are designed for you to let go?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Why do you think all these people have their hands in the air?” I asked him.
“I don’t know, because they think it’s cool or something,” Jalahn responded.
“No, no, it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with free fall. When you let go, you come right off the seat. You’re weightless. That’s the whole point of the coaster. They design them that way,” I explain.
“Wow, you mean I’ve been riding them the wrong way? “he asked.
“Not exactly. But you’re not getting the maximum experience if you hold on.”
With that, we went back to our chosen favorite, Goliath, the tenth largest coaster in the world. Forgoing all the fancy bells and whistles, Goliath doesn’t have inversions or special features. It’s just very tall and very fast, with the first drop over 200 feet, a maximum speed of 85 miles per hour and a pleasantly long 4,000-foot ride. As we ascended — the longest portion of the ride — and viewed all the other coasters from our rarefied height, Jalahn looked at me and said, “Ok, I’m letting go now.”
And let go he did, to my delight.
Not once, but several times during the ride, one finds one’s arse lifting right off the seat; even my ample arse cannot defy the forces of gravity. And after hurtling through the 120-foot tunnel and mind-numbing speeds, Jalahn yelled out to me. “This is great!” he screamed. And it was.
And so the day continued, coaster after coaster. The hype was correct- the premium fast pass took us from over two hours of waiting to less than ten minutes. And Jalahn was correct. I loved Tatsu, the strangest coaster of all, where one begins the load-in in a sitting position but once the cars start moving, the seats lift backward. As you ascend, you are staring at the ground, the wads of chewed gum, and finally the tiny little people, hundreds of feet below, with nothing between you and them but empty space. Before you have time to think, the ascension is complete, and now you are flying, you are twisting, you are upside down and you are screaming with joy.
With the exception of one Latino grandma who jubilantly joined her daughter and grandchildren on Tatsu, I saw no one older than myself on the rides. What a pity, I thought to myself, that people get old so fast. That fear and habit and “adultness” encrusts their very souls, and makes them afraid. Afraid to try something new. Afraid to feel. Afraid to let go.
The science fair was great. Of course, the little kid in the big pond didn’t make a very big splash with the judges. “There was this one judge,” said Jalahn. “He was so weird. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me the entire time I was explaining my experiment, and he had dried spit in both corners of his mouth.” Now that’s my boy.
On the drive home, I played Jalahn a recording of Neil Young singing, “Sugar Mountain.”
Oh to live on Sugar Mountain,
With the barkers and the colored balloons,
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain,
Though you’re thinkin’ that you’re leavin’ there too soon,
You’re leavin’ there, too soon.
Once Jalahn discovered the joy of letting go, we rode Goliath five more times. In succession. At one point, he looked down and said, “Grandma, check out that van.” I looked down, and sure enough. There was a late nineties van, with papers and all manner of flotsam sitting on the dash, wedged between the gargantuan pilings that held up Goliath’s tracks. It looked like a homeless person’s refuge. Jalahn cracked up. “Can you imagine that happening at Disneyland?” he asked. No, I couldn’t. For me, at that moment, my “touristic satisfaction” was complete. You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain, but you sure as hell can be twelve, or 54.