Densha de ChicaGO!
Trains are cool. As a lifelong car-hater and airport-anxiety-haver, trains have always seemed like an ideal travel method. No weird security theater! No aggressive drivers weaving through the lanes! Just you, a big metal box with wheels, and the rails. I've considered taking the train to a few conventions in the past, but I kept getting hung up over the cost of it all.
If you had asked me years ago how much a train ride would cost, I would have assumed it would be akin to a Greyhound bus.
The logic seems sound: It won't cost as much as a plane, because the tradeoff is time, right?
Hah, nope. Travelling by Amtrak is steeper than you'd think. Especially if you want some sort of private quarters. Combined with the inevitable hotel room when you get to your destination, my choo-choo dreams were getting more expensive than I'd like. So, I took the whole idea and shoved it under the metaphorical bed, and maybe one day I'd dust it off and give it another go.
Until this summer! My sister lives in Chicago, and at the beginning of the year she moved to a spot with a spare room. So with boarding taken care of, I could splurge a little on how to get there!
So, my partner and I took a 22-hour Amtrak train from Dallas to Chicago, and then another 22-hour train back. I loved it. I was already Team Train before I hopped on, and after 44 hours on a train I'm even moreso.
We got a roomette so we'd have beds to sleep on as opposed to just seats, and so we'd have a place to stow our stuff when we wanted to get up and go to the bathroom or get something to eat. Every description of measurements and picture I saw online of a roomette made it sound impossibly small. I was worried we were going to be sitting facing each other so close our knees would be touching. I was worried sleeping in the bunks was going to be like sleeping in the backseat of a car: doable when you're 7, but considerably harder as soon as you're taller than four feet. But no, it was totally fine! The seats were wide enough and far enough apart that we didn't bump knees or knock heads or anything. We could sit comfortably and have our feet propped up on the other's seat if we wanted.
I brought lots of stuff to do while on the train (SteamDeck, Switch, downloaded an anime I've been meaning to check out on my phone) but 90% of my time on the train was just spent looking out the window while listening to stuff on my iPod. It's neat to see the piney woods of East Texas eventually give way to the... flat nothingness of southern Illinois. I'm a little bummed we "missed" Arkansas both ways. The timing of the train rides meant it was pitch black both through the entirety of the state and most of Missouri. Maybe someday I can find a route that'll take us through Arkansas in the daytime.
Sleeping was a slightly harder proposition, but that's more of a personal thing. In a roomette, the chairs bend down to become a bottom bunk, and the top bunk unfolds down from the ceiling. I got the bottom bunk both times, which is probably the comfier of the bunks, but that's not really the issue. The issue is that I am a light sleeper, and trains are loud. When I say "loud", I don't mean the rhythmic sound of the train rolling down the rails, that's drone-y enough for me to fall asleep to easily (I do love a good constant white noise to fall asleep to). I'm talking about how US law states trains must blow their horns before approaching a railroad crossing. So you're trying to get some sleep, and then you get 100 decibels of WHONNNNNNNNNK in your ear. You can tell when you're out in the boondocks vs nearing a city because the honks-per-minute start to increase.
Fig. 1: Me, Texarkana through St. Louis.
The other issue I had when it came to getting to sleep was the lack of airflow in our little roomette. As you might imagine, the American south (Texas in particular) is very hot! While travelling in the daytime we'd leave the roomette door open and the heat wasn't much of an issue, the cool air from the train car could get into our little spot easily. But when it's night and the doors are closed, the airflow is basically nonexistant and our roomette got stuffy and warm fast. So much so that part of our Chicago trip was spent at a local Menard's trying to buy a small portable fan. That fan was a livesaver on the ride home.
So yeah, my attempts to sleep on the way to Chicago were rough. I even took a little Melatonin gummy, which usually knocks me right out. The sleep on the ride home was still a lil difficult due to the honking, but the fan helped a lot and I actually got some sleep that time. I wonder if I had had a third or fourth night on the train if I would have gotten used to the train honking. I'd like to say yes, but even at home I am constantly awoken by thunderstorms, so maybe not.
Bonus: Pride Parade and The Galloping Ghost
We happened to be in Chicago the day of their big Pride parade, so we decided to go. The forecast called for rain, and we did have a brief downpour, but only at the very beginning of the parade for a few minutes or so. Hardly even an issue. Infact, I thought it felt downright good: rainy enough to get my entire top half soaked, but not long enough for the water to pool around us and seep into my shoes and make them squishy. And even after the rain it never got humid enough to become unbearable, so that was nice.
The parade was fuckin HUGE. Which I mean, duh, it's the third largest city in the country, it's probably going to be huge. But jeez louise every time I thought we were near the end, I looked down the way and saw more floats coming! Not that I'm complaining, I had a great time. The only other Pride parade I have to compare it with is the Dallas one which is a considerably smaller affair in both attendance and frills. Unlike Dallas, though, I wasn't about to pass out from heat exhaustion, so there's that.
I loved seeing how many people were out there, and everyone was hyped up and friendly. Even during the brief downpour people were ready to party. I do kinda feel back for the float DJs who were scrambling to make sure their gear didn't get rained on. Speaking of the music: desipite it being The Summer of Kylie, I only heard Padam Padam twice. Once the parade was over we headed back to my sister's place, and it kinda made me yearn for a big block party. It made me regret not going to the Denton Square pride party thing earlier in the month, but then I think about how it was 85° F Chicago and 104° F in Denton, and I don't regret it that much.
The same day as the parade, we went over to a suburb of Chicago to check out The Galloping Ghost Arcade. Depending on who you talk to, either The Galloping Ghost or Funspot in New Hampshire holds the title of largest arcade in the United States. I've never been to Funspot, so I guess my vote goes to the Ghost.
The Galloping Ghost is almost intimidating in how many arcade machines are there. The website claims they have nearly 900 games, and they are EVERYWHERE. It feels like the owners asked the local fire marshall what's the thinnest pathway they could make that still obeys the fire code as a path of egress, and then shaved a few inches off when the authorities weren't looking. The building is a hedgemaze of arcade cabs, so much so that I found myself getting lost a handful of times. Apparently they also have a separate building solely to house their pinball machines. Wild.
There was absolutely no way I was going to have time to play all 900 games, so I tried to limit myself to very obscure stuff I had never heard of or had never seen up close before. So without further ado:
The Galloping Ghost Best-of Awards:
Best Overall Arcade Machine: It's Gyruss (Konami, 1983). It's always Gyruss. Remember how I said I tried to limit myself to obscurities only? Yeah well I also played like 40 minutes of Gyruss.
Biggest Surprise: Teddy Boy Blues (Sega, 1985). I'm only vaguely aware of this game thanks to Jeremy Parish's outstanding Segaiden video series. I wasn't at all expecting to see this in a Chicago 'burb in 2023. The arcade had no bezel or instructions so it took a few playthroughs to make heads or tails of what I was doing, but still it was a very cool machine to come across, and I'm not sure I ever will again.
Most Baffling Game: Cliff Hanger (Stern, 1983). I was playing Golly! Ghost (Namco, 1990. Also a very unique game) and I kept hearing some sort of guy droning on and on in an attract mode. I turn the corner and it's a... Dragon's Lair-esque laserdisc game using Lupin the 3rd footage!? Laserdisc games have a soft spot in my heart, but I am still hot garbage at them, so I didn't get very far. Guess I'll just have to go home and watch Castle of Cagliostro rather than starting over and hearing "Cliff" yell JUUUHMP over and over.
Game I'm Saddest About Being Out Of Order: Zoo Keeper (Taito, 1982). I was introduced to Zoo Keeper several years ago at the Houston Arcade Expo, and my chances to play the arcade game have been few and far between since then. I was excited to see a Zoo Keeper machine on the back row, but as I got closer I realized it wasn't playable. Bummer!
Worstest, Warmest, Waggliest Game: Castlevania: The Arcade (Konami, 2009). Way back in the farthest, most tucked away little corner of the entire building was a huge arcade machine covered in its own little shroud. Apparently, this was a Castlevania game! I say apparently because it was a Japanese import and I couldn't read any of the signage or the game text. Basically it's a House of the Dead-style game... but instead of a plastic gun controller, you have a whip handle! And you get to take your little whip handle and experience the finest Wiimote wagglin 2009 has to offer. Just kidding, I've played way more responsive Wii games. This game was a slow mess, only made worse by the positioning of the cabinet in the warmest, stuffiest corner. The machine's shroud is most likely to help the game read your waggles via infared and not get distracted by other lights and stuff, but in reality all it did was restrict airflow and make things extra toasty. My spouse and I played about 7 minutes of the game and wandered off to play something else.
Overall I had a good time at The Galloping Ghost. I would go back in a heartbeat, but maybe not on a Sunday when the front part of the arcade is crowded with people holding a Tekken tournament. Plus, I still need to check out the second building filled with pinball machines.