I went to Las Vegas last month and found myself on the tallest Ferris Wheel IN THE WORLD! I’m afraid of heights, so that was no small feat. Here is the short story I wrote about my experience.

The High Roller

My fear of heights started at a young age. I don’t know whether it was the glass elevator in the Museum of Science and Industry, or my first (and last) roller coaster ride I took as a kid in Chicago that caused it. Perhaps it was something else. I often wondered how an airplane ride could thrill and excite me, while a walk on an overlook standing on any tall hill, rock or platform petrified me.

Thank goodness I could see the Grand Canyon without walking to the edge. I praised God there was a high wall and razor wire on top of the Empire State Building. Each time I experienced the Seattle Space Needle or John Hancock Building in Chicago, I was ecstatic there was a far enough distance between myself and the glass windows at the highest levels. Riding inside the glass elevator at the Peachtree Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, I always took the middle position so I couldn’t see out as we climbed to the twenty-second floor.

There were many other well-known places I missed on purpose or kept my distance to avoid my fear. I do remember being graced with long lines and several broken elevators the two times I was in Paris. They were the reasons why I never rode to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Last week, I decided to face my fear. It was a modern Ferris wheel that tantalized me with its giant white orbital gondolas; each weighing 44,000 pounds, glittering with a total of 2,000 multi-colored LED lights. It looked like something out of the futuristic, animated TV show, The Jetsons, with people flying around in space ships instead of cars.

Ironically, the wheel reminded me of something old at the same time. If I hadn’t read the book, “The Devil in the White City,” I would have never known about the man who invented the Ferris wheel.  He built it for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Mr. Ferris’ original wheel did not look anything like the two-seater swinging buckets of today but rather like the one I just experienced in Las Vegas. If people could ride something like this over 100 years ago, why couldn’t I? It beckoned and dared me to ride it.

We got on board one of the twenty-eight orbs. “The High Roller,” as it is called in “Sin City,” had my stomach in knots and my heart in my throat. When it was too late to turn back, I found out the wheel never stopped moving. Patrons are required to jump on and off while it moves one foot per second. Oh, God! What did I get myself into?

The High Roller reminded me of what I had read in that book.  There were lots of similarities. They both had glass enclosed gondolas for observation, our half-hour ride was only few minutes longer than the original, and both held forty people in each of the pods. In Vegas, we took the “adult-only party” cabin (which served drinks at a bar) so less people were on board.  We decided to take our ride while it was still daylight.  I’m glad we did as the view was spectacular, even from the fiberglass seat I plastered myself against.

Probably the look on my face and the fact I was the only person sitting, the bartender started talking to me.

“Afraid of heights?” he asked.

“Yes. How did you guess?” I said, making a lame joke without smiling.

“I see many people sitting right there in the same spot, and they never take their eyes off me.”

“Sounds like a good idea. I think I’ll do the same.”

“Care for something from the bar?”

“Oh, no, thank you,” I said. “I don’t think I could hold it down.” I pause. “Just in case, where is the trashcan?”

He pointed to it, and we continued our conversation. The longer we talked, the more I realized it was silly for us to have a conversation with the distance between us.  I stood up and walked the few feet toward him. We chatted about the facts of the wheel and I felt more at ease. The wheel moved so slowly no one could feel it. I asked him if that would change when we rounded the top and went over to the other side.

“No,” he said. “You won’t sense a thing. There will be a countdown on the screen explaining it to you. It’s quite unremarkable.”

A young, good-looking man with celadon eyes came to the bar for a cocktail. Since I wasn’t looking outside the orb, I stared at his handsome face. He had heard our conversation and chimed in.

“That’s right. Take baby steps,” was all he said as he took his drink and turned away.

Without humiliating me and saying those three little encouraging words, I mustered some nerve to walk a few feet to my right and stood by my husband and friends. For the last ten minutes, they had been standing close to the glass enjoying the view, while they pointed out their favorite haunts, and drank their favorite cocktails. Like a little kid, I hugged my husband from behind. Every now and then, I would peek out from around his waist to grab a quick look. Then fear crept back inside me, and I walked a few paces backwards to my original seat. I knew the countdown would be soon. I wanted to be prepared and seated for that.

The same attractive man saw what had just happened.  He looked at me and smiled. “That’s right. Take baby steps.”

I thought he was so mature and considerate. I looked back at the television screen. The man started to explain our location, and descent. We were half-way through our rotation and about to go over the five hundred and fifty foot apex. I sat like a statue, afraid to move, and wondered if the bartender was correct. Would I not feel anything?

My eyes were fixed on the bartender who was joking and making drinks for the young people. He had an interesting technique with a splashy performance. It was one I had never seen before. The twenty-somethings toasted each other, took pictures with their cell phones, and moved away to take-in the 360 degree vistas. The bartender and I started again our silent “stare” dance. I stood up and walked toward him.

“I’m curious. What was the name of those drinks you were making?

“Those are called Kamikazes,” he said. “They’re shooters of Vodka and triple sec.”

“Oh,” I said. “Perhaps I should have had one of those.” This time I was laughing.  The orb was on its way down. I really didn’t need a drink, but was satisfied I had taken those baby steps encouraged by “Handsome” with the celadon eyes.

I walked to the edge and relished my last few minutes alone by the glass. The Las Vegas scene from the tallest Ferris wheel in the world was magnificent.