It was the sort of California road trip that gives the Golden State a bad rep. Traffic was backed up on Highway 17, which snakes out of San Jose over the hills and to the ocean; the summer sun turned our old Dodge Dart into a POW sweat box.
Despite the heat, our windows were rolled up tight. All around us, wildfires consumed the hills, and we were traveling through a tunnel of smoke and flying ash. The fire crackled, leapt, roared -- right on the side of the road, shooting high above our heads. Still, cops waved cars through. College kids inclined toward teeny Datsuns, we joked about what tanks '60s cars were, like we weren't freaking out.
We made it through the inferno, and down the hill to our welcome destination: the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, an old-fashioned strip of amusements fronting the ocean. The day was cloudless, though the sunlight was noticeably muted through the smoke. The weak, dreamlike light -- combined with the heavy air that smelled of fire with a pinch of salt -- was unsettling and portentous.
But who cared? We boarded The Spider, a midway favorite. Riders sit two to a pod on the ends of long arms extending from the center. Push "start" and the entire ride spins clockwise; the arms go up and down; and your pod swivels around. It's a lot of motion, but The Spider is among the more benign rides that go round and round and up and down.
Up: a view over the crowded boardwalk. Down: almost touch the sand of the beach. Round: There's the fishing pier ... the roller coaster ... the hills on fire, columns of black smoke arching out of bright orange light. Then back to the endless ocean. We laugh -- what a weird day.
The ride keeps spinning. And spinning. And spinning. At first, I laugh more when I sense that we're getting a little extra seat time. But as we swoop down low near the operator's box, I see the worker punching at buttons. Even from my swiveling pod, I can read his face: Somethin' ain't right here.
As my pod turns sharply -- left, right, now a full 360 -- I see other riders noting The Spider's failure to alight. The fun turns to panic. The kid in the pod closest to me starts shrieking -- long bursts of terror.
It's been more than three minutes -- an eternity on an amusement-park ride. The kid in the adjoining pod has stopped shrieking long enough to puke; my companion is grim-faced, white-knuckled. I edge away.
Riders are hollering at the operator as they spin by; he never looks up. Some wave madly at waiting friends and family on the boardwalk. "Stop!" "Let us off!" "Mom!" But the cries are lost. They sound just like the fake screams of hundreds of happy patrons on nearby rides, patrons only pretending to be terrified.
Our earthbound friends wave back cheerfully at us. As far as they can tell, everybody is having a great time.
The day's smoky light seems even grayer, weirder. The Spider and its ensnared riders have shifted to another plane. We're alone, but in a crowd. We're somewhere between on and off, fun and fear, sky and sand. We're trapped in an endless loop between raging fire and the very edge of the earth.
Finally, The Spider gives a great clanky cough, and the machine begins to slow. As beleaguered riders stumble off, they babble fearfully. Their anger and confusion spreads through the boardwalk crowd. It infects the cheery parents, and the impatient kids waiting in line for their own turn on The Spider.
"What's happening?" they ask.
The operator just shrugs. After the last pod has been unloaded, he hangs the chain across the entrance and barks, "Ride's closed."