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In Search of Really Bad Weather

In 2004, there were a record number of tornado outbreaks across the U.S. and a record number of people traveled to the heartland in order to chase them. Tornado tours – excursions where adventurous vacationers pay experts to take them close to dangerous weather – are increasing in popularity. And many tours offer discounts if you book now, before the end of November. But is this type of trip right for you? Someone who’s been there, done that offers travel points to consider before booking:

Vans make for close quarters, and close friends:
At 9:00 a.m. on day one of my five-day tornado trip, the doors to the stale-smelling van slid open and I hopped in. Everyone else was seated already: two Brits in the back; two Texans in the middle; an older gentleman and me in the front. Within moments, we’d introduced ourselves to each other and the conversation flowed like cold rain down the back of a van racing toward a twister.

Looking at the Sky

“I’m feeling a bit dicky bow,” said James, one of the Brits, early on. The Texans were perplexed. Dicky bow? The intricacies of Cockney rhyming slang were summarily explained. (Incidentally, dicky bow means sick to the stomach.) Later, the Texans asked Simon, the other Brit, if he’d ever had chicken fry. Again, confusion. Chicken fry? When we stopped for lunch that day, Simon ate a fried hunk of beef over a mound of mashed potatoes, with a small lake of gravy covering it all. Chicken fry indeed.

When you travel approximately a thousand miles a day in a van chasing storms, there is little to do except get to know your fellow travel mates. Tornado chasing promises to be a tough vacation for both the introverted and the car sick. But for those open to a wild array of personality types and experiences, tornado tours open doors to people and opportunities that might not otherwise cross your path.

No tornados? No worries:

The underbelly of the wall cloud was like ragged, swirling cotton threads. The wind – which moments before had been warm and humid – was suddenly arctic. And even though it was only 6:00 p.m., it was dark as night. We stood in the field, heads tilted upwards, and watched several times as funnel clouds dipped down, threatening to become full-fledged tornadoes, but then scrambled back into the wall cloud. That night, we went back to our hotel room without seeing a tornado. In fact, we didn’t see a tornado the entire five days we crossed and re-crossed tornado alley.

More chasers

Personally, I didn’t feel slighted by lack of twister sightings. Even though I didn’t see a tornado, per se, I saw some amazing meteorological spectacles. I was closer to “bad weather” than I’d ever been in my life. Those who will enjoy tornado chasing the most are those who love not just tornados but lightening, thunder storms, hail, wild wind, and more. For those who are bent on seeing a twister – and nothing else will do – you risk severe disappointment.

Hurry up and Wait:

I thought only teenagers spent more than an hour at Pizza Hut. It turns out I was wrong. Weather chasers can spend up to five hours at Pizza Hut – or any restaurant chain for that matter – waiting for bad weather to unfold.

Tornado Road

To pass the time we would alternate between watching the sky, going inside for cold drinks, reading, and going to nearby stores to poke around the junk. We never knew if or when our trip leader would announce that bad weather was brewing; we didn’t know if we would travel 100 or 500 miles that day; we didn’t know where we would be staying that night. In short, we knew very little. But we did know that we couldn’t force Mother Nature’s hand and so the onus was on us to enjoy the time we had, each day, waiting for the weather to show its stuff.

Consequently, time on a tornado trip can be divided into two categories: really, really boring; and really, really exciting. So ask yourself: Are you someone who can have a good time hanging out at a Pizza Hut, in a parking lot, or in a wheat field while waiting for bad weather? Are you okay if your day isn’t scheduled or regimented? Can you miss a meal and not freak out? Consider carefully if the benefits of seeing spectacular weather will outweigh the boredom and potential discomfort you must go through to experience it.

Crowded House:

Many times throughout the movie Twister, two groups of tornado chasers race to be the first to the storm.

Multiply this scene by 100 vehicles and you’re in present day tornado alley.

There are countless numbers of tornado tours in the Midwest. And when there’s only one show to see, everyone is jockeying for position. Traffic jams can occur down Main Street of the nearest small town; the good “viewing” spots on roads and hills are suddenly occupied; after it’s all over, nearby hotels become quickly overcrowded; and the list goes on. I anticipate that this problem will only worsen as the popularity of storm chasing continues to rise.

So while you will experience vast, flat stretches of empty fields and roads, you may also have to fight crowds. Again, flexibility and a willingness to roll with the punches is key to enjoying the experience.

Other items to consider:
You will learn about weather, but don’t expect a crash course in Meteorology 101. If someone wiser than you has the time – and the willingness – to explain storm mechanics, then you are fortunate indeed. But that’s not the job of the tornado guides – they need to get you as close to exciting weather as possible without putting you in harm’s way. Their focus is elsewhere. 

Damage Path

Finicky eaters – or those with regimented diets – beware. During tornado tips you eat on the road, and there is a dearth of good restaurants in America’s heartland. Even the good ones serve limited fare, most of it consisting of traditional meat-laden, carbohydrate-rich dishes. There’s just not a lot of food variety on a tornado chase and your options are limited. You simply take what you can get.

Ultimately, storm chasing can be a fascinating, life-changing experience. I had a spectacular time meeting people from around the globe while slogging through mud, running from hail and passing the time in parking lots. I would definitely go again if given the opportunity. I simply recommend two things for those considering booking a tornado chase. One is a passion for weather of all kinds; and the second is a willingness to make the best of whatever situation comes your way. 

Author’s Note:
I toured with Storm Chasing Adventure Tours:

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