Thrill Keepers

Roller coaster walkers get an early start. Above, inspectors check out Six Flags' Wild One about 6 a.m., looking and listening for signs of trouble.
Roller coaster walkers get an early start. Above, inspectors check out Six Flags' Wild One about 6 a.m., looking and listening for signs of trouble. "If it doesn't shake," wooden-coaster wisdom goes, "it's gonna break." (Photos By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2007

Summer -- a time to be daring. You walk the beach at night, go skinny-dipping, rent a hot red convertible. What? You're 14? Never mind. You take a ride on the Wild One. But someone you never see is watching out for you. This year's Metro summer series continues.

Every morning at dawn, he's out there.

They all are.

The roller coaster walkers.

All across the country, where there's a wooden coaster, walkers such as Tony Zelko at Six Flags America in Prince George's County are climbing the descents, rounding the curves and double-checking every wooden plank and every nut, bolt and bit of rail.

The job is a throwback and a workout -- "think of a StairMaster on steroids," says Zelko, director of maintenance and construction at the park -- and it can be a daily meditation: "the Tao of maintenance," he says.

"It's like a big spider web, and we crawl around in it," says Rob Lattin, 28, who has been coaster-walking at the amusement park for eight years. "We're the spiders."

He has just climbed down from the Wild One, a 90-year-old wooden coaster that stretches through much of the park. It looks as languidly elegant as an old, white Adirondack chair, although its finicky personality and the shifting temperaments of wood require daily ministrations.

"This is what started the whole thing," Lattin says of the Wild One, gesturing one recent day at the park around him -- at the modern histrionics, the lurching architectural swoops and the speeds that make steel coasters scream like fighter jets.

Without wooden coasters, Lattin says, the amusement parks of today would not have developed around them, with such rides as the Joker's Jinx (zero to 60 in three seconds), the stomach-levitating elevator drop in the Tower of Doom (140 feet down) and Superman -- Ride of Steel (75 mph).

"Steel -- the computer tells you everything you need to know," says Lattin's coaster partner, Sean Garrison, 23, who has only recently begun walking the rides. "But wood," he says, personifying the material, as though he were apprenticed to it -- "I'm learning from Rob and from the coaster itself."

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