Something about that last trip was different, though. More to the point, I was different. The slides were as wet and wild as ever but somehow I began to feel old running about in my swim shorts and standing in line to be swooshed this way and that. For some reason, all the other patrons at the water park seemed so very young: The teenagers with whom I so recently identified (who are we kidding? I still identify with teenagers) were no longer my peers but were instead pimpled, giggling morons and the really little kids who paid no attention to stepping on my toes or splashing water in my face were no longer nuisances but were actually kind of cute. Despite my familiarity with the water park, I felt out of place. Kind of like when you go back to visit a former campus years later and you know your way around but instead of feeling at home you feel like the old, gray elephant in the room that everyone secretly laughs at and wonders who you are and why you’re there.
This memory came back to me last week when The Girlfriend said she wanted to go to Wild Island water park here in Sparks. Certainly if I felt out of place at a water park when I was 25, now at age 32 I was sure I’d be mistaken for somebody’s grandpa and they’d tell me I qualified for the senior citizen discount. Mind you, I’m not one of those people who turned 30 and suddenly developed imaginary diseases or started finding imaginary wrinkles or bought funeral insurance. To the contrary — I enjoyed turning 30. In doing so I had escaped the you’re-grown-up-but-have-no-experience phase known as my 20s. But something did hit me a couple of weeks ago as my birthday passed. Not the realization of my own age, but the realization that my brother — my little brother — was now on the cusp of turning 30. That was a little weird.
Hangups about age aside, I strapped on my trunks and slapped on my sun screen and with The Girlfriend in tow I headed for the water park. It was a hot day so I figured even if I started to again feel like the guest speaker in a kindergarten class at least I’d be able to close my eyes and just enjoy the cool water. And since I had managed to procure free tickets, at least I didn’t even have to worry about them trying to offer me an AARP discount.
Wild Island is a pretty small water park compared to the park I was used to in my native Southern California. It has about half as many water slides and I could see from one end of the facility to the other. But there is lots of water, which is really all I cared about. As I surveyed the crowd of folks that day, I saw the mix of families and teens that I had expected. Even though I had no kids of my own to haul around, I felt a connection with the moms and dads who seemed about my age. No longer was I in the no-man’s land I was in seven years ago, where I wasn’t old enough to be comfortable with the parents but I had outgrown the teenage crowd. This made me feel a little better as we headed out with our tubes.
Our first stop was the Bahama Mama Lazy River, which essentially is a watery loop with a current so all you have to do is float around in a circle. Part of me would have been happy to do this all day long. It was at times slightly reminiscent of a really bad traffic jam, except instead of sweltering in your car you could hop down into the water or go under a waterfall to cool off. The best part about it, though, was that the dry land in the middle of the loop was an “adults only” haven with a bar — a feature I had not seen before at a water park. I tucked that bit of info away for later use.
After enjoying a lazy float, we decided it was time to try some of the water slides. We took it easy at first, going down a slide in which you sat in your tube, wooshing down at a steady but safe pace for a few minutes before landing in a pool of water. Next we went on a slide on which you set the tube aside and put your body directly against fiberglass in an enclosed tube. On this ride, you could choose to sit up, thereby going slower, or lie down to become a kind of human bullet shooting out of a twisted gun. The Girlfriend opted to sit up whereas I, regressing to the little daredevil inside, chose to lie down for maximum speed. As I zoomed down the tube, I felt the same thrill from my younger days, though the rate at which water and gravity moved me seemed greater than I had remembered. As the end of the tube approached and I prepared for splashdown, I had forgotten in the years since my last water slide experience how propelling your body into a pool of water injects water into places you don’t want it to be. After I climbed smiling out of the pool, I spent the next few minutes using an advanced snorting technique to remove the chlorinated water from my brain.
A few minutes later when I found myself rocketing down a similar slide, I realized that age had not only made the ride seem faster and more exhilarating, it had made me smarter. In my younger days I would have forgotten my previous experience and just let water jet up my nose for a second time, but this time I had the presence of mind to grab my nose at the last second to avoid flooding my skull. Thanks to the wisdom of my years, I was able to maintain the enjoyment while eliminating the possibility of brain damage.
As we went on a few more slides, I knew full well that I wasn’t a kid in the sense that I was only three feet tall or that I was a teen who was more excited to have driven myself to the park than I was to actually be there. But I did feel like a kid in that I was doing something exciting and different, which is what being a kid is all about. On top of that, I didn’t care about the people around me because I was no longer concerned how I looked to them; I was just worried about having a good time.
I realized that regardless of age, we were all just being kids. For us “kids” who have a few more years behind us, our thrills are usually things like starting a new job or moving to a new place or having kids of our own. Those things may not be as carefree as floating on a tube in a wave pool, but as adults we just need to remember the wide-eyed kid inside us come out and enjoy the ride. And every once in a while stop at the bar in the middle of the lazy river of our lives.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just got water up my nose again.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.