Midwest Coaster Madness 2004: The Epic TR (long)

Associated parks:
None

Tuesday, June 29, 2004 3:21 AM
MIDWEST COASTER MADNESS 2004
JUNE 20, 2004 - JUNE 23, 2004

This TR is of particularly epic length, mostly because the planning and execution of this trip meant so much to me and have provided me with so many amazing memories. If you'd like to read the whole thing, feel free to -- otherwise, you can skip ahead to pertinent sections if you'd like.


PROLOGUE

The last time I wrote a TR that had any kind of emotional motivation behind it, I made it a point to emphasize the power of dreams, and how wonderful it is to conceive a dream and see it realized. Since the very first threads of what would eventually become Midwest Coaster Madness 2004 began to shape themselves in my mind (way back in April of 2002, no less), it never really struck me as something I would have to work hard for, never anything strained or excessive -- but rather something natural, something that was simply meant to be.

The beginnings of this particular pilgrimage date, as mentioned, to April 2002. Though I've been called many things (both positive and, mostly, negative), I've taken a great deal of pride in the fact that I'm generally thought of as an honest person, and that of all those things I've been called, I've never been blatantly called a liar. So when Kara, a good coasting buddy of mine, told me she'd be coming out to New Jersey to make Nitro her 100th coaster, I jumped at the chance to meet up and share the experience. Unfortunately, that was during my 16th year, and I had neither a means of personal transportation nor a license to drive anything but a bike. In short, I was completely reliant on someone taking me to Six Flags Great Adventure -- and everything was all fine and good until my prospective ride backed out on me just hours before I was supposed to leave. Disappointed and angry at my misfortune, I did two significant things: 1) I wrote a song, called "July Is Still Forever Away...", which is still to date the best song I've ever written; and 2) I promised Kara that, in return, when the time came for me to ride my 100th coaster, I would come out to Michigan and make it Shivering Timbers.

Seemed simple enough, right?

However, over two years, many pitfalls were to come my way. In 2002, for instance, the closest I was getting to Michigan was Cedar Point (hardly a complaint!) as the guest of another family. Then in 2003, poor planning resulted in the plug being pulled, once again, the night before the scheduled departure date. But come January of 2004, I took a long, reflective look back at what I'd screwed up in my planning in the summer of '03 and I immediately began getting ideas together and planting the seeds of a summer road trip that would actually work.

In the beginning, it was only supposed to involve myself and my friend John -- and was supposed to be a 7-day venture encompassing 6 parks in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. But when John accepted another road trip offer, this one to Walt Disney World, I lost my traveling companion due to monetary stipulations. The result was that I needed to reformulate the plan: a bare-bones trip to the midwest; two parks, Cedar Point and Michigan's Adventure; hotels booked in advance; season passes procured in advance; budgets and itineraries laid out. After over two months of organizing and researching, submitting proposals for parental approval and searching for willing parties, the final layout was reached and confirmed:

4 days: June 20-23. 4 people: myself, my girlfriend Danielle, my friend Alicia, and her boyfriend Adam. 2 days in Sandusky at Cedar Point, 1 day in Muskegon at Michigan's Adventure, and 1 day to drive back to New Jersey. Every single move we'd make was planned weeks in advance, right down to breakfast on the first day. Two and a half years of planning would finally pay off. My track record was in the right place, my accounts were in order.

Fast forward to Sunday morning, June 20, 2004, 6:00am. The dream trip was about to become reality.


DAY ONE: "WE'RE ON THE ROAD TO OHIO..."

6:30am. Danielle, ever the punctual one of the couple, arrived at my house right on time, and with a swift farewell to my parents -- and particularly to my father, whose Father's Day present would be four days without me in the same state, the lucky guy -- we were off to pick up Adam and Alicia. A quick detour to Starbucks yielded enough caffeine to get us through what would be an 18-hour day (amen for the Grande Quad White Mocha...) and we were soon heading west on Route 80, as we would be doing for a long, long, long, long, LONG time. The drive was relatively uneventful, particularly through eastern Pennsylvania, which is just about as hellishly boring as any drive can be. Fortunately, I had plenty of CDs and the massive tome that is Les Misérables to keep my occupied -- I would reach the third book of Part Three before we arrived in Sandusky around 4:00pm.

After quickly checking into the Howard Johnson Express Maingate and unloading our baggage, we drove onto the causeway, where I had the pleasure of giving three never-beens their first glimpses of the Point. I swear, something about seeing that skyline unfold as you begin to cross over the waters of Lake Erie just gets me every time. Upon entering the park, we immediately set off for the season pass center, where I waited as my compadres acquired their season passes -- pink, much to Adam's dismay. Then finally, around 5:00pm, MCM '04 proper finally began as we entered the park.

Seeing as thunderstorms had been predicted for Monday, I suggested that we hit most of the tall rides on Sunday so that we could hit the other rides on Monday if necessary. Our first stop, naturally, was Top Thrill Dragster, which was running consistently and only had a 45-minute wait when we entered the line. Looking at my shell-shocked friends (Danielle in particular, who had gone from excitedly giddy to scared speechless upon watching a launch), I realized that they seemed absolutely horrified at what they were about to do. The only horror for me, though, was what would happen if my commanding girth prevented me from properly fitting in the harness. The line moved quickly, and we were almost in the station when the ride anticlimactically broke down for about 20 minutes. When it finally kicked up again, three of us (yup, Danielle was still horrified) were ready to take on the challenge. Our train, Blue, finally came -- I say in the chair, buckled the belt, pulled tight, and...plenty of slack. I smiled and looked over at D, who was pulling on the belt and lapbar, holding it firmly to her as if her life depended on it. The poor girl, quite frankly, was scared s**tless. As the train rolled up to the launch, she kept mumbling, "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you..." And then, the moment of truth. The train rolled slightly back, the brakes dropped, the lights flashed: yellow, yellow, yellow, GREEN.

The photo stand would later show four people having a blast. For all her nervousness, D admitted about a half-hour later (once the adrenaline wore off) that the ride was damn fun and that she would ride it again. Adam and Alicia both loved it, though neither loved it quite enough to release the death grip they each had on their respective lapbars. For me, though, the best experience in all of coasting had done it to me yet again.

We were all quite hungry at this point so we went to Dinner at Midway Market, then tackled some of the other rides in the lower end of the park. The group thought very highly of Raptor, except for the wicked turn into the brake run that gave most everyone a headache. Immediately riding the Blue Streak thereafter probably didn't help much, but I was craving an airtime fix. Next stop was across the main midway to Wicked Twister, which turned Adam's face a lovely shade of flushed. It helped, though, that the operator seemed to be having a kick out of his job -- "Welcome back Twisted riders, how was your ride? ... Wicked!" -- and when it was our turn to ride (in the back, of course), it turned out to be the sleeper hit of the trip. Everyone raved about it and couldn't wait to ride it again...so we did. The second time around, we rode in the front, and discovered just what happens when you try to be the operator without his permission: "Wicked! ...Stop stealing my line!" We'd planned to hit Disaster Transport next, but I figured it could wait till tomorrow, when the weather was more appropriate for an indoor ride, so we instead headed back toward the Gemini midway.

It was getting close to closing time, so we quickly hit Corkscrew, Gemini, and Magnum right in a row. Corkscrew was a one-lapper, but we all seemed to get a kick out of Gemini -- and particularly of the incredibly fierce competition that it inspires -- to the point where we rode it a few times before our watches reminded us of what else we had to do. The biggest surprise of the night was Magnum, for two distinct reasons. Firstly, Danielle and Adam found its roughness unbearable and too much to be redeemable: they took one lap in the back of the train and refused to ride it again. Secondly, during mine and Alicia's ride in the world-famous ejector seat, I was so lost in the incredible air I was getting that I didn't notice my seat belt had come undone...or at least, I didn't notice until the lap bar didn't hit my upper thigh, but rather the top of my knee. Needless to say, I gripped the bar for the rest of the ride and held on tight. I don't think I was in any real immediate danger, as I was unable to wiggle myself out when we hit the brake run, but it was a pretty scary experience.

To close the night, we ran to Millennium Force and entered the line at 10:00pm, just before the line closed. We watched the back end of the laser show and waited an hour to board the second-to-last regular train of the night. The restraints on the Force were a lot snugger than those on Dragster, but I was still able to secure my ride, which was smooth and fast and as fun as I remembered. Everyone else loved it and thought it a fitting end to the day, but the prevalent thought was that of getting back to the hotel and passing the hell out.

This plan, as expected, was executed to perfection.


DAY TWO: "HOLD ON, FEELING LIKE I'M HEADED FOR A BREAKDOWN..."

10:00am. If the hotel was able to successfully do one thing, it was to provide a punctual wake-up call -- and it was NOT to successfully remove the pervasive stank that the air-conditioner produced when it ran. But when the Breakers Express is the only hotel closer to the entrance and this one is a hell of a lot cheaper, that is but a piddling matter.

Because our Sunday had been so hectic and tiring, we decided to take our time getting ready and entering the park, finally going through the main gate shortly after 12 noon. In the spirit of really experiencing Cedar Point (as opposed to merely obsessing about its coasters), we chose to take a route with more flat rides mixed in, and began with a spin on the Demon Drop -- a fun and interesting start to our day.

We snuck up to the Wicked Twister midway and couldn't resist riding it again, as it had been the hit of the day before. Although the more straight-laced operator took the pre-ride experience down a notch, everyone agreed that the ride itself was still killer. Even after the experience of Dragster the day before, I'd still put WT's fourth launch when seated in the back of the train as more shocking and more exciting than going either up or down TTD's hill.

We followed two laps on Wicked Twister with a few rides that begin disappointingly but slowly improved. First, we took on Disaster Transport -- which, I quickly realized, loses a lot of its luster when there's any kind of significant line. As a walk-on, it's a fun little diversion, but nothing worth really writing home about. Then we took a spin (no pun intended) on the Troika. The ride itself is actually not a disappointment -- what was the real letdown was the inordinately short length of the ride cycle. It really wasn't long enough to savor and enjoy it. Our third WT-midway stop, however, Chaos, was everything I'd remembered other Chaos rides to be: twisted and smooth, and a nice long ride cycle.

The next two rides were two requests made by myself and Danielle. First, we took a spin on the Kiddy Kingdom Carousel, which took me back to the old days long before i ever rode the coasters like I do now. Then we took my request and took a spin on Cedar Downs. I'm not sure what it is about this ride that's so much different than a carousel or other simple rotating ride, but it's a whole lot of fun -- and with four horses all in a line, the competition between the four of us was fierce to say the least!

With our expectations and our attitudes steadily rising, we took ourselves up towards Millennium Force and the Gemini midway. We took a casual walk past Dragster and noticed that it was not operational -- nor would it be for the rest of the day, and this was during the 2:00 hour. As we progressed on the way towards Millennium Force, we proceeded to hit all the coasters we didn't hit on Sunday. So after a brief break to enjoy our Icees, we stepped into line for WildCat. Even though it's not much more than a simple boardwalk coaster, it's still smooth and fast, and a ton of fun too. Having taken that for a spin, we hopped across the midway to Iron Dragon.

The ride on Iron Dragon was mostly Adam's request; having ridden and thoroughly enjoyed the suspended coasters he'd ridden in the past, he was looking forward to Cedar Point's version. Our train rolled out after a two-train wait and with us seated in the final car, we ascended the first lift, then cruised along the first part of the course. As we approached the brake run and the second lift, the crew seemed a bit bored, so I assured them that the pretzel-loop finale in the second part of the course was worth the somewhat unexciting opening salvo.

We hit the second lift hill, and just as the train had completely situated itself upon the lift, we heard a very loud rattle. The cars began to shake and the rumbles became louder and more steady. There were a few loud bangs, and a long series of slow rumbles -- then, all was quiet and we found ourselves steady and in perfect silence. Alicia asked, "Dave, was that supposed to happen?" and I responded, "Nope, I don't think so." But there was really nothing we could do but sit there. A few minutes later, a Cedar Point representative came up and asked us if we all okay, explaining that there were mechanical problems and looking rather nervously behind her. After assuring us that things would be okay, Alicia wiggled an arm out from under the harness and looked behind us. After a split second, Alicia's jaw dropped and she said, "Holy crap, Dave, look." I, being of commanding girth, was unable to wiggle out, but I took off my reflective shades and used them as a mirror -- and that's when I saw it (picture coming soon).

The chain was lying in a pile about 20 feet behind the disabled train. The train behind us was stopped on the brake run and was being manually unharnessed and walked down the track. After some more CP police and other officials reached the scene, our harnesses were undone and we were walked down the track to the ground. Once there, an employee took down our names and addresses and handed us an exit pass, good for any ride but Dragster. All four of us decided it was a much better deal than Iron Dragon's REAL ending!

After this little bit of excitement, we resumed our northward track and hit up the stand-up, Mantis. I'd not had the most pleasant of experiences on Mantis during my last two ventures to the Point, so I wasn't looking forward to this one -- but since Danielle had really anticipated it, I put on the good boyfriend hat and played along. I advised Adam to keep the seat just a bit low, in the interest of future parentage, but the ride ops took care of that by adjusting the seat back up to where it unfortunately belonged. Admittedly, in the end, the ride was less of a painful experience than it was before, not that it was really so amazing.

We got off the ride and saw that the line for Millennium Force was easily an hour and a half, if not more. But thanks to our trusty exit passes, the total wait for our 300-foot drop was all of one train. Thank you, Iron Craphole. :)

It was just about 5:00 now, and we still hadn't met up with Kara, who was off that day and supposedly playing in the park. Since I had money to burn, and a hankering for more tasty food, we trekked back to the Midway Market for dinner, where we finally saw Kara and told her we'd meet up after dinner. Post-meal, we called her up and learned that she was in her dorm and would meet us at Power Tower, so that's where we went. Our newfound sixsome -- she brought her friend James from the MF crew with her -- took on first the red side of Power Tower, then (much to my trepidation) the green side. I'll never understand what it is about freefall rides that always give me the willies, but I think I like it.

The new plan of attack for after the ride was to check out the status of Dragster. Since a crew member had told us that it might open around 9:30, we decided to hit up some other rides that we'd wanted to double-lap (Raptor, Wicked Twister, Gemini, and Magnum) then make our way to TTD for a last ride around close. Kara departed to make the trip to Muskegon and catch us the next day, so our crew executed this plan. We took another lap on Raptor, this time well prepared for the rough ending turn, and two more spins on Wicked Twister before heading towards the Gemini midway. We all tackled Gemini (which wasn't racing due to a protein spill on the blue train) and then me and Alicia dared to take on Magnum one more time. During this particular ride, I was constantly checking my seat belt (which, thankfully, remained fastened) but managed to still get crazy amounts of air from the ejector seat. The on-ride photo was very much worthy of a purchase (and will be posted as soon as I scan the photos).

At this point, it was 9:30. Unfortunately, that was irrelevant because Dragster was not destined to operate that evening, at least not for the general public anyway. All in all, though, our last rides, and our Cedar Point experience as a whole, was far from a disappointment. After experiencing the most thrilling adventure of all -- the gift shop ;) -- and purchasing a magnet for the refrigerator and a copy of Cedar Point-opoly for the game room, we ventured out to the car and drove away from the Point for the last time. I tried to snap a photo of the lit-up island from the causeway, but it didn't come out. One could argue that I get too emotional when I leave Cedar Point, but one could also argue that the picture not developing was Fate's way of telling me that I should come back and see it all again. And I think it's fairly obvious that THAT is the course of debate I'm going to take.


DAY THREE: "ALRIGHT ALREADY, WE'LL ALL FLOAT ON..."

7:00am. As the wake-up call disturbed the peaceful slumber of our sleeping crew, I realized in my half-dazed state that this was the first time since high school that I'd woken up at 7:00am or earlier more than once in a week. I also remembered how much I'd hated four years of it, and how I wouldn't want to repeat it. But this time around, I knew the destination was much more worthy of my consciousness, so everything fell together nicely.

Breakfast consisted of a combination of Alicia's trail mix and the HoJo's continental breakfast, which was enough sustenance to last us well into Michigan. We checked out and departed Sandusky, driving at a brisk speed down the Ohio Turnpike before maneuvering through a few exits and heading north on US-23. Finally, after two years of waiting, I saw a sign that was the sort of sight for sore eyes that you'd never expect: "Michigan Welcomes You."

Though the drive through Michigan was relatively uneventful save for two very pleasant experiences -- 1) rocking out to the amazing Modest Mouse CD Good News for People Who Love Bad News while counting all the abandoned cars on the side of I-96; and 2) having a graphic conversation in typical loud, raunchy New Jersey style and scaring the ever-loving crap out of some old lady eating lunch two tables over in the Wendy's we stopped at -- we noticed that the most thrilling thing about driving in Michigan was that the speed limit was 70 mph. That, of course, meant that driving 90 was the more traditional course of driving action. Danielle's car, affectionately named Kitty, was definitely purring happily. :)

As we approached the end of I-96, I realized that the directions were to the hotel, and not to Michigan's Adventure itself, so I had to wing it a bit; this, naturally, caused everyone to wonder what was wrong with me, as if asking was helping much. But after an impatient drive and several uncertain turns, the trees cleared out to our right and we saw the Michigan's Adventure sign.

And then we saw Timbers.

It was a pretty surreal experience, driving alongside the massive coaster and admiring its perfect hills and curves, things I'd only seen before in pictures and dreams. The excitement was beyond containment; I wanted to ride it right away, no more waiting. But I knew I had to hold off, if only for just a bit longer. The coaster count was at 96: I had three more rides to ride first.

Upon retrieving our comp tickets and entering the gate, I noticed the Big Dipper, the little kiddie coaster, to my left, and suggested we start low and get it out of the way. Nothing to write home about, but the ride op was one hell of an entertaining guy, immediately joking around with the four teenagers riding the family coaster and informing us that we'd have to either sit in the left or right seat and not straddle the leg of the T-shaped lapbar. I, of course, was straddling it, because I'm large and in charge. I was warned through good-natured joking that Danielle would not likely be mothering my kids after a ride with the lapbar like that, but I braced myself and survived, and so did...well, you know. ;) 97.

Right next to the Dipper was Zach's Zoomer, which seemed like the next gradual step up towards Timbers. I was impressed with the quick ops, and thought that, for a family woodie, it was a pretty good ride, reminiscent of PCW's Ghoster Coaster during my band trip junior year. 98.

I'd noticed the entrance to Corkscrew from the station to Zach's Zoomer, and decided it would be next. From that station, I looked toward Timbers' lift and noticed that no trains had gone in a while. I shrugged it off, thinking that the suspense of the forthcoming ride was simply shaking my nerves. The lap on Corkscrew was interesting, short and sweet and to the point, and one of the smoothest (and shortest) Arrows I'd been on -- a correllation I can't help but insist upon implying. But more importantly, 99.

The wait was finally over. We walked toward the far corner of the park. I saw the sign, I saw the queue, I saw the lift. I saw everything finally coming together. It was Shivering Timbers, it was my 100th coaster, and it was a dream that was about to come true.

The dream, however, was to be slightly deferred. We entered the station and found Kara, James, and two other amigos from CP (Matt was one, and for the life of me, I've unfortunately forgotten the other fellow's name...sorry!) waiting for the front car. Apparently, there were mechanical problems that were causing the train not to dispatch. Man, did I ever curse. There was no possible way the ride could break down NOW. Not this day, not this time. Everything, from the traffic to the weather, had played out exactly as planned...this couldn't be happening.

The reassuring hiss and subsequent dispatch of the train was met with applause ten minutes later, but it was much more soothing for me. A couple empty trains went, and then came the time. Danielle volunteered to sit with Matt as the CP-ers (sans Kara, of course) took their lap. Finally, the train rolled into the station. Adam and Alicia were in the front seat; Kara and I were in the row behind them. We were going to sit in the front car of Shivering Timbers. It was actually going to happen.

We got into the train and strapped in tight. The wait for dispatch seemed interminable, but the clear was finally given and with a hiss, we rolled out, turned left, and began ascending the lift. I jokingly said as we climbed that the chain would probably break, just like on Iron Dragon, and I'd be stuck without my ride, but I knew it wouldn't happen. We approached the crest of the hill, and as I looked down the drop, and looked out at the mountain range of airtime-laden hills ahead of me, my heart caught in my throat. Here it was, the big 100.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004. 2:51pm. We dropped. My first ride on my 100th coaster, Shivering Timbers, had begun.

The short version of the story was that the coaster certainly did not disappoint. When the second hill thrust me up and out of my seat with a force that was somewhere between the firmness of Magnum's ejector seat and the grace of Nitro's eighth row, I knew I was in airtime heaven. The third hill was a similar sensation, a thrilling combination of speed and perfect air, beginning just before the crest and lasting almost to the bottom of the next drop. Kara yelled out for me to wait for the fourth hill, and it was coming at us, shorter than the rest -- and I knew what that meant. The air on that hill was indescribable, but I'll try anyway: I was thoroughly and completely elevated, with power and force. That fourth hill completely took my breath away; and though I haven't ridden many (but what I have ridden are among some of the world's most highly regarded), it was easily one of the greatest moments on any wooden coaster I'd ridden in my life.

Still trying to recover from the fourth hill, the fifth hill returned to the wicked air pattern of the previous hills, before we climbed the sixth hill's double-up and swung into the turnaround. This turnaround scared the bajeezus out of me: swift and hard, yet smooth like steel. As much as I'd wanted to keep my arms up, my hands were practically glued to the lapbar during the vicious 180. After a smooth drop, we began the bunny hop return to the station. The air and speed were still quick and relentless, but just as I was getting used to the airtime cycle, the car unexpectedly rocked back and forth: trick track. I instantly recalled the trick track on Boulder Dash and laughed hysterically at how fun that element is. I wish more woodies would incorporate it.

The return trip to the station was punctuated by the trademark air, and by two particular events: firstly, my thought of, "Damn, that's a lot of bunny hops! How much farther do we have to go?"; and secondly, the approaching on-ride camera. Kara told me it was near the end of the ride, but with hill after hill still coming at me, I was unsure of when that would be. Finally, we both saw it and took our pre-planned pose: her with one finger raised, me with both hands in circles: 100. After the camera, the train whipped into the nasty 630* helix finale, the wicked laterals punctuating the obscene airtime that had otherwise been the ride's hallmark. When the train finally hit the brakes, though it had been so much longer than I'd anticipated, it was over too soon.

But damn it, it was worth the wait. At long last. 100.

Kara bought me the photo as a keepsake of the momentous occasion, and the reunited foursome offered me brief congratulations before I suggested a reride. Kara and her crew headed off to the bathrooms -- and we would later realize that we wouldn't run to them again that day -- while Danielle, Alicia, and I tackled Timbers again (the ride had given Adam a headache, and he didn't want a repeat). This time, we rode in the back, and though the air was still insane, it just wasn't as forceful or prolonged as it was in the front of the train. We agreed that future rides would be in the front, where the real magic of Shivering Timbers lies.

In an effort to bring Adam back into the day, we hit the other two coasters in the park: first, the Wolvering Wildcat. A pretty fun woodie, it was the unfortunate victim of circumstance; it simply couldn't compare to Timbers. On our walk to the next ride, I noticed a high-striker game and couldn't resist offering up a dollar. At Cedar Point, we'd patronized the high-striker near Wicked Twister many a time, and both me and Adam were embarrassed not only when Alicia beat our scores, but also won a set of fuzzy dice for everyone in our party. This time around, we needed to be redeemed. Somehow, fate was on the side of the men, as both won the less-sought-after inflatable hammer and Alicia came up empty. Sure, I was proud. I may have beaten a girl, but damn it, I earned that hammer! ;)

Alicia would have her revenge in the Dodgem bumper cars, though. We agreed to start on opposite sides and work our way towards each other en route to an all-out bumpfest, while our respective significant others sat back and laughed at us and sang along to David Bowie's "Space Oddity". Though it's hard to pick a winner in a bumper car fight, I'm pretty confident I won that too. ;)

Next up, we hit the Mad Mouse, the park's final coaster. For a typical wild mouse design, it was surprisingly fast over the hairpin turns at the top, and the drops actually delivered a little punchy airtime. Since there was no line, we took two fun laps on this one before moving on.

It was approaching 5:00pm, with the park closing at 8:00pm, but we knew we were running out of things to do. The crew agreed to take on a few more flats and a couple final laps on Timbers before heading out, so we all took spins on the Flying Trapeze (where I kicked Alicia's swing, causing it to waver back and forth like a drunk swing), the Tilt-a-Whirl (where mine and Danielle's car did significantly more tilting than whirling) and the Trabant, which I had pegged to be a major disappointment before the car actually started tilting and it became mad fun and mad disorienting!

Then it was time for my last laps on Timbers. Adam sat out again, opting instead to ride the chocolate milkshake ride. I sat alone in the second row while the ladies occupied the front. I hadn't planned a pose for the camera, but apparently they had -- and I pretended I didn't know them when I learned that two moose were sitting in front of me. On the final lap, I sat in the front row with Danielle, and as the camera approached, she tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Look, it's a thing!" I looked, and she grabbed my face and kissed me as the camera snapped the photo. It was an appropriate image to end my riding day with, as it was a reminder both of how great the ride was and also how perfect the company was.

Around 6:00pm, we departed from Michigan's Adventure and headed back towards Muskegon proper, eventually finding our hotel, the Best Western Park Plaza. At first we thought we'd found the wrong hotel because it seemed too nice for our meager trip budgets, but it was the real deal. We checked in, deposited our bags, and made for the Shan Chinese Buffet and Mongolian BBQ next door, enjoying a thoroughly satisfying dinner for the oh-so-reasonable price of $6.99 a person! What a deal! And, of course, we also crossed the street to the Taco Bell and utilized the Taco Tuesday deal (10 tacos for $5 between 4pm and 8pm) for the inevitable snack we'd need later in the night!

That night, there was a whole lot to think about and many memories to sift through as I settled in for sleeping. The bulk of the trip had come to an end, and everything had gone perfectly so far. All that was left was to head back home and savor the memories we'd made over the past three days.

Simple, right?


DAY FOUR: "BACK TO LIFE, BACK TO REALITY..."

9:00am. With checkout just two hours away, it was a good thing Adam was already getting ready to roll when the wake-up call came in. Though we were all a bit more peppy than the last few days, the thought of going home was not a popular one, and we took our time. We checked out around 10:50, scarfed a little trail mix, and decided we'd drive till we got hungry.

That took us most of the way back down I-96, when we saw an exit that had a Denny's. Having had a hankering for Denny's for a few weeks, and remembering Lewis Black's routine about education in Alabama, we couldn't resist. Being the obsessive Lewis Black fan, I, of course, had the Grand f*** Slam. ;) Breakfast took an hour, but was worth it.

We were soon on the road again, crossing into Ohio, and just as we got onto the Ohio Turnpike, we turned off into the first rest area, fueled up, and switched drivers. Danielle, armed with Starbucks, took over the wheel from Adam at this point, and we began to engage in Mad Libs to help kill the time (unfortunately, some of the funnier moments can't be repeated on a family site...sorry! ;)) The severe belly-laughs, and my newfound interest in reading Les Misérables, took us well into Pennsylvania, and right around exit 100, we switched drivers again. At this particular rest stop, I accomplished my last goal for the trip (getting cheap cigarettes for one of my bosses) and Alicia took over the wheel. We stopped for dinner at Wendy's, and with all rest stops save for driver changes complete, we were cruising home.

Then, just before exit 123, fate, which had been so kind to us for three days, dealt us a damning blow. Alicia noticed the temperature gauge was through the roof.

9:15pm. We pull over to the shoulder of I-80 in the middle of Pennsylvania with twilight setting in. Our overheating problem was fixable, fortunately, but we didn't hit the road again till 10:00pm and had to take it a bit easier to make sure we'd still be fine for the approximately four hours left to drive. The gallon of water we'd poured into the radiator lasted us until about exit 260 or so, when we let the car cool for another half hour, added more water, and I took over the wheel for the last leg home.

The final bit of driving was terribly unnerving. I was hyped up on really bad coffee, tense about the radiator, and unfortunately surrounded by nothing but trucks, which scared the daylights out of me because of the narrowness of the road. I never thought I'd be so happy to return to New Jersey!

The last 50 miles were a breeze, and finally, about 4 hours later than expected, we began dropping everyone off. First Alicia, who took her bag but left her trail mix. Then Adam, who took his bag and shoes, laughed about the mishaps of the day, then told me with a straightly stern face that this was one of the greatest experiences of his life.

Then it was my turn. I drove myself to my house, dispatched my bags and souvenirs, and gave the keys to Danielle to get herself the two miles to her own house. As we said our goodbyes in the driveway, a Wayne police officer drove by and asked if everything was okay. It occurred to me that, for all the driving and all the speeding and all the craziness of the trip, this was the first interaction with a police officer we'd had in four days. The irony of it brought back all the memories, all the dreams realized and all the amazing things we'd seen and done.

I laughed and told him, "Oh yes, everything is just fine." And for the first time in a long time, as I soundly put myself to sleep that night, I knew it was true.


EPILOGUE

Midwest Coaster Madness 2004 had been done. It had been realized and executed to perfection, and it was even more perfect than I could have ever imagined.

Thursday, June 24, 2004. 2:54am. In my own bed, about to fall asleep.

And everything -- EVERYTHING -- is just fine.

Thanks for reading. :)

EDIT: Emboldened the headings to make reading easier. *** Edited 6/29/2004 7:23:00 AM UTC by Nitro Dave***

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