“Take the blue track, faster by a foot than the gray.”
So says Una, my girl. I settle into the seat beside her, the bar locks over my lap, brakes release, wheels screech, and the cars gently commence. Before I can ask her where she heard that, the chain dog is clickety-clicking the train up the hill, Matterhorn-steep and just as scary. Jerk and lurch, jerk and lurch: skull jolted into a reluctant piston.
I wrench to gawk at the parallel track to my right, where the gray train clangs skyward at the same rate. Two blond boys in the car lined up with mine — look to be 13 and I swear wearing horn-rims — stare at me, laugh like hell demons. I pull away, still wavering, and toward Una: She’s gone devil- child, too.
Sanity may be in contemplating the summit, toward which, best I can, I crane. Can’t see it; angle’s too sharp. Only the sky, scalding aqua, tremendous as the cosmos, implacably marshaling the pressure, which will, in an instant, blast down on my poor carcass.
Click. Click. Higher, higher. We pass under a sign: “Grit your teeth.” Another: “Bear the load.” A third: “Enjoy your ride …” There’s a fourth up ahead. Can’t make it out. “Wuuuu-ohhhh,” the sound wobbles from the front, five cars up. I grip the bar like a flyer his trapeze. Metal rumbles. The rhythmic groan explodes into howls. The last sign blurs into my squinting eyes, “on Thunder Road,” and my car totters on the apex, above the abyss hovers, and
I plummet. Stomach rips through my cranium. Out rushes all but terror. I am going to hurl. I am going to die. But it’s not terror: the ecstasy now of crazy speed, soul screaming through the void. If this is death, kill me 10 times.
This is Thunder Road, the classic wooden roller coaster that saved Carowinds.
E. Pat Hall, a Charlotte real estate developer (now deceased), opened the amusement park in 1973. His vision of a park located on the borders of North and South Carolina — between Charlotte and Fort Mill — had been long in the making, reaching back to the 1950s, when he imagined a Disneyland-style resort in the Carolinas. But Hall didn’t simply want to replicate Mickey; he fancied showcasing the cultures of the two states. Because of the fuel crisis, however, the park initially didn’t prosper. Lacking the funds to keep it alive, Hall sold it to the Ohio-based Family Leisure Centers in 1975.
But in ’76 Carowinds revved, for one reason: It opened Thunder Road, standing some 90 feet high at its acme and composed of two mirroring circuits of almost 4,000 feet. During the most exciting part of the ride, the extreme plunge, the two cars, one for each state, run side by side, before forking into several smaller hills and curving back to the beginning, where the trains once more meet at the finish. Running beneath the tracks is the state line, painted in gold.
The popular coaster increased attendance mightily its first summer and inspired Carowinds to construct another, equally lucrative coaster the next year: White Lightnin’, a single loop of solid white steel topping out at 130 feet, through which passengers looped at 60 miles per hour, rose to the top of a virtually vertical track, hovered long enough to exhale, and then dropped through the whorl in reverse.
As the name of this ’77 coaster indicates, the park’s brass brilliantly traded on the essence of all carnival joy: the sensation of drunkenness — not buzzed but blind, blotto. Thunder Road took its name from a 1958 film of the same title, starring Robert Mitchum as a moonshine runner in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee. From ’76 to ’80, the coaster’s two trains resembled souped-up cars, one for the sheriff and one for the ’shiner. Customers encountered authentic-looking moonshine stills upon entering and exiting the ride.
Whether plastered on sour mash or whipped around tendon-contorting curves, there is only the now, now, now, the giddy whimsical present.
This is not metaphor. It was a high school Friday night, 1984. After the football game, my friends Mike and John and I, loitering in the Hardee’s lot, encountered a man — must have been 30 — name of Dwayne. At least that’s what his mechanics (or was it bowling?) shirt said. He sported Elvis sideburns and a pompadour, and he reeked of Marlboros. “Walk on over to the Chevelle. Got somethin’ in the trunk.” We followed, had a look: three mason jars brimming with clear liquid.
Mike, careful, asked, “Water?”
Dwayne: “Hell no, son. ’Shine. Fifteen a quart.”
I stepped back and started for Mike’s car. I was the football coach’s son and college-bound — a lot to lose. John, nothing to forgo save his cool, caught up to me before I could open the door, hooch in hand.
Fifteen minutes later, we were sitting in the driveway to John’s house, lights off, tape deck playing Van Halen’s 1984. John turned the lid on the jar of ’shine, popped off the metal cap, gulped. “Hellfire, boy!” Mike sipped demurely, then spat it out onto the dashboard.
My turn. I’d never had a drink or, outside a speeding ticket, broken the law. I sniffed it. Rotting fruit mixed with isopropyl alcohol. Man could puke just over the smell.
But the nausea couldn’t trump the peer pressure. I raised the jar to my lips. I was on the edge of another world, where no one practices football, vertigo is the norm, and green-gills vanquish breakfast. Is this what it’s like to die?
I swigged, my gullet blazed, the fire sucked upward the bile, giddiness and sickness collided: existence italicized.
I grew up 20 miles from North Wilkesboro, which is right in the heart of Wilkes County, once dubbed the moonshine capital of the world (and where Junior Johnson learned to race by eluding revenuers in his hopped-up Ford), and I’ve lived less than an hour away, in Winston-Salem, for the past 15 years.
Still, I’ve never sipped another drop of moonshine. Quiet tummy and rule-abiding for me. Sad, perhaps. The real fall of man isn’t from obedience to apostasy. It’s the opposite: the fatiguing of possibility into the predictable. ’Shine in the darkness shrinks to tea candles in the bistro chain.
The weird confluence of recovering innocence and swilling firewater: Adam’s flailing self-consciousness drowns in the exquisite current. Time is no more “what you can’t do,” but, transported to Eden, the joy of “anything goes.”
Better to leap back to the garden legally, though, and with no liver damage or hangover. Better to drive on a July Saturday to Carowinds, with your 11-year-old daughter and your wife, Sandi, as your companions. Better to laugh through the momentary motion sickness than spend a whole morning worshiping the old porcelain god.
Though Carowinds, aside from Thunder Road — a wooden relic among the polished metal — has set its moonshine theme aside, the park has remained true to its rambunctious heritage.
After braving Thunder Road, my family and I took on Carolina Cobra. True to its biblical history, this snake cast me to Eden’s east right quick, reminding me that my middle-aged gut can’t always cure nausea with the glee of high-speed. I was sick in earnest, “better-sit-down-now sick,” and so couldn’t chase Una, who, caring not a fig for my squeamishness, ran to the Hurler. Lucky for me, Sandi, of sterner constitution, hurried after her.
Resigning myself to the old Adam within, I settled on a bench for a conversation with Jerry Helms, vice president of operations at Carowinds and a full-time employee at the park since 1976. He walks the length of the park at least twice a day — wearing out several pairs of shoes each summer — and never tires of watching families enjoy themselves. For Jerry, that — not freaky speed — is the core of Carowinds: the fostering of family bonds.
After 10 minutes of talking to Jerry about smiling children, I recovered my digestive equilibrium. I studied the park on ground level. Maybe Jerry was right: All around me were blissed-out families, pointing to rides and licking ice cream cones.
“Good family fun.” That phrase sloshed my bile almost as much as the wicked coaster. So sentimental, so boring. But just because a phrase is a cliché, does that mean it should be dismissed? Often, intellectual types believe so. In fact, bashing the common frequently qualifies one for the professoriate. Novelist David Foster Wallace, authentically brilliant, said that sometimes the most banal-seeming phrases — such as “One day at a time” or “Easy does it” — can be powerful, especially for recovering addicts.
These were my thoughts as I talked to Jerry under the Cobra’s coils. Una and Sandi returned from the Hurler, ebullient. I sensed the family harmony, and recalled that the word “Carowinds” signifies the currents that crisscross and unify the Carolinas. And then there was the further concord, according to Jerry, between Cedar Fair Entertainment, which now owns the park, and the local traditions that inspired Carowinds in the first place. The park has been able to change with the times, Jerry says, combining the generic brands of global capitalism with the particular textures of this locale.
In “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” William Wordsworth urges that seasoned contemplation more than compensates for innocence’s loss. He means that the quieter discernment of accord is just as satisfying, if not more so, than running wild in the woods.
Returning to Carowinds with my daughter after an absence of almost 35 years, I realized this poet’s truth. While the ecstasies of the loop-the-loop might now twirl me into disquieting vertigo, I can nonetheless appreciate the complex pleasures of family life in ways a tipsy teenager never could.
Bruce Springsteen, cool as Mitchum, corroborates. During a 1992 show at the Charlotte Coliseum, not 10 miles from Carowinds, Bruce played his most famous rock ballad — whose title he borrowed from Mitchum’s moonshine movie — solo, with an acoustic guitar, close to motionless. He prefaced the song by noting how his electric version, released in ’75, had enflamed multitudes of highway nomads. Now, older and wiser, he wanted to point their hoods homeward.
14523 Carowinds Boulevard
Charlotte, N.C. 28273