As anyone who knows me will tell you, I really enjoyed my storm chasing trip this year. So much so, that I decided to go ahead and book again for next year! In the meantime I’ve got a huge amount of video and photos from this year’s trip that I plan to share over the course of the next 12 months.
This was my first Tornado, near Bazemore, Alabama. We’d set off from Oklahoma City at 5am to catch up with a storm system that only the night before had destroyed the communities near Mayflower. Indeed, one of our guides was late because he’d been in Arkansas until the late hours helping with search and rescue. We had a long drive ahead of us with a good chance of seeing tornadoes on our first day. The only downsides were that A) It was a long way away. B) We’d be chasing in Dixie Alley, an area with a lot of hills and trees making it difficult to see tornadoes.
As a stark reminder of the dark side of tornadoes we drove through the damage path of the previous night’s Mayflower tornado. It’s hard to describe the damage. It just looks like someone has scattered indiscriminate rubbish everywhere until you see a single brick wall standing and realise that this was once a community of homes. Not ten miles down the road, in Bebe, one of our vans had a slight prang. Everyone was OK but the wing was bent enough that it might not be safe to drive.
What struck me was how friendly everyone was. In a community probably not that different to Mayflower, the man living opposite opened his house to us for bathroom breaks, the garage nearby helped get the van out the ditch, and the salon over the road offered us somewhere to sit out of the sun. They were so nice I joked it was for some nefarious means (especially after I found out that Bebe has been the location of birds dropping dead in their thousands on a couple of occasions) but it really drove home how these tornadoes destroy not only lives but communities as well.
We quickly sourced a replacement van and continued on, but by now we were way, way behind. The area we had been targeting, Tupelo, got hit by a pretty bad tornado and we thought our chances were over.
But we were determined and we caught up with the storms a little south as we entered into Alabama.
The video shows us as we race towards our first storm. There’s a hush in the van. We’re chasing in Dixie Alley at night. That’s dangerous (as we later found out). We’re excited and nervous. I mean, we’re actually driving as fast as we legally can towards a tornado warned storm. As our phones send out automated alerts, it’s quite creepy, and then, as you can see, we spot something. We stay calm and quiet because we want our guides to be able to do what they need to do, but inside we’re all racing with adrenaline. You have this image in your head of what constitutes a tornado and so when you spot something that is even slightly outside of that, you question the reality of the situation (It’s probably just a storm cloud, I’m not sure I did see a funnel, etc.)
The downside of the GoPro is that it’s all about wide vistas. Often spotting a tornado seems to be about just making out a line of color differentiation in the clouds some way off. I proved good at doing it, others just can’t see it. We could only see our tornado when it was lit by lightning, and I’ve taken a few screengrabs, zoomed them in, and put them together to give you an idea of what our first tornado looked like. You can just make it out to the right of the lightning. In reality, it was about that difficult to spot. Is that it, you might think? We certainly thought that… until we ran into the damage path!
(or what happened days 8 – 10)
I’ve been a bit slow writing this up, in part because we were pretty busy but also in part I didn’t want to write the part where I talked about some of our group leaving us. Day 8 saw only 6 of the group continue. We also said goodbye to a couple of guides. They’d been fantastic the past week and after such a jam-packed week it was like saying goodbye to old friends.
We headed North from Oklahoma passing through Kansas and into Nebraska (our 10th state on this road trip!). The night was spent in Lincoln, Nebraska where despite meeting some really cool people, the doormen at the bars and their sheer randomness meant it was a frustrating night. I understand having door policies, but
A) Julia’s capri pants are not sweatpants.
B) Roy is 40 and doesn’t look even remotely younger than 21. His driving license is a universally acceptable form of photo ID
C) If you were a Customs and Immigration official rather than a doorman you’d understand that visas are now electronic
D) Germans do not get issued with US passports
A strongly worded email to Nebraska’s tourism office got a quick response but the evening was a bit of a bust.
So were our storms the next day (day 9). We drove all the way to West Nebraska to watch our storms fall apart in front of our eyes.
We stayed the night in Dodge City, Kansas in a hotel where a load of doors had rolled up towels at the base of them. I reckoned we were in the middle of some meth lab but we arrived late and got the hell out of Dodge quite early.
Day 10 saw us head from Dodge City, Kansas to Lawton, Oklahoma where we watched super cells build. We then drove into the hail core of one. Holy crap! I thought the windows were going to shatter. A few golf balls but mostly nickel sized hail, but it caused a real racket and was much worse than anything I’ve ever seen in the UK.
With hail intercept ticked off our wish list, we headed south to Wichita Falls where we saw an amazing supercell form and then fall part. It looked like a spaceship and I posted a picture of it a couple of days ago. Great cloud structure was on our wish list so that was another thing ticked off. We also had Team Dominator drive past us and shout out the window at us.
We were quick to drop our dieing cell and bounce West to a new cell. As we pulled off the road, the thing was spinning like a top and we thought it could touchdown. Sadly it didn’t, which may be as well as the light meant that my video contrast was off and you can’t really see it. But something we thought was RFD (rear flank downdraft) did. I caught that on video and yes, it did spin. People are now saying it was a tornado, although I suspect it’s not one in the classic sense of the word. I think this has made me realise that counting tornadoes is a pointless exercise. Whether it was or not didn’t make it any less of a great experience.
We chased that storm for some time but it never became as tight as it had before. So as dusk fell and we joined a procession of chasers, we were treated to finale of great lightening. We got back to find the flash flood had caused the the hotel to leak and flood a couple of our rooms. That was the 3rd of our hotels we’ve destroyed this trip, and a fitting end.
Yesterday saw the rest of us all disperse. I so didn’t want it to end, and today several months of pure adrenaline leading up to this have hit me like an EF5. I did try and keep myself busy by driving a hire car up into Kansas and watching a storm form and fall apart. Got some great video as I drive into it as it falls apart with tonnes of cool lightning. But it didn’t feel the same without the rest of my fellow Road Dawgs to share it with. I stopped the night in Perry before coming back to Oklahoma today.
I happened to see our van as I pulled into Walmart. It was pulling out of a service station with a new group aboard. I so wanted to follow it, drive behind all the way to the Texas storms. But my adventure has ended now, and it’s others’ turn. Instead I must pack and return to normality. Tomorrow I fly home with my only fear that I will return the same person.
I so don’t want to go. Despite hyping myself up to bursting point over the last six months, this trip delivered epicness on a scale I never dreamed possible and that I doubt will ever be repeated. We had nighttime twin tornadoes a couple of hundred of feet before us. We had one hotel hit by a tornado, and two hit by flash floods. We had 6″ of rain in an hour in Florida. We crossed 10 states over the course of a 4000 mile road trip, and we ended up with hail, supercells and a daytime tornado.
I plan to come back next year. It won’t be the same but that’s part of the appeal. The experience, like any good experience, has made me grow in ways I probably don’t quite realise yet. Go have an adventure, I always say, and I just had the mother of them all.
That, ladies and gentlemen, was Epic Adventure and I’ll think you’ll agree it certainly was EPIC!