It's hard to tell in this photo, but the flashing lights that spell "Ameristar" are straight outta Reno.

During my summers home from college, my friends and I would intermittently spend a weekend night at “the boats,” our colloquial term for the casinos that stud the eastern periphery of Chicago in northwest Indiana. We’d take a portion of whatever we’d made at our summer jobs, and the few of us who had cars would drive out to either Horseshoe in Hammond or Blue Chip in Michigan City, the two casinos we preferred. Sometimes we’d take Vicodin or Xanax and drink, and sometimes we’d just chain-smoke cigarettes, the better to prevent our hands from fidgeting.

I don’t think I ever won any money at these outings, so in hindsight I’m not sure why I’m nostalgic for these trips. But when we were asked to pitch quick weekend getaways for this year’s Summer Guide, the casinos were the first things that came to mind (well, those and the Gathering of the Juggalos).

I haven’t had much disposable income in recent years, so it had been a while since I last journeyed to the boats. An old friend of mine, far more experienced in these matters, said his current preference of the three closest casinos is the Ameristar. The Majestic Star is too dingy, and the Horseshoe, which recently underwent a renovation, no longer has the seedy allure and nickel tables that once made it a primo destination (the Horseshoe does, however, have the Venue, where in the next month you can see Huey Lewis & the News, Snoop Dogg, Bob Saget, and Penn & Teller). The Ameristar also has a hotel and falls somewhere between these two ends of the class spectrum, so that’s where we go.

The place looks like it was ripped straight out of Reno, with yellowish bulbs lighting the sign in front of a circular driveway. There are a few restaurants when you walk in, including a buffet, Bugatti’s steak and pasta (for the high rollers), Double Down Dogs, and a Sbarros. (When I remark to my friend that it’s the saddest Sbarros I’ve ever seen, he asks, “Have you ever seen a happy Sbarros?”) A room at the hotel, which is pretty nice, runs between $130 on weeknights and around $200 on the weekends. But if you win enough money at the casino, you can potentially stay there for free. Perhaps I would be so fortunate.

Don’t let the teenage-inspired decor or occasional dejection get you down. You’re here to have fun.

The casino itself fills a long hallway packed with various card tables, slots, roulette, and baccarat. Its neon color scheme suggests that a nine-year-old girl was responsible for the design. People’s moods fluctuate between elated gesticulation and dead-eyed dejection, from which you can project just how long they’ve been in the casino.

My friend and I sit down at a blackjack table, and a short while later we’re dealt inauspicious hands. My friend, who was dealt a pair of eights, presses his bet to $100; the dealer has a seven card showing. My friend splits the pair and gets a nine card on each: 17. I have an ace/six, or soft 17, and don’t take a hit but should have. The dealer flips a nine for 16 and pulls a five for 21, which could have been my hand, and costs my friend dearly. This commences a losing streak that ends with my friend saying good-bye to $2,000.

Doesn’t sound like a great time, right? Well, it wasn’t. But hey, the economy is in the toilet, politicians fail us constantly, and we’re burning the sky to flood the earth. In this overwhelmingly cynical world, sometimes throwing your money away can feel a lot like getting away from it all.