Barrett Swanson attempts to relax and ends up interrogating summertime Americana in the Midwest.
The vacation was a professional recommendation. After two years of pursuing academic tenure at a small university in Wisconsin, an interval during which I served on department committees, advised undergrads, composed new essays, and taught sixteen classes, I had finally reached a point in my life of near-catatonic exhaustion. Granted, I did my best to keep up appearances on campus. Each day I donned a happy pedagogical mask of good cheer and scholastic rectitude, enthusiastically responding to every last student email (Of course I’ll write you another rec letter! Of course I’ll read seventeen chapters of your unfinished fantasy novel!) My use of exclamation points in work emails became worryingly frequent and was perhaps the lone sign of my psychic unraveling. At home, however, I wore my darkness on my sleeve. Evenings I would brood stoically beside the fire, muttering to myself recombinant strings of my most frequent comments on student papers: wrong word, comma splice, fallacy, abstraction. Wrong word, comma splice, fallacy, abstraction. This eerie anthem, whispered under my breath, was enough for my spouse to ask, “Is everything okay?” It wasn’t. Not really.
At work, my mask started to slip. One student remarked on how I looked so dejected before class, but when the morning bell rang I seemed to “come remarkably to life.” And in my second-year review, one colleague noted that while I had been steadily publishing in Tier 1 journals and earning high marks on my student evaluations, his lone concern for me was one of stamina and endurance. Was it possible for me—for anyone, really—to keep up this pace across the duration of one’s career? Perhaps I would appreciate the unburdening of leisure, the more tranquil activity of apple-picking, say, or a recuperative binge of Netflix? What this colleague neglected to observe, however, was that his very injunction to relax was now a professional fiat, thereby making the prospect of leisure yet another requirement for securing tenure. It was maddening, this paradox, a dark dream. And yet maybe he was right. Maybe I needed to ease off the throttle and cool down a bit. Maybe I needed some good old psychic untethering.
Then, all at once, it hit me: I would summer. I would render the whole season into a verb. The pastimes of June and July—redolent of chlorine and sunshine—would become my sole preoccupation. Think tilt-a-whirls and funnel cakes. Think roadside attractions and state fairs. I would become a connoisseur of all this forgotten Americana, all this kitsch and treacle of the season.
Which was how I found myself standing in front of my wife one Saturday morning in May, talking very rapidly, with a Clark Griswold gleam in my eye. I was brandishing a Groupon for Noah’s Ark (“America’s Largest Water Park”), which was only a scant hour from where we lived. On my head was a jaunty Gilligan cap, and my nose was a sad white diamond of SPF cream. “Do they have a lazy river?” my wife asked. “They have two lazy rivers,” I said. “I’ll only go,” she said, “if I can read Hannah Arendt on my raft.”
Only upon approaching the entrance gate did my enthusiasm begin to wane. Only then did I remember some crucial facts about myself—namely, I hadn’t been to an amusement park since 1996. A friend had invited me to Six Flags with his family, and after going on what I was later told was a fairly tame ride called The Whizzer, I nevertheless erupted into tears and refused to go on any more coasters. This prompted my friend’s mother to ask, unkindly but not unfairly, “Well, why did you even come then?” To which I rather histrionically replied, “Because I wanted your son to like me.”
Spread out before me now was a garish metropolis of death, brightly colored tubes that corkscrewed menacingly through the air, plummeting at such sheer grades that, I saw now, one had to climb woozy towers of wooden stairs just to reach their entryways. As we tromped across the parking lot, the ear-rattling shrieks of children—birdlike, evocative of pterodactyl—were already becoming the dominant soundscape. Soon we hurdled through the turnstiles, joining the throngs of near-nude Midwesterners, our procession a timpani of aqua socks.
For whom is the water park fun? Perhaps for lovers? On Adventure River, one of the two lazy rivers on campus, I watched a married octogenarian couple sit face-to-face on a see-through raft, smiling at one another and barely moving, looking very much like waxwork sculptures. Actually, for a while, I began to wonder whether they might be some kind of themed animatronic installation, until the man said, “Are you having fun, darling?” The woman replied, “Oh, yes, father. And you?” Teen couples giggled brightly on the speckled deck, chasing steeper thrills, such as The Black Thunder or Congo Bongo. Soon the lazy river careened around a contoured rock wall, out of which spurted geysers of water at random intervals, and along the berm of the river, a mob of young lifeguards stood sentry, bandoliered with life preservers, looking tight-lipped and very serious. Roundly they ignored my queries about rescue ratios, and one boy merely shrugged when I asked him how many gallons of water the park goes through per annum.
As its name makes clear, Noah’s Ark is aggressively themed after the biblical flood myth, which is weird because even though this is supposed to be a haven of rest and relaxation, it casually introduces to the park-goer’s mind scenes of mass genocide and global annihilation. The dissonance starts right away. Entering the park, you are immediately bombarded with a mock-up of the Old Testament watercraft—in this case, a climbing tower for children—from whose contours hang a whole phylum of molded plastic animals, no doubt intended to signify the passengers that Noah brought onto his ship. (“And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you.”) Every few minutes, a massive carafe gets overturned and dumps a pond’s worth of water onto the children’s heads, presumably in simulation of Yahweh’s wrath, at which point all the little ones scamper madly through the eye-blue shallows, a blur of floaties and diapers, whereupon all the parents laugh and say things like, Are you having fun, sweetheart? And the children nod psychotically and enter, once more, into the deep.
The standard critical reading of a water park—of all amusement parks, really—is that they embody the American yearning for unattainable reality. Because the thrills and splendors of nature are fickle and unpredictable, an amusement park can furnish us with reliable simulations of those natural experiences that we so desperately crave. Why tempt fate with a whale-watching expedition when you can scoot on over to SeaWorld? Why traipse up a mountain when you can glimpse a waterfall at Noah’s Ark? Baudrillard went a step further with this line of thinking and wondered whether Americans needs ersatz recreations of the real world in order to believe that life outside the amusement park is still, somehow, authentic. Thanks to the homogenizing impulses of commercialization, every last sector of American life, from main street to Madison Avenue, was so thoroughly Disneyfied that there was nothing left in our country that wasn’t already synthetic. So if the hokey replicas in the amusement park did serve some nobler purpose, it was to make the world outside the admission gates seem real by comparison.
Through the scrim of 2019, however, it would be difficult for the average park-goer to labor under this delusion. After all, just consider our reality-TV president. Consider our Boris and Natasha geopolitics. Think about incels and butt implants and Sofia the A.I. Is anyone still so canny to suggest that America hasn’t become the funhouse version of itself, the Janus twin of the founders’ ideal? All of which leads me to wonder whether the standard Baudrillardian formula has been decisively reversed. What does it mean when the world outside the amusement park is more zany and plasticine than our previous zones of amusement? Does it suggest that themed evocations of primeval floods or magical kingdoms can actually serve as more faithful indices of reality? That they can show us who we are?
After a spell of self-exhortation, I commenced to go on some slides. At first, I applauded myself on overcoming my fear of heights and trying out some real arrhythmia-producers, but then I realized that I was the tallest person in line by a foot—and the oldest by several decades. Queuing up for something called Monkey Rapids, I saw that it was just me among maybe a dozen fifth-graders. In fear of sounding stranger-danger alarms, I hightailed it over to a more adult-level stomach-churner called The Black Thunder, a large, dark esophagus of plastic on whose second bump I went airborne and yelped, a sound that one patron from rural Michigan later informed me “sounded like a terrier getting stepped on.” Later I partook of Congo Bongo, a dizzying plummet which I rode with a cohort of chiseled frat boys who kept bellowing things like “Dude, whoa!” I won’t spend much time on my experience with The Flying Gecko, except to note that its name turns out to be thoroughly descriptive of what one’s body looks like as one goes down.
I walked a lap around the park’s digressive footpaths and thought aimlessly about my family. Perhaps in sharing public space with so many joyful, laughing clans, I had grown lonesome, in an unutterable way, for those bygone days of childhood. Because we couldn’t afford the standard Florida vacation when I was growing up, there are no Epcot relics or Mickey Mouse ears in my family scrapbooks, sadly. Instead, we ventured every summer to a bucolic outpost called the Hidel House. Often I think of the Hidel House. What a weird idea for a getaway. In its old-world majesty and sweeping, gilt-tinged lobby, it recalled the lodge from The Shining, although as a kid I lacked this cinematic reference point and could only intuit something vaguely off about the place. The disco lounge featured a band called The House Cats, and its ponytailed lead singer did croaking renditions of “Footloose” and “The Piano Man.” I would hardly say that these sojourns were momentous or enchanting. And yet what I remember most vividly about those weekends was the weird, existential thawing, a sense that whatever acrimony lingered back home could be momentarily suspended here, amid the freshly laundered sheets of the hotel room, amid the sun-drenched ebullience of the courtyard. It was as if, by virtue of geographical displacement, we could inhabit the hotel’s idea of serene domesticity and forget the sadness and disgruntlement that plagued us back home. Of course, the cataclysm was unavoidable. Eventually, my parents divorced, and our family, wounded in that cliché way of all legally ruptured families, never quite recovered. Like a nation, like an amusement park, a family requires the fulfillment of a certain kind of story, one whose endurance depends on a willful suspension of disbelief. I remember one night at the hotel we were watching The House Cats, and my father leaned across the table to reach for my mother’s hand. A child is uniquely attuned to such gestures, having become, by the age of ten, a connoisseur of his parents’ emotions. But my mom didn’t put her hand in his, she let my father’s hand rest there on the table. She looked at him for a long time. The moment seemed to elongate and distend, a terrible postponement. My brother was bobbing his head to the music, and my sister was half asleep in her chair, and even though the undercurrent of my mom’s reluctance was lost on me, the gist of its meaning remained.
By midafternoon, I found myself in the Big Kahuna Wave Pool. It was a football-field-size body of water whose Prussian blue surface was haphazardly dotted with several hundred tubes and rafts. All of these were populated with cheerful, undulant families who themselves were trying to survive the gradually worsening tempest. Every ten minutes, subaquatic turbines were activated, sending Poseidon-type waves across the pool and making everyone go bananas. In all the tussle and mayhem, we seemed to resemble the fatal jetsam of a recent shipwreck. Actually, what we looked like was the latest pictures of flooding in the Midwest. Car-size chunks of ice, having detached from nearby rivers, careened into one family’s barn, putting an end to a generations-old steer business. I remembered reading one article about a Nebraskan cattle rancher who lost three hundred calves in the flooding, who spent several weeks extracting their bodies from debris and carrying them back to his property. “It’s probably over for us,” he told the reporter, sounding far more like Job than Noah.
As a mammoth wave capsized the family next to me, I couldn’t help wondering whether attending a water park in 2019 requires a willful self-blindness, whereby all fun and thrill-seeking depends upon blinkering oneself to the fearsome changes in our climate. Because who can enjoy the Congo Bongo in light of mudslides in the Pacific Northwest? Who can enjoy The Flying Gecko when you have species-wide devastation in the Amazon? The sheer insanity of a water park in the age of the Anthropecene hits me fully when I finally coax a young staffer into revealing that the park goes through two million gallons of water per day, a cruel parody of our country’s dwindling natural resources. It was in the context of this thought that the Big Kahuna Wave Pool began to strike me as a dress rehearsal for our coming disaster, a nightmarish burlesque of a live-action drill. I watched as a stern-faced boy, no older than ten, got violently thrown from his raft and a rogue wave pulled his family a terrible distance away from him. When he emerged, red-eyed and frightened, exhaling a mist of water, the family chuckled and said, “Come on, Dmitri! Save yourself!” The moment was so upsetting that I absconded and immediately purchased a funnel cake, which I ate distractedly and tried to calm down, moseying for some time on the park’s vast, labyrinthine walkways.
I must have taken a wrong turn. Soon I found myself lumbering up a flight of creaky wooden steps, climbing higher and higher into the sky. There came a point in my ascent where I had an unimpeded view of the whole park below. That’s odd, I thought, but maybe this was just a hike to some scenic promontory? The wind was stronger here, and the trees were bubbles of green, like those found in a Grant Wood painting. And threading through it all was a lurid vasculature of color—the other water slides—which I was petrified to realize were impossibly far beneath me. Somehow I was in line for the park’s tallest ride, a free fall they called The Point of No Return. People were ahead of and behind me in the line, and so, unless I wanted to reveal certain deficiencies of spirit, I discovered that I had no choice. There was no other exit. Every few minutes, a person received instructions from the ride’s attendants and, filtered through my morbid imagination, they sounded like last rites or funeral preparations. “Okay, just lie flat!” they said. “Stay down and don’t move! Are you ready?” Then came a scream—thin, metallic—a sound that shrank rapidly as the person fell. The line dwindled in front of me, and now I could see into the mouth of the plummet. I could its large, dark throat gape menacingly at me as it swallowed another park-goer. It was terrible. One after another, the people fell, until soon I found myself trudging toward its entrance. The drop was so precipitous that I saw in just a few short seconds I would go abruptly vertical, vanishing briskly down a long dark well. It was the point of no return, a water park in 2019. And for reasons I struggled to explain, I desperately missed my family. Look how far the fathoms have taken us. Look how far we’ve strayed.
Barrett Swanson was the Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing and was the winner of a 2015 Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The New Republic, American Short Fiction, The New Republic, The Point, and Best American Travel Writing 2018, among other places.