Monday, September 24, 2012

State Fair Rides and the Fun of Fear

Every year, the North Carolina State Fair settles itself for a two-week sojourn in the middle of Raleigh (at the aptly named NC State Fairgrounds, even). I love the state fair. There’s dust, tractor smoke, giant vegetables, homemade fudge and ice cream, roasted nuts, food that shouldn’t be fried but is anyway, amazing art tucked away in strange places, hawkers to guess everything from weight to birthdays, hot tub and gazebo sale stands (for those impulse buys, you know), and $5 prizes that can be won from Midway games for $1 (but usually cost around $15-20, depending on tries).

And rides.

Oh, the rides.

We’re not talking Carowinds or Busch Gardens roller coasters. The mini-coaster the fair has is a turbulent track of hairpin turns, bone-rattling noise, and tiny interludes of forgotten gravity. It’s cute, but the portable track scarcely earns the title of “roller coaster” when compared to the permanent structures of dedicated roller coaster gardens.

These are more the Wheel-of-Fire type of ride, steel and plastic monstrosities that can be assembled in a day and night of hard work and lots of early October sweat, courtesy of North Carolina’s love affair with long summers. Rides that a piece of the soul trembles to see, not because they are the fastest or the craziest or the most amazing rides in the world, but because there’s always that little piece of doubt that wonders if anything so portable can be safe, and yet is absolutely certain that something so ephemeral must be tried, for surely the best of all adventures must not be missed for mere trepidation.

I'll stand in line for as long as it takes (generally it's best to go early, before the teenagers wake up) to experience my hair-raising moment of horror. Last year we got there so early we could barely keep our eyes open, so to wake up we queued up for the drop tower. Better'n coffee, that's for sure.

The click-click-click of the rising seats, that feeling of intense dread as I looked out over the heads of the already-a-crowd and the other rides, until I was eye-to-eye with the top of the tallest Ferris Wheel and then higher still... I once heard a woman at theme park tell her scared son that being frightened is fun. It isn't. I don't ride the rides because I like being scared out of my mind; there's nothing pleasant about the dread building during that slow ascent with a stomach-churning finality of can't-turn-back-now.

Then at the very top--that moment of utter stillness, that moment I know they build in just to taunt me, before the catch releases--and then OH MY CHERRIES I'M FALLING when my stomach stays at the top and everything else plummets with the sheer certainty of imminent doom--and then pssssh the ride slows down and I weigh a thousand pounds as gravity reasserts itself and we're cushioned by air and thankfully strong steel.

I don't really enjoy any of that. It's scary.

What I like is what comes immediately afterwards. Then, I'm powerful. I just survived a hundred-foot drop. Thanks to lovely biology, the awfulness of fear causes my body to make adrenaline, and that adrenaline makes me feel stronger, bolder, quicker.

It makes me a Superhero.

I like being a Superhero.

That is why I ride scary rides. That's what the appeal is, because for a few short minutes afterward, I am invincible. Do it enough times, and a conditioned response forms: ride=fear, fear=adrenaline rush, adrenaline rush=Superhero, Superhero=fun. Therefore, ride=fun.

Am I an adrenaline junkie? No, sorry, I limit myself to nice safe theme park and state fair rides. But every year I go back, and I go on, despite the fact that I know I'll be sore the next day. And I always have fun, even when I'm scared witless.

Although maybe I'll skip the drop ride this year. Superhero or not, that thing scares the cherries out of me.

Do you like rides, at your state fair or at a theme park? Which is your favorite?

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