You can't see much of Geauga Lake these days. Not that there's much of it to see.
Eight years after the park closed — the perimeter fenced up, the rides torn down — almost nothing remains to prove an amusement park existed on this stretch between Aurora and Bainbridge.
Only the Big Dipper, that vertebral fossil of a roller coaster, still stands where it has for 90 years, just visible through the chain-link fence and shrub.
Yet I can't stay away.
I'm a Clevelander. Of course I'm a sucker for everything broken-down and overgrown, rusted out and abandoned. I'd scoff at the cliche too if I didn't so often find myself here, half an hour from home, looking and remembering. If there's little to look at, there's much to remember.
Each summer we waited, studying the maps, charting a strategy to ride everything in the park from the Big Dipper to the Double Loop to the Raging Wolf Bobs. Streaked with sunblock, we twisted through the queues, waiting to reach the platform, then waited even longer for the best seat. The front car is for novices; we knew the back was fastest. We steadied ourselves, trying to hide our nerves.
I can't remember if I preferred the sense of free fall or the momentary weightlessness — coaster enthusiasts call it "airtime" — that lifts you out of your seat as you crest the next hill. I loved them both and couldn't dream of ever wanting anything more than to throw out my hands and go fast in the height of summer.
In later years, we stood with our hands around the waists of girls. They pretended to be afraid, and we pretended not to be. We followed them into the car, let the buzz bar lock us in as the train jerked, the lift engaged and the climb began. Our stomachs stuck in our throats the whole time.
It's easy to long for the life before real life — when real life was something we played at. "Play is not ordinary' or real' life," writes the cultural historian Johan Huizinga. "Play is free, is in fact freedom."
Or so we remember, anyway. We build places to play, to escape real life (whatever that might be), but inevitably real life co-opts those places, reclaims them, and us with them. We can't get away, no matter how fast we go.
My mother could have written this story — or a version of it, at least. How she stood on the midway at Euclid Beach Park, breathing the same tonic of tanning oil, cigarette smoke, grease and sweat. She might remember the annual musicians' union picnics, when all day she and her friends would ride the Racing Coaster and the Flying Turns, and at night, she'd listen to her father's band play with the others in the ballroom.
I am trying to see her there, standing in line for the Thriller with her high school boyfriend, when he wraps his arms around her waist and whispers something I can't quite hear, their stomachs in their throats the whole time.
Or my grandfather could have written about sneaking into Luna Park to ride the Pippin, before the Depression razed and scrapped Frederick Ingersoll's Orientalist dreamland. He and his brothers would duck beneath a gap in the fence at East 110th Street and Woodland Avenue, looking over their shoulders, trying to hide their nerves.
Twenty years later, after returning from the European theater, he and his bandmates played Artie Shaw standards — Oh Rosalie, my darling, Rosalie, my dream — while their children danced in those boozy, hazy rooms built to pretend the summer would never end. I am trying to see him there.
Human geographers talk about the difference between space and place. The former is general and indistinct, the latter specific and concrete. Spaces become different places in different human contexts: an amusement park, a row of houses, a baseball field, a cemetery.
Place is as much a matter of when as of where. Where place is nostalgic, space is indifferent. This plot or that does remember a preserved carousel or a rickety old roller coaster we can't bring ourselves to bulldoze.
No one seems to know what will become of the Big Dipper or the land where it remains. I like to imagine it remaining there, even as neighborhoods and shops crop up around it. Picnics and potlucks beneath its eaves. Kids playing in its shadow. A sucker for the past, I get nostalgic for the future too.
I like to think there is an essay to be written, 90 years from now, when these words and I have been forgotten, remembering some place I can't yet dream of.
Where Geauga Lake once spun and looped, the author might have slept or shopped or worshipped. My nostalgia might be her progress. As it should be.
But I hope she will also have the chance to know the fine scent of a storm-cooled August twilight, after the sun has set and the heat has lifted, when the calliope plays and the lights blink on.