Weather Nerds

This blog entry about the events of Friday, May 25, 2007 was originally posted on May 27, 2007.

DAY 1:  “Welcome to Tornado Alley.  I’m Bill Reid, tour director for Tempest Tours,” said the man leading the orientation of Tempest Tours’ third tour of the season in Meeting Room A of the Wingate Inn in Oklahoma City.  I had arrived there after seven hours in transit from New York City — and I was the last one to arrive since mostly everyone else in the tornado chasing tour group had spent the night in OKC.  Orientation was a lot like one on the first day of class:  new faces (some already taking notes), a lecture, and room brimming with enthusiastic curiosity for the times ahead.

In the group of nineteen were people from different parts of the North America — California, Minnesota, Texas, Nova Scotia — and from across the pond in the U.K.  We were from all walks of life — IT guys, a lawyer, a nurse, meteorology and geology students, a military guy who trained land-mine-sniffing dogs — but with one common interest:  severe weather and the power of nature.

“[Seeing a tornado] will probably be the closest I get to a religious experience,” said Leisa, a nurse/actress, originally from Colorado.  She said she’d rewound the twister scene in The Wizard of Oz over and over, a part she enjoyed as much as Jennifer, a Canadian lawyer and huge weather nerd — she carried her own copy of the Storm Chaser’s Handbook. 

“I got this idea from watching the movie Twister,” said James from Manchester, UK.  “And it’s been ten years.”  It was a favorite film amongst others in the group, except for one — James’ aunt Mel who was traveling with him.

“I really have no interest in what you do,” she said.  “[I’m here because this is his birthday gift.]”

Tour leader Bill and his colleagues of Tempest Tours continued with the meteorology lecture, using his laptop and projector, with maps showing live data from the National Weather Service.  He showed us charts and explained how the perfect combination of topography, pressure, moisture and wind direction form what are called supercells, condensed blotches of red and purple on a doppler weather radar display that are prone to rotate and form tornadoes.  Analyzing the data, he said we’d need to move away from Oklahoma City and get into northwestern Kansas, not particularly to see tornadoes that day, but to be in a good position for a weather pattern developing for the next couple of days.  Storm chasing isn’t a precise subject — it changes constantly — but the best you can do to increase your chances of intercepting a tornado is to be in the right general area at the right time. 

“[Storm chasing involves a lot of patience, a lot of waiting and long hours of driving,]” explained Brian, another Tempest Tour guide.  “[But when you get to see one it’s worth it.  You’ll remember that more than the boring times.]”

WE HAD A GOOD SEVEN- to eight-hour drive ahead of us, to get from OKC to Hays, Kansas in the northwestern part of the adjacent state.  Bill distributed Tempest Tour t-shirts to everyone before the group of nineteen split into small groups for the four vehicles, where seat belts were required by everyone according to tour policy — the number one cause of injury in storm chasing is not by tornadoes or lightning, but by car accidents.  The four vans pulled out of the Wingate Inn parking lot and out of OKC, with a red SUV trailing behind us — two extra girls, Jenna and Marcia, a writer and photographer respectively, following us to do research for a novel.

“We haven’t even left and I’m excited already!” said the woman in the minivan next to me.  She was Stacy from Long Beach, California, and was enthused that even without the chance of seeing a tornado that day, at least we had a fun tour group.  “Everyone’s kooky,” she said.  During her introduction in orientation, she said that her reason to be there was because she “just likes to ride in vans with strangers.”

“Yeah, we’re all a bunch of weather nerds,” I said.  She smiled when she noticed my backpack and saw my carabiner-travel edition of the Milton Bradley game Twister

“I have the big version in my big bag,” I told her.

“That’ll be a really good way to get know people.” 

“I also have the movie Twister on my iPod,” I added.  “And The Wizard of Oz.

Also in the minivan was Leisa from Minnesota with her husband Rob, who were a happy couple who had a big bag of snacks for the long ride ahead.  At the helm was Brett, our driver and former Navy Seal.  To his right was tour guide Brian, who tracked storms within a 100-mile radius in relation to our GPS point on his laptop.  He could point to a blob of color on his screen and then point to its corresponding cloud outside the windshield.  “This over here, is that formation over there,” he’d say. 

Impressive as that was, the rest of us were on the lookout for local kitsch sightings, common in this part of the world.  Out the window, a beat-up ranch-style house labeled “THE STEAK AND CATFISH BARN” in big red letters zoomed passed.  Stacy and I just looked at each other and laughed.  However, Leisa and Rob had seen better than that on a previous kitsch road trip through Kansas.  Their tour included the world’s biggest ball of Twine, Carhenge (a replica of Stonehenge made out of old car parts, duh), and some museum where people made really creepy tchotchkies out of human hair.  We were hopeful in seeing more mid-western kitsch since Bill had told us in orientation that we might stop to see local tourist traps on slow chase days. 

The five vehicles in our caravan continued north on I-35 and soon we were out of Oklahoma and over the state-line into Kansas.  “Toto, I think we’re in Kansas,” Stacy said.  Someone had to.

PITSTOPS ON OUR ROAD TRIP were paced about every two hours or so, for leg stretches and a supply of junk food — beef jerky is my weakness on road trips.  I opted for the Oklahoma-made Love’s “Real Beef Jerky” (from the convenience store Love’s) and compared it against Leisa’s Jim Bean beef jerky.  I preferred the former — I couldn’t stop eating it — as Stacey jot down in her journal, “...just had beef jerky tasting contest.”  More exciting than beef jerky was when I mentioned a delicacy I was recommended to try in this part of the world:  Frito Pie, a dish in which you rip open a bag of Fritos, pour chili on it, and serve it up. 

“Frito Pie!”  Leisa’s eyes lit up; she had heard about the same thing, much to her husband’s surprise. 

“I’m learning new things about you to this day,” Rob said.  “And we’ve been married for six years.” 

The beautifully flat mid-western countryside surrounded us as clouds floated above.  We drove and drove for hours, farther north into Kansas, and soon the sky grew dark.  Tour leader Bill spoke on the radio from another vehicle.  “It’s the first day and we’re [already] approaching darkness,” he said.  “We wouldn’t want it to be a tornado.  We should save that for the last day,” he joked.  “I don’t want to set an expectation that we’ll see that every day.”

“We should just see one now and get it out of the way,” Leisa wisecracked.  “So we can just play Twister and eat stuff.” 

HOURS WENT BY, and as passengers it involved a lot of chatting, staring out the window, and short power naps.  A storm from the west was forming a dark, nebulous, and impressive cloud formationTornado? I wondered. 

“It’s just a wall cloud,” Brian said, explaining its structure with the help of weather data on his laptop.  About an hour later, we drove by some dark clouds touching the ground — not from a tornado but from a fire.  Bill said it would be a tornado “if you use your imagination.”  He continued on the radio, “That’s probably the most exciting thing you’ll see today.”

He was wrong though, because at a gun-prohibited truck stop in Newton, KS — complete with shooting arcade games, video slot machines, a pile of individual carpet squares for sale, and unofficial Wizard of Oz t-shirts — I found something pretty exciting:  100% Pure Free-Range Chicken Poop (a lip balm).  Stacy also found something exciting, in the form of a kitschy souvenir:  a plastic coin purse with a graphic of a tornado on it, labeled “Kansas.”

“Do we need gas?” I heard the guides discussing on the radio.

“No, we’ll get gas after dinner,” Bill joked. 

“After the Frito Pie,” I said. 

Actually the most exciting thing that day — weather-related that is — was a huge rainbow that engulfed the sky in an almost perfect bow after a storm had passed.  We stopped on a side road off state highway 4 (picture above) to take pictures and later, we salvaged the day with a stop to watch the sun set.  By nightfall, just before 10pm, we finally arrived in Hays, KS and checked into the Super 8 Motel.  A big group of us went to for dinner at the Village Inn, a mid-western chain diner like Denny’s, where we ate over small talk, tired from the long day of driving.  Guides Kinney, Bob, and Keith reminisced about their best days of tornado chasing, sighting specific dates like they were holidays.  “OH!  That one from May 24, 2004!” 

It was exciting to see the seasoned weather nerds so enthused about their work — they’d all been storm chasing hobbyists since the 90s — and we were happy to have them as our guides, even though the best chase days they spoke of didn’t come everyday.  Keith apologized for the lack of excitement that first day of our tour, saying it was probably the least eventful day you could ever have on a storm chasing tour — but with that said, it could only get better.

Better?  So far, I thought it was already a great start; new friends, new adventures, and all in the beautiful countryside of kitschy Kansas and the Great Plains.  I supposed it could actually get better, if we ever did find a place serving Frito Pie…

Next entry: The Thrill Of The Chase

Previous entry: The Calm Before The Storm

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “Weather Nerds”

  • TADA.  So far I’ve learned that storm chasing involves A LOT of just sitting and riding in a car for hours at a time… which is why I suddenly decided that I am going to do a daily blog for this trip.  I hadn’t planned on it before, but it just makes sense to kill the time on long road trips.  Besides, every motel we’ve ended up in so far has free wi-fi.

    Spread the word and enjoy!

    Posted by Erik TGT  on  05/27  at  08:59 AM

  • ive seen that free range checken poop lip balm a million times. but oregon is kind of a random kitschy place sometimes.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/27  at  09:25 AM

  • I knew that “poop” would somehow find it’s way into this blog!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/27  at  02:14 PM

  • I thought i’d check back today to see if there were any new comments on the blog only to be hit with a spanking new entry.  I’m so happy, i feel like a pirate burying his treasure!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/27  at  03:31 PM

  • you and your beef jerky pappy. what the——is this? are you———- kidding me? you bought me———- dog food.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/27  at  04:38 PM

  • Speaking of Pirates? Isn’t International Talk like a Pirate day coming up soon?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/27  at  05:22 PM

  • is it stacy or stacey? doesn’t matter, i can’t change it on this new fancy site…i could just hack in if i wanted to… i’d like video of a headless chicken with blood shooting out of its neck if you can find one of those…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/27  at  05:32 PM

  • TORI AMOS has a song on the twister album. track #3. talula (BT’s tornado mix)


    (i’m jealous)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/28  at  02:34 AM

  • If you want Frito Pie, I’ll take you to Cowgirl!  But of course, we all know everything from the midwest is better wink

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/28  at  07:23 AM

  • STEPH:  Cowgirl, anytime!  (After the Red Lobster in TSQ, of course! wink)  BTW, I’ve been all over the Plain States version of the “mid-west” and I think it’s entirely different from your version…  I guess I’ll see soon enough…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/28  at  08:49 AM

  • This is so cool!  glad you are blogging it too.  Breaks up the monotony of work.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/28  at  04:33 PM

  • i’m gonna ask auntie marlene to take me tornado hunting for my next bday.  bring back a carpet square dood!

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

  • Elaine tipped me off on your new site.  Well, of all the places you were going to blog about next, I would never have guessed Oklahoma!  I have a lot of family from there… Frito pie, yum! Actually the best frito pie I’ve had was in NYC. I wish I had some culinary recommendations for you - but other than Sonic and chicken fried steak, not so much. 

    Well, I will hope for the biggest, baddest tornado to come right at you…Then suddenly swerve out of your way leaving you intact!

    Posted by sara  on  05/29  at  02:09 AM

  • So, does anyone think there will be a new entry for the WHMMR?????

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  03:19 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 Thrill Of The Chase

Previous entry:
The Calm Before The Storm


Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

BFFN: acronym for "Best Friend For Now"; a friend made on the road, who will share travel experiences for the time being, only to part ways and lose touch with

The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

NIZ: acronym for "No Internet Zone"; a place where there is little to no Internet access, thus preventing dispatches from being posted.

SBR: acronym for "Silent Blog Reader"; a person who has regularly followed The Global Trip blog for years without ever commenting or making his/her presence known to the rest of the reading community. (Breaking this silence by commenting is encouraged.)

Stupid o'clock: any time of the early morning that you have to wake up to catch a train, bus, plane, or tour. Usually any time before 6 a.m. is automatically “stupid o’clock.”

The Trinidad Show: a nickname of The Global Trip blog, used particularly by travelers that have been written about, who are self-aware that they have become "characters" in a long-running story — like characters in the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show.

WHMMR: acronym for "Western Hemisphere Monday Morning Rush"; an unofficial deadline to get new content up by a Monday morning, in time for readers in the western hemisphere (i.e. the majority North American audience) heading back to their computers.

1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.

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