I consider myself to be a rather introverted person (“You are so not,” I can hear Gremlin
saying…), so what better way to spend a Saturday evening than playing a game where you run away from everyone else, whether you know them or not?
Actually, when she told me about Journey to the End of the Night
, it didn’t take long for me to decide I wanted to do it. I love Chicago, I love the feeling of being one with the city, especially at night time when the areas outside of all the dive bars and sports bars and faux-Irish pubs and, well, other bars take on a sort of dark mystery to them.
Plus, I’m approaching 35 this year, I’m no longer the slender John Cusack-meets-Morrissey guy I used to be, and I might not get another opportunity to run carelessly around a dark foreboding city being chased by strangers in armbands until I’m getting mugged in NYC when I’m fiftysomething. I don’t really have anything to prove, but I don’t test myself very often either, and here’s the thing—deep down I knew I could survive.
knows. I never imagined a scenario in which we weren’t two of the few left alive, struggling (or should that be straggling?) to reach the end of the night. I didn’t actually know what to expect, and the reality of it is that the game surpassed my expectations in every possible way.
Jumpin’ Jane Flash
already described the beginning of the night rather accurately: we began in a team of nearly 20 people, some of whom were separated immediately after the frantic scatter from Wicker Park that kicked off the game. With Sprite
as our de facto leader, we headed out much faster whatsoever than I expected to run all evening, but his instincts proved spot on and I’m sorry to say I didn’t get to spend much more of the game with him after that first incredible 30 minutes of activity.
Because shortly after reaching the first checkpoint, we journeyed into the thick of it. The desolate stretch of Elston around Augusta had limited access to and from, and the paranoia began to set in. Leaving the safe zone, we expected chasers to be ahead of us but were in no way prepared to actually see one. With just a mere hint of chasing activity somewhere in the distance—a scream, perhaps? a glimmer of red? (…it was never quite my sight that was guiding my decision-making…)—LittleMonk
opted to scout out a parking lot to see if it cut through to an alley. For some reason, I booked after her. (Read her account here.
Two cabbies were standing in the middle of the lot, and they looked at each other in disbelief when they saw all 6’3” of REX
lumbering after the considerably smaller LittleMonk
. I’m lucky they didn’t tackle me. “What the fuh…?” one asked as I entered earshot. I pointed at my armband. “It’s just a game!”
(Several minutes later when talking to Sparrows Fall
on the phone, she warned me that if I ran into cops, I should tell them I was playing a game. Apparently, that’s a universal way to get away with anything
Catching up to LittleMonk
, I realized that Jumpin’ Jane Flash
was right behind me. And we all soon realized that the entire remainder of our team had vanished into thin air. This was only the first half of our isolation, our riveting descent into the scariest part of the game. The next hour will probably stay with me for years.
managed to get a hold of Gremlin
, and we realized she was just moments behind us. We carried onward, with me at the head of our little pack. Our packette. A lone blue man was wandering in front of us, slightly around a corner. And out of nowhere, there was a bicycle. It was a vulturous bicycle, it seemed to have wings, and it swooped swiftly down upon the lone blue man and devoured him. I’ve never seen anything so horrible. I turned to face the packette and whispered, “Chaser!” About face; run like hell!
A decision had to be made: I had just been in front of the group, but now I was in the back, exposed—the first fresh meat for that evil bicycle approaching. Should I try to stay with my friends so we could possibly all go down together? Or should I opt for the alternative, in which I ditch those suckers to save my own ass?
I’m sorry to say I think I learned that in a time of crisis, I am going to preserve myself rather than take one for the tribe. I am so ashamed.
The bicycle chaser vulture thing was close enough that if I were to suddenly turn back around and run right past, it wouldn’t have time to spin around and catch me in its nasty little talons. Sure enough, I leapt forth past the bike and slowly turned to see if my friends were going to escape. For a brief moment I glimpsed a chaos that I could not entirely comprehend, then I shrugged and ran off across the street in the other direction. Sorry, LittleMonk
. Sorry, Gremlin
. Sorry, packette… but wait! Jane
had followed me!
“It’s coming back. We have to hide.”
(points to dark sunken porch with trash cans) “There.”
I can hear the sound of that bike in my nightmares now, just as loud as I heard it then. Jane
was right. We had to hide. Now, it is not my instinct to trap myself somewhere out of fear, but it is also not my instinct to die. As we crouched on that porch, I wanted to pee. No, I wanted to want to pee. I was too scared to want to want to pee, though. Neither of us breathed.
Once the coast was clear, we darted down a side street to avoid the upcoming intersection of Milwaukee and Chicago. Of course, at the time I had no idea where we were. I am still convinced that the way to play this game is to avoid all major routes, which is also the way to become paranoia’s special bitch.
and I crossed Ogden Avenue just as some sort of drag race was taking place. We sat down across from a church to check out a map. I’m telling you right now: my sense of direction is impeccable. If you ever get lost, take me with you. And yet, I had no idea where we were and could hardly read the map. I tried to make some phone calls, to contact my errant team members. Gremlin
didn’t answer, so I tried Sparrows Fall
, which resulted in an amusing conversation:
“Are you still in the game?”
“Are YOU still in the game?”
“Where are you?”
“Where are YOU?”
The church bells started clanging. These were the church bells that were heard around the world. I suddenly thought of that episode of Twin Peaks
where Bobby Briggs tries to frame James for drug trafficking by sticking coke in his gas tank and then calling the sheriff’s office pretending to be Leo. The receptionist Lucy notes the clock at Easter Park chiming in the background, thus revealing “Leo’s” location. Now Sparrows Fall
could hear the bells and she knew that I was by that big ol’ church and she was certainly going to come and kill me.
But no, she and Meredithian
(read their account here
) and Mr. G
were still at Checkpoint 1.
Next, I decided to call Amby D
. I hadn’t seen her since the mad dash at the beginning of the game but I had her number handy. She answered, panting.
“Are you still in the game?”
“Yeah, (breath) I’m being chased (breath). Are you?”
“Yes. Where are you?”
“(pant) Down by Milwaukee and Grand. I’m being chased (breath).”
“Wait, you’re being chased right now?”
“Yes (breath) I’M BEING CHASED RIGHT N—“…click.
was dead. :(
and I decided to carry on alone. We’d get to Checkpoint 2 and just wait there a bit. The rest of the way to Checkpoint 2 was fairly uneventful, if you consider running from strangers who aren’t even playing the game along deserted, unresidential streets a couple of blocks east of Halsted and I-90/94 “uneventful.” We were both wearing our armbands on our left arms, and one of the strategies we’d developed fairly early in the game was to always walk on the side of the street that obscured our armbands.
But I learned something really important as a result: one cannot walk across a city making only left turns.
After joining the Tea Party in the Underpass at Green Street, I tried calling Gremlin
again. This time, she answered.
“Are you still in the game?”
“Are YOU still in the game?”
“Where are you?”
“Where are YOU?”
“We’re at Checkpoint 2.”
“Well, we’re at Milwaukee and Grand.”
Now, something about this didn’t strike me as right. Amby D
had been at Milwaukee and Grand, and that was 15 minutes ago… and if they had been together, why would Gremlin
still be there? I was convinced she had been compromised.
And now, a joyous reunion! LittleMonk
, Sparrows Fall
, Mr. G
, and our original team member Kevin (who I thought had been with Sprite
the whole time) appeared at the checkpoint. LittleMonk
asked about Gremlin
, and the two of us agreed: she was clearly one of “them.” We were relieved to see her moments later—still blue!—on the other side of the interstate but she couldn’t cross a locked train bridge to meet up with us. It’s amazing how the game messes with your senses of trust and safety.
Our first group decision-making process resulted in a stalemate; most of them wanted to backtrack to the train, whereas I felt it important to keep moving forward. Looking back now, I regret separating myself from the pack (sorry, guys) but I still feel I made the right decision. Jane
had learned to trust my instincts and she accompanied me as we headed due south into the darkness.
The plan? Cut all the way down to Lake Street and cross over into the Loop amongst the nightlife. Due to the threat of train stations, we crossed over on Randolph instead. Apparently, at each new block I declared the area to be “dangerous territory” and kept announcing that if we just made it to the next block, “we’d be golden.” And our journey was quite golden until we reached the Borders on State Street. As we huddled in a window to check the map and see how exactly to get to the bonus checkpoint on Lower Wacker, I found myself staring at the back of a chaser. It was in the store, facing the other direction, and it didn’t notice us—but its armband couldn’t have been more telltale. We panicked, and I’m pretty sure I decreed that if we made it over to the court between Wabash and Michigan, “we’d be golden.”
By the way, walking along MacChesney Court? It’s truly like descending into the bowels of hell. It’s dank and full of rats and dumpsters and most certainly dead bodies and I refuse to ever go back there, until next year. We got the bonus stamp! And half a week later my hand is still covered in green ink.
The court empties out onto Lower Michigan and we knew the safe zone was nearby so we were feeling particularly on edge. From across Wacker, we could see a couple of guys running for their lives but couldn’t tell if they were blue or not. And they could clearly see us coming their way, and probably were similarly uncertain, and—holy shit!—it was Mr. G
and Kevin. Words cannot express how thankful I was to see them still alive; the journey across the city had gone very well, but Jane
's sore feet at this time were really beginning to distract her, potentially undermining our ongoing progress. In fact, Jane
spent most of the time at Checkpoint 3 (the Billy Goat Tavern) stuffing her shoes with napkins and gloves and other assorted condiments.
, Sparrows Fall
, and Meredithian
appeared only moments after the rest of us, and once again the group decision-making went nowhere quickly. Conversation about how to get to Checkpoint 4 (Exelon Plaza outside the Chase Tower at Madison and Dearborn) and whether or not to take a train lasted for about 10 minutes. Finally, the majority agreed to go the most obvious and open route, straight down Michigan Avenue. The Log Lady once said, “Shut your eyes and you’ll burst into flames.” That has no relevance here; I just like repeating it.
's game was coming to an end. After a pit stop at Walgreens to buy a pair of socks (read her account here
), she unveiled her famous scrunch-face just before the safe zone around Checkpoint 4 and decided to seek refuge elsewhere. This left seven of us to carry on as a team, and for the most part, this particular Magnificent Seven would stay together until the very end:
• Kevin, whose familiarity with the South Loop helped lead us to Checkpoint 5;
• Mr. G
, whose fearless leap over a parking garage wall helped free several of us from certain doom;
, whose enthusiasm doubled as a pep talk when we were stuck behind a bank;
, whose strong will to survive kept her going strong even when separated from the group;
• Sparrows Fall
, whose determination and refusal to give up helped spare us from suicide;
, whose after-party shone like a beacon beyond the finish line, giving us hope;
• and myself, REX
, whose survival instincts were honed early by religiously watching Friday the 13th
movies as a kid.
The diner that housed Checkpoint 5 at the corner of Roosevelt and Canal proved to be the most difficult spot of the night to reach. Supposedly, something like two-thirds of the blue population had been turned and was congregating toward the end of the course. There did seem to be a high population of chaser demons roaming about, but it only took one to wreak holy havoc upon us and send us running in three different directions. This is the point at which some sort of super-dramatic music would have overtaken the theatre if we were actually in a film—preferably something epic and electronic, sinister and cool, like UNKLE’s “Eye for an Eye” or Massive Attack’s “Butterfly Caught.”
led the way down a hill on an industrial drive that went along the train tracks below the Roosevelt bridge that we were trying to reach. LittleMonk
, Sparrows Fall
, and I followed, along with a couple of other allies we had picked up after Checkpoint 4, one of whom was Ninja
. Kevin and Meredithian
had splintered off in the havoc above and we didn’t know where they’d gone. The ensuing chaos is probably better documented by LittleMonk
(read her account here
) or Mr. G
(read his account here
), but the bottom line is that we escaped the chasers who caught Ninja
and her friend by blindly jumping over a parking garage wall into the rocky nothingness between the train tracks and a nearby parking lot.
I will add one thing about this episode... so please bear with me as I wax nostalgic. When I was a wee lad in high school, my friends and I decided to go catch a showing of the first NC-17 movie that had come to our nearby art-house cinema (Henry and June
, don’t bother). We were running late and decided to take a short cut to the cinema by running through the parking garage. The set-up of this garage was very similar to the one behind Checkpoint 5, only in this case at the end of the expanse of asphalt was a 3-foot wall with a patch of green grass behind it. What we didn’t know then was that the garage had another floor below us, and that the patch of grass was actually the top of the hill ascending alongside the garage’s foundation. The massive 14-ft drop was invisible from our vantage point, and when I hurdled over that 3-foot wall, I experienced the first and only time I’ve ever fallen far enough to be aware that I was in mid-air before actually hitting the ground. I landed on my ass, but I landed on the grass; my friend wasn’t so lucky, but that’s a story for another time.
So although I once vowed never again to jump blindly over a parking garage wall, the act of running from chaser zombies for dear, precious life made me forget all about it!
Unfortunately, we weren’t quite yet in the clear. We lost Mr. G
somehow, but the other four of us ended up on the wrong side of the street behind a bank, lamenting our impending doom. But then, an answer to our prayers: a stray runner on the opposite side created enough of a distraction to the chasers who were waiting for us that we took the opportunity to make a mad dash into the safe zone!
(Looking back, I’m not sure that the stray runner was actually part of the game… nor am I sure there were any chasers waiting for us. The game is freaky. It plays funny games with our heads, it does. It rubs the lotion on its skin, then it puts the lotion in the basket.
At the checkpoint, the seven of us miraculously all came together again—a definite testament to how resourceful we all were as individuals as well as a functioning group. We even helped guide Meredithian
back to safety over the phone. But I have to admit it did take us quite a long time to make up our minds how we were going to finish the game. Dax
was following us now on his bike-and-video-sidecar contraption, and had significantly alarmed us into believing we had little chance of getting to the end still intact, so some of us agreed to go down in a blaze of glory. But since we’d been running for five hours and were doing so well, we ultimately decided not to give up, and instead cut north to approach Grant Park from its upper end, ensuring our victory—but putting us an extremely far distance from Checkpoint 6 behind Shedd Aquarium.
The walk to the finish line was pleasant, if bafflingly calm. The night was dark and peaceful, with a nearly full moon shining down for that extra little bit of ambience. “Behind” the aquarium felt more like circling the building four times whilst climbing uphill. We were all obviously exhausted yet thrilled to have survived such an exciting challenge. As we approached the crowd waiting, Gremlin
and I began chanting, “We Take Back the End of the Night!!” (We have our own fun, sometimes.) The whole group of us joined hands and raised them into the air.
I had made friends, gotten some exercise, bonded with my city, and proven something to myself. I only stayed at the after-party for about 30 minutes, but then I am
an introverted old fuddy-duddy, right? Who’s free next Saturday?