Finding and following Historic Route 66 through Missouri

Until about 72 hours before I drove on it, I didn’t really know what Route 66 was. I’d obviously heard its name and I knew it was a road that people with Harley Davidsons ride but I’d no idea where it was or its history. That changed when I was looking on Google Maps to work out how best to get from St Louis MO to Springfield MO by car without spending 3+ hours driving along a motorway. A part of the road I looked at was labelled Historic US 66. My interest piqued, I investigated further…

A bit of searching revealed the US National Park Service’s website listing the main sites still visible on Historic US 66. Furthermore, I discovered that if I told Google Navigation to ‘avoid motorways’, it would automatically (or so I thought at this stage) find the Historic US 66 roads. Whoopee! An interesting route to take down to Springfield. Moreover, I decided to visit the Route 66 State Park Museum (divorced from the actual park now because the Meramec River US 66 Bridge has been deemed unsafe and dismantled)…

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…and the Meramec Caverns (actual real caves you can go in; apparently there are a few in Missouri). A few years ago, Billy Connelly did some filming there on his roadtrip down Route 66 and Lee, our guide, was one of the guys who showed him round. The caves are also where an episode of Lassie was filmed and, more historically (possibly), there’s evidence that Jesse James hid out there, and ammunition was stored there during the Civil War.

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I also noted a few other places (like the Waynesville courthouse) but I ran out of time and didn’t get there.

Historic Route 66

So, what is Historic US 66? Well, back in the days of yore (1920s-1930s), the US government decided to build a road 2,484 miles long. Incredibly, the land for the road was bought and the road built in just 5 years. That was back in the days of the Ford Model A car, before bulldozers and they were mostly reliant on horses and carts. The road was designated the number US 66 and the first of the road’s iconic roadsigns was officially planted in Springfield, MO. I saw (and sneakily touched) that actual roadsign at the Route 66 State Park Museum:

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As the American love of the motorcar grew, so did the popularity of US 66. Up until the Second World War, there were all kinds of businesses and towns that built up around the road. After the war, the growth of interstate highways (motorways) gradually eroded the use of US 66.

In 1985 US 66 was officially decommissioned but within a couple of years, preservation groups were springing up. Sections of the original US 66 roads are now designated Sites of National Interest and are officially signposted as Historic US 66.

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Finding Historic US 66 and Rte 66 on Google Maps

If you browse (zoom in and scroll) the approximate route on Google Maps, sooner or later you’ll find the road marked Historic US 66 or Rte 66 or Old US Hwy 66 (I know, it doesn’t help that they use different labels sometimes). There are plenty of hardcopy guides and fold-out maps available to purchase (such as this one, which looks pretty good, though I haven’t tried it). It’s fine if there’s someone else there and one of you can navigate while the other drives. I was driving alone, though, so it was really GPS or nothing because I hate navigating by map when I’m driving too.

The problem with GPS is that its aim in life is usually to find the shortest route. At first, I thought just selected ‘avoid motorways’ worked and I was able to drive from just out St Louis to at least Sullivan (probably further) by doing this. Further South, though, Google would just offer me alternative highways, which wasn’t really playing the game. I ended up taking a scenic route over the hills which was lovely but a long drive with no phone signal.

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Before the journey back to St Louis a couple of days later, I spent a bit of time learning how to trick Google Maps into sticking to Route 66 by typing the name of a town I knew I’d be passing through and seeing what route it came back with. If it wasn’t the route I wanted, I entered the name of a town slightly closer. And repeated. This is my eventual list of waypoints:

  • Springfield to Marshfield (Rte 66)
  • Marshfield to Waynesville (Rte 66)
  • Waynesville to Devil’s Elbow (Rte 66)
  • Devil’s Elbow to Cuba (Historic US 66)
  • Cuba to Sullivan (Historic US 66E & N Service)
  • Sullivan to St Clair (Historic US 66E)
  • St Clair to Eureka (Historic US 66E)
  • Eureka to the airport (interstate I-44; there is some more Historic US 66 at this point but I knew I’d be short of time by this point for catching my plane)

As it turned out, I didn’t quite use so many of these waypoints. I got better at spotting the official Historic Route 66 signposts (which tend to confirm you’re on the right road rather than point out which way to go) and recognising the types of road at junctions which were likely to be the right direction. Also, some community groups and just private landowners have created their own painted signs to help you along:

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One obstacle that caused me a rather long diversion was where a bridge had been damaged (I think) and the road closed somewhere south of Rolla. I think that was quite a recent thing and it was only when I came to the Road Closed sign that I found out about it. I should really have just gone on the I-44 at that point but I was determined to take the 2-lane highways instead but didn’t re-find Historic US 66 for quite a way. In hindsight, it might have been this point where Historic US 66 and I-44 were one and the same road… :-/

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It looks like some people have worked on the GPS problem a bit (though not for Google Navigation).

Driving Historic Route 66

Historic US 66 and Rte 66 are basically (in UK-speak) A- and B-roads (though at one point, at least, it is the I-44). They’re usually 2-lane roads of varying quality. Often the road runs along parallel to the main I-44 interstate, which sounds dull but it has more hills and bends than the interstate and there’s often no one else on it but you.

If you do ever find yourself stuck behind some slow vehicle (I met a tractor at one point), just be patient if you can’t safely overtake; the vehicle will soon turn off. My impression was that no one except tourists would use US 66 now unless they were going somewhere that you can’t get to from the interstate. If you’re just trying to get from place to place, you’d use the interstate as it’s a lot faster.

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The speed limit on US 66 varies a lot depending on where it is. If it’s alongside the interstate, it’s often 55mph or even 65mph. If it’s through countryside, it might vary between 40mph and 55mph, while going through towns and residential areas (which were more frequent than you might expect, and some with signs of shocking poverty) it could be as low as 30mph or even 20mph.

The main tourist places along the route are signposted from both the interstate and the Historic Route 66 roads, though often better from the interstate, I found. This is Tim who grew up in Totem Pole Trading, the oldest ‘mom and pop’ business on the Missouri Route 66 (founded by his parents in the 1930s):

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Basically, plan ahead!

If you’re thinking of driving Historic US 66, I recommend you do your reading and planning first, unlike me. Well, I did what I could but I didn’t really have much time and there’s lots I’d have done differently if I were doing it again. If I’d known about US 66 before I went, I’d have done much more web searching from my laptop (rather than the tablet I had with me).

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That said, I had a brilliant time hunting it down, seeing varied scenery, visiting fun places, and meeting interesting people along the way.

You can read more about My Big American Adventure on Tumblr.

Tampon Club at Tech City IWD 2015

It’s International Women’s Day (IWD) 2015 and Alex D-S, Ana Bradley, and Becky Stewart organised a fun evening event on Friday at the Digital Catapult Centre on Euston Road, London.

Tampon Club founder, Alice Bartlett, was unable to attend and asked me, as Tampon Club heiress, if I could stand in.

“Tampon Club is just a bunch of women leaving tampons and sanitary towels in their workplace toilets, so that they’re available when required. No more walking back to your locker to get out a tampon, no more sneaking one up your sleeve; tampons in the loo when you need one. Simple as that.” —tampon.club

So that’s how I came to be here:

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“Tampon Club is a remarkably slick example of community self organization. Founded and maintained by ‘a shadowy cabal of menstruating women’” —core77

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(Thanks to Chris for taking the photo of me.)

I think the stand turned out to be a pretty good approximation of the sketch Alice sent to me beforehand:

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Conversations at Tech City IWD 2015

Talking about tampons and periods is a bit embarrassing for many people (including us!). So there were lots of slightly sheepish half-smiles as visitors approached the stand and asked about Tampon Club. The more succinct my explanation got as the evening went on, the more quickly the sheepishness developed into full-on enthusiasm for the idea.

As well as questions about what Tampon Club is (see above) and isn’t (an organisation or promoting any particular form of sanitary product over any other; the name is just catchy and amusing), several women shared their own stories and ideas. Most empathised with the situation of being ‘caught out’ at work and the embarrassment, awkwardness, and inconvenience that can ensue.

Others wondered about what could be done in the same vein in other contexts. For example, one woman mentioned that one of the most difficult things for homeless women is dealing with their periods. Another woman talked about how she and her sister had gone to stay with relatives in a small town in India when they were teenagers and had been shocked by how women there had to make their own sanitary towels from collected old rags bound around cotton.

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We also talked a little about the community aspect of Tampon Club. For example, after May and I created the Second Ever Tampon Club in our office last October, some other women in the office contributed a posh soap dispenser and moisturiser alongside. That made me feel so warm and fuzzy about it all that I very nearly bought a pot plant to put in there too!

Alex highlighted the ‘open source’ aspect of setting up Tampon Clubs. It isn’t really a ‘club’ in the conventional sense; it’s more of a ‘thing’ or a ‘movement’. The important thing, though, is that anyone is welcome to set one up using these handy guidelines. If you send in a photo of your Tampon Club, you might get some stickers in return. And that’s it really. It’s pretty straightforward.

Who else was at Tech City IWD 2015?

Between chats with people on the Tampon Club stand, I managed to sneak off to see a few of the other stands. Either side of me were Naomi from Trans*Code promoting their upcoming first UK hackday, and Leillah who co-founded No Scrunchie which is a kind of TripAdvisor site of hairdressers who style hair that isn’t straight Caucasian hair.

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I caught up with Claire Rowland and one of her co-authors, Martin Charlier, who were promoting their new O’Reilly book, Designing Connected Things. I also got to chat briefly with Lauren at Zealify where you can get and share reviews of what it’s really like to work at a given company, and with the women behind Articulate Network, a directory of women speakers. Like Tampon Club, all simple ideas addressing a particular problem.

And, finally…

One woman who visited the Tampon Club stand pointed me to this video of 15-year-old Artemis Irvine speaking about Menstruation, Misogyny, and Caitlin Moran in her winning entry for the Jack Petchey’s “Speak Out” Challenge Grand Final July 2014. It seemed rather appropriate to include here:

Monki Gras 2015

Monki Gras happened again! Though, in its Monki Gras 2015 incarnation, it acquired a heavy metal umlaut and a ‘slashed zero’ in its typeface; an allusion to its Nordic nature: Mönki Gras 2Ø15

What is Monki Gras?

Well…

And Ricardo makes a good point, explaining why I, and others, just keep going back:

There’s a single track of talks so you are saved the effort of making decisions about what to see and you can just focus on listening. The speakers entertain as well as inform, which, I really like.

While it is a tech conference, there’s little code because it’s about making technology happen rather than the details of the technology itself. So there are talks on developer culture, design, and data, as well as slightly more off-the-wall things to keep our brains oiled.

In James’ very own distinctive words:

Why go all Nordic this year?

All the speakers this year were Scandinavian in some way. It was probably the most rigorously applied conference theme I’ve ever seen (mostly, conferences come up with a ‘theme’ for marketing purposes which usually gets mostly forgotten about by the time of the conference itself).

James talks a bit more about this on the Monkigras blog. A surprising amount of tech we know and love comes out of the relatively sparsely populated Scandinavian countries. For example:

And, apparently, Finland leads the EU in enterprise cloud computing:

Are the Nordics really that different from anywhere else?

Well, this graph seems to say they are, if only for their taste in music:

Which suggests there is at least something different about Nordic cultures from the rest of Europe, let alone the world.

So several of the speakers delved into why they thought this led to success in technology innovation and development. For example, there’s the attitude to recognising when you’re failing and giving up so that you can be successful by doing it another way:

A Swedish concept, lagom, which means ‘just the right amount’ was credited with the popularity of the cloud in the Nordics. And, indeed, with pretty much anything we could think of throughout the rest of the event.

Similarly, you could argue that lagom is why Docker is popular among developers:

One fascinating talk, by a Swedish speaker based in Silicon Valley, was about the difference between startups in the Nordics and Silicon Valley. For example, the inescapable differences between their welfare systems were credited as being responsible for different priorities regarding making money. (Hopefully, videos of the talks will be put online and I’ll add a link to it.)

Obviously, all this talk about culture can, and did, drift into stereotyping. I did get slightly weary of the repeated comparisons between cultures, though interesting and, often, humorous.

Developer culture

One of the things I’m most interested in is hearing what other companies have learnt about developer culture and community. For example:

There’s more about this talk on Techworld. And Spotify have blogged some funky videos about the developer culture they aspire to (part 1 and part 2), which are well worth watching if you work in software development.

Something that I’m working on at IBM is increasing the openness of our development teams so, again, I’m always interested in new ways to do this. This is something that Sweden (yes, the country!) has adopted to a surprising extent:

Innovation and inefficiencies

One important message that came across at Monki Gras 2015 was that you have to allow time for innovation to happen. It’s when things seem inefficient and time is not allocated to a specific activity that innovation often occurs.

A nice example of this is the BrewPi project. At Monki Gras 2013, Elco Jacobs talked about his open source project of brewing beer and using a Raspberry Pi to monitor it:

I bumped into him this year and what had been a project now occupies him full-time as a small business selling the technology to brewers around the world. A pause in his education when he had nothing better to do had enabled him to get on with his BrewPi project and, after graduation, turn it into a business.

Data journalism

There’s a lot talked about open data and how we should be able to access tax-funded data about things that affect our lives. The Guardian is taking a lead with data journalism and Helena Bengtsson gave a talk about how knowing how to navigate large data sets to find meaning was vital to finding stories in the Wikileaks data.

She started out in data journalism in Sweden where, in one case, she acquired and mapped large data sets that revealed water pollution problems around the country, which triggered a several stories.

It’s not just having the data that matters but the interpretation of the data. That’s what data journalism gives us over just ‘big data':

Also, I found out a fascinating fact:

Anyway, that’s about as much as I can cram in. We also found out random things about Scandinavian knitwear and the fact that Sweden has its own official typeface, Sweden Sans. And we ate lots of Nordic foods, drank Nordic beer and (some of us) drank Akvavit. And, most importantly, we talked to each other lots.

The thing I really value about Monki Gras (on top of the great talks, food, drink, and fun atmosphere) is the small size of the event and all the interesting people to talk to. That’s why I keep going back.

P.S. A good write-up of the talks