What do you get when you put 18 people together, including a Secret Millionaire, an Irish Priest, a Russian ice cream fan, an Australian Chemical Engineer, an Extreme weather enthusiast, plus 13 random people from different walks of life and put them into 2 white vans and send them 2625 miles around the mid west States of America for a week? A whole lot of fun, that’s what!
We met in Denver for the serious business of chasing storms, arriving on different flights and times, from the four corners of the Earth on a mission to witness some extreme weather. Some people were experienced chasers and came year after year. Others, like me, were Storm chasing virgins, not knowing quite what to expect and secretly hoping that we came home in one piece and not taken by a tornado. I hadn’t brought my red slippers for one.
I booked this trip on complete impulse after answering an ad on Facebook from an ex- colleague that I hadn’t seen for thirteen years. All because Twister is one of my favourite films and I just had a feeling in my gut that I should go. I like to live dangerously, what can I say?
The tour was to start from Denver and as I came in to land, a magnificent display of lightening lit up the sky and on leaving the airport, torrential rain fell, which the gutters found hard to keep up with. A good sign, thought I. Tired and bedraggled, I was glad to finally get to my comfortable room, after 14 hours travelling.
The next day was spent at leisure and I was glad because all I wanted to do was relax and chill by the pool with my book, in the hot sunshine. I was excited about going to Walmart to stock up on goodies for the trip and couldn’t wait for the rest to join me (plus, they were nowhere to be found!) On the way back I spotted a Liquor store that I wanted to investigate, as I had never been in one before. It was much the same as our off licences, so I bought some wine (for night cap purposes.)
At six o’clock there was an Orientation meeting, to show us what storm clouds are all about but I’m afraid it went straight over my head and I decided to learn on the job, so to speak! As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one. After the meeting, it was time to go to Famous Daves rib shack for a well deserved meal to socialise with fellow chasers before our adventure ahead. I have to say, their Margaritas were superb. And so big! It wasn’t long before I got a reputation for being a lush, I only have myself to blame! On a positive note, it made me sleep well.
The first day of Storm chasing finally arrived. It was a hot, sunny day in Denver when we left the snow capped mountains (and the rail track, with its noisy horn that woke us up 3 times a night) and headed towards Kansas, full of optimism after Todd (our leader) had consulted the radar on his laptop and assured us there were some good storms to be had. After a couple of hours driving, it was time for our first “comfort break.” It said in the info about the trip that, where possible, there would be stops every ninety minutes! I have to dispute this but it was very amusing to see who would give in first to a full bladder and dare ask Todd to pull over.
Let me explain. Our vans were travelling in convoy and the leader of the trip Todd, a man of few words and on a mission to satisfy his customer needs ( to find extreme weather) wasn’t about to Waste time hanging around Gas station restrooms at the drop of a hat. The consequence of this was that, when we did stop; it was best that you tried to “go”, even if you could only squeeze a teaspoon out because you never knew when the next opportunity would come. I found this out to my peril and learned my lesson the hard way, which meant I had to wait about six hours until I went, unless I wanted to squat behind the van in the middle of nowhere, whilst everyone else was admiring the storm clouds.
At the site of the first cloud formation, I had to admit, it was a sight to see. The clouds were indigo blue and brooding and you could see the hot air being sucked up into them in plumes, from a distance. This was called the updraft. (Learning on the job, see?) we took lots of photos and waited for some action. One of the group even thought they saw a funnel cloud (one that rotates and pokes through the main cloud), I think I got that right. But I missed it some how. Then, after a while, a strong, cold wind came from nowhere and this was the downdraft. It was very eery, I have to say. Then it was all over, the storm fizzled out (which they can do, apparently) and we moved onto the next one which was forming.
More or less the same thing happened but this time, the cloud sucked up a load of dust and as we were driving through a small town, it came down on us like a brown fog and we couldn’t see where we were going! American Aimee was a co driver (AKA Birdkiller because she managed to bump off some birds with the van earlier!) and was driving at this time. It was good initiation for her and she did a good job. We stayed in a Comfort Inn in Colby, Kansas that night.
Next day we moved onto New Mexico, where we chased a storm for nearly 500 miles. I loved the landscape of this state, it was green and lush before it became mountainous and we drove through a canyon. Ben found a scorpion; he was determined to find a dangerous creature, not wanting to be outdone by a previous chaser who found a rattle snake the year before. Oh yes, there are plenty of dangerous creatures in America, which is one of the reasons I wasn’t going to squat behind the van! The storm was pretty much the same as yesterday’s; we were hoping for a Supercell with some large hail but it blew itself out again. We stayed in Clayton, where all the restaurants shut at 8 but we managed to find one that served mountain oysters (Bulls testicles) and poor unsuspecting Victoria from Russia was duped into eating them!! We stayed in the Best Western Kokopelli Lodge in Clayton that night.
The next day we had 9 hours driving, through New Mexico, Kansas and Nebraska to “get into position” for the storms promised that day. By this time of course, the conversations in the van became rather interesting. It’s amazing how barriers are broken down when you are in a small space for hours on end with people you have been thrown together with. Let the banter begin, along with the toilet humour and you get a very amusing mix. We were literally rolling around laughing. About the “comfort breaks”, who could drink the most fluid and last the longest not wanting to “go”. The state of some of the toothless people in the Gas stations, resembling Hillbillies, to taking the mickey out of people in the other van (who shall remain nameless). When we arrived at our hotel, the Stagecoach in Ogallala, Nebraska (yes, that’s right) it was scorching hot – about 90 degrees and I nearly burnt my hand on the door knob to my room. We had a great night there, playing pool, drinking beer and playing with the monkeynuts that were left on the table. I thought Chris was joking when he said you throw the shells on the floor, for when I looked around, the floor was covered with them! They could be heard being crunched under foot. After the room party we would have gone in the swimming pool, fuelled with alcohol to skinny dip but they locked it up at 10.
After all the anticipation and driving for hours to get us in position in Nebraska, nothing happened! We hung around to North Platt to see what the weather was going to do. There was Fort Cody Trading post there which was filled with lots of goodies to buy and to look at. There was a stuffed calf that had two heads (?) which I had to take a photo of and a Wild Bill Hickock show which entailed 20,000 hand made wooden characters re- enacting the battle of little Big Horn. Why, I’m not sure! There was plenty of opportunity to buy souvenirs, which we did to while away the time. As nothing was happening with the weather still, we headed for Applebee’s, which is a famous American eatery chain. And very good it was too. The only problem was that the weather decided to fire into action and we had to ask for doggy bags to take our lunches with us. There’s no hanging about when you are with Todd; when the weather dictates – you gotta go!
Apparently there was large hail where we were headed to but as we were travelling towards it, it changed direction and all we were left with was the tail end of the storm, so rain and a small amount of hail. A bit disappointing but I think that’s the name of the game. Weather is unpredictable. We headed for our next place to stay and it was a Best Western plus hotel in Kearney, Nebraska and very comfortable. The evening meal was nice too, in a steak house called Whiskey Creek, where there was a severe storm warning on the TV, as we were eating. There followed a lightening display which the more enthusiastic of the group went out to see.
From Nebraska, we travelled through Oklahoma to Kansas again on the trail still of the Super cell. Was today going to be the day? Yes! Finally we were rewarded with magnificent Mammutis (booby clouds) and our first super cell. Things were looking up on the extreme weather front. Full of excitement we clambered out of the van for the hundredth time taking in the sight of the striking cloud formations. We stayed there for a long time and many photos were taken of the spectacle. It was a bit too much to hope that we would witness a tornado but we lived in hope. Eventually the storm dissipated but I, for one, wasn’t disappointed. After all, did I really want to see a tornado? Well maybe a bit! All in all, it was our most productive day and I was quite happy. I was even more happy when I saw my room at the hotel we were staying at that night. We ended up in Garden city, Kansas and in a Best Western plus again and it was like five star luxury. My bed was so big I had to climb up onto it and it was so wide you could have got four people in it (I didn’t try.) There were two TVs; one facing the bed and one in the sitting room area, a mere few feet away! Our evening meal was at Applebee’s again, so I was more than a happy bunny that day.
In the morning (our last day) we had the usual meeting with Todd and his laptop, which didn’t bode well. There was nothing to chase; just drizzle all the way back to Denver. This was good and bad news really because although we were not going to have anything to chase, at least we would be back early to Denver and could relax on our last evening. Sometimes on a chase, if it is miles from base, it would mean not getting back until very late at night before the long journey home the next day. We had a superb lunch at Oscars, where we had been on Tuesday and it also meant we had time to have a cheeky drink by the pool, after a few hours in the van reading and watching films on iPads, so it was more relaxing.
In the evening we went to “The Mall” in Denver and had cocktails and a very nice meal in the Olive Garden (another American chain) and a singsong in the hotel curtesy bus on the way home. The bus driver wasn’t too impressed with our singing but we thought it was funny! A few more drinks in the hotel bar before bed and the next load of chasers were there for Todd and Chris to compare notes with.
In the morning, I arranged with my new friends to meet in IHOP for breakfast before the drive to the airport. Many of us had developed a love for IHOP (yet another American chain!) and I had blueberry pancakes this time, which were delicious.
Back to the hotel and Chris was going to give those who needed a lift to the airport, a last ride before he took the van back to the car hire place at the airport. We agreed to meet in the back hotel car park but when I got there, there was no sign of the van or my fellow chasers! I was mortified! Turns out that in the rush, they forgot me, so I had to take the curtesy bus (it wasn’t really a trial) by myself and hope that I could see some of them at the airport. We all had different flights but I was lucky enough to find Ben and Amy and went through check in and customs with them and then once I had got through to my gate, I saw Aimee (AKA Birdkiller) waiting for her plane. We hugged and did a selfie and then I went to my gate. Then it was all over and time for the 14 hour journey home.