The Fast Track

Crisis Watch on a Roller Coaster

By John Barry



Hurricane Harvey had flooded Houston, and a storm named Irma was already gathering force in the Gulf. Millions of Americans were waking up knee-deep, or worse, in muddy water. Heavy rain had made its way up the seaboard, past North Carolina, and was now approaching our Baltimore home.

Still, it was Labor Day Weekend, and we had plans. On the morning of September 2, we got into our car and headed north. Our destination was Knoebels Amusement Park in the middle of Pennsylvania, a three hour ride. As we drove, the light rain became a downpour.  Though we were quiet, we wondered privately if we were making a mistake, whether it was too late to turn around.

The highway north from Baltimore is the drab I-83, an arterial throughway that winds up from urban to agricultural terrain. There are a few markers: a large statue of a man holding up barbells, a sign that reads, inexplicably: YOUR WIFE STILL LOOKS GOOD. The further north you get, the more you know you’re in the North/South, the area known as Pennsyltucky, a morose, mucky, moody midstate area which, on the surface, seems friendly enough, but ripples indicate a deeper anger. One crosses the divide between Maryland and Pennsylvania, into Lancaster County, and Gettysburg, and the landscape transforms into something darker, greener, hard to describe.This isn’t the thick invasive presence of the southern wild, more of a carefully laid out battlefield, where, in the land of rolling cornfields – now reaching peak growth – the scars of past disasters are hidden from sight.

The rain fell in sheets. The die had been cast. There was no way around it.  We had been talking about this trip for months; it was a family tradition, so we kept going.

Arriving at the park, we drove into a soggy field, with guides waving us listlessly wherever we wanted to go. They didn’t care; it was the end of summer; this was not a job that they would be holding for long. We parked midway through a field – which was surprisingly crowded, given the weather – and started to move through the mud. Our eight year old, Nathaniel, was already jumping, pulling us towards the entrance.

Free to all comers, Knoebels Amusement Park does not fit the template of corporate-style, shiny American amusement parks. Unlike Six Flags and Hershey Park, high-flying zones of gravity-defying technological tubes and vessels, Knoebels is not a proving ground for new engineering marvels. Built in the 1940s, it hasn’t evolved too far past the eighties. The roller coasters are wooden and rickety. The supporting beams are splintered and sometimes warped.

This time, however, there had been a change.  There was a new ride, the Impulse, a brand new coaster, a snaking coil of metal tracks painted blue and yellow. I had looked it up online.  It was the first new coaster since 2004. It was manufactured by a company called Zierer. It reached speeds of 55 miles per hour. There was no wood involved. People were restrained by carefully accommodated laws of physics. But you had to be 52 inches to ride. My son did not yet qualify, but I did.

As soon as I bought my ride ticket, I headed for the Impulse  The line wasn’t long, but the wait time was because, due to the weather, the frequency of the rides had been halved. I would have to stand in the driving rain for at least a half hour, waiting for the four-row cars, with four seats per row, to move into position and fill with prospective riders, until it was our turn.

Still, I decided to wait. A large tarp had been arranged over the line, but it bellied up with water, causing a denser, and less regular leakage. Someone behind me was talking about a decapitation that had taken place at Six Flags in Georgia. More irritating and less understandable was that people wanted to take this ride together with close friends and extended families, in arranged groups, which meant that sometimes a row meant for four would only be filled by two or three, which only slowed the line down. Most of us waiting for the Impulse busied ourselves with our phones. Some spoke in loud voices, to be heard above the rainfall, about the extended wait time or the weather, usually to people who were also experiencing extended wait times elsewhere in the park. Others, like myself, bent their heads to read their screens.

I was keeping tabs on the situation in Houston. As if that would make any difference. It was getting worse. Flooding was moving east and toward Louisiana. There were photos of brownish, slow-moving water redefining the cartography of Texas towns; their roads were now snaking, mud-filled rivers. Countless homes had been violated by the surge of water. There was an article about fire ants, which had also evacuated their homes, and were now floating down streets in rafts of 100,000. Because they are hydrophobic, they do not drown.

Between updates, conversations were about several things: the shape of the Impulse, the weather, the tarp above, which seemed to be on the verge of collapse. The line in front of us was getting shorter, but slowly.

Then came breaking news. The premier of the Republic of North Korea had launched an underground test of a hydrogen bomb.


# # #


By now I was nearing the end of the line. I have never had my head chopped off, but with about one more trainload of people before me, I envisioned, without wishing to, a decapitation by roller coaster. I began to think, too, of a photo I’d seen in some history book, of partisans preparing to be executed, kneeling at the edge of a pit full of corpses. Such images, of people on the verge of death -- by firing squad, war, or disaster --  captivate me. The quality of the photograph is irrelevant; what matters is that the victim pictured be on the verge of certain death. The person has suddenly given himself up to fate, to the inevitable, without any opportunity for denial or intervention. Logic, aspiration, attitude have all been thrown out the window. There is nothing left but to cringe and await the inevitable. Nothing matters but what is about to happen, what cannot be stopped.

First they tell you to dispose of all smartphones. Place them in a coat pocket, or give them to an attendant. You are not going to be able to take pictures during the ride, they tell you. Then they tell you to dispose of your hat. By the time you are in the seat, you are in lockdown. A large metal bar comes over your lap, pressing tightly against the crotch. Another attendant checks all the laps to make sure everything is good to go. The countdown begins, the train lurches forward. It begins its ascent, at an angle of 180 degrees. There are rides which involve screaming and letting loose—arms in the air, all that. This is not one of those rides. The compartment—it’s more of a compartment than anything else, a womb-like interior with back braces, not that much different, actually, than a rocket—is now pointed straight up. No one is talking. Turning back, at this point, is not an option. After about a hundred meters —it looks like a hundred meters but feels like more than that—there is, apparently, a view, but I don’t bother looking, at least not at first.

Why is it called the Impulse? There is nothing impulsive about the ride itself. The impulse was actually, to throw ourselves into the situation itself, to run across the tarmac towards the machine, the most expensive ride in Knoebels, and a ride which, in its high-tech look, seems to have been transplanted by crane from Six Flag or King’s Dominion. It is machinery which, in its essence, offers a close scrape with death, or at least with the possibility of disaster. There is no ride, one reflects, on which something has not gone wrong at least once. There are imprecations, ominous warnings that in their particularity conjure up some cautionary tale. The exclamation mark, for instance, after the warning about raising your hands, and the emphasis placed on measuring the height of the passengers. Added to that, the prospect of mechanical dysfunction. One person in a line before me said that he had been on the ride during its first week and that, at the top of the hill, the train had got stuck for half an hour. He wasn’t sure whether it had derailed or the steel cables had broken, or the engine itself had run out of energy.

A hydrogen bomb, I reflected as the train climbed uphill, would have an explosive power hundreds of times greater than the nuclear bomb that dropped on Hiroshima. Its effects would include a global economic collapse, and massive shifts in weather patterns—in a world already in the early stages of environmental armageddon. The two primary players in the standoff were staring at one another across the Pacific, drawing red lines, exchanging insults and dire warnings. With no mechanism in place for compromise, escalation appeared to be inevitable. Heads on each side of the screen were busily making the unthinkable thinkable. In the same way that a lie can become, in the human mind, a truth, nuclear apocalypse was being discussed by academics in makeup.

Descartes writes that there are two stages in the process of human thought: comprehension and assessment. The first stage is passive, the second active. Comprehension involves understanding the internal logic of an idea. The propositions are taken for granted; how they relate to one another is what the mind comprehends. So, in the passive stage (comprehension), the mind accepts the architecture of thought, so that it can grasp the outcome. One assumes that the world is flat, that global warming is the result of sunspots, that armadillos wear pink tutus, or that self-annihilation is the key to survival. The second stage is active. One investigates the foundations of that architecture: is the logic based on wishful thinking, self-interest, lies, or emotion? The progress from comprehension to assessment is linear. The first stage is automatic: the architecture of thought is shaped so as to make it possible to comprehend the idea. What matters is that connections make sense. The second stage takes more effort: once one has constructed the machinery to understand how, for example, Jews are the root cause of Germany’s economic collapse, or the Hun is a threat to Western Civilization, one then has to deconstruct the propositions and investigate their veracity.

We have reached a point in the modern world where the first stage is contained in our smartphones. The devices themselves embody a logarithmic architecture to which our mental process has effectively subordinated itself.

The machinery takes Descartes’ comprehension stage a step further. Rather than move to the active process of thought (assessment), the architecture itself is so immediately available, that rather than investigate its propositions, one is inclined to move on to other, seemingly unrelated matters. We are encouraged to “surf” for hours a day. Rather than investigate the foundations or structure of individual events, one clicks from one update to the next,  in the same way one might move from one guest to another while visiting a friend’s party.

The logic of a nuclear standoff: to lead is to dominate and eliminate competition. The vitalizing moment is the challenge itself—the game of chicken. “Vitalizing,” though, does not mean “active.” Engaging in the challenge is a total submission to the wave, the hurricane, the roller coaster of events.   The impulse demands total submission to its own logic; so does a hurricane; and so does a nuclear standoff.

When one reaches the top of the Impulse, there is a sudden leveling. The machinery actually comes to a halt. For a moment, at the top of the track—a hundred meters above ground—the cart, with its sixteen riders, teeters.

I could see across the park. Knoebels is large and spread out: there is a waterpark, a cotton candy dispensary, a fast Flyer, a Phoenix, a Black Diamond, a StratosFear, Kozmo’s Kurves, the Power Surge, the Sklooosh, the Satellite, the Downdraft, the Accordion, the Galleon, the 1001 Nacht, the Whirlygig…the same story, in different forms. At a certain point, the body overtakes the intellect, and, even when one recognizes that they are built to spec, and that one’s safety is assured by immutable laws of physics, the animal instinct overtakes one. At the top of the curve, on the edge of the plunge, one gets the feeling that maybe something will go terribly wrong. But even when it does, the  thrill of crisis is never in question. Teetering at the top of the Impulse, surrendering to the inevitable, I wanted to be there, at the top of the world.

By the next day, Houston was old news. As the floodwaters abated, residents there were left in the mud and their uninsured homes. The headlines were dominated by Hurricane Irma. The news sites were full of videos of the new monster about to slam into the Antilles. “May God protect us all,” was the last message, delivered by a nameless official of that hapless isle. There was nothing that could stop it. All paths for escape were blocked. Residents were hammering plywood across windows, tying up boats, filling grocery carts. On the way back from the amusement park, I received updates. Colored images showed me the slowly turning menace, drifting towards the Antilles, towards Florida, its clear eye at the center.


John Barry s a writer and a part time faculty member in the MICA humanities department. Also a labor agitator, chess teacher, writing tutor, debate coach, indie arts journalist, career consultant, sailing instructor, and musician.