The Thrill Of The Chase

This blog entry about the events of Saturday, May 26, 2007 was originally posted on May 28, 2007.

DAY 2:  “I forgot it’s Memorial Day Weekend,” I realized outloud to Leisa and Rob at the breakfast table — Super 8’s complimentary fare included cold cereal and Eggo waffles.  The Weather Channel was on the corner TV, reporting the beach forecast for the American east coast for the long weekend — Jones Beach, NY, 81 degrees and sunny — but in Nebraska, we were hoping for a completely opposite kind of forecast: thunderstorms.  So far, the predictions were looking good for us.

FOR A CHANGE OF PACE, I rode in the big leading white van, with seating for eight.  At the front was guide/driver Keith and tour leader Bill, who tracked storms on his laptop mirrored to a flat screen monitor mounted behind the driver’s seat for us to see.  The rest of us in the van included: Canadian Jennifer, West Virginians Doug and Chris, and British identical twins Matt and Jon.  It wasn’t too far from our starting point that we stopped again to gas up.

“I got the [beef jerky] with the Sasquatch on it,” I told them, coming out of the convenience store.

“That’ll put some hair on your chest,” said Matt or Jon — I wasn’t sure which twin was which yet.

Our caravan left Hays, KS, away from the direction of Kansas’ Barbed Wire and Post Rock Museum (much to my chagrin), but towards another kitschy tourist trap: the world’s largest prairie dog, at 8,000 pounds according to a cheesy billboard that zipped passed us.  “What do you feed an 8,000-pound prairie dog?” Chris wondered aloud.

“Other prairie dogs,” Matt or Jon said, although I think it was Jon sitting next to me.

We forsaked the tourist traps and headed through the beautiful rolling countryside towards Nebraska, where severe thunderstorms looked promising.  We stopped in Colby, KS for a quick fast food lunch.  Amongst the McDondald’s, Subway, and Burger King, most of us opted for the regional chain Taco Jack’s, a franchise I had never been before.  I wished that I had one near home because it’s the first fast food chain that I’m aware of that completely embraces the tater tot.  I ate with my old crew Rob, Leisa, and Stacy and we chat about, amongst other things, how fun it is to play Guitar Hero and the Nintendo Wii.  Lunch was fast and soon we were back by the cars to regroup.

“COMPETITORS OF YOURS?” I asked the guides when I noticed a Kia SUV in the parking lot with the decals of what looked to be a competing storm chasing tour company. 

“We should slash their tires,” Matt or Jon joked.  However it was no laughing matter; Keith had told us that it got pretty ruthless out there in the storm chasing tour industry.  Tempest, one of the longest and most respected tours around, was suddenly competing with little fly-by-night operations — in fact, there was some sort of litigation going on that Keith quickly clammed up about for legal reasons.  In any case, it was fair to say that in the storm chasing business, it can get pretty cutthroat.

Well, that’s not completely true; there is definitely a camaraderie amongst most of the storm chasers out there — particularly when they are working at the same tour agency driving nineteen tourists in four vehicles.  “[I left them at the intersection by the stop sign,]” Keith radioed to one of the vans behind us.  We pulled over at an intersection in a town and dropped off a Tupperware container full of homemade cookies.  To the uninformed, it looked rather suspicious.  “Make sure the journalists document this.”  Not surprisingly, chatter on the radio afterwards jokingly complained about how the drugs in the cookies weren’t strong enough.

FARMLAND.  SILOS.  Cattle.  Eighteen wheelers.  The scenery went on and on like that for miles like a continually looping scenery scroll — not that it was a bad thing because it was truly awe-inspiring and humbling.  I’ll admit it did get tiring after a while, and I killed time by blogging on my laptop.

Before I knew it, we were in another state (Nebraska) and another time zone (Mountain), at a pitstop in the sleepy town of Imperial, NB.  Originally at the morning’s orientation, we were to go into the Nebraska panhandle, but new weather data directed us to stay not too far away from where we were in the southwestern part of the state — a storm cell was forming on the radar.  We drove north on Highway 61 to intercept the storm coming from the west, and the closer we got in range, the hazier the sky became.

Soon, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the area (Perkins County) with hail and strong winds.  It looked pretty promising with a blotch of colors on the screen — in the center was a strong core of purple — and the county was filled yellow.  Our van raced through the farmlands as each of us pointed our cameras out at the approaching storm.  Jon’s flash accidentally went off, reflecting off the window. 

“Lightning,” I told him.

“I add my own effects,” he said.

The rain really started pounding down on us, and the wipers got faster and faster.  I felt a dry anticipatory lump in my throat — was it the thirst for adventure?  We raced through a town and out to the farmlands, and parked on a dirt road to watch the storm progress.  I jumped out, into the long grass wary of snakes (yet another threat in storm chasing), under the sparse drizzle of raindrops.  “Oh, it’s cold!” I said, feeling a bit ticklish with the cold water penetrating my t-shirt.

A big bolt of lightning cut through the sky, illuminating everything for a millisecond.  The storm was really brewing and we watched it strengthen before our eyes — above us, clouds on the fringe of the storm were moving rapidly and colliding with each other.  We were all eager, with our cameras ready, waiting and waiting… until Bill announced with his new data, “These aren’t supercells.  Just thunderstorms, marginally severe.”  Patterns in weather could change quickly when a big storm merges with a smaller one.  However, as Bill put it, the storm was “still fun to play with.”

We drove off to another vantage point and parked the cars.  “Enjoy your storm,” Bill said.  The nineteen of us stood and marveled at the beauty of Mother Nature’s marginally severe show.

“OKAY, WE’RE MOVING OUT!” Bill exclaimed shortly after.  We left the current storm before it was over because new weather data reported a tiny isolated development to the north in the Nebraska panhandle.  The guides were optimistic it would strengthen by the time we intercepted it and so we head north to Ogalala, at the intersection of I-80, and then northwest on State Highway 26 — directly towards the approaching storm.  “Maybe it’ll get it’s act together.”

The cell did get its act together as we had hoped — the blotch of mostly green and yellow was now mostly red and purple.  The gradient between purple and yellow was tight, which was a telltale sign of it being a supercell.  The tight gradient was also on the southwestern side, which was a favorable sign that it would start turning and rotating.

Our caravan raced down the roads, from asphalt to dirt.  Outside the window was the anvil-shaped cloud on the edge of the storm that was indicative of a possible tornado.  Then, a voice came on the radio reporting the sighting of a land spout sighting — a terrestrial twister that could connect to a funnel coming from a storm cloud.  “Who was that?” I asked.

“Another chaser.”

And then, a tornado warning was issued by the National Weather Service.  On the radio, the Emergency Broadcast System tones sounded, followed by official news and instruction:  A tornado warning has been issued… doppler radar has indicated a severe thunderstorm capable of producing nickel-size hail and winds excess of sixty miles per hour…  get under a piece of sturdy furniture…  use blankets to cover your body… and stay away from windows… mobile homes should evacuate and seek immediate shelter… cover your head with your hands…

On the radar map, Garden County went red.  Bill looked at the latest data — the supercell was turning right.  “We have a Wheel of Fortune,” he announced to the car and over the radio.

“This is quite exhilarating,” Jon said.

We head back the way we came on Highway 26 and turned right onto some unlabeled dirt road — I don’t know, it was like Bob’s Road — which, on the radar map, brought us directly head on with the storm’s core.  “Wow, we’re going right towards it!” I exclaimed.

The wipers continued to sway as the NWS/EBS warning continued on the radio, building the drama:  A tornado warning has been issued…  winds excess of sixty miles per hour… evacuate and seek immediate shelter…

We stopped about twenty miles away — sans shelter — to see it from the road; the core was directly down the road from us.  The core became almost cone-shaped like a tornado, and we were waiting for the magic to happen — but then it started to wither.  The sight was still impressive, and to the uninformed, pictures of the shape of the core looked like an actual twister — in fact, I had sent out a cell phone picture to people back home, and they were all convinced and amazed.

“I never saw a core so defined before.  I’d hate to be driving in there,” Jenna the writer said.  “I could probably tell my family it was an F-5.”

Jon’s photos were pretty decent.  “I reckon I can get away with it,” he said.

“Just do a little Photoshop on it,” I suggested.

Craig, another Brit, came to the occasion with props:  a plastic toy cow that he waved around for pictures to goof on the famous flying cow scene from the movie Twister.

“It got stage-fright,” Bill said.  “There are too many cameras pointed at it.”  Keith told us that it’s usually the case that when someone reports a land-spout, the NWS gives their warning, but everything weakens before you get there.

Bob stood up and decreed, “I shall formerly [tell] this storm, ‘Rest In Peace.’”

“OKAY, THERE’S THIS ONE up north,” Bill declared over the radio in his hand.  “What do you want to do?”

A voice answered back on the speaker.  “Charge!”

The caravan headed northbound on Highway 61, making a quick pit-stop at a bait store near Lake McConaughy, another kitschy place with taxidermied animals on the walls — an impressive cougar stood above the cashier.  “That’s awesome,” I said.  I stocked up on Diet Coke Plus and Pop Tarts while the guides played a quick game of catch with a football.  Soon we were back on 61, headed north through the sand hills of Nebraska.  More cattle, more silos, more rolling hills, little outpost towns — and this time, a coal-hauling train coming from most likely WyomingThe classic image of the Great Plains hasn’t changed much, I thought.  I was taken out of my mid-western reverie with the talk of a purple core in a developing storm.  We drove about an hour to get into position to intercept, but unfortunately it had weakened and dissipated.  Keith wasn’t too happy.  “It’s like you work all day for nothing,” he said.  “It’s insulting.”

The rest of us didn’t seem to mind — it’s all about the thrill of the chase — and we took pictures of the weakening storm anyway as the sky’s hues changed before our eyes. 

From there it was a long drive all the way up to Kadoka in southwestern South Dakota, where we arrived a little past ten and checked into a Best Western.

THE NEXT MORNING at our morning orientation, guide Bob told us that there was only one confirmed tornado sighting in the entire country, and it was the one we were after.  He pulled up the personal website of another chaser to show his picture

“Damn him.”

For me, it didn’t really matter that much; we’d just try again.  Maybe we’d see a twister, or maybe we wouldn’t — but in the end, it’s the actual chase that’s definitely the fun part.

Next entry: The Vacation From Our Vacation

Previous entry: Weather Nerds

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Comments for “The Thrill Of The Chase”

  • This tour sounds amazing.  Even if you don’t see anything it still seems exciting, and those cows flying around must be scary. 

    When your driving around though, do they drive like they do in the movie twister or is it all sticking to the speed limits?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/28  at  10:55 AM

  • IAIN:  They pretty much stick to speed limits, but it’s 75 MPH out here… the only problem with driving in storm chasing is that roads in the plains are usually in a perfect N, W, S, E grid and storm cells don’t necessarily travel at 90 degree angles…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/28  at  04:15 PM

  • I have to re-watch Twister.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/28  at  04:21 PM

  • love the commentary and the upside down cow picture

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/28  at  04:41 PM

  • you went all the way to the mid-west when you could have caught the small twister in connecticut this weekend…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/28  at  04:51 PM

  • i guess my blog duties are back…fixed the some picture links and the fast food paragraph..

    i accept tips…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/28  at  07:31 PM

  • midwesterners loves tater tots with their mexican food. up in ‘sconsin there is taco johns - they call them potato olay’s there.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/28  at  07:44 PM

  • wow almost had it! and only on the 2nd night.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/28  at  10:50 PM

  • KENT:  Yeah, re-watch Twister; there are hidden quotes from the movie that fans will recognize.

    SCOTTY KAZ:  Yes, the technical term for tater tots at Taco Jack’s is “Potato Olés.”

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/29  at  07:37 AM

  • such suspense!!  hey great play by play, Erik.  feels like i’m right there with you!  wink  keep on truckin’ !

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/31  at  03:21 AM

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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:
The Vacation From Our Vacation

Previous entry:
Weather Nerds


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