I have come to the desert to fall off a mountain and wrestle a monster.
Not a mountain of stone or a monster of flesh. A mountainous monster of steel, scraping the sky and echoing with screams of those brave or stupid enough to challenge it.Three hours by bus across the scorching California badlands to the nowheresville of Primm, Nev., the prefab town on the state line consisting of three goofy casinos - and one killer roller coaster.
Desperado - 209 feet tall with a 225-foot drop into a tiny, dark hole in the ground at 80 mph.
Desperado is impressive, no doubt. But doable. At 40, I'm a grizzled coaster veteran.
So when a friend signed me up for one of those Elks Club beer bus forays to Primm, I wasn't thinking about rolling dice or betting the Super Bowl. I was going to challenge Desperado.
When it opened for business in 1994, there was nothing like it. The fastest, tallest, biggest drop in North America. Today it's lost the speed and height record to Magic Mountain's chilling Superman - The Escape (100 mph, 415 feet high).
But Desperado is still the record holder for longest drop - a bone-chilling fall into a fake mine pit.
You get to Desperado by passing through the clankity-clang of the casino slot-machine forest, taking a left past the craps tables and blackjack dealers.
At the heart of the casino is a machine that is pure late-20th-century technology - a solid steel experiment in the outer limits of physics and geometry.
Riders board Desperado from inside the casino - other than the rumble of the tracks and the scream of the crowd, there's nothing to suggest what is in store as I'm strapped into the car.
Packed in tight with a bunch of hyperventilating strangers, my car lurches off into the dark, then pops out into the sunlight to begin the long trip to the top of the drop.
It's only 11 a.m., but the desert wind blows hot on my face as the car climbs the steel mountain. The clack-clack of the safety mechanism keeping us from rolling back and crashing into the casino is reassuringly familiar.
The car levels out - that oddly peaceful millisecond when the car is perfectly balanced at the apex. The desert stretches to the horizon. The car lets go of its restraint, gliding so very, very slowly on the smooth steel rails.
Time freezes, my muscles clench and my eyes narrow. I suck in a breath that doesn't come out.
It's real now. It's going to happen.
The car slopes slowly downhill. Gravity grabs hold - first gently, then a heartbeat later it's as if a rocket has been lighted behind me. The car goes vertical and the hills fall away. The air explodes into my ears as my cheeks are pulled back by the jet blast of air.
Not afraid, I think. Not afraid. Flown in jet fighters. Faster than this. Higher than this. But jets have wings. Jets have pilots. They fly. This is falling.
People are screaming. But I can't remember to breathe to scream. The earth rushes up. The tracks drop toward a tiny hole in the ground. Small. Way too small. I flash on the old Rocky and Bull-winkle cartoon where the squirrel high-dives into a bucket of water.
We plunge into the hole, the world goes from hot white to black. The car bottoms out, slamming me deep into the seat.
The coaster rockets back into the morning glare, through twists and turns, dips and curves. But it's all right. This feels like a ride. I've been on rides. Lots of rides. No problem.
But the drop is different. It is more than a ride. I have fallen off a mountain.
The car slows and pulls back into the casino, back to reality. I feel a dull ache in my hands, look down and slowly unhinge my fingers from their painful stranglehold on the safety bar. I breathe the first real, deep breath since leaving the casino what seems like a second ago to make that long climb up.
The safety bars come up and we veterans step out, wobbly, flush-faced, bent-haired - laughing, yelling, reliving our lives' momentary mania above the desert. We stroll past the fresh-faced kids and bored, out-of-money gamblers standing in line for their turn on Desperado.
A pair of teenage couples who were in the car in front of me race over to the ticket booth to buy another round of tickets, to stand in line and wait again to be scared and scream.
I think about it for a second before deciding that my next attraction would be an ice cream cone and a bucket of quarters in front of a slot machine. Climbing the mountain and wrestling the monster once was enough for this day.