The Perfect Storm

This blog entry about the events of Monday, May 28, 2007 was originally posted on May 30, 2007.

DAY 4: “I don’t quite care for talk of politics,” 18-year-old James from Manchester, UK said to me as I prepared a breakfast of coffee and corn flakes with bananas at the Days Inn in North Platte, NE.  “It bores me.”

In the dining area, his aunt Mel was having a discussion with Leisa, and Londoners Chris and Katie about health care, politics, and other adult sort of things.  James moseyed on out of the area, knowing well aware he was in the States for the first time not to discuss politics, but to chase tornadoes.

“TODAY IS LOOKING FAIRLY DECENT,” tour leader Bill said in our morning briefing.  Apparently there was good convergence in eastern Colorado, and therefore that’s where we were headed.  We hopped in the vans and head west on I-80, back into the Mountain Time Zone, and stopped in Ogalala for a quick pitstop of gas, V8 (to offset all the junk food I’d been eating), and an “animal puppet show.”  We head southwest on Routes 61 and 23, passing through some small towns, and soon we were in the fifth new state of our tour.

“Welcome to Colorful Colorado,” the sign said at the state line.  The terrain hadn’t changed though; it was still completely flat as the Great Plains. 

“Where are the Rockies?” Leisa wondered.

“That John Denver’s full of shit,” Brett, our driver/Navy Seal said, quoting the movie Dumb and Dumber.

We arrived in Wray, CO, at the junction of Rt. 385, where we stopped in at the Sandhiller Motel, a popular spot for storm chasers when they are in the area — in fact, we ran into a buddy of the guides, another chaser wearing a “More Cowbell” t-shirt (playing off the now classic SNL skit about Blue Oyster Cult, starring Will Ferrell).  The motel was not popular for its accommodations, but for its cheap and decent lunch buffet. 

“Oh there’s a salad bar,” I said.  “I had that V-8 this morning for nothing.”  To compensate for the four servings of vegetables, I loaded up on the hot plate of the day, homemade fried chicken, pork and beans, carrots, a biscuit, and mashed potatoes with a really thick and rich gravy — it was practically a food group.

Conversation around the dining table included Jenna the writer getting soundbites for the novel she was working on, and Bill and Keith reminiscing about previous chases, citing specific dates as storm chasers do.

“Now do you guys remember other dates?  Like your mom’s birthday?” Stacy chimed in.

“Yes, we’re just all genius,” Keith said with a smirk.  “Just kidding.”

Not surprisingly, our crew of non-Plains folk attracted attention from the locals.  “Where are you guys from?” the waitress asked.

“All over,” I answered.

“Are you on a bus tour?”

“No, we’re storm chasers,” I said.  I was really starting to like saying that.

“Someone here is wondering if you’re the Advanced Warning Team.”

“Warning for what?” Stacy chimed in again.

“Uh, for storms,” said the waitress, confused at Stacy’s sarcastic quip.  “Well, we had three drops over here,” she reported

“That’s a good sign,” I said as I ate my greasy food.

“THERE’S A BIG STORM A’BREWING,” Bob announced on our radio frequency as he monitors the storms on radar.  “This could be our day.”

We raced southbound through the hills of eastern Colorado, and at 1:21 PM Mountain Time, a tornado watch was in effect for the upcoming county — the National Weather Service on the radio warned of flash floods, 2” hail, and 70 mph winds.  Before heading into the tornado zone, we took one last pitstop in Burlington, CO.

“Are you excited?” I asked Peter, the elderly but youthful British man in our group.


“Well I don’t want to get overconfident,” I told him.

“Yeah, I don’t want to say ‘Yeah!’ and then [see nothing].”  (He raised his arms triumphantly on that second “Yeah!”)  “I don’t want an F-5 or anything [because of the killing and the destruction], but an F-4 would be nice.”

Optimistically — but not overconfidently — we drove east on Rt. 24 to intercept what new weather data was indicating as what Bill dubbed “the ultimate storm.”  It was starting to evolve and behave like the classic supercell from a meteorology textbook diagram.

“It’s the perfect storm,” I said.  There was a short dramatic pause.

THE FIVE VEHICLES raced eastbound towards the darkening sky.  Stacy turned on her radio to build the drama with constant NWS reports and warnings.  The guides were scrambling, discussing over the radio waves strategies for an interception, like football coaches during the Super Bowl.

“Woo hoo!” I heard a voice yelp on the speaker.  The county we were in had gone red on the radar map: tornado warning in effect.  Adding even more to the excitement was a nearby eighteen wheeler’s tire blowing out loudly, causing shredded rubber to fly towards us as we sped down the highway. 

“It’s getting spooky up there,” Stacy said, noticing how dark the sky became.  We briefly stopped on the side of the road for the guides to mount their cameras in each of the vehicle’s dashboard mounts.  Up ahead, the massive, ominous supercell was growing and spreading — it reminded Jenna of the big alien ships in the movie Independence Day.

A cone-shaped formation appeared from the massive cloud.  “Looks like a rain shaft,” Bob said on the speaker.  “But it’s been getting consistently and consistently narrow.” 

“There’s lightning going to be striking in there soon,” Brian told us in our van.  Sure enough, a CG (cloud-to-ground) bolt of lightning came down from the clouds a few seconds later.

“We’ve got motion,” Bob announced.  Radar indicated a Wheel Of Fortune — what Texan brothers Rich and Ruben dubbed a “Vanna.”  We raced to a prime vantage point and parked on a small dirt road.  Everyone rushed out, cameras ready.  The more serious photographers quickly set up their tripods.  The massive super cell was upon us, wider than peripheral vision, with one end forming something that looked like it was about to touch down.  Then, the Jetsons’ ringtone of my cell phone rang as I jumped out of the van. 

“Can’t talk now, we’re tornado chasing!”

The supercell grew and grew, almost like an atomic mushroom cloud, with darkness emanating from within.  The clouds shifted almost back and forth and it appeared to be a giant amorphous monster breathing.

“It looks alive,” Stacy said.

Lightning flashed.  Cameras were pointed.  Down the road (picture above) and above our heads, the beast anxiously inhaled and exhaled, ready to pounce.

“Jennifer, this is your one-minute warning,” Bill told Canadian Jennifer at her request; she had trouble getting into the van by herself and wanted Bill to warn her early in case of a possible escape and quick getaway.  However, the only thing getting away was the supercell moving down the other road.

“Okay, let’s move!” Bill announced.  We jumped into the vans and followed the moving beast on the prowl.

“[Look at] that kind pinkish-looking thing that’s going to suck,” Leisa told me.

“It’s coming right towards us,” I said, excited.

“Run cows, run!” Stacy called out to the cattle from behind the window.

“They don’t know what’s coming.”

The perfect storm moved fast and we raced against it; its precipitation line was gaining on us and we had to outrun it like prey from a predator.  All eyes were fixated on it approaching until we jumped out when we parked on another dirt road.  Tripods were set, cameras were pointed, and we waited for the action. 

“What are you doing?” asked a local farmer in a truck, driving away from the massive storm cloud and through our circus of weather nerds.

“Watching your weather,” Leisa answered.  The farmer thought we were crazy. 

“[When I see that,] It’s time to go in the house!” the farmer exclaimed before speeding away.

The beast exhaled a formidable wind towards us — a rather cold one, which turned out, wasn’t a good thing.  “The chances [of a tornado] are slim,” Bill told us.  “Cold air is blowing out.”  A cold front from the east had undercut and tamed the beast — and the perfect storm became not-so-perfect.

WE CONTINUED TO FOLLOW the supercell anyway to see if some area would evolve and maybe even produce a twister, but no such luck.  Not that it mattered; the display still humbled us and filled us with awe.  “You can still get beautiful storm formations,” Brian told us in the van.  “That’s what keeps me coming back.  A tornado is just icing on the cake.”

While TV news claimed reports of tornadoes in the supercell, Bill was skeptical if it was true.  “That thing was surrounded and no one saw anything,” he told us in a later briefing.  He had been in contact with other chasers and tour leaders who had all scrambled to see the not-so-perfect storm at most vantage points — no one saw anything — and we would have known if one was spotted.  Chasers sometimes like to share sighting location information, the way guides do in wildlife safaris when a lion is sighted.

OUR WEATHER SAFARI CONTINUED that afternoon when we stopped in the town of Limon for another pitstop.  The stop was brief because all of a sudden, gumball-sized hail came plummeting down on us, pounding on the roof of our van.  Unfortunately some of us got stuck out in it and had to make runs for it.  “Guess we didn’t beat the hail,” Bob said, stating the obvious.

We drove out of the hail storm and towards our final destination of the night, La Junta, Colorado.  The only “threats” on our way were the harmless tumbleweeds crossing the road.  Before we settled in La Junta, we stopped a couple of times to take pictures of the clouds that looked like two whales kissing, and for some more lightning shots by the railroad tracks

With all the chain hotels booked in La Junta, we had no choice but to stay at the locally-run La Junta Inn and Suites, which not only failed to deliver its advertised “WIRELESS INTERNET” (I hardwired in to blog), but failed to be a decent accommodation to begin with: Jenna and Marcia’s room smelled of cat piss; others had rooms with bed bugs; Texan Ruben had a hole in his wall.  “I was waiting for a rat to come out,” he said.

My room was fine albeit missing soap and the smell of cigarettes — but I guess that even if a classic textbook supercell can’t be perfect some days, nobody can.


Over the radio airwaves, we heard Bill talk to another storm chasing friend he hadn’t heard from in a while.  When asked how he was doing, he replied, “Mostly fair.”  Do you think all meteorologists talk about their day in weather forecast terms?  “Hi, I’m Erik, and I’m feeling mostly sunny today.”

Next entry: Into The Southwest

Previous entry: The Vacation From Our Vacation

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “The Perfect Storm”

  • That first lightning photo is awesome.  The colour seems kinda strange but i like it.

    I hope you guys get more luck today but it certainly sounds exciting.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/30  at  03:25 PM

  • La Junta Inn and Suites sounds fabulous..haha

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/30  at  04:19 PM

  • The kitsch is proving more overwhelming than the storms. The animal puppet show is great!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/30  at  04:29 PM

  • I’ve got a fever… and the only prescription… is MORE COWBELL!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/30  at  04:32 PM

  • KENT/TD0T:  Stacy’s parents, who were from southern California, moved out to the mid-west later on in life.  They called her on this trip (after being hooked on this blog) and told her, “Isn’t the mid-west hilarious?”

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/30  at  04:39 PM

  • OMG, you make it sound so exciting, good writing. I wanna see video of the animal puppet show.

    Posted by billiam  on  05/30  at  04:51 PM

  • “Later in life???”  We are still, very much alive!  We live in, and love, Texas.  We meant that “hilarious” remark in the most loving, kind way!  It is, tho, isn’t it?  D Di (my nick name given by the grand kids)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/30  at  09:45 PM

  • For those experiencing RSS feed errors, the problem will be looked at tomorrow…I’m sorry it’s too nice in NYC tonite, NOT to go out drinking…

    RSS feeds work and are tested currently with iGoogle.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/30  at  10:51 PM

  • Diane: I think what Erik meant by “later in life” is older than 30. I’m sure that he would have the same reaction you did when someone, in the not too distant future refers to him in such a manner.

    ERIK: I’ve got a fever… and the only perscription… is a MORE COWBELL t-shirt!

    Tell me you saw the follow-up when Will was hosting and Queen’s of the Stone Age were playing “little sister” and Will came one stage mid-song in the outfit playing the cowbell?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/31  at  05:42 PM

  • hahaha ‘f4 would be nice’

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/31  at  05:44 PM

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This blog post is one of nine travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Twisted," which chronicled a tornado chasing tour of the American midwest in the late spring of 2007.

Next entry:
Into The Southwest

Previous entry:
The Vacation From Our Vacation


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