Chasing Adrenaline and Childhood Memories at Six Flags Magic Mountain

After my parents divorced, my dad was a twitching nerve who constantly smoked, didn't sleep much, and brought us to amusement parks every other weekend.

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Apr 7 2015, 7:15pm

Photo by Flickr user Jeff Turner

Six Flags Magic Mountain is the last big thing on the I-5 north out of Los Angeles before California turns completely into truck stops and farms. Every time I drive by, it breaks my heart a little bit not to stop. The park disrupts the landscape of Valencia in an outcropping of invasively huge structures: ladders to the sky dotted with strobe lights and cars that ceaselessly shoot up and down. It always looks more fun at Magic Mountain than wherever I'm going. It always seems unfair that it gets to stay there and I have to drive away.

When my parents divorced, my dad took my siblings me there constantly. He was more than a weekend dad—he was a twitching nerve, who had sprung from our house like a pinball hit with a loaded arm. He moved in with buddies to a bachelor pad by the beach. He bought a motorcycle. He got a tattoo for a woman he hardly knew. He smoked even more. He slept even less. It was a fun time to be his child. He had us every other weekend, so he bought all of the season passes: Magic Mountain, Disneyland, and Hurricane Harbor, too, because some people tell the dealer to hit even when they know will they will bust.

What for many kids is a special indulgence became our biweekly habit. We were living on sugar and running on fumes, constantly vacillating between giddy nausea and hollow happiness. Anaheim one day, Valencia the next. Another Saturday, another trip in his ashtray of a used Audi to a scalding-hot parking lot.

Back then, when you got to Magic Mountain, the first thing you saw from the lot was Colossus: a grizzled giant so tall it enshrouded the rest of the park when you stood at its feet. It wasn't the coolest roller coaster, but it was definitely the most poised, like a legendary baseball player who refuses to retire.

I went back to Magic Mountain last weekend for the first time as an adult. After I got out of my car, I saw Colossus being demolished. "Renovated," they said—but really, that's the same thing. They're putting a metal track over its wooden base and renaming it "Twisted Colossus." I'm sure it will be slick and smooth and groundbreaking and a failure in plenty of other ways. My version of Colossus didn't have a metal track—its old rickety wooden one used to shake and jerk you around, and that was what kept it interesting. Those imperfections were its saving grace. They kept alive the promise that I could still maybe die on this ride, long after I became immune to its toothless hills and had to sit in the front with my arms up just to feel like I was alive.

The first ride I went on, as always, was Viper. After my countless trips to the park, Viper was the only ride that I could depend on to give me butterflies no matter how many times I rode it. It started with a hill so high you could look down on the cows in the fields below you. I loved that hill. So much of the fear in Viper relied on that slow hill. Then there was the release: a steep shot down that threw you into loop after corkscrew after loop. It was nauseating, so of course there was always a line. My siblings and I would pass the time by crawling on the handlebars and bullying each other. My dad would smoke from the pack he kept rolled up in his polo shirt sleeve and talk about how one day he would bring headphones so he could listen to techno as he rode. It was always scorching-hot, which made the wait drawn-out and uncomfortable, but my family, our kind of people, can withstand endless annoyance when we know at the other side there is a hit of what we want.

When I visited last weekend, there was no line for Viper. I walked through the abandoned cues and sat right down in a car. On the first loop, my favorite hat flew off my head. I went to grab for it while still upside down and briefly dislocated my shoulder. (Both of my shoulders now sometimes fall out of socket, due to separate skydiving injuries, which I hope convinces at least one weekend dad to constantly take his kids to Magic Mountain. My dad, by the way, is also the one whom my sister and I went skydiving with for the first time.)

The author (second from left) skydiving with her father and sister

Next, I tried a ride I'd never been on: X2, which I knew nothing about, except that it sounded like what would happen if a video game made an energy drink. There was definitely a line for this one, and they kept us entertained with videos and pictures of various scenarios wherein "extreme" people did "extreme" things like ride bikes. Every few feet, a monitor demanded "Are you Type X or Type A?" of girls in shorts that showed their bottom butts. (Magic Mountain has always been a bottom-butt hotbed.)

When I finally got loaded in, an unsettling voice bellowed through the speakers: "Is everybody in?" This was repeated and over again, until I began to become paranoid. Was everybody in? Did this harness really have me? What if I was the one harness that malfunctioned when this thing took off? Was everybody in?

Boom. We shot backwards, our legs dangling below. Metallica and sound bites from The Shining played through the in-seat speakers as we ascended the first hill, completely in the dark about where it would crest. When that thing let her rip, we saw, for the first time, how fucking high we were. The rest of the park and surrounding areas bumbled around below, as the seats we were in whipped us around in 360-degree circles while we tore through other 360-degree circles. We were consistently upside down for half a second too long. Being upside down, dangling headfirst above the earth, rips a pulsing quiet through your entire being and drowns your rational thought. "You're gonna plummet. You're gonna plummet," mutter your instincts, and then, when you're righted, relief flushes through you in giddy, euphoric waves. I was sitting by a stranger and screamed the entire time.

Buzzing from my fresh adrenaline high, I decided to reward myself for rewarding myself with a nice overpriced snack. Lemon ice. Churros. Pretzels. It was so hard to chose which garbage to drop $10 on.

When we came here with our dad, he would dole out snack money from the black fanny pack he always had around his waist. While a fanny pack might have been par for the course for some amusement-park dads—sunburned guys with wrap-around sunglasses and Teeva sandals—it always looked incongruous on my dad, with his black Levi's and sneakers. He was the original "hip person wearing a fanny pack," and a couple of years ago, I found out from my brother that he only wore it because that was where he kept his gun.

Paralyzed with options when it came to food, I noticed a gentleman with a Bible verse tattooed on his neck and wondered whether this was still the type of place one "packed heat" for. Then I saw it: Dippin' Dots. I know. I ordered from a teenage girl who told me that she was very high or, as she put it, "Can you believe you can still get Dippin' Dots here?!" I mean, I couldn't, but she worked there.

I visibly savored my dots as I entered the line for Goliath. "Dippin' Dots!" screamed a young woman, pointing at my food as if it were her old college roommate.

On Goliath, I sat behind an adorable high school couple on their spring break. They were both very "show choir," and she sang "Baby, I Need Your Loving" beautifully to him as we waited for the ride to start. At the first sheer drop, the one that convinces you for a moment that you'll be thrown into the earth, he leaned his head into her shoulder and stayed there for the rest of the ride. I almost forgot that in six years, they will only remember each other when it's one of their birthdays on Facebook.

I had time for one last ride. I'd been hungering for X2 since the second it ended, so I considered riding it again, but then it would have bothered me all night that I didn't ride Superman. There are worse problems to have on a weeknight.

There was no slow hill on Superman. We started in a room, closed away from the people in line. I was on my back, staring at the faux ice cave above us. Without warning, we burst into the sky, 100 miles per hour. It was sunset now. The moon was out and we punched past it, cheeks flapping back toward our ears. Yes. A pause. That frozen vertigo looking at the distant ground. The drop. The held breath. A second of weightlessness.

A second of weightlessness is worth so much. When you know what it is, it sets you free and makes you its slave. It's the first sip of coffee. The clang of coins in a slot machine. The sip of whiskey that gets you just the right drunk. And then it's over, and you want some more.

After my dad's most recent divorce, he bought a Ferrari, gave it vanity plates, and then moved to Abu Dhabi. He still listens to techno and took my sister and me to a rave in Abu Dhabi when we visited him there. Now he lives with a new wife and baby in Muscat, Oman. He rides camels and has filmed protests from his hotel room on his iPhone, calling it "CNN Live." All of this makes sense to me.

When you're an impulsive person, when you have a multitude of stomachs in your brain, you'll follow those hungers anywhere. You'll find new ways to raise your hands or sit in the front or go upside down or do anything you can to make the ride more interesting.

Follow Tess Barker on Twitter.

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