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Nov 7, 2010
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FEAR AND LOAFING: Roller-coaster care has many ups and downs (Coaster Whisperer)

Our reporter tries to maintain dignity -- and balance

I've been kept off roller coasters before. But usually it's because I'm not tall enough to ride.

"Oh, you're not going up there," insists Mark Engdahl, chief ride maintenance engineer for the Desperado and five other Primm Valley Resorts attractions.

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Except that going up there was exactly what I was promised. It's why I had to sign a waiver holding Buffalo Bill's harmless in the event of my death.

I was to be one of eight mechanics who regularly inspect all 5,843 perilous feet of the Desperado. Coaster-walkers is the slang term. By foot, and hanging from harnesses, these brave souls hunt for loose bolts, cracks and obstructions such as Lance Burton tied to the track (a condition that briefly existed during the taping of a 1999 TV special).

"I'll let you on the walkways, not the tracks," Engdahl says, explaining that 2-foot-wide platforms accompany the Desperado up to its first drop -- the world's ninth highest at 225 feet -- and reappear alongside three brake stations accessible by staircases.

OK. So today, I'm a coaster walkway walker. At least my mom is happy about this disappointment.

Coaster-walking has its other kinds of ups and downs, according to Engdahl, 53, who joined the Desperado team in May. (Before that, he maintained Manhattan Express at New York-New York.)

Among the ups, you get paid to ride at least once a day ($14.50 an hour to start, topping out at $22.50 once you make supervisor). Riding is actually a job requirement, to check that the coaster's clear of problems.

Then there are all the fun objects you find on or near the support structure, ejected as the coaster dives and corkscrews at 80 mph: shoes, wallets, cell phones, toupees, bras, panties, false teeth. Wait, did I just gloss over bras and panties?

"We don't know how," says mechanic Nick Scott. "We just pick them up."

The downs include, of course, that perpetually possible death trip to the pavement.

"We're very careful," Engdahl insists, explaining that harnesses are worn throughout every coaster inspection.

There's also the tendency to raise your arms above your head and scream at inappropriate moments during your personal life. Oh yes, and flying red ants.

"They'll swarm and sting you," Engdahl says.

Whenever the occasional crimson cloud is spotted, all coaster-walking shifts to running for dear life. Even when armed with insecticide, coaster-walkers won't approach a swarm on foot. Instead, they'll make several passes on the closed coaster while spraying.

"When that happens, it's never one of our favorite days," Engdahl says.

My next job is to measure the thickness of two sets of walkway-accessible brake pads. These pads automatically squeeze the wheels whenever the coaster comes in too fast because of excessive rider patronage of the Buffalo Bill's Haagen-Daz. The readings on my dial caliper -- 46 and 47 millimeters -- are well within acceptable limits.

Coasting on this particular job is pretty much unthinkable. An average of two Americans die every year just because they board amusement rides, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The most recent was Lindsey Zeno, 21, who fell 30 feet to her death in July from the X-Treme coaster in Louisiana's Dixie Landin' amusement park. (Though the fire marshal's investigation is not complete, Zeno's parents have filed a lawsuit claiming that the park failed to properly inspect and maintain the coaster.)

Nothing like that has ever happened on the Desperado, of course, or Buffalo Bill's wouldn't invite a reporter who would mention it in this paragraph.

"And it won't happen," Engdahl says, explaining that, in addition to the tracks, the Desperado's cars are inspected every two hours while the ride operates.

Earlier today, Engdahl had me conduct a car inspection myself, instructing me to replace a wheel that didn't need replacing. I wondered why the crew cackled as Scott handed me a wrench -- until I felt the grease slathering it on both sides. (This also explained why nobody responded to my request for gloves.)

"It's a serious job," Engdahl explained as I wiped my hands on my fortunately black jeans, "but you gotta have fun sometimes, too."

All of this is good material, but it's not enough. If I'm going to be a coaster-walker, I explained, it must involve walking that's on a coaster.

The Desperado track is inspected in sections, so that one complete walk is made each month. Scott and fellow coaster-walker Scott McClure are the team's dedicated climbers. The heavy slopes and curves are all theirs. Scott also is a certified welder, so he gets to mend all hairline cracks in the steel. (In case he misses one, air is pumped through the hollow track so that a decrease in pressure indicates a problem.)

"Yeah, we're gonna let him up," Engdahl says into his walkie-talkie.

Am I hearing correctly, or did the Desperado make too close a pass to my eardrum after that brake inspection? I am being green-lighted for an actual nonwalkway coaster walk. This brings the grand total of times my incessant whining has worked in this lifetime to one. Engdahl drives me to the rear of the hotel parking lot -- to an obviously crucial section of track to inspect.

"I heard you got your liability covered," he says.

After an upward heave from Scott, I'm on. And wobbling. Track is a misnomer. They're more like pipes. As my sneakers attempt to balance on the round steel tubes, I begin looking at the track but can't get past the dizzying downward view and its involuntarily accompanying thought: Even though my harness protects me from a fall, a pipe-cracked head is not out of the question.

"Be careful all the way up there!" Engdahl shouts.

This is sarcasm. I have been allowed to climb the tracks only at their absolute lowest point: 7 feet off the ground. The parking-lot fence nearly stands taller.

Seriously, though, this is plenty high for me. Mere seconds into my inspection, I clock myself almost unconscious with the latch from my harness as I attempt to change its position.

My fellow coaster-walkers convulse with hysterics.

"Wow," Engdahl says. "You really don't fake screwing up, do you?"

See video of Levitan's Desperado inspection at Fear and Loafing runs the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. If you have a Fear and Loafing idea, e-mail or call (702) 383-0456.

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Report abuse wrote on November 07, 2010 06:55 AM: "Coaster care has many ups and downs." I almost fell off my chair laughing. Hilarious.