Bucket List

So, there's a national conference I go to every year for NIH grant administrators--normally, it's held in really fun locales like San Francisco and NYC (neither of which I got to attend). This spring, I was anxiously waiting to hear where this year's conference would be...and then the word came that it would be in Cleveland.

Sorry, Ohioans, but even though my brother-in-law is from Cincinatti and I had a wonderful time visiting there, I wasn't real excited about Cleveland. But then after doing a little research, I discovered that Cleveland is only an hour away from Cedar Point, the second-largest roller coaster park in the U.S., and all of the sudden, I was very excited.

You see, I love roller coasters. I ride them every chance I get, which isn't very often, seeing as how I live in New Orleans and our pathetic little Six Flags (formerly Jazz Land) was: a) pathetic; and b) promptly shut down after it flooded during Katrina. So, I hadn't been on a real roller coaster in almost 10 years, when my husband and I spent the first five days of our honeymoon on the beach in Sarasota, Florida and the last day at Busch Gardens in Tampa.

Also, since I've gotten older, I've finally gotten around to inheriting my mother's fear of heights. It's not nearly as bad as hers--but for awhile there, I got the sweats driving across really, really tall bridges (which is kind of a necessity when you live next to the Mississippi River and/or regularly visit your coastal hometown in an area with a few tall bridges).

But by God, I was going to Cedar Point. And my friend Curtis was going with me. Because about 15 years ago, back when we were both in our 20s, we watched a show on the Travel Channel about Cedar Point and it has been on our bucket lists to visit ever since. It probably would've been a better idea to actually go there in our 20s, but the opportunity never presented itself.

So, the two of us, in our 40s, showed up at Cedar Point for Halloweekends, which is a teenager's dream come true. Skeleton decorations everywhere and haunted houses galore. We drove into Cedar Point on Saturday, finally getting to the actual park around 1:00 p.m. after waiting all morning for a shuttle to take us to the Cleveland airport, renting a car, driving the 60 miles to Sandusky, and then sitting in the really, really long line of cars waiting to get into the park.

We were there on a mission, and when the Cedar Point skyline finally came into view, we both almost fainted. There they were, the two roller coasters that we'd been debating about whether or not we could muster up the courage to ride for the past several months (or almost 15 years, depending on how you look at it). The 350-foot tall Millenium Force and the 450-foot tall Top Thrill Dragster.

The crowds were huge on Saturday--the line for each of the "bucket list" rides was three hours long. So, we reacquainted ourselves with the "baby" roller coasters, like this one, that was only 250 feet tall. And we had a ball that day--we ended up riding seven roller coasters and staying until midnight, because that's how long it took to ride seven roller coasters at Cedar Point with the lines, almost 12 hours.

We stayed at a Cedar Point property that night, so we got into the park an hour early on Sunday. I can't tell you how much fun it was to get to stroll straight past the hundreds of people in line, all waiting for the park to open. It's not very often that I get to be a VIP. We walked directly to Millenium Force, the 350-foot tall roller coaster, and got in the line. It was 10 minutes long. Here's Curtis' face when we were in line for it, actually looking at it in all of its horrifying glory.

We got on and I almost had a heart attack as we were going up that 350-foot hill with the almost 90-degree vertical drop. And as we were going down the hill, it was absolutely terrifying. Terrifying. But the good thing about Millenium Force is what an incredibly long roller coaster it is. Almost 2 1/2 minutes of total ride time, which is amazing for a roller coaster. So after that first hill, it was a blast. I had my hands up in the air, "wooing" my heart out. And then when it was over, we stopped to look at the pictures they now take of you on every ride, and Curtis looked like he was comatose. He had kept his eyes closed and his head down for the entire ride.

So, because I'm an idiot, I told him what an absolute thrill the ride was, once you got over the absolutely terrifying first drop. I convinced him (gently, I swear) to ride it with me again--to keep his eyes closed for the first drop and then to open up and enjoy it. (And of course, I wanted another taste of the sheer terror of that first drop.)

I swear, I was nice to Curtis about it. I told him the entire time we were in line for the second ride (all of about seven minutes) that I would ride it by myself--that it really was okay. But he was bound and determined that he was going to ride it with me again, mostly because he didn't want me to do it by myself, but also, I think, because he wanted to prove to himself that he could do it.

One of my and Curtis' greatest fears regarding the sheer height of these roller coasters has always been the fear that it will get stuck at the top of a ginormous hill and that you'll be sitting there for hours, freaking out, before the park personnel finally decide that the only way to get you down is to pull you out of the car and make you walk down those scary looking steps on the side of the track. When you're 35 stories in the air, this is a particular fear. And we talked about it--a lot--before we actually got up the nerve to get on that coaster.

So, there we were, right next to Lake Erie, headed up on that roller coaster once again. Everything went smoothly until we got to the very top of that monster hill. And then the coaster stopped--right there, at the top of that hill. My heart started beating a mile a minute, and I can only imagine how Curtis felt. And I felt so guilty that I'd gotten him into this. He hadn't wanted to ride it a second time; I had. All I could do, in between fighting off the urges to have a panic attack, was reach over and grasp his hand. We sat there like that for a good 15-20 minutes, not saying a word to each other, other than me apologizing a couple of times, holding onto each other's hands for dear life. I tried to focus on looking at the boats out on Lake Erie and, above all, not. Look. Down.

Finally, a little coal car-looking vehicle came up the track next to us with two teenagers in it. One took the lead and told us that everything was okay, that the ride wasn't actually broken--that they'd stopped it from below because someone on the ride had unbuckled their seatbelt. (At the time, I was thinking it was some idiot who was looking for the biggest thrill possible and had decided to unbuckle his/her seatbelt right before dropping over that 350-foot hill.) I'd like to say that Curtis was calm about it, but let's just say there were lots of new phrases learned by the pair of nine-year-olds sitting in front of us while Curtis tried to get the guys in charge to just lower us back down the hill and be done with it. Needless to say, they informed us that wasn't an option, made sure the person's seat belt was fastened, and then lowered themselves back down. And then we were on our way, plummeting over that hill.

I was so relieved to find out that we were not, in fact, going to have to squeeze our way out of the cars and walk 350 feet straight down a metal staircase on the side of the track that I didn't even care anymore. By the second hill, I had my hands back in the air and was enjoying the ride, although shakily. Curtis, of course, kept his eyes closed for the entire ride again. And who could really blame him?

Once we got safely back on the ground, the coaster staff wanted to make it up to everyone on our car and send us back up for another ride. I had to frantically wave my hands in the air and practically scream to get us off of the ride before they sent it back up again. The teenager that had been in the coal car followed us all the way out of the ride area, I think mostly to make sure we were stable and weren't planning to sue. I told him that I at least hoped that whatever idiot had unbuckled his/her seatbelt would be ejected from the park. And he told me that the person hadn't actually purposefully unbuckled their seatbelt--that it had come unfastened when that person was trying to tighten it up. And even though we all were wearing seatbelts and lapbars, I've never in my life been so glad to hear that the roller coasters actually have sensors and know when one of the riders might be in trouble. I mean, can you imagine the even more horrible sheer terror of realizing that your seatbelt has come undone right before you're getting ready to plunge down a 90-degree angle, 350-foot hill? It makes me nauseous just thinking about it.

After getting off of the ride, Curtis and I walked promptly to the nearest bar (aka, an "Old West Saloon") and each had a couple of stiff drinks. I was afraid that Curtis might tell me he was done and that he was ready to go, but he hung in there, and after about 15 minutes, we were laughing about the whole thing and ready for another ride. That's why he's one of my best friends.

We took a picture of ourselves, crossed that terror off our respective bucket lists, and went on to spend another 10 hours at the park, having a blast. Of the 15 roller coasters at that park, we rode 14 of them.* And had the time of our lives.

I'll probably never have the chance to go to Cedar Point again in my lifetime, but I sure am glad I got to do it once.

(And I got to see a great lake, too--another check on the bucket list for this southern girl.)

*A story for another post.

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