Friday, June 6, 2014

The Ultimate Trip

Now that I’m older, I find that I don’t go to amusement parks anymore -- nor do I really want too -- and it’s not for the reasons that a well-adjusted person might give. Long queues, high ticket prices -- I wish that’s what was turning me away, but it’s not. I don’t go to amusement parks anymore simply because they have ceased to be amusing. This started in the mid-to-late 1990’s, when I came of age. But it wasn't that I saw things with new eyes -- no, this is when the lawyers came out in droves, and insisted the facades of safety be replaced with actual safety. I don’t go to amusement parks because now I know that I’ll make it out alive, and that robs it of its charm.

I grew up in Northwestern PA, right on the line separating suburbia from rural spaces. My parents worked in the restaurant industry, and much like the rest of Northwestern PA, we were on the low side of the middle class, back when that was still a thing. So, when my parents had days off and wanted to play, we went to Conneaut Lake Park, which was a rustic and peaceful little amusement park not far from our home.

"Ooo! Can we go on the Tilt-A-Whirl next? Can we? Huh?"
 “Rustic and peaceful” was just how you said “they didn't give a shit about anything” when in mixed company. The origin, story, and fate of Conneaut Lake Park can and should be made into an original series for HBO or Showtime. It’s a long and intriguing tale chronicling the death of the American Dream. Case and point, Conneaut Lake Park’s biggest claim to fame came in 2009, when it was prominently featured in The Road. No, seriously -- the amusement park I went to as a kid didn’t look like that -- it was that. As in, I recognized the building that they guy was standing in front of when he was hit by the arrow. That was the Beach Club (formerly, The American Pie), the bar I worked at back in college. It was run by a good friend of mine -- who, for legal reasons, I can only call “Bugsy.” Long story short, it was a sitcom, and it ended predictably.

Of course, by “ended predictably,” I mean that we were both fired. Ironically, it was because of nepotism, and not any of the many, horrible things that should’ve gotten us fired, but went entirely unnoticed. Like all things Conneaut Lake Park, the Beach Club was completely destroyed in a suspicious fire. Only memories remained.

Those are stories for another time, because you don’t want to hear those stories. No, you want to hear the good stories -- and that’s so weird to me, because the stories that people love the most are the ones which seem the most mundane to me. Sometimes I spend days writing well-researched, well-planned treatises on philosophy, which no one will ever read -- people just want to hear about the time I got into a fistfight with a hummingbird when I was fifteen. Whatever.

By the time I was a kid, the park was already a fixture of my life. See, up until the mid-90’s there was no admission. None. It was free. The rides weren’t free; for that you had to get individual tickets, or a day pass (the “All Day Ride-a-Rama”), but admission was free. So if you wanted to walk around, eat some French fries, play skee-ball, loiter with juvenile delinquents, or take your wee-tiny toddler on a single carousel ride -- you could -- and it was nice.

Surprisingly, I've never had nightmares about this.
Most of my time was spent in Kiddieland. The gateway leading into Kiddieland wasn’t that majestic, but when you are three feet tall and know precisely dick about the world and life itself, it was perceived as this thirty foot monstrosity. Although this would send Ruchela into panic attacks, gazing into the hollow eye sockets of clowns was just what I did. Like most Kiddielands, it was only fun because you didn’t know what awesome was. Every other ride in the park was explicitly labeled as a “thrill ride,” except these. As such, most of the rides were just things that spun in circles at ground level. They had a rickety two-hill rollercoaster from the 1950’s though, and I rode the hell out of that.

Years later, when I was studying at Oxford*, I started dating one on my colleagues. I found myself in a story-telling mood during the three-week unicorns-and-rainbows period that kicks off every relationship, as I told my stories about the Park. She countered with her own lurid stories. The more and more we talked, the more detail we added, the more we came to realize we were talking about the same place. Her grandma in Ohio would take her there when they flew in to visit.

“What if were there together?” I asked. “Like, what if we rode the coaster together, as kids? Then the strangers from those happy days were brought together again by fate or chance to become lovers? Yeah, it’s a longshot, but there still is a chance that we’ve met before.”  The aftermath of that last bit of dialogue, was sickeningly cute -- like a magical volcano which endlessly spews kittens.  This however, was the first, last, and only one of these stories.

I remember the day well -- well, at least moments -- flashes of it. It was July 12, 1988 -- my seventh birthday. My parents decided to treat me with a trip to Conneaut Lake Park.

Once we got our ride tickets, I remember strolling down the midway, and my parents asked if I was amped up about heading to Kiddieland; if I would ride the rickety coaster first, or the carousel, or the cars that go in a fixed circle, or the tiny boats that went in a fixed circle, ad nauseum.

I told them that I would do nothing of the sort.  I was seven, and such things were beneath me now, for I was a brash man-of-action who wanted to experience all that life had to offer -- which meant riding every thrill ride in the park. I’d been toying with the idea for some time; everything else seemed so strange, so new. Now, finally, I had the 42 inches I needed to bring these plans to fruition.

Their most prominent ride was the Blue Streak, but that’s not the one people fondly recall with thousand-yard stares -- that was… The Ultimate Trip.

IT EXISTED.The Ultimate Trip was stored inside a grey building at the end of the midway; in the abandoned fun house from the 1920’s. While that sounds exactly like the beginning to a slasher movie, that didn't phase me at all -- mostly because I'd never seen a slasher movie before. I just turned seven. The line was out the door, but what was it? You had to go inside to see. When you finally got inside, there was just another line, standing in a long corridor. Every surface of the wall was covered in a rainbow mosaic of chewed gum. Even the ceiling, somehow, was covered in gum, placed there by the legions of beer-buzzed, jean-jacketed, heavy metal enthusiasts, and their Dallas-haired girlfriends. Rather than clean the gum off the walls, they encouraged the behavior, making it part of the attraction, until it formed stalactites. I know it was real, for my gum adorned those walls as well.

“Yeah,” said a guy desperately trying to be Sebastian Bach, as he looked down at me and nodded in approval, as he chewed more gum to stick to the walls. His heart was warmed by watching seven year-old me disrespect other people’s property, simply because it wasn't ours -- as I stood next to my mom -- who gave the me gum --for that sole reason.

"Where we're going, you won't need eyes to see."
When I finally entered the inner sanctum, I was disappointed by the Ultimate Trip. It was just an indoors version of the Scrambler, something I had learned all about some four hours earlier. I took my seat, next to my mom, and then the Ultimate Trip began.

The room was built to exactly meet safe operating parameters of a Scrambler. The cars at maximum extension from the center spindle, were less than a foot away from the walls. As such, you were constantly careening into the walls, only to be snatched back a few RCH away from impact. Like all thrill rides (read: everything not in Kiddieland) the Ultimate Trip was clearly labeled at the gate as “ride at your own risk.” They had no liability insurance, anywhere. They simply weren't liable for what happened. Anytime you climbed on that thing, you had to acknowledge that you might not make it out -- but that’s another story.

As soon as the ride started, the ride operator/DJ shut off the overhead fluorescent lights, replacing them with blacklights and intermittent strobe lights. The walls were covered in blacklight posters and highlighter art, and the corners of the room were laden with oddities, like a stuffed gorilla breaking out of handcuffs. They left you in there for 10-15 minutes at a time, while playing at least three songs, mostly Pink Floyd, David Bowie, or Prince.

“Prince? Why Prince?” said your internal monologue, just a second ago.
Why indeed! The confusion only added another layer to your disorientation.

My buddy Kyle used to run thing once upon a time. Holy shit, that dude’s got stories. Other rides, not so much though. You can see the same rides at pretty much any park -- after all, they’re just another consumer product. There’s nothing special about them. There was only one Ultimate Trip. It was special, it was unique, and that made it an adventure. If I can’t get an experience like that, why go to a park at all?

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