For the Thrill of It

The summer vacation season has come to an end, and I wrapped it up with my daughter as we spent a few days at Cedar Point, an amusement park jam-packed with thrilling roller coasters. Not only was this a chance to relive a few moments from my own childhood when I traipsed through an amusement park with my cousins, it was also an opportunity to have some valuable one-on-one time with my oldest child, who isn’t really a child anymore. In between the rides and bites of what amounts to nothing more than carnival-style food, we chatted about anything and everything from TV shows to books to life in general.

As the kids get older, I can feel time slipping away. Their orbit around my wife and me is expanding and the gravitational pull that once held us tightly together has weakened. They are finding their own path, slowly but surely, and it no longer depends on us. In many ways, this is rewarding, but in other ways, it’s sad, an end of a phase of our lives that we never thought would end. When you have kids, you throw your whole being into it. You give yourself up entirely. The love you feel for them is all-consuming. It’s like running a long race that you can never finish.

So, I try to find ways to reconnect, to relate, knowing that it will fall short because the relationship between parents and teenagers is meant to be angst-filled, a dramatic, slow-motion removal of a sticky bandage. My kids are very different from each other and relating to them requires different approaches. My son is testing out his masculinity, expressed through mindless video games that I no longer get, but I listen to him prattle on about them even if it doesn’t resonate just to hear the sound of his voice. My daughter, cerebral and wise well beyond her years, requires a different approach. We bond over books, writing, running and solving the injustices in the world. Her thoughts and conversations can be very deep, but sometimes, I get a glimpse of the little girl I once knew when I see her watching Moana on her phone.

Many years ago when my daughter was much younger, we were at Disney World, and she had just passed the height requirement to ride Space Mountain. That ride happens to be the first ride I ever rode at Disney World, and while it’s not particularly strenuous by today’s thrill ride standards, it’s aggressive for a young kid. I was worried about how she would handle the ride, but she was so gung-ho about it and so excited to ride a big kid roller coaster that I couldn’t say no, so we rode it together. She sat behind me in the ride, and the whole time I kept my hand on her leg both to comfort her and me. At the end of the ride, she practically giggled with delight. She enjoyed it so much, and I enjoyed it, too, more so because of the sheer joy it brought to her. I bought the in-ride picture they took of us on the coaster to commemorate the event. In the picture we’re both smiling from ear-to-ear and her wild hair flutters in her wake. It’s how I always picture her as a little girl, my little daredevil.

A few years later, I took her to Six Flags outside Los Angeles on a daddy-daughter trip, and we spent the whole day riding some serious roller coasters including Goliath. She was fearless, tackling each ride with the gusto that made me proud. Hearing her squeal with excitement and react in amazement at what she just did made my day. I’ll never forget the look on her face as we careened around corners on Goliath, an expression of youthful fearlessness and hesitant excitement. With each return to a coaster terminal, she expressed her desire to do it again. Daredevil indeed.

As such, it seemed only fitting that we’d return to our shared love of thrill rides one more time this past week. We descended upon Cedar Point late Saturday afternoon expecting a packed house, but we happened upon a lull in the crowds because the weather had been suspect. We managed to ride almost all of the coasters in a five-hour span starting with Wicked Twister and ending with The Raptor. As we walked out of the park that first night, the adrenaline still pumping from all of the rides, we talked about what we’d ride the next day. I caught a glimpse of that little girl I remember so well from Space Mountain. She’s changed a lot since then, but some things never change.

Episode 3: Donna Quixote

Before Donna opened her eyes, she could sense the unfamiliar around her. She’d had a dream of her mother and she hoped that by keeping her eyes closed she could linger in the dream just a little longer. She missed her mother dearly and thought of her every day. The day her mother died had been the second worst day of her life.

A low hum droned next to her head on her right, a faint chatter echoed somewhere away from her, and she could feel someone next to her. She slowly opened her eyes. A young Indian man stood next to her cloaked in light blue scrubs and a white coat. She took him in with half-closed eyes and blinked hoping that he’d go away, but he remained next to her making notes on a tablet.

“Good morning, Ms. Scott. I’m Dr. Kolachalam,” he said. Her name rolled off his tongue in a strange way, but she understood him. “How do you feel?”

Donna turned her head to the side and felt the stiffness from her shoulder roll up her neck. She felt pain in her expression. “Where am I?” she asked.

“Eastside Hospital. You had a fall and hurt your shoulder. The EMTs brought you here this morning.”

She thought about this for a moment. She remembered falling and pain radiating up her shoulder. She remembered the tinny voice on the end of the line when she dialed 9-1-1, and she remembered wondering if the dispatcher recognized her voice.

“You’re lucky it wasn’t worse, Ms. Scott. It appears you fainted from low blood sugar and fell against your kitchen counter. You’ve got a sizable bruise on your shoulder, but it should heal in time. Have you been taking your insulin as prescribed?”

She couldn’t remember when she last took her insulin, but she usually took it at night before she went to bed. “Last night,” she replied. Her voice croaked as if she hadn’t had anything to drink in a very long time. “Can I get some water?”

“Sure.” The doctor turned to the space behind him and poured some water into a plastic cup. He pushed the cup toward her lips, but she stuck up her hand and he put the cup in her hand instead. She swallowed large gulps of water as he watched.

“You should be fine, but you need to ensure you take your insulin. The bruise will hurt for a few days, but nothing is broken. The nurse will be in to discharge you. You can go home.”

“Is the ambulance going to take me home?” she asked.

“Do you have someone who can take you home?”

“No. I live alone.”

“Oh, let me tell the nurse. She can help you.” A look of sympathy washed over his otherwise stoic face. His eyes lingered on her a bit longer before he turned and disappeared behind the room’s swinging door.

Donna pushed herself into her pillow and looked away from the fluttering door. The machine next to her bed had been disconnected from her and turned off. She wondered what her blood pressure reading was. She wanted to compare it to what her own readings had been to see if she’d been getting incorrect numbers. These thoughts rippled through her mind as a wave of exhaustion washed over her. She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

A murmur of hushed conversation woke her from her slumber. At first, she just heard the disembodied voices hovering over her, but as she slowly opened her eyes, she could see blurred faces. It took her a moment to realize her eyeglasses had slid down her nose. She pushed them up to her eyes and took in the two women staring at her.

“Ms. Scott,” the nurse said, “your daughter is here to take you home.”

Donna looked at the woman beside her. She had aged a good bit since the last time she had seen her, but she still had that dismissive look on her face, one that she had worn so well for so many years.

“Ms. Anderson called me and said that an ambulance had brought you here. I’m glad you’re okay.”

Donna blinked and looked away toward the skinny window in the room. The light outside had dimmed.

“Are you ready to go home?” her daughter asked.

She turned back toward her daughter. The nurse had left the room. “You didn’t have to come here.”

“I know, but I thought I should. Ms. Anderson was very worried about you.”

“She needs to mind her own business.”

“Donna, be glad you have a neighbor who cares.”

“She doesn’t care. She’s just nosy.”

“You haven’t changed a bit.” Her daughter shook her head with a look of disdain framing her face. Donna looked toward the window.

“Alright, at least let me take you home. Otherwise, it’s going to cost you. Can you get dressed, or do I need to call the nurse back?”

Donna shifted her gaze back to her daughter and then winced in pain as she tried to sit up.

“I’ll get the nurse.” Her daughter turned and left the room, and a few moments later, the nurse returned smiling a bright white smile that even made Donna want to smile in return.

After the nurse helped her get dressed, she sat in the lone chair next to the bed. Her shoulder throbbed, and her heart pounded in her chest. She grasped the bottle of pain medicine the nurse had given her. The door swung open and her daughter’s sour face hung above the bed in her line of sight.

“You ready to go?”

She nodded.

“Do you need help, or can you walk yourself?”

She nodded again and stood up as if to offer proof.

“Let’s go.”

Donna took a tentative first step and then shuffled toward her daughter. Silence engulfed them as they rode the elevator down to the main floor and walked out to the parking lot. Her daughter walked in front of her and she followed her broad back down the aisle of cars and through a line near the back of the lot until her daughter stopped at a small, red Kia.

“This is my car,” she said. Donna stopped and backtracked to the passenger side. She waited for her daughter to unlock the door, and then, she slid into the passenger seat, which felt like it was almost on the ground in the small car. When her daughter cranked the car, the radio came on louder than Donna cared for, but she didn’t complain. The piercing noise of the music drowned out the words left unsaid.

The drive to her house only took about ten minutes. Years ago, when she had her children, the nearest hospital had been almost an hour away, but in the intervening years as her neighborhood became something she didn’t recognize, the town around her grew in importance, enough so that it now had its own hospital. Donna watched the world go by outside the passenger window, a blur of buildings and houses, some new and some old blended into a smear of colors in the late afternoon.

The car came to a stop in front of her house. Donna almost didn’t recognize it from the outside since she rarely looked at it from this angle.

“Do you want me to help you?” her daughter asked.

Donna shook her head without looking at her daughter. She took a breath and opened the car door.

As she stood up and before she could shut the door, her daughter said, “Donna…”

Donna bent down and peered into the car at her daughter. Her daughter froze as if she had forgotten what she was going to say.

“Take care of yourself,” she said after an awkward pause.

“I will,” Donna replied. She shut the car door and turned toward her house without another word or glance at her daughter. She heard the engine hum and the crackle of tires on the asphalt as her daughter drove away. She felt a sense of relief mixed with exhaustion as she walked toward the planter on her porch that hid the key to her house. She couldn’t get back in her house soon enough to get away from the world that shunned her.

Volcanic Kick

I think I have an obsession with volcanoes. One of my favorite (and hardest) runs I’ve ever done was around Mt. St. Helens (it took over eight hours). Two years ago, we went on vacation to Yellowstone and learned about the volcanic activity there in a wonderful guided tour, and just this month we went on a cruise in the Mediterranean that included not one, not two, but three volcanoes. I’m not even mentioning the fact that my current writing project centers around an ill-fated hike up the side of Mt. St. Helens. Some may think I’m a little obsessed. I’m not sure how this happened, but I have to admit, I’m amazed by the sheer power and earth-changing force of volcanoes. I find them infinitely interesting.

Seeing volcanoes, per se, wasn’t the purpose of our cruise, which was more focused on being in the Mediterranean during the summer than any single landmark, but one can barely think about the beauty of the southern coast of Europe without acknowledging the impact of volcanic activity.

We started our cruise from Piraeus, a port city outside Athens, Greece. From there we sailed to Santorini, an island in the Aegean Sea that is a remnant of the great Minoan Eruption over 3,600 years. Historians theorize that the eruption eliminated the Minoan civilization and gave birth to the legend of Atlantis, the lost city under the sea. What is left almost four millennia later are the stunning cliffside towns of Oia and Fira and a vast, deep lagoon as picturesque as any I’ve seen.

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Oia as seen from Nea Kameni

The lagoon fills the caldera of the once-great volcano and measures 400 meters deep, which gives an idea of how massive the eruption must have been. I can only imagine the destructive power of the eruption given the size of the rock that had to be expelled to create this beautiful chain of islands in the Aegean Sea. All that remains today are the islands at the edge of the caldera and the emerging cone in the middle (the islands of Nea Kameni and Palaia Kameni).

We took a small boat to Nea Kameni and hiked to the top for views of Oia and Fira from across the lagoon. From this amazing vista I snapped many photos of the whitewashed walls of the buildings that looked like they were carved into the top of the ragged coastline. Nea Kameni is uninhabited, but it has a treasure trove of volcanic information. Volcanologists have installed sensors at the top to keep tabs on the volcano, and even the layman can see evidence of its grumbling with fumeroles that emit a warm stream and sulfur-stained rocks that look like someone had spilled their banana milkshake on them.

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The view atop Nea Kameni (also called New Burnt)

After a fun-filled day in Santorini and a brief stop in Kotor, Montenegro, we set sail for Sicily and a visit to Europe’s most-active volcano, Mt. Etna. Etna erupted for the first time over 500,000 years ago and has remained active since including very recently in March 2017.

We anchored in the port of Messina (near the point where Italy’s boot meets Sicily) and took a two-hour bus ride to Mt. Etna. We made it to about 2,000 meters up the 3,300-meter mountain before we pulled off at an obvious tourist stop and hiked around the Silvestri crater. The land and climate on Etna stood in sharp contrast to the crowded, hot streets of Messina. As far as the eyes could see were layers of black and burnt brown soil and a landscape broken up by swirls of ragged volcanic rock and verdant streaks. The temperature dropped about thirty degrees (Fahrenheit) as well. The desolate and lonely landscape simmered atop the fierce power beneath our feet, which was both awe-inspiring and thrilling, if not a little scary.

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Silvestri Crater on Mt. Etna

After enduring the bus ride back to Messina with a gaggle of loud pre-teens, we hopped back on the boat and headed to Naples. While Naples itself is exciting (they invented pizza here!), we took another bus ride (this one much shorter) to Pompeii to visit the city buried under volcanic ash. Mt. Vesuvius loomed overhead as we approached the ancient city giving its best Cheshire Cat grin in the gleaming sunlight. It had been almost 2,000 years since it unleashed its fury on the unsuspecting residents of Pompeii.

With summer sun bearing down on us, we followed our guide through the gates to the ancient city. What we found was much more than an archaeological dig, although there is plenty of that going on. The sprawling complex covers more than 170 acres and the uncovered portion reveals an amazing artifact of life back around 79 A.D. complete with a theater, bath houses, store fronts, and homes. We walked on the original cobblestone streets and ogled the intricate artwork on ceilings and floor tiles all within the shadow of Vesuvius.

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The ruins of Pompeii (the museum in the top right was built on top of the ruins before the excavation, which gives an idea of how much has been excavated).

After Pompeii we bid farewell to the European volcanoes and boarded our ship to our final port in Barcelona. We were able to learn more details about a history that was vaguely familiar to us, but most importantly, we were able to see firsthand the awesome earth-changing power of volcanoes. Now, I just have to finish my novel that features a certain North American volcano. Someday. Hopefully before it erupts again…