Departures: St Louis 2012

In late April 2012, I went back to St Louis. Once again, I let the DASH nationwide puzzlehunt pick my travel plans: I wanted to volunteer and wanted to travel to do so. The year before, this method had landed me in NYC. This year, St Louis. This was also good, since it gave me an excuse to visit with the Clairs. (This was especially good because in this, the first year DASH happened in St Louis, everyone that played in the game found out about it via Bryan Clair.)

(If you only like puzzlehunts, then you want to skip down to Saturday, the day of DASH4.)


Only three teams had signed up to play DASH in St Louis this year—and one of those teams canceled the day before I flew out. That's not very many teams. So Thursday morning, I hoofed it around a couple of St Louis university campuses, looking for signs of organizations that might be interested in future puzzlehunts. I found some, but along the way I had a fun time wandering around campuses.

First, I visited UMSL, the University of Missouri at St Louis. The campus was a ways out of town. I started my wanderings at a train station on the outskirts of campus, and was worried I'd reached a wasteland: there was a lot of meadow and not much population. But I eventually reached more civilized parts of campus where there were people and statues made out of steel beams attached to each other in various ways.

Walking around a campus where you're not-exactly supposed to be requires bravery: walking into buildings, bumping into locked doors, that sort of thing. So I was glad in my wanderings to help some legit students into a building whose electronic locks were confusing: a skill in breaking-and-entering unlocked buildings doesn't sound impressive, but it's a good thing to have occasionally.

Perhaps my favorite part of UMSL was Grace's Place, a room which had been converted into a collection of computing equipment from days of yore. You might think I'd be pretty jaded on this since I've had a few visits to the Computer History Museum, but only Grace's Place had the Ginger Drive Mansion, a "gingerbread house" made out of old computer parts and packing material.

My next stop was WUStL, Washington University St Louis. A nice lady in the admissions office gave me a map and pointed out the walking route to the U-City loop so I could get lunch without getting lost along the way. When I came back, I wandered around WUStL in search of nerdy organizations. (It had a statue made of beams, too.)

On my flight out, there had been some big groups of teenagers heading to St Louis: FIRST was an organization that encouraged groups of teens to form teams to design, build, and run robots in various robot sports. The championships were happening in St Louis: these teens had done well locally and were now flying to the world championships. (A grown-up lady sitting next to me had attempted to bond with me through commiseration: oh, isn't this planeful of boisterous kids annoying? But... these kids had built robots. That made them pretty cool in my book.) I'd asked someone for the details of when and where the competition was happening. The final championships would happen while I was busy doing DASH puzzlehunt stuff, but there were qualification rounds happening earlier than that.

So on Thursday, I visited the championship event at the St Louis Dome. The robots were cool: various sports had been invented for them to play; mostly variations on "put the ball in the goal." But of course it's tough to make a robot that does that well, especially if it has to skitter around other teams' robots that are trying to do the same thing.

Even if you didn't like watching the robots, there was a lot of pageantry to take in. Teams and fans wore costumes. Some schools had sent out there mascots to whip up excitement in the audience. It was pretty amazing. How could you tell who was a roboticist and who was just part of the audience? All sorts of folks had capes and funny hats; but participants had to wear eye protection.

Afterwards, I headed over to the Clair household. There I joined Bryan and Elissa and the kids Benjamin and Rebecca and we all headed over to Pi Pizzeria which, it turns out, is not associated with the Pi Bar pizza bar in San Francisco, but which does have delicious deep-dish pizza.


Friday, I went to St Louis' City Museum. This is the thing for a tourist to do in St Louis. It's fun and it's unlike stuff you'll see in other places. New York doesn't have one. Los Angeles doesn't have on. The City Museum is hard to describe. From the name, you'd guess it's some boring city history museum. But it's a city history museum as filtered through the brains of crazy artists. Back in the day, St Louis had a lot of ornate buildings. Developers were tearing those down. An archivist would think we should keep some of this cool ornament and put it in a museum. But a crazy artist thinks We should turn these into the coolest climbing structure ever... and then pile a carny arcade on top of that with a circus! And on top of that... Ah, but the roof wasn't open when I was there. Oh well. Next time.

A new-to-me feature was the aquarium. What does an aquarium look like if it's designed by people who like being able to climb on stuff? And who like quirky old stuff? Other aquariums have clear plastic tubes that let you "walk through" a tank; but it takes St Louis' City Museum to turn make that a slide instead of a walkway. To have crawl spaces below and around the tanks. To have... a column shaped like some kind of weird giant animal leg? Sure, why not.

New-to-me, but not really new: I finally got around to climbing on the giant found-art-crawl-structure-weirdness out front. This had been there for a while, but in my past visits, I hadn't climbed on it. But now I did. I got some leg bruises, but they were worth it.

Not everything was new. Some of it had been there since my previous visits. But that stuff was still pretty cool.

Then I headed over to SLU to watch an awards ceremony in which some of SLU's Math and CS smarties got prizes from their professors. Before the ceremony, I talked with a student named Wes. When Wes wasn't being kept too busy with schoolwork, he wrote software to run on sattelites. That was pretty cool. Then I found out that he was playing in the DASH puzzlehunt the next day. That was pretty cool, too. I also got to meet Greg, playing on the other St Louis DASH team.

Before the ceremony, there was a talk by Lenny Pitt, a professor from UIUC. He talked about how to get youngsters excited about learning computer science via hokey magic tricks. This was a fun talk. Then came the awards. It would be over-simplifying to say that they consisted of one DASH team ("Bill me Later", a.k.a., "The professors team") giving awards and scholarships to the other DASH team ("Wisbros", a.k.a., "The students team"). But it was kinda like that.

Bryan had been one of The-professors-team handing out prizes and after the event, he took a bunch of math students out to dinner. But Elissa and the kids and I dined at The Fountain on Locust. This was a prohibition-era ice cream fountain. That might sound unusual to you, but a prohibition-era ice cream fountain had just opened up in my neighborhood, so I was no stranger to phosphates in strange contexts. But The Fountain had other stuff going on: more food choices, their own radio play, and more. Actually, the radio play made it kind of tough to hold a conversation, but that was OK. Good ice cream makes up for a lot.


Saturday was the day of the DASH puzzlehunt! I walked through Forest Park to reach the game start. Along the way, I walked along with the March of Dimes. Off in the distance, I spotted the collosal Amoco sign. Closer, I wandered among the giant turtle statues of the Turtle playground. But soon I was at the game start, a picnic area near the St Louis Zoo's south entrance.

Soon, Patrick Blindauer and Rebecca Young showed up. They'd recently moved to St Louis from NYC. (Patrick mentioned that he'd played in last year's DASH in NYC. Later on, I checked my photos from my NYC visit to help run DASH there and sure enough, there he was.) Rebecca and Patrick had met some years back; they'd bonded over the New York Magazine crossword puzzle. They'd collaborated on designing some puzzles. They'd married recently. Patrick was still recovering from being on the team running the most recent MIT Mystery Hunt. Patrick and Rebecca had friends in the St Louis area, but no so many puzzling friends; thus they were glad that I was here volunteering.

Players showed up: Greg, Golwasser, and Dave from Bill Me Later (a.k.a., the professor team). And seven youths making up the Wisbros (a.k.a., the student team). I bet the captain of that team hadn't known for sure how many friends he could talk into playing this game. Seven's a big team; they might have had a better time as two teams. But they did OK, not crowding each other away from the puzzles as much as they might have. Bryan of Bill Me Later showed up just in time: he'd been stuck in traffic created by the various charity walks and runs going on in the park today.

Soon it was time for the event to begin. Patrick and I performed a little skit about the Mayan-calendar-predicted 2012 apocalypse. We walked the teams over to the site of their first puzzle: a bridge at the entrance to the St Louis Zoo. And we let them get started solving.

I wandered over to the first site where I'd hand out puzzles. On my way, I noticed that the St Louis Zoo already had a sort of treasure hunt game built in: ZooQuest. In a planter, there was a flipbook. Opening it up revealed a page saying that I'd reached a dead end, but that the animal I was looking for had a rough tongue. No doubt there were other flipbooks placed elsewhere around the zoo with more animal facts to gather.

Soon I was at the usual level of GC volunteer hubbub: keeping an eye on teams; handing out puzzles and hints; checking answers; moving on to other puzzle sites. After a while, some excitement: though there were only two teams playing, "the spread" had nevertheless took hold. Bill Me Later had pulled more than a puzzle ahead of Wisbros. Now we'd need four GC folks if we wanted to have someone watching over each team and someone watching at each next-puzzle site for teams to arrive. So we stopped trying to do that. We didn't really have a plan worked out for this, but when there are just two teams playing, you have some slack. We did some scurrying from site to site.

I was out in front of the snakehouse, where Bill Me Later had just finished off the last regular puzzle. They were thus heading back to the picnic area outside the zoo so that they could get the metapuzzle, the last puzzle of the game. Now I needed to hustle over to the carrousel to relieve Patrick who was watching the Wisbros. But... suddenly it was pouring rain.

Where had all this rain come from?

I jogged partway through the zoo in the rain. Finally it got bad enough that I decided to seek shelter. But all the zoo's visitors had had the same idea already: overhangs were crowded with people. I tried joining the crowd, but I was at the edge: wind was blowing the rain into me anyhow. Finally, I got the umbrella out of my backpack, opened it up, and started scurrying up to the carrousel. It was less crowded there, and soon I was under cover, letting my umbrella dry out&emdash;and seeing that my umbrella, which had withstood decades of gentle San Franciscan rain, was now broken.

Patrick Blindauer headed to the ending location so that he could give Bill Me Later any hints necessary for the meta. (Patrick had designed this year's metapuzzle.) But we'd exchanged puzzles so that I could now follow the Wisbros from site to site, on them like glue. (The GC logistics experts among you might wonder why Rebecca and I didn't alternate sites along the Wisbros' path now that Bill Me Later was at the last site. Rebecca had to pick up Penny the dog from the sitter.)

And so I stuck with the Wisbros for their next few puzzles. This was a lot of fun. The rain had stopped. The Wisbros had been slow—this was their first puzzlehunt. But now, I saw, they were hitting their stride. They were talking about what they were thinking, kicking ideas around, making smart choices. Meanwhile, I was drying off. My shirt looked funny. I was wearing my pencil bandolier; my wet shirt had rubbed against the colored pencils and now I had a sort of rainbow smudge on my shirt. Fortunately, that didn't interfere with the Wisbros. Soon they'd solved the last of the regular puzzles and we all headed over to the picnic area so that they could get the meta.

The picnic area was covered, which was a good thing: we reached it just as the rain started up again. Penny the dog was there, providing moral support. Soon the Wisbros were wrestling with the metapuzzle, assembling a 3-D structure covered with words and Mara runes. As time went on, it got dark out. I wasn't expecting a night game, but I had flashlights clipped to my pencil bandolier as usual, so I hauled one out and shone it down on the puzzle so the Wisbros could keep going.

Then it got light out again: that wasn't night falling. That was darkness from clouds. I'm from San Francisco. When it drizzles in San Francisco, people complain about the rain. But I was reminded that San Francisco doesn't have real rain. Here in St Louis there was real weather, clouds that blotted out the sun. I turned off the light. The clouds came back; I turned the light back on.

The tornado warning sirens started as the Wisbros were making a start at taping together the metapuzzle. I didn't know exactly what I was supposed to do when tornado warning sirens went off, but I knew how to find out: watch the folks who lived here. "Oh, that's just, like, background around here." said one of the Wisbros. I stared at this college kid, trying to judge if his sentiment indicated local knowledge or lack of appreciation for mortality. (Normally, you want to heed tornado warning sirens. But after a terrible tornado had killed many people in nearby Joplin, MO, local warning sirens had been quick to turn on. There had been a lot of false alarms lately.)

The locals were staying out at this covered picnic area, so I would too. The Wisbros made progress. The sirens stopped. I realized I'd been gripping the flashlight supertight. I'd been scared. The Wisbros, unperturbed, continued making progress.

Then the tornado warning sirens started again, this time closer. The sky was turning green. Oh #$!), I'd heard about the sky turning green. That meant tornadoes. There was some debate amongst the Wisbros: now was it time to seek shelter? Yeah, yeah it was. With a quickness.

While folks shoved possessions into backpacks, a plan was shouted above the wind. We'd reconvene at Casa de Blindauer, which had a roof and walls. I'd get a ride with Patrick and Rebecca. We ran out from under the picnic area roof into the storm, through rain and wind. This car was close; the Wisbros had not parked so close.

We drove along the road; the rain picked up. We pulled up to where the Wisbros had parked; a couple of them were getting into their car. (More of them were still a ways back towards the picnic area.) One of us yelled at the students "What are you doing out in weather like this, don't you know there's a tornado?" which seemed funny at the time, but seemed not-funny a few seconds later when the huge chunks of hail started smashing down.

Imagine someone throwing big rocks at your car, hard. Balls of ice, each about the size of a child's fist, smashing down. They dented the car's hood. I was kind of surprised they didn't smash the windshield. Rebecca was driving around, looking for cover, something solid under which to shelter the car. We were still in Forest Park, which had many trees, but those trees didn't protect the roadway. One of the Wisbros, still on her way to the car, took a chunk of ice to the head. If you had to choose which youth would take a chunk of ice to the head, you probably wouldn't choose one who'd just won some math scholarship the previous day. "Let one of the dumb kids take the hit, they won't notice it so much" you might say. But we didn't get to choose. At least during the hail, the sirens stopped. Maybe we wouldn't get carried away by a tornado at least.

We'd driven a ways out of the park when the sirens started again. This time, we were able to get under an overpass. Waiting under the overpass was nice. No hail, little wind, no rain aside from the creeks that were now running along the gutters. When the sirens stopped, the rain was calming down. We drove to the house slowly, avoiding any pools of water deep enough to submerge the car's working parts, looking for fallen branches, noting which neighborhoods still had power.

The house was wonderfully solid. We ran inside, hunkered down. Sent mail to the Wisbros: we'd agreed to meet here, but they might have decided against it once the hail started. (And, in fact, the Wisbros had wisely gone home instead; fortunately, they'd collected the last puzzle and had a good start working on it.)

Once the storm had passed we looked out the window at the debris on the ground. Patrick noted: "Oh look, someone's boxes are just sitting there in the middle of the street, all blown around. Oh wait—Sterling Publishing? Those must be mine." We picked some debris, noted some fallen wires.

They gave me a ride back to the Central West End, where I was staying. There, people walked down the street as if nothing had happened. How could they be so blasé? No doubt some folks asked the same thing about us Californians and our earthquakes.


Sunday, I set out on a walk. As I had in NYC, I tried using geocaching to guide my path. First I'd go to the nearest geocache, then the nearest unvisited geocache, then the nearest unvisited geocache, then the nearest unvisited geocache,... This had gone OK in NYC, but didn't work so well here.

Different geocachers enjoy it for different reasons. Some of them are into speed-caching, visiting many caches in a short period of time. To cater to these cachers, someone might set up many, many caches a short distance apart, perhaps along a road. And someone had done this in the center divider of Forest Park Parkway.

But eventually I reached another set of geocaches that took me up into SLU campus and might have taken me further, but then it started sprinkling. I knew what sprinkling meant now—no doubt the tornado would be coming along in an hour or so. I hurriedly turned myself around and walked back to the Central West End. Except... of course, those sprinkles weren't the start of a tornado. They were just some scattered sprinkles of rain.


comment? | | home |