I’m maybe 10 years old when, with a combination of anticipation and terror, I climb into my seat on the Giant Dipper. One of the most popular wooden roller coasters in the world, the Giant Dipper is old – I mean really old. It goes all the way back to 1924, when it was built over 47 days for a whopping cost of $50,000. None of this historical data is going through my mind as the roller coast surges forward and suddenly enters a dark tunnel. In most coasters, this would just be the prelude to the big event: the long ascent up the first hill. But the Giant Dipper is different. The tunnel IS the first hill. All of a sudden, my car is swerving and veering and plunging forward at high speed – in the dark! My 10-year-old brain is on overload. Nobody told me about this. OMG! And because it’s an older wooden coaster, there’s no over-the-shoulder harnesses to keep you stable (like you’d find on modern rides). All we have here is a simple waist bar keeping us in place, meaning that my body is flying left and right, smashing into the sides of the hard, plastic seats. It is awesome!

At last we come out of the tunnel and lurch to a stop. Something grabs the bottom of our car and I hear what sounds like chains, yanking us slowly, link by link, up the murderous incline into daylight for what will be our first “real” hill. Now, you gotta understand that I had been hearing about this rollercoaster for years, ever since my older brother, Brian, had ridden it with a few of his friends. Brian had built it up as the “scariest roller coaster ever” – which it isn’t. There are WAY more terrifying, faster, taller coasters in Southern California at Magic Mountain. But like love, you never forget your first roller coaster, and the Giant Dipper is it for me. Plus I’m 10 years old, delighted that I even get to ride something dangerous like this. It feels positively naughty.

Roller coaster patrons are divided into two types: front seaters and back seaters. The front seaters get a thrill from being the first people to crest the hill and see the track dipping down below them. But I’m a back seater kind of guy. This is where the ride is at its wildest, with a whiplash effect that lets you feel the full extent of Newtonian physics. This means that I’m one of the last people to reach the top of the hill, the terror building as I watch row after row before me literally disappearing over the crest. Is this what it’s like to be a lemming? At last we reach the top and I see the delicious horror show before me – a really, really steep hill, and we’re heading right down it. My brother yells, “Put your hands up!” but there is NO WAY I’m doing that. I didn’t come here to die! Instead, I white knuckle my waist bar, holding on for dear life, laughing and crying and trying to keep my pee inside my body. Like many coasters, the first hill is always the best. It’s when you’re faced with the biggest perceived danger – I mean, human beings weren’t meant to be hurtling into space at 55 mph! After you’ve survived that first plunge, the ride takes on a different nature – sharp turns and unexpected dips, each of which lets you experience a small moment of weightlessness. Riding the Giant Dipper is truly an altered state, and perhaps the best moment of my 10-year-old life!

When we finally reach the end, my head and my heart are ready to explode. “Please, Mom and Dad, can we go again?!!!!!” Rick and Ilsa from Casablanca may always have their Paris, but for me, I always have my Giant Dipper at the Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk!

(What’s your Paris, your Giant Dipper? And more importantly, can you recapture that same feeling by going back and revisiting a place that you loved as a young person? In general, I’d say no, not exactly. My body will never again be flooded with the same hormones of a 10-year-old. But it IS interesting to go back to such a place and see what it feels like as an adult. Chances are the place will feel smaller, now that you inhabit an adult’s body. But maybe, just maybe, you can catch a whiff of your younger self, someone who was just starting out on their life’s journey. Try it sometime and see what insights arise for you!)