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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

<3 Al Franken



Sunday, June 07, 2009

TORNADO CHASE: Week 2;day 6


On our second to last day on the tornado chase, we head back through Colorado and to the 14th state I have visited this year, Nebraska. We were in Nebraska for about 5 minutes, and then back in Colorado where we went through Wray, gassed up in Holyoke, and ended up in Sterling for a pit stop. For some reasons, towns in Colorado don't list population on their "Welcome to" city signs, they list elevation.

While enjoying the nice breeze and sunny day in the park, the weather models updated and we had to hightail it back to the Nebraska panhandle. During our travels, some douchebag in a new car decided to wedge himself right in the middle of our caravan and prevent us from passing him to keep together. The weather was about to bump, and we didn't have time to mess around with him, but he was either totally oblivious to the fact that we were together, trying to follow us to the weather, or just being an asshole.

We discussed him on radio, and worked to get back together. Finally, he let us pass. We figured that he finally realized we were together. But one of the drivers figured he was trying to follow us to weather. Over the radio, we arranged for all the vehicles in the caravan to put on our right turn signals even though we were going left to see if put his turn signal on. Sure enough, he signaled he was going to turn right. We avoided the right turn, and so did he, turning off his signal. We then made our left, and he didn't try to follow. This confused us greatly until he passed us and flipped us the bird and we realized he must have been listening to us talk about him on the radio.

The road to Nebraska was peppered with storm chasers, government agencies such as the National Severe Storms Laboratory, and student meteorologists. But they were a far cry from what we witnessed when we got to our destination, on 17 Mile Road, south of Harrisburg, Nebraska.

The old dirt road was lined with chasers of every variety. Local storm spotters, tornado charter companies like ours, F5 Tornado Chasing Safari's, hobbyists, documentarians, students, military, government, news, and finally, an assembled team from Vortex II with all their obscene gear. They had a mobile Doppler radar with them ffs. This quiet farm road looked like some bizarre geek tailgate party with dozens, if not hundreds of people and no less than 30 different chase vehicles, and with good reason.

Churning, swirling, rotating, there it was, a huge and very powerful supercell. Fingers dipped from it and twisted about, trying to gather enough strength and organize enough to try to drop down into a funnel. It was very slow moving, only 15 MPH according to Noaa, who were busy telling everyone to take emergency precautions and how to protect oneself. This was a storm with a tornado warning. Not a watch, but a warning meaning that a tornado had been seen or it had enough rotation that a tornado was a good likelihood. And there it was, close enough to feel her breath.

This was a very powerful cell with plenty of upper level support and decent organization, and one could easily see the rotation in it with the naked eye. The cloud wall was very low and bubbled with energy. The wind picked up and was going from behind us into the cell. The inflow was sucking the wind into the cell and the volatile atmosphere was complying in the form of a rather strong "breeze." Despite the limited roads, we were in a great position, off to the side of the storm watching it approach and eventually move on by.

Excitement showered the group as fingers dropped down within what looked like a meager couple hundred feet from the ground, twisted and then dissipated. A whole section of the cloud wall disappeared making us think the storm broke up, only to reform into a more organized monster. As it passed us, we picked up and moved down 17 Mile Road to a better position. As it was only moving 15 miles per hour, we didn't have far to go.

Like a geek parade, all the other weather chasers eventually followed us down the road. A few parked next to us and one asked if we saw it drop. We did not, but apparently some folks from Vortex II caught the very same storm drop a tornado in Wyoming, a mere 15 miles or so from our location.

Later that night, I saw part of their video on the weather channel. Gregg said that we were most likely watching the storm when it dropped and we came on it as the cloud wall appeared to extend almost to the ground, but our vantage point prohibited us from seeing it.

The storm was still being temperamental and despite the constant finger formations, was refusing to touch the ground in front of us. It began to speak and we heard and felt the rumble of the thunder.

Since our roads were limited... we decided to make a bold move to get to a road on the other side of the storm. We hopped off 17 Mile Road onto the smaller, twistier, dirtier Hackberry Road. A few vehicles decided to follow us and pretty soon, we were leading a parade on an obscure and primitive dirt road in the plateaus of Nebraska. I guess this would be a good time to mention that the phrase "Flat as Nebraska" means nothing to me s the twists and turns of Hackberry Road tore through a mountainous and plateau filled countryside that was anything but flat.

Almost as soon as pulling on this road, we passed the infamous chase vehicle, the TIV. Its driver waved cheerfully as we passed, and then jumped in on the back of our parade. We continued down the Hackberry Road, which had gotten wet in the days storms and was now a mish mash of red mud. As our vehicle carefully made our way down the wet and slippery twisty mud road, we wondered if the TIV would be too heavy to complete this sticky course.

We finally emerged onto a real road and soon made a very abrupt right turn onto Highway 88. We noticed the TIV had gotten out of the road in fine shape. We also noticed that we were the only group to make this turn. Even though they wanted to get into better position to see the storm, no one else wanted to follow us and take the path we were about to; right into the bear cage.

The rain began slowly at first, but rapidly picked up within seconds into a violent frenzy. It wasn't dropping as much as being hurled into us. This moisture was coming from within the very hearth of the rotation. All that wind and moisture sucked into the inflow was supercooled at high altitude and thrust down with tremendous force. It emerged as continuous sheets of rain, mist, and the very dangerous hail, between pea and gumball sized. It didn't come straight down, it was hurled at us from awkward angles.

The noise of the rain and hail beating on the vehicle was deafening, but it wasn't nearly as disquieting as the fact that visibility was less than 30 feet and we had lost visual contact with the other vehicles. The day was now as dark as night and the cloud wall emerged from the darkness, electrified with lightning, a mere two miles or so from our very position. We had survived a core punch on a storm that had dropped a tornado earlier in the day.

Our adrenaline was rushing as we emerged on the other side of the storm, but we had to wait to proceed on as a slow moving coal train was passing. We gathered our thoughts for a second as we contemplated the fury we had just endured. I radioed Gregg to ask him if the storm was staying organized. He said it had just merged with another storm and not only became more powerful, but more organized. The Doppler radar now not only showed the clear rotation, but also a very pronounced hook.

After the train passed, we proceeded out of the perimeter of the storm into a clearer viewing area. And what we saw was amazing. The fickle beast still hadn't dropped a funnel, but it's structure was almost textbook. The anvil extended miles and miles across the sky. The cloud wall was smooth and vertical, almost a perfect example of a supercell, with extreme rotation visible to the naked eye. It looked like a huge flying saucer, a spinning top, or Moses from the Jewbilee episode of Southpark (the Tron thing). The beaver tail was fluffy and in the right place. The conditions appeared perfect to drop a tornado, and a very powerful one. It was getting dark, however, and we don't chase at night for 2 reasons; safety and we wouldn't see anything anyway.

We continued to jockey for viewing position but we were getting rained on due to us being positioned between 2 large super cells. The one to our right continued to amaze us with it's beautiful tight formation, while the one to our left, while larger, lacked the organization and any visible kind of structure.

As the sun set, we made our last stop to view what was truly an awesome behemoth super cell. The excitement at viewing such a perfect looking and formed storm excited the meteorologists, which was contagious enough to rile up the rest of us. One of the meteorologists, who was on his 3rd year, declared that even though we didn't witness this storm drop a twister, this storm was the reason he signed up for chasing and was in his mind, the best super cell he had ever seen.

Resigned to the fact that we wouldn't be able to see a tornado drop tonight, we loaded up and began our 90 or so mile run to North Platte, NE, where we would be staying for the night. But this would hardly be the end of what was in store for us that night.

Storms were on the same path as we were going down the highway, so as we head east, there was lightning storms to our north, east, and south. There were also super cells to the north and east, also traveling east.

The lighting was intense and persistent, at times seeming to last several seconds each bolt, with less time between strikes than during. It reminded me a lot of videos from "Shock and Awe."

A green highway sign laying in the middle of the fast lane alerted the laymen that something was amiss. We convinced ourselves that we saw a funnel cutting through the darkness up ahead as the lightning illuminated the sky. Were we imagining it? We couldn't get a focus on it because it was only being lit up shortly from the lightning strikes, from a myriad of different angles. We just couldn't be sure... until...

We heard a report of a tornado touching down in Paxton, a town we were 10 miles away from. We figured it would be a good time to stop for food. We moved on after eating, but a new report had come in: "Tornado Sirens were blaring in North Platte," the town where our hotel was booked!

We decided to let the storm move on, and we ended up parking in Paxton and waiting it out. Many storm chasers had the same idea, as there were probably 2 dozen or more chase vehicles hanging around the town. We saw no damage in Paxton, but we did see the TIV once again. And another mobile Doppler radar.

One of the vehicles radioed us and told us to roll down our windows. We did and I heard my first tornado siren. It was eerie, phasing in and out, I believe it was rotating. It pierced the night sky like a stiletto. Soon, Gregg advised that it was safe to proceed to North Platte, so we did.

When asked, the proprietor of the hotel in North Platte said she did indeed hear the sirens, but they had no shelter and she never worried when they went off. She also said the guests became alarmed and wondered what to do. She advised them to ignore it and go to bed...

In my room, I turned on the weather channel before reviewing my own footage to see what Vortex II had. I saw a brief clip of the twister that our storm dropped in Wyoming, and it was small. They also said they had lost one windshield to 4.25 inch hail, AKA baseball sized hail.

I watched my own footage, and while we didn't get any tornadoes, I was very proud that my footage looked much better and crisper than the Weather Channel's did, despite using a Canon GL2 when most people have switched to HD. I grabbed a couple beers as I enjoyed the end of my adrenaline buzz and after two weeks of almost perfect weather, finally feeling the rush and divine joy of storm chasing.

Friday, June 05, 2009

TORNADO CHASE: Week 2;day 5


We arrived in Limon, Colorado to use the facilities, eat some lunch, and stock up on beer. I have to say, when Limon says they have a travel plaza, they aren't fucking around. A massive complex of stores and eateries awaits the weary traveler. The national Weather Service vehicle with the crazy looking weather gadgets on the roof of the vehicle and US government license plate sat in the parking lot, its weather vane spinning ominously. Some in group speculated that it was a part of Vortex II. Our group head past some more storm chasers to have some lunch at Denny's.

During lunch, I discovered that 2 out of 3 people in my chase vehicle were Second Lifers. Funny how things work out, huh? But, true to my word, I won't be telling who they are... and they won't be sharing photos or info about me. Just goes to show that it is indeed a small grid... erm, world.

Anyway, everyone was about half finished with lunch when we got the word. We quickly paid up and exited the Denny's and there it was, to the west, and nice super cell. Rotation in the cell had been reported. We loaded up, loaded the vehicles, and began to chase.

We parked on the side of the road when we got in a good viewing position. Again, we saw storm chasers all around. While we were peppered with rain, a look at the doppler radar showed us this storm was not very organized, and was breaking up. We decided to head to another cell that was forming and gathering energy.

On the way, a few folks had to use the restroom. So we drove through the storm we were going to observe to Kiowa, CO to find a pit stop. During the drive through the storm, the temperature dropped from around 74 degrees to 50 degrees in under 3 miles. The supercooled rain began to pound the car, followed by slushy pea sized hail that was large enough and cold enough to fog up the windows of the vehicle for a few seconds every time it hit the windshield.

In Kiowa, I splurged on munchies buying my first bottle of soda in the entire time since I left Reno. I also bought some munchies such as chipotle cheddar party mix, garlic rye crisps, and a peanut butter chocolate ice cream cone. I only say this, because I have been in vehicles every day for the majority of two weeks now and have tried to be good and not eat junk, but it didn't even matter.

Combine the nonstop vehicle travel and the obvious lack of exercise with the fact that I have quit smoking in the last couple months and am almost off the nicotine patch and I can tell you my "figure" is wrecked. OK, my beer drinking doesn't help, either. The seat belt accentuates my beer belly and it feels like my pants are cutting off the circulation in my legs. Sorry for sharing, but southern/Midwestern food combined with non stop vehicle travel does have some effects, and I do fear that as cool as this trip has been, it will be quite the ordeal to get back to my fighting weight when this is over. And much like you, I am not getting any younger ;)

As we were leaving the gas station in Kiowa, a woman asked us if we were storm chasing (obviously not bothering to read the signs on all the vehicles.) We confirmed and she said we were obvious as pretty much all 16 of us were staring at the sky. She actually exhibited a trait that locals seem to share when the storm chasers arrive in their towns. I expected them to curse us and view us like a bad omen; a black cat crossing their path. I couldn't have been more incorrect as many people were very excited to see us and more than happy to share their experiences with us. I also will say, just once, that a "Tornado Chaser" sign on a vehicle is a better chick magnet than walking the cutest puppy dog in the world. Nuff' Said.

Back on the chase, we got into position to view the next supercell. Again, we were just up the street from more storm chasers. I got some nice video as I am now starting to get a feel for taping weather and retaining the elements that i want to retain. I try to keep a high shutter speed for details and it is often a battle between iris size and shutter speed. The real difficult part of weather video is the rapid and drastic shifts in light. Even in the same frame half of the scene can be bright as a sunny day and the other half can be dark as night. Capturing the details of the clouds while retaining the beautiful colors has proven to be the biggest challenge... but getting that shot has proven to be immensely rewarding. Even though we have had no tornadoes at this point, he experience has been invaluable and I will certainly leave with excellent experience in a new facet of my craft.

Again, the storm was unorganized and began to break apart. There were 2 cells very close together that we were deciding where to view from. The lack of roads and the fact that the 2 cells were so close together posed a problem as the storms would be difficult to view. We made a decision and moved out to an old dirt farm road and parked across from a group of cows. One of the meteorologists decided to go pet the cows, which could have ended unwell as right before he passed the 2nd fence to approach the cows, the bull poked out of the middle of the herd, and aggravated, herded the females together with his horns while he snorted at our meteorologist.

We moved further down the road to view the next, more hidden cell and stopped at a dirt road cross roads. Several farmers passed us in their truck, and much to my surprise, waved at us enthusiastically as they passed. I expected an ass full of buckshot, but I couldn't have been more wrong. The last cell on radar completely broken apart, we moved towards Kansas for our lodging.

Goodland, KS was our destination, and we found the only place we could have dinner; "Crazy R's." A local legend, this place was large with a variety of bottled beers and "pops," steaks, and interesting specialties such as "Chicken Fried Bacon." As much as I love bacon, I went with the Crazy R burger. Deep fried pickles and Texas toothpicks started us off right. The dining room was decorated with strange antiques lining the walls, corners, and hanging from the ceilings.

The owner, "Crazy Rod," even came out of the kitchen to pay us a visit. When we remarked that his long, grey hair looked like the hair of one of our clients, he remarked that it wasn't even his real hair, it was just stapled to his hat. He also shared with us that the only place hair grew on his body was his ass, and that it was like a forest down there.

We politely thanked him, paid, and left. We moseyed on to another quiet night at our Comfort Inn. The final two days of the chase season looked to have great potential. We would be chasing through Colorado again, Kansas, and possibly Nebraska. These final two days would hold the best chance of the entire season to see what we all came for...

Thursday, June 04, 2009

TORNADO CHASE: Week 2;day 4


Leaving Sweetwater, we began a travel day. We were heading to Colorado to await the storms as they broke into the plains. It was a long drive, but it was mostly uneventful.

We did have to have some Texas BBQ before leaving the state. So we stopped in Amarillo and had an amazing BBQ lunch at a place called Rudy's. I am not much of a fan of creamed corn, but oh my, the most amazing creamed corn I have ever tasted. I asked the girl taking my order if it was any good. Her eyes lit up when asked as she admit I made her mouth water just by asking.

So I ordered the corn and since I had never been there, I was given a sample of brisket and smoked turkey. The brisket was chewy and had no sauce so I was slightly disappointed. The turkey, on the other hand, was truly amazing, smoked and salty and very delicious. It almost made me doubt my order, but my order was delicious as well (jalapeno sausage sandwich with pickles, onions, and spicy sauce, if you cared). One of the clients forced me to try her buttermilk pie, the name which disgusted me. I must admit, however, it was very sweet and yummy.

Rudy's impressed me with their hygienic options as well. They had large trough type sinks in the dining room to clean up before and after you hit the sauce. And in the bathroom, they had an invention I have been wanting to make for years. The question always was, when you are in the restroom and you wash your hands, you still have to touch the door. And not everyone washes their hands (particularly men). So Rudy's had installed a solution. There was a foot handle, where you could use your foot to open the door. Simple, effective, and worth mentioning.

Later, we drove through Boise City where we took a round-a-bout toward Colorado, but not before going around and around a few times chanting "Circle, Circle" in homage to Conan'c 1st episode of the Tonight Show. The round-a-bout was unique in that it held the courthouse dead center, and each exit of it led to a different state. We took the Denver exit even though we had no intention of going that far.

The road to our destination, which turned out to be Lamar, CO, was fairly boring and it was a long drive. It turns out that eastern Colorado is just like Oklahoma and Texas in that it is miles of flat farmland. Antelope helped break up the monotony of the vistas as we traveled. We saw a few other storm chasers during the ride and upon pulling into Lamar. This appeared to be a good omen for weather.

We went across the street to the Lounge in the "Cow Palace" hotel. A very strange place indeed. No high end spirits (I tried for Sapphire gin, a client went for single malt scotch and Gregg tried to get Captain Morgan, all with no luck. And Captain Morgan isn't exactly ritzy ffs... Gregg had to settle for Admiral something or other). The place was bizarre enough to have an accordion style gate to protect their bathrooms. Also, walking in, it smelled like chlorine. We ate there, and I have to admit I was surprised by how well prepared the food was considering how much the bar had in common with a child's lemonade stand.

After dinner was a poker game among clients and staff. The beer got broken out and it was a fairly jovial, but everyone bed down early. Day 4 was fairly uneventful, and we had switched time zones, so I hit the hay early as well. Prospects were good for chasing the next few days, so sleep seemed to be the course of action taken by most.

The next morning, we said goodbye to Lamar, packed up, and went looking for what we came for. As I write this, we are passing through Kit Carson, CO and the clear sky is giving way to clouds to the North. All the storm chasers we have recently seen seem to indicate that something is coming...

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

TORNADO CHASE: Week 2;day 3


Leaving Amarillo, we went to the local general store, I believe it was called Wal Mart, where we picked up several cans of spray paint. We were going to graffiti while we waited for the storms to develop. A quick drive and we were at the Cadillac Ranch, which I mistakenly referred to as the "Mustang Ranch."

I mean, they are both Cars!

At the Cadillac Ranch, 10 Cadillacs were planted, nose down, into the earth in a straight line. A barbed wire fence with an unlocked gate led the way to the vehicles. A dumpster covered with graffiti was near the gate and a sign alerting folks that painting things outside of the gate was still illegal. We went in and began to paint on the cars embedded in the ground.

Still trying to get a feel for where we needed to be to see weather activity, we made a pit stop at a local gas station. A local man came over and asked about hail as he had millions of dollars of cottonseed that was about ready to be sold, but was currently vulnerable to hail. We informed him that unfortunately for him, hail was a distinct possibility considering the weather that was brewing. He was not thrilled at this news.

He told us about the area a bit, and explained that the Osprey airplanes we were seeing flying around were manufactured nearby, and invited us to his ranch for viewing if we were going to stay in the area.

And then, right before we parted, he told us "If it helps, I have lived out here my entire life and I woke up today and it felt like tornado weather."

Gregg directed us to a park/playground in Plainview, TX while we waited for storm development and updated weather models. A few people were hungry, so we did something that we had never done yet: we split up. 2 Vehicles went to search for food while a handful of us stayed in the park. And of course, with the group split up, the weather models updated and we had to immediately hightail it 90 miles to get to a storm with a decent chance of dropping a twister.

Gregg is very good at what he does, and Plainview was basically dead center to what would be 4 Tornado Warned storms. He just had to choose what system held the best potential, since, while we had some ingredients for a violent super cell, we were missing some parts, such as upper level support. We ended up heading about 90 miles away in a big hurry through some wet weather. This was, of course, after we piled in one vehicle at the park and chased the lunch bunch down to reunite the passengers into the correct vehicle.

A little over an hour later we were on the side of the road in the direct path of a south east moving super cell. It was not very organized, but it moved pretty fast, for as soon as I set up my tripod and started getting footage of the churning of the clouds, the rain came putting us in a place we didn't want to be in if a tornado dropped. So we kept moving, hopping out, and taping until the rain came.

Since the storm was not very organized, the decision was made to move toward another storm that was gaining strength and energy and looked to have more favorable conditions to deliver what we wanted. When the chase gets going, and the adrenaline gets going, time and space become meaningless, so I don't know where we went or how long we drove.

The sky was a masterpiece of light, dark, and assorted colors. As we straddled the second storm trying to get into position, I saw the sight I always wanted to see ever since I began to become interested in tornadoes. A brilliant, aqua green sky. The meteorologists informed me it was the hail track that caused the green color. But there it was.

Being in a vehicle that was moving fairly fast through desolate twisted Texas roads, I was unable to get a steady shot for good footage. Add to it the rapidly changing light conditions, and the fact that half of the sky was dark as night while the other half was a sunny day and my first attempts at shooting weather was a trial and error learning experience. I have not sat down and reviewed the footage yet, but hopefully I got the shot I wanted; the dark sky giving way to the green horizon that blended eerily with the red dust that was being propelled into the air by the outflow of the huge cell we were on.

At this point, many of the clients required a bathroom break. We searched the town of Nolan, but there were no businesses open. We kept driving and came upon a secluded BBQ shack. We piled in while many waited for the one bathroom. While the rest of us were searching for something with blood sugar, I overheard one of the drivers who was chatting with the proprietor ask her if she knew what 16 of us were doing here.

"Yes. You are Tornado Chasers," she said, sounding resigned to the fact that she lived in a danger zone in danger season. "Is it going to hit here?" she asked.

"Possibly, it could organize further or break apart at this point, but there is certainly a chance."

I really wanted to try some of her BBQ, but we had to move. I had just gotten into one of the chase vehicles when a powerful circular wind gust rocked the vehicles, and from reports of clients still inside, the BBQ shack as well. As we counted heads before departure, the woman went outside and called what must have been her children into the store. Her anxiety was evident behind her stoic demeanor as she stood on the porch, looked into the distance, lit a cigarette and paced while chatting on her cell phone. One of her boys, maybe 8 years old, exited the store and, in stark contrast to the very real concern of the woman, excitedly waved at us.

We waved back as we drove off and hoped for thier safety as we surveyed the property looking for a storm cellar that we couldn't find. We head down the road again, our caravan passing 2 student storm chaser vans in the process. The storm was not terribly organized, and we were hoping it would become more so soon as there is more chance of tornadic activity with increased organization, and we don't chase after dark.

When we finally settled on the side of the road to try to view the storm, the new models updated and it confirmed that our chase day was over. At around 6:30 PM, the models had shown that the very large powerful super cell had broken off into 6 smaller storms that drained each other of strength and energy. My 1st chase was over, so we headed into Sweetwater, TX to bed down for the night.

The oddest thing we found in Sweetwater, was that it had some archaic alcohol law that prohibited us from being served alcohol of any kind at restaurants. We were prepared, when we pulled into the very tasty grill, "Skeet's," thanks to the hotel staff who told us how to deal with those laws. Walking to the grill, we saw folks leaving with beer coolers. We had our beer as we entered, and we were allowed to drink them at the table, as long as we drank them out of their Styrofoam cups. I have never had a Corona (or any beer) from a foam cup, but the night after my first chase, it tasted good.

As a couple staff and I went to look for more beer, one of the drivers, Laura, was busy getting acquainted with an adorable stray dog who "lived" in the hotel parking lot. He was terrified of the men, but Laura was able to bond with him. He was colored like a Rottweiler, but his body was the size and shape of a Dachshund. Laura fell in love with him and adopted him during the overnight stay. She named him Shmuppy. Another driver went and got a can of dog food for him while we got beer and went out watching the lightning storm far far in the distance. Even though it was far away, it was powerful enough to light up the entire night sky. A few beers later and my 1st chase day was over.

The next morning, we ate breakfast at the hotel, whose buffet used the bed of a classic truck for their juice bar. After most everyone had eaten breakfast and snuck some sausage out to Shmuppy, we piled out of the hotel for a drive day. We anticipate weather on Thursday and Friday in Colorado, so Wednesday would be the 8 hours or so drive time from Texas to Colorado. Laura got quite emotional saying goodbye to Shmuppy, tearing up as we drove away.

We had a quick pit stop at a gas station where we coincidentally found a little stuffed animal that looked just like Shmuppy. We got it and I snuck it into Laura's purse. We stopped at a Texas rest stop a couple hours down the highway, where the men's and woman's rooms doubles as a tornado shelter. Laura found the Shmuppy doll and wept again. She loved him, and the Shmuppy Doll now sits in the center of chase 3's dashboard, our new mascot, as we travel up from Texas to Colorado in search of severe weather.

And this time, the conditions are the most favorable they have been the entire chasing season...

TORNADO CHASE: Week 2;day 2


On the Way to Amarillo, we stopped at a rest stop to wait for weather. Our Guru Gregg had suggested that the weather would be coming in. The rest stop was beautiful, grassy, plenty of shade from the sun, and free wi-fi. I am starting to learn that Texans can be very hospitable when they aren't trying to secede from the union.

Anyway, it was bright and sunny, so the clients and and staff were mingling, starting to get to know each other better when the dark cloud in the distance started getting bigger. Pretty soon the flashes started appearing. Gregg had landed us right in the path a fierce electrical storm.

Cloud to cloud lightning began to illuminate the day as it approached. Then the thunder began and the wind began to blow. Pretty soon, the moisture began hitting from a horizontal direction. One of our drivers was standing under the metal shelter for the picnic table, and was holding two of the metal support beams. I let him know that the Texas flag on the top was metal and he was touching what was essentially a metal lightning rod.

He made some kind of comment like he wasn't scared, and as I turned to walk away I mentioned that it was only cloud to cloud lightning, not cloud to ground. I couldn't have taken two steps away when a flash of lightning from very near, almost instantly followed by a deafening thunder clap made me jump, and made pretty much everyone in the area scream like little girls. I turned to see that the driver had wisely moved very far away from the metal structure.

Soon after, we had to take shelter in the chase vehicles as the rain was really starting to come down and the lighting was surrounding us. Pretty soon we jumped back on the road towards Amarillo in torrential rain. The lady at the hotel we booked warned us that there were "raindrops the size of silver dollars."

The water on the road seemed to be getting deeper, and motorcyclists were sheltering themselves under bridges. A brief break in the rain allowed us to stop and see what is claimed as the largest crucifix in the northern hemisphere. The coolest part, to me was that they had life size statues of the stations of the cross. I ticked off the visiting pilgrims by posing for a photo whilst sitting on Pontious Pilate's lap and giving him rabbit ears. The rain returned, so we trudged on, in what seemed like a different county every mile. Seriously, in under 6 miles we passed 5 county lines. At least that is what the roadside signs told us.

Speaking of road signs... every mile into Amarillo from about 25 miles away or so we saw a sign that said "Free 72 Ounce Steak." This would be our destination for the evening, both for chow, and to stay. If you recognize the signs, you already know about the "BIG TEXAN RANCH."

There is a catch to the "free 72 ounce steak" deal (4.5 pounds, btw). You had to eat it all, by yourself, in one sitting, within an hour. And not only did you have to eat the huge slab of sirloin, you had to eat the roll, the salad, a baked potato, and 3 deep fried shrimp. If you didn't eat the whole thing, you had to pay for the meal, which was $72.

We had plotted and taken up a pool and one of the clients was brave enough to try it out. So we checked into the attached hotel, and prepared our boy for the biggest dinner he had ever eaten (he was chosen because he was able to eat a 65 ounce steak in Wisconsin a few years earlier).

My room at the Big Texan was, by far, the coolest hotel room I have been in for the entire week and a half or so of this chase. Above the TV area of the room were cowboy murals. The windows didn't have drapes, but instead wooden shutters. They included a fly swatter with the room. The bed covering had cow hide print on it. The shower curtain was the Texas state flag. Free in room wi-fi. The shower pumped buckets of hot water like a fire hose (some hotels have issues with pressure, or lack of to be more specific.) And my favorite part of our lodging was the entry to the sink/closet area prior to going into the bathroom had old fashioned swinging saloon doors. A discount for the Big Texan breakfast buffet helped make it the best value out of any of the business class or tourist class hotels we stayed at by a large margin. If you are in Amarillo, make sure you stay at the Big Texan, especially if you are budget conscious.

Walking into the restaurant illustrated that we were going to something truly unique. The fudge shop right inside overwhelmed the senses with the sweetest smell. To the left was a decent sized old fashioned shooting gallery behind the gift shop. The cute little bartender was dressed like Pocahontas instantly making me thirsty for a Texas sized 32 ounce draft. Our 16 person table was dwarfed by the size of the dining room which had 2 levels, all sorts of stuffed animals all over the room, old guns, knives and other assorted items celebrating the "Texas Lifestyle," and a stage with a timer and table with 6 chairs set up.

As we entered, there was a display of what one would half to eat to win the free 72 ounce steak, and it was huge. We told our server that one of us was going to try to eat it, and ponied up a few bucks each to pay for him to try. They took us to the grill and held up the giant hunk of sirloin, which took up the area of a very large dinner plate, and its thickness is too hard to describe. They began to cook his championship dinner while we checked the menu for our own grub.

In addition to a wide variety of steaks, the menu had unique foods such as buffalo burgers, rocky mountain oysters, and fried rattlesnake. We tried to order the snake appetizer, but it was out of stock. The manager implied if they could meet every order for rattler they got, they might make it extinct. An employee informed us that several TV shows have taped there recently, including a new NBC reality show where families in RV's travel cross country doing wild and crazy things. Stay tuned for it, if it is picked up and actually airs or if you actually enjoy these mindless "reality" type crap shows.

It was then we realized that out competitive eater would have opposition in the form of a member of a Methodist church group who had talked one of their own into climbing on the stage. The spirit of the Lord guided him to a seat across our competitor, while hunger and peer pressure guided our team. To add to the pressure, several employees and the winner sign up sheet boasted that 3 folks had already accomplished the 72 ounce feast THAT DAY.

A rival tornado chase group watched from afar, but they had no chicks with them and no one really cares about a sausage party anyway. They weren't F5, so... nvm about them.

When the 72 ounce steak was served and the timer began, our client began his task as a crowd gathered and surrounded the gastronomic gladiator. We were served shortly after he was, and were quickly filled by our quite large, but comparatively meager dinners. About 20 minutes in, it was obvious our guy wasn't going to finish in time, so he decided to take his time and enjoy his meal instead of making himself sick.

The Methodist boy, was in it to win it. With help from singing, dancing, praying churchmates, he was trying to muscle it down. He went so far as to wring out his steak to try to remove the juices. Despite his group mates pleas to Jesus, Jesus did not actually appear or seem to help him at all, and he failed despite his church's divine effort.

Me and another gentleman agreed that if Jesus was actually summoned via prayer to the Big Texan Steakhouse to help this jabroni win a steak eating contest he would be more than a little miffed off that he was distracted from something important to come help some d00d chomp down a dead cow in under an hour, but what do I know, people pray for all kinds of things.

We posed for photos in the gigantic rocking chair, checked out the hologram comedy "family portraits," and played in the shooting range for a bit, and then walked to our rooms to catch Conan's debut as host of the Tonight Show. A little more farting around, and it was time for bed.

The next morning was a very nice breakfast buffet at the Big Texas, with the highlight being an amazing omelet bar featuring a cowboy who yelled at you if you didn't pick up your omelet on time. I was sad to be leaving the Big Texas Ranch, but I am quite sure I will be back sometime. One of the meteorologists confided in me that he was "cautiously optimistic" that we would find at least one super cell capable of producing a tornado today.

The Chase is on!

Monday, June 01, 2009

TORNADO CHASE:Week 2; day 1


So here I am on, I kid you not, "Main Street" in Woodward, OK. It is the kind of town where every shop window has either a religious inspirational message, church recruitment flier, or gun class advertisement. We are heading to, most likely, Amarillo, Texas, to intercept an incoming storm, but we have time to kill, so we went "shopping" down here on main street.

Amazingly, I was able to find perhaps Oklahoma's only gay owned adult novelty and head shop in this bible belt community peppered with quaint antique, pawn, furniture, and of course, a plethora of gun shops. This town is obviously not the economic center of Oklahoma, but it has it's very own unique charm. A fresh coat of paint on everything and some classic cars would convince me I stepped into a simpler time in America. A time when the town was your family...

Or maybe it's because we are listening to the Willie Nelson station on Sirius Radio, and the blues/country mix of classic uniquely Americana music is transporting my imagination to a time before I was born. Well, that and I just saw a weathered old farmer type in overalls walk into an AT&T wireless store. I am at the epicenter of where two eras meet, and seem to blend in a harmony that would be startlingly incongruent if not for the seemlessness in which they merge.

Woodward wasn't a destination so much as a staging ground... two storm systems were moving in, one north, in the Nebraska area, and one south, around Texas. Our best possibility for severe weather was down south, so once again I am heading to the lone star state.

We picked up our new group of chasers and had our Sunday morning breakfast in Oklahoma City prior to departure. This group is quite different than last weeks chasers. Not in a manner of quality, but tone and vibe. I look forward to the opportunity to get to know the personalities while we sat around waiting for the weather. Last weeks group, maybe because they were my 1st group, maybe because there were a few that were in my age range, or maybe even perhaps because last weeks tour liked beer as much as I, had bonded with fairly strongly. As I said, a different group this week, and I look forward for their personalities and perspectives and humor to come out.

Thus far, Sunday was the most mellow day I have had since joining the chase. We only had a short jump from Oklahoma City to Woodward, so we had very little to do. We stopped at the Indian Trading Post and the Route 66 Museum prior to our stay at the Woodward Super 8. Our scouts checked the city for a local feed bag, but to our surprise, almost every place in town was closed, due to it being Sunday. So we hit a steakhouse chain I never heard of, called K-Bob's for dinner.

For me, the early night of rest was a welcome relief from the frantic "let's find a storm or a beer" party atmosphere that permeated last weeks tour. The staff pretty much needed the rest to be sharp and fresh for the incoming weather, and I certainly needed to finish my blog. I hadn't intended to go a week and make one gigantic blog post to sum up everything, but due to my lack of sobriety, among other things, I was never able to sit still or see straight long enough to put my thoughts and memories into words.

While I spent several hours searching my mind for nuggets from the first week to include, and consolidated links for the virtual blog tour, the staff and the clients sat in the lobby of the hotel and played poker together. It wasn't what we came for, but relaxing in a city far away from all of our real lives seemed to be the perfect prescription for all of us. Hopefully, this is the calm before the storm.

The Next Morning, We had come downtown because one of the drivers had considered the fact that some people might like something stronger than hotel coffee. We tried to hit the coffee shop, but it was closed. We split up with some of us going to Pollyanna's Cafe for what was described as a very fresh, old fashioned country breakfast. Another small group visited the health food store, which was religious despite the secular nature of the health food industry. Gregg and I wandered a little further down the road and found an antique/candle/nick knack shop that had a sign mentioning espresso. We went in and Gregg ordered his supercharged joe there.

The proprietor was a nice gentleman and he had what I assume was his tween daughter with him behind the counter. He was very friendly, and answered questions about the town and some of the items in his store. We mentioned that we came down for the coffee shop, but it was oddly closed at 10:15 AM. He explained that he had just found out a day or 2 earlier, but that the owner had just shut down to school in California with the goal of doing missionary work in Africa. He had explained that he woke up in the middle of the night with a call from God that he was to leave Oklahoma and go be a missionary in Africa.

I said if I got a call from God in the middle of the night telling me to go to Africa, I might be tempted to tell him "Wrong Number."

But then again... when God talks to you, it seems like a good idea to listen.

As I was finishing this post, we saddled up and began moving toward Amarillo, TX. So, as we pass through as place called "Canadian, TX," I will sign off with what I assume the locals here might say.

"Howdy, Eh!"

Sunday, May 31, 2009

TORNADO CHASE: Week 1


So there I was... Oklahoma City, OK, arriving at the Orientation Breakfast for my 1st week storm chasing; more specifically, Tornado Chasing. A very good old friend, Gregg Potter, is a full time meteorologist (no, that has nothing at all to do with meteors). He runs F5 Tornado Chasing Safari's, a company that charters tours in search of wild summer weather and the elusive twisters during tornado season yearly. He has been running it for 10 seasons now and this year I was lucky enough to snag the videography position. I was originally going to do only 1 week, but situations worked out to where I was able to attend the final 2 weeks of the chase season.

So I brought my trusty camera, a suitcase full of clothes, and my hunger to see America and its wild weather, and bussed my way out to Oklahoma City, OK. Despite the problems with Greyhound, I made it on time for the orientation breakfast. Unfortunately, the weather for this week looked horrible so far, and in storm chasing lingo, that means it was sunny with very few clouds. Totally not optimal for chasing storms, much less tornadoes.

We weren't the only ones on the chase, however. A team of scientists called Vortex II was out and about as well, bringing with them 40 total vehicles, 10 Doppler Radars, 15 support vehicles, television crews, and tag-along chasers who saw them on the weather channel. This risks clogging the roads with a traffic jam in a tornado. We hope to not see much of them, as the sheer number of vehicles adds a new element of danger in the event of severe weather.

This post will describe my travels during the 1st week of my 1st chase, but I am writing it on the 1st day of the second week (May 31st). I am currently in a Ford Explorer hammering away on my laptop. We just left the Route 66 Museum in Clinton, OK and are moving to bed down in Woodward, OK. There is potential for severe weather tomorrow in the Kansas/Nebraska area or the Texas Panhandle, and we are positioning ourselves to be able to get to either area depending on where the most severe storms hit tomorrow. This week was originally the only week I was going to be able to be on the tour, but I was fortunate enough to be able to hit last week as well.

Last weeks adventure is what this post is about. It will be rather long, but my chase posts will also serve as my personal journal since I do not keep a diary and we covered 5 states on week 1 alone. My memory isn't all that great, so I will have these posts to consult later down the line (if i survive week 2).

So with no weather to see, at least for a couple days, we switch to tourist mode and visit tourist and roadside attractions as this is a chartered service and serves as peoples vacations as well. Gregg is really good about making sure there are things to do when the weather doesn't provide, so we left Oklahoma City with our 1st stop in Dallas, TX (aside from gas, bathroom, and food stops, that is).

In Dallas, we went to the X in the middle of the road, on Elm Street. The X signifies the point where John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. I took video from where the Zapruder film was shot, the grassy gnoll, and from the point where he was killed looking up to the 6th floor of the Texas School book depository where Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly fired the fatal shots. I cannot post the videos as I do not own them as I was commissioned by F5 Tornado Safari's to take them and they are not my property. Also, several clients are on the videos and even if they don't ask for anonymity, I am going to give it to them. I will not refer to them by name either for the same reason.

There is plenty of activity near the site of the assassination in Dealey Plaza, and we were given a tour by a gentleman who presented several alternative views of the assassination, from the official to the conspiracy. When he asked us all who we though was responsible for the death of Kennedy, I replied "Bigfoot." He replied that it was as good a guess as any.

We also went on a tour of the 6th floor of the School Book Depository and looking down from just next to where Oswald officially fired the deadly shots (the window he was said to have used is protected by Plexiglas), I admit it was a clear shot... but it was pretty far. Surveying the scene, I have to say the area behind the fence of the grassy knoll was the place where I would have shot from, as it was clear, covered, and very close. Much Much closer than the 6th floor window.

Either way, my opinion is that the spot he was shot at was dead center of a perfect ambush. If you have never been there, it isn't like there are one or two places with a perfect shot; literally every spot is a perfect shot and the X marks the dead center of what would be optimal crossfire from many different locations and angles. It was eerie being there, to me, because seeing the spot seemed to offer more alternatives instead of clearing something up. Even if you don't want to pay the $6 or whatever to go upstairs to the book depository, if you are in Dallas... check it out. It is worth seeing.

If you do go upstairs, check out my favorite part of the exhibit, the display featuring some very famous pictures snapped just seconds before the bullets were fired by normal people, as well as the cameras that were used to snap them. As a cameraman, I must say that there is something really intriguing looking into a lens that witnessed history. It may be meaningless, but it sets my imagination going and I can almost hear the chaos in the crowd when our president was killed.

After a bite to eat at a Mexican Restaurant, we loaded up and moved on to Austin, where we bed down for the night at a La Quinta Hotel. My attempts to get people to go out to a bar or a strip club were in vain, but I did find a client party in one of the rooms and had a few vodka-sevens before falling to sleep.

The next day was Memorial Day, and we head down Congress street in Austin to do some shopping and sightseeing. I wasn't keen on spending any time in Texas, but the stores there sold me on Austin. Although I did not get to see any live music or titties in Austin, I do understand and firmly vote to "Keep Austin Weird."

After Phish tour, if the weather isn't too hot, I want to take Imaya to Austin as it is a very cool city and I would love to spend more time there soaking up the local scene. After finding Imaya a cool gift from Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, I went for a quick Arrogant Bastard Ale at a local music bar and grill called Trophy's and we were off.

The next stop was described to me as a small town that Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson sang about. As we were looking for it, someone mentioned it had a population of 3 and people stole the road signs. When we pulled into the town, it had very old buildings, a lot of people in cowboy hats, a bull with huge horns, and parking in a muddy grassland. "You have got to be kidding me," I said in disbelief knowing that we were going to spend the day in this back country redneck hillbilly cowboy manure farm.

I couldn't have been more wrong as the town of Luckenbach, TX remains my favorite spot to have visited on the first week of the chase. They were having a Memorial Day Party & Benefit for one of the local gentlemen, and there was music, beer, food, a silent auction, and fun to be had even for a California Dood like myself.

For those of you, like me, who are ignorant to what Luckenbach, TX is, let me try to describe it. There is a music hall that featured live country style music from different artists all day. The music hall is very "western," and the music wasn't "crying in your beer" country, it was the cool "outlaw country." There is a food service building attached to the side of the music hall.

Across the road is a public bathroom covered with license plates, and the general store/saloon/post office. Apparently you cannot drink in the post office area of the building, so one of the locals painted a line down the middle of the general store portion to show where you can't pass. There is what looks like a private house in one direction and a little bridge crossing a creek that leads to a fire pit and some old machinery.

We spent a few days in Texas, and I can honestly say that Luckenbach changed my way of looking at Texas (as well as Austin, to a lesser extent). I can wholeheartedly recommend Luckenbach as a place to visit if you are in Texas, or perhaps the reason you venture into Texas. You can read more about Luckenbach here and here.

I still have almost a full week of storm chasing and Americana to go, but I will be very surprised if any location can charm me in such an authentic way as Luckenbach. I am NOT into tourist traps, I want something real, and I can say the experience I had partying with those good folks (a few hundred on Memorial Day) was real and more fun than I ever thought I could have with a bunch of people in cowboy hats.

Anyway, late afternoon, it was time to leave my new home town, and head to the hotel. A holiday Inn express in Fredericksburg, TX a few miles up the road would be our bunk for the night. We checked in, and a few on our tour hit the pool where we found a gigantic beetle corpse that soon found itself hanging from the rearview mirror in one of the chase vehicles.

Then we went to the Railroad tunnel batcave, where at dusk, we were greeted by our 1st vortex... of about 1.5-3 million bats leaving the cave and flying out to feed in the local forest. Afterwords, we closed down a hidden gem, about 10 miles off the main road we discovered a little burger shack that boasted "The Best Burger in Texas." "Inconveniently located in the middle of nowhere," We had a large group that was certainly skeptical of the claim, especially as this place was so far away from, well, anywhere. The fact that they had sold out of both the daily special and the fries convinced us that they were popular enough to deserve a taste.

We were not disappointed in The Alamo Springs Cafe and I can honestly say that I never had a better burger in my life. Not only were they amazingly tasty, they were huge, weighing in at about 1/2 pound. Well worth the drive if you are in the area. Just watch the road for the many deer that wander out at night.

In Luckenbach, the town slogan is "Where Everybody is Somebody." At the Alamo Springs Cafe, the Slogan is "Where Nobody is Anybody." Being Somebody and Nobody, or is it anybody, either way, on the same day along with the burger and the bats was a hell of a topper to an amazing memorial day. We sat on rocking chairs at the front of our hotel before bed that night.

The next morning, we had a quick shopping trip in downtown Fredericksburg, and we hit the road for Abilene, TX, where we had the chance to see some severe weather, although it most likely wouldn't produce any twisters. On the way, we stopped to watch some cloud formations and found a true Texas gem... a drive through beer shack. Of course we had to buy a case of beer at the drive through, which looked like a converted drive through car wash. We drove in, gave our order, and the guy dropped it into our car. Only in Texas.

We arrived in Abilene, checked into our hotel, and as we were about to leave for dinner, were hit with 50 MPH winds, torrential rain, and an amazing Texas sized lightning storm. Sadly, it would be our only storm of that week.

The next morning, we got up, had our breakfast and moved on to the next tourist destination. Every place we had stayed in Texas that had continental breakfast had a waffle iron that you could make yourself waffles in. It made waffles in the shape of Texas. Just thought it was worth mentioning.

Next stop was Shreveport, LA. This was my 1st trip to the Bayou State, so I was kind of excited. I didn't realize it was going to be a ghetto, wannabe Vegas though. The clients on the tour were into gambling, so it was good by them, which of course, was what we were there for. I on the other hand, don't gamble and was pissed off when I realized we were staying at a Casino. I wanted to experience an authentic night partying and drinking in Louisiana, so even though our clients liked the hotel, I was pissed off immediately and consider Sam's Town a shithole.

We had no choice but to valet park, had no choice but to get a bellman, and when we went to the room, it was $10 a day for in room internet. It was $20 for a shitty buffet, and much more for the steakhouse. I wanted to leave but I felt trapped at a retarded riverboat casino without the internet to find a fun place to escape and party. I remarked to my room mate that the ridiculously huge bathroom was the best part of the hotel, which oddly enough, foreshadowed the end of the night.

So with no idea where I was going, I started walking. I found a half opened outdoor mall place with a bar and Mexican food that closed at 9PM. It being like 8:30, I kept walking. I went around a corner and noticed a bristling bar and grill. I asked what time they closed and what kind of beer they had on tap. They closed at 6 AM and had bass on tap with huge pitchers. So I went in, got a pitcher for myself and had some blackened chicken sandwich. I was in for a good night at The Blind Tiger.

I was joined by the 2 meteorologists and a driver for the chase, but they left after they ate to go gamble. I stayed and moved my half emptied pitcher up to the bar where I chatted with a couple local hippies. They told me the chicks arrive when the Karaoke starts at 10. At 10, like clockwork, the college girls arrived, but a beautiful girl at the corner seat at the bar caught my eye. She looked late 20's and seemed to stare when I caught her eye. When she went to the bathroom, I leaned my chair back blocking her return. When she came back, instead of asking me to move, she moved in and said "what's your name." It was on!

We clicked well, and after a few drinks I called Imaya and asked permission to have some fun with her. Permission granted, and we got a little cozier at the bar. When we got back to my hotel room, we realized we were short one crucial piece of protection. I headed down to the lobby to go for the gift shop, but it was CLOSED! I then proceeded to harass every employee and even some guests trying to buy just 1 for $10 while my room mate tried to keep her awake. After 20 minutes, a brother sold me a Magnum. I exclaimed "But I am white!" to much laughter by him and the hotel staff who were using radio and word of mouth to help me out. I didn't have much time to wait as it was getting very late and she had to leave at 5 AM to pick up her daughter, so I grabbed it and hoped.

Back at the room, my room mate told me he tried to keep her awake, but she passed out. When I climbed into bed, she awoke, and we head off into the huge bathroom for some fun. I knew that bathroom was the best thing about that hotel. Although I was quite drunk and not really performing up to snuff, I WAS pleased that I was able to fit in the magnum and we had a good time together. Before we went to sleep, I videoed her giving me her number and email as I tend to lose scraps of paper, and she even sent Imaya a video greeting, which Imaya said she appreciated. I slept well next to my chocolate treat and when the alarm woke us at 5, I walked her to her car, under the watchful (winking) eye of every employee that I had harassed for what turned out to be the worlds most expensive rubber.

I would like to give a shout out and mention her by name, but she has a right to privacy so out of respect for her and acknowledging the details I have already given, I won't. But if she ever reads this, I want her to know she made my stay in Louisiana memorable and made my visit worth having. As far as I saw, she was the best thing in Shreveport. And if I head back, I hope to see her again and perhaps even introduce her to Imaya. I also want to thank the night staff at the hotel as they mobilized like it was an emergency and tried to help me for no reason in the middle of the night. Thanks guys, I hope someone helps you guys in a pinch with the expertise that you helped me with! Oh yeah, and for my room mate, who was a 1st class wingman. Thanks!


Next stop after breakfast was Arkansas. I had heard the jokes and expected inbred banjo players on porches of falling apart mobile homes. What I saw by the time I left the state the next day was the most beautiful countryside that I have ever seen in my entire life! I am still so amazed by how gorgeous the place is that I hope to take Imaya there for some romantic time while we camp this summer if possible. It is truly spectacular, and I don't understand how Arkansas got such a bad rap, unless the locals are just trying to keep the rest of us out. I just need to remember bug spray for my next trip here.



Anyway, we headed off to Hope, AR next to visit the birthplace of Bill Clinton. The folks who ran the museum were very friendly, and we enjoyed our stay, but we soon were back on the road heading deep into the Ozark Mountains.

We soon arrived at our destination, the historic Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, AR, vacation destination of Al Capone. The building we stayed at was completed in 1924 and reaked of history. Elegant and ornate walls, doors and fixtures took us back to another time. Lucky's Bar & Grill served as my local watering hole as I once again split with the tour group after check in and was treated to 2 lesbians making out in the seat right next to me at the bar. $2 drafts were just what was needed as a wonderful nightcap.

The next day, the decision was made to head to Branson, MO and we hit the Natural Bridge in Arkansas. A severe ice storm earlier this year destroyed large portions of the forest, and a sign in the parking lot where you catch the trail informed us the path was too dangerous for people to use. Since we did not get any severe weather so far and it takes a certain type of person to try to chase a tornado, we went anyway. 50 foot trees had fallen and ripped up huge holes in the path with their roots making the relatively moderate hike a bit treacherous. We made it to the bridge however and got in a hike through the amazing Ozark mountain forest, so it was all good.

On to Branson, MO we went. Since I hate tourist spots, I got in touch with a friend, some of you may know him from WoW or Second Life Under the name Eolly or Scylloga or Ryan69 Odetts. We met up and he treated me to dinner, introduced me to his adorable daughter and nephew, and we headed out, per his daughters suggestion, to the Branson Landing, a cool "City Walk" type place with shops and hotels and docks along the lake. We got there just in time to check out the Fountain Show, Water and Fire. A little while later, he had to get the kids to bed, so after a brief tour of Branson, I was back at my hotel.

The storm we were hoping for in Kansas on Saturday, our last day with this group, wasn't going to materialize. We were in position to head through Kansas anyway. So the next morning we started to head out of Missouri into Kansas. We just happened to stumble on a small community west of Carl Junction, MO while traveling down County Route YY that appeared to have recently been hit by a tornado (we discovered later that it hit on May 8th, 2009 by a Squall Line followed by a Wake Low).

Almost every house we passed showed signs of damage, with blue tarps covering gaping holes in most every house. We saw about perhaps 4 houses that were completely exploded with fresh debris and fallen trees everywhere. At the border of Kansas, as we stepped out for our photo opportunities, I was exploring some brush and downed trees and I discovered the cover of a bible. It was a bright color and reasonable clean, so it hadn't been there long, but the pages were torn out clean. I looked for an inscription to see if the owners name was on it, but I couldn't so I left it be. The houses, trees and debris, although not from a tornado, was a sobering look into the power of what we were chasing. It certainly tuned me into the reality of what severe weather and mother nature could do.

We head through Kansas on the way back to Oklahoma City. We stopped at Big Brutus, a 160 foot giant whose dipper held 150 tons worth of earth, enough to fill 3 full railroad cars. We saw it on the horizon miles before we arrived, and it was freakin ridiculous huge.

We also talked to a local and found out that last year was a record breaker for tornadoes, around 180 twisters ripped through Kansas in 2008 alone. This year was also a record breaker, but for the extreme opposite reason. For the locals, it was good news. For the chasers like us and scientists like Vortex II, it meant we had to head back to Oklahoma City after spending a full week in tornado alley only seeing one minor storm.

While I am happy the locals escaped the destruction that goes along with a tornado, I am disappointed that we didn't see anything on my first week of tornado chasing. And I am sad the clients did not see any either. However, out of 9 clients on this tour, 7 of them have already booked for next year. Hopefully, I will be able to join them as well because once you catch the bug, you follow it. So I hope I will be on the chase again next year.

But we have to get through next weeks chase first...


View Larger Map

Here is a Rough Map of our travels the last week. While the destinations are correct, the routes are possibly dramatically different as we stopped all over at roadside attractions and opted for more scenic, rural areas. For viewability, not all diversions are mapped. Total actual mileage was 1950 miles for the week from Oklahoma City to Oklahoma City.

Friday, May 29, 2009

GREYHELL: Reno to Oklahoma City


So, I was getting on a Greyhound bus for the first time in 15 years. I have flown only slightly more in that time, generally preferring to drive. I was leaving Reno and heading to Oklahoma City, OK.

The trip was scheduled to take about 38 hours or so. I had stocked up with a bunch of cheap, non perishable food from the dollar store, and some meds and tissue, as the cold I picked up at the dead show had morphed into what google told me was likely a sinus infection. I have a hard time sleeping in moving vehicles anyway, so I was hoping the bus would be less than full and on time, as I had 4 transfers to make in order to make it on time.

My departure time was 7:30 PM on Thursday and was scheduled to arrive at 9:30 AM in Oklahoma City on Sunday. Here is a map of where my bus trip led me including all 4 transfer stops.


View Larger Map

Due to the current construction on that crazy ass mountain death road, 80, to the west of Reno (that goes through the Donner pass, yeah, THAT Donner pass), my very 1st bus was an hour late, immediately throwing my trip into turmoil. With 4 transfers that had only approximately 30 minute layover in each spot, I was not confident that I would make my 9:30 AM Saturday arrival. That was OK, as I had until 9 AM or so on Sunday to make it to Oklahoma City or I would miss my trip.

What trip you ask?

Stay tuned for the Oklahoma City edition of my blog to find out...

Anyway, the good news was the bus was so late Imaya was able to get off work and come say goodbye again at the bus station by the time my bus arrived. The bad news was my very 1st bus was late, potentially throwing the rest of my journey into disarray.

Well, when the bus finally arrived, my hopes of finding two unoccupied seats were dashed when the driver kept coming in and counting all of us in line to board... presumably to see if he had enough seats for everyone. I am not sure if everyone made it on, but I did.

Upon boarding, I looked for the best possible seatmate who would be next to me for the next 13 hours or so... no, not the woman with the baby... no, not the guy who hadn't bathed in 14 years, no, not the drooling woman... hey, an empty seat... it had a backpack and water bottle... I have a backpack and water bottle, he is prolly in the bathroom but surely we had some things in common, I will take that seat! I am sure will have a lot in common and share interesting stories and many laughs during our journey!

Well, he came out of the the bathroom, told me I was in his seat and announced he was an alcoholic the minute he sat down after he realized we were sharing a seat and there was no alternative. He was going from Reno to Florida, and whispered to me that he only had $1 on him for the trip. He wanted the window, which was fine by me except that he got piss drunk and had to pee every 5 miles or so. He then shared that he just got out of prison, not jail, but PRISON. I didn't ask why (I am not sure that I wanted to know) but I did ask for how long. "A few years" was all he said and I left it at that.

He said he had a headache, and having stocked up on dollar store meds, I gave him some aspirin. Since he only had $1.00 and no food, I gave him some of my dollar store food to help him out as well. He ate it and then proceeded to throw the trash right on the ground under me :/

I almost expected him to shank someone during the 1st hour so all the other passengers wouldn't fuck with him...

He then tried to sleep while I pulled out Imaya's Gameboy advance to kill some time. It didn't seem to matter to my seatmate that JR. hip hop star 2 seats ahead was playing some rap from his phone out loud and singing along boisterously, the guy in front of us was playing his video game as well, but my seatmate, at 9PM rudely and loudly asked me, 5 minutes after I started playing my game, "ARE YOU GOING TO PLAY THAT DAMN THING ALL NIGHT?"

I took my first risk of life and limb less than an hour into the trip by risking getting a shiv in the neck by saying "Yes." I paid for my seat and was hardly the most disturbing person on this very packed bus.

I wished that I didn't have a fear of flying at this point as plane tickets were only about $30 more from Reno to Oklahoma city, but I would have had to go from Reno to San Fransisco to Dallas, then finally to Oklahoma City. Even though I flew from LA to Norfolk, Virginia and back this year, that was 3,000 miles and only had one stop. 3 take offs and landings and layovers might have shaved 15 or so hours off of my trip, but I couldn't fathom that kind of air trip again so soon (with no phish Payoff), so I went with the bus, which was starting off on the wrong foot. Also, due to the amount of alcohol and tranquilizers I ingested to fly to Virginia, I almost was refused boarding on one of my flights, and only Imaya kept me steady and took care of me enough when I was oblivious to my surroundings.

So, being an hour late, at one of the truck stops we landed in for food (which would be the only type of food, save for one McDonald's, that we would be able to eat during my journey), I asked the bus driver if I would make my connection in Salt Lake City. He said that the driver of my next bus was alerted to our schedule and would be waiting for us due to the amount of passengers who were transferring to his bus. Well, it looks like I will be making my first transfer despite the late start... things were looking up!

And this time, indeed it was looking up! When we got to Salt Lake City, I was quickly ushered to my waiting bus. There were less than 1 person per 2 seats, which meant that I had my own seat all to myself. And I took advantage of my sinus infection to cough like a tuberculosis patient every new passenger we picked up to ensure I kept that seat to myself. I even threw in a snort here and there to simulate the terrifyingly deadly swine flu that all the kids are catching these days. And it worked, I had the seats to myself the entire trip from Salt Lake City, UT all the way to Grand Junction, CO.

I was wearing a Grateful Dead shirt that was semi covert, and a dude in his early 20's named Andreas picked up on it and was traveling on the same Route as me through Amarillo, TX, and we shared many a story about the shows we went to, the good times and the ordeals of traveling. He was heading back home to Texas from a 2 year stay in Oregon. He was an excellent traveling companion made better by the fact that he had his own seat and I had my own. Things were looking up, briefly.

Now the first bus driver out of Reno was a very pleasant gentleman who went out of his way to make the trip comfortable for his passengers, even going as far as singing "On the Road Again" when Jr. hip hop star demanded he turn on the radio from far in the back of the bus. The bus driver out of Salt Lake City was the exact opposite, nasty, sarcastic shit talker who wanted to make his passengers suffer. A real first class dickhead. At every stop he would give the precise time he was leaving and then just to hammer in the point, mention that "it will be 8 hours until the next bus comes around if you are not back on the bus," just to be a dick.

Well, I knew we were still behind schedule, so about half way between Salt Lake City and Grand Junction, I asked the driver whether we were going to make the connection. He replied that there were 27 of us picking up the bus from Grand Junction to Denver, so they would hold the bus for us. Things were still looking good!

I should have realized that this guy was too big of a dickhead for things to go well by the reaction I got from some of thew passengers on my way back to my seat. "He talked to you?" questioned one timid looking young man. "All he did was yell at me and tell me to sit down" said another, less timid looking dood. "He is a fucking asshole" said pretty much everyone else on my way back to my seat. "He isn't so bad" I naively thought to myself, "after all, he is holding our connection bus for us."

Arrival in Grand Junction was greeted by the driver warning everyone to quickly exit the bus and run into the station because this was an incredibly dangerous station and people have been killed there followed by the cold hard slap of reality just as I saw the driver quickly leave the bus and scurry quickly into the back while we were waiting in line at the front counter. "Yes, I know there are 27 people who needed to be on the Denver bus that just left," said the woman at the Greyhound counter, "but your driver didn't radio ahead and the Denver bus left 15 minutes ago. You will have to wait 5 more hours for the next one."

The asshole had found a way to royally fuck 27 people, apparently, just because he was a 1st class asshole with an incredibly small micropenis. I really hope karma kicks the living shit out of him, because I was unable to find the bastard to do it myself, and believe me, I would have not only because I hadn't slept yet and was sick, but because that fucktard deserved it... badly deserved it. If there is any justice in this world, I will meet that driver again sometime in this life in a very dark secluded alley where even the buzzards won't hear his screams...

Not only did 27 of us have to wait 5 extra hours in Grand Junction, but my connections in Denver and Amarillo were missed for sure and my deadline of 9 AM Sunday in Oklahoma City was now in question. I had scheduled myself to arrive in Oklahoma City almost 24 hours ahead of when I was required to be there because I am responsible and understood shit happens on Greyhound. Even then, somehow, one singlevevil vindictive douchebag put my arrival, even just on time, completely at risk.

Andreas and I charged our phones and my laptop at the station while we discussed what we were going to do for the next 5 hours. I wanted to find a bar, but Andreas was nervous that they wouldn't let us on the bus if we were drinking. I tried to convince him that bringing booze on the bus was prohibited but nobody said anything about drinking prior to getting on the bus.

I was so confident we could get hammered prior to boarding as long as we were not carrying, when I couldn't visually locate a bar, I asked one of the Greyhound employees where the nearest bar was. "In the alley behind the station, blue building," she said. And there we found Snowflakes bar and pool hall, which was bristling with activity that Friday afternoon. It looked like a giant warehouse converted with a giant bar, a blaring jukebox, a few tables and a few busy pool tables. Andreas went to go check on pitchers while I watched our beer at the table.

An old timer immediately came up to me and tried to sell me some weed. I asked him what kind and how much. "Kind bud," he answered, $20 an 1/8. It sounded too good to be true as that was at least $40 less an 1/8 than it should cost. Plus, I take risks but bringing herb into Texas was a bit too much of a risk for even me to take, so I offered to buy a joint for $5 which quickly ended our conversation. But still, I was impressed that even at my advancing age and short hair, I can still score pretty quickly in a strange town.

Anyway, after some pitchers of keystone (???), Andreas and I were back at the station and soon on the bus to Denver. The bus ride to Denver was kind of fun, with a seat for myself alone again, and a beautiful view. I sat behind a gentleman who had come to Colorado to shoot a rap music video. He astounded me by telling of last week, when he shared rehearsal space with Steve Kimock's new band, who Imaya and I had just seen in Hampton after Sunday night's Phish show. The driver let us know that the bus from Denver to Amerillo would be waiting for us. Almost back on schedule, and on my way, I was finally enjoying the trip, although still sick and unable to sleep.

The bus from Denver to Amarillo was the most empty yet, approximately 8 seats per person, which was funny, since when we tried to sleep, we all laid our legs across the aisle making the trek to the bathroom quite difficult for anyone at the front of the bus. But Denver to Amarillo was a great ride, where Heidi joined the party with Andreas and I. We enjoyed the trip through Colorado, New Mexico (I saw my 1st dormant volcano), and Texas. They were great traveling companions, but all good things must come to an end.

Amarillo arrived, and and my 2 new friends both headed to the bus into Dallas, I was headed on the bus to Oklahoma City. They had a 1 hour layover, I had a two hour layover. The broken down bus station in Amarillo soon filled up with a mostly unfriendly seeming group from a bus that emptied. I hadn't slept in 2 days and it was starting to take it's toll on me. I soon found out that that was my bus to Oklahoma City.

Being one of the last people on the bus, I had limited choices on seating. I tried to sit next to a woman, but she appeared to have 57 variety's of carry on bags. As she started adjusting the pile to apparently make room for me, I saw 2 out of 3 open seats in the last row. I went there and the dood invited me to sit. We were on our way.

Arrival in Oklahoma City was rather smooth at around 6 PM. I grabbed a cab to the hotel, where the driver informed me that I was in a 3.2 beer state. A quick diversion to a liquor store to pick up some real beer, Sierra Nevada, and I was at the hotel.

I was concerned that there would be issues checking in as I was relying on my boss for the next 2 weeks to reserve my room and he wouldn't be in until 10 PM or so, but there was my room, in my name, ready to go. I ran into Jason, one of the drivers fairly quickly, and he told me the group from last night's tour was going to dinner next door in about an hour. Since I was planning on going next door as well, I was invited to join the party. I was loopy from lack of sleep and a few beers, but the steak and lobster dinner was a welcome escape from the truck stop food I had been forced to survive on for the last couple days.

The Wyndem Hotel in Oklahoma City was interesting. Nice room, and a decent bar, but a couple of things were noteworthy. Laughter and screams of children were heard immediatly outside the window of my room. When I looked "outside," I realized that my window was not looking outside at all. It had a very large indoor pool on the interior of the hotel that the inisde rooms looked in on. Very interesting indeed.

The other notable thing about my room was that it had a big red warning card describing exactly what to do in the likely event of a tornado.

I was there, in the epicenter of tornado alley in the heart of tornado season. Logic be damned, if there was a twister... I would be one of those going towards that which makes people hide and run away.

The next two weeks could be very interesting indeed...

Stay Tuned!

Monday, May 25, 2009

UPDATE RENO: Better Late than Never


Well, on April 20th, 2009, I arrived in Reno, NV to begin a new adventure with my darling Imaya. I know this post is over a month late, but I was too busy loving life with her to play on the innernets. Right now I am in a Holiday Inn Express in Fredericksburg, TX about to go to a real life batcave. How did I end up here? We shall get to that later, I have a ton of steps in between to cover first.

So let's start with going to stay with my darling Imaya in Reno, NV.


View Larger Map

Above is the map of where I traveled after my Coachella weekend in my freshly repaired car. I arrived at about 8:30 AM on April 20th, 2009 (no kidding, I got there on 4/20)

Imaya welcomed me into her home, and we kept busy. She was finishing college and working; I was learning about Reno. One of our 1st adventures was to Terrible's Rail City (my choice) to eat their famous 1 pound ham steak and eggs (I had a terrible's experience in Vegas before). While there we had some brews from the Ale House.

She showed me around, and took me to where she drums and fire dances at the River School. While it was very cool, it really made me feel old. I didn't know what fire dancing was until Imaya told me, which will come into play later. Her home is actually a dorm type place near the college, so to make me feel older, there were college kids everywhere. The bonus was the local gas station which has an enormous variety of good beers.

She also introduced me to her very good friends, Crystal and her family, Angela and her boyfriend Char, and all the while we sampled a wide variety of very good brews and tried some nice vegan food from the Pneumatic Diner.

Since I keep mentioning the beer, let me note that my favorite beer is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale... which is difficult to find in most places in this country. If a town has a 15% chance of having Sierra when I go out, it is considered very high odds. In Reno, it is the STAPLE beer, which made me very happy. Some places I went did not have Budweiser, but did have Sierra... I was very happy indeed. It seems like Reno is to Sierra Nevada as Coors is to pissbeer Colorado.

Anyway, I finally met Imaya's parents... I was quite nervous about meeting them as I told her, "I am a little old to be 'meeting parents,'" however, it went quite well as they seemed to like me and I liked them. They invited me over for a couple of excellent dinners (her dad is an awesome cook) and out for sushi. I helped them get ready for Imaya's graduation party.


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The week of her graduation was hectic, to say the least. On the Sunday prior, Imaya and I headed down to Mountain View, CA to the beautiful Shoreline Amphitheatre to see The Dead. It was her 1st time seeing them and we tested our business plan for making money during Phish tour. We had a blast, selling our wares (more about what we were selling after tour), I had no ticket but got in, and we made enough money to pretty much break even, pay for gas, grass, tickets, beer, and garlic fries. So we are confident that we will be able to support ourselves during the Phish tour. I had purchased a $5 straw hat for shade prior to Coachella, and was wearing it in the show and as I was leaving my seat, a dude offered me $50 for it. I told him OK, but all he had were 3 $20's and I had no change on me, so he bought my $5 hat off my head for $60... I can't even make shit like that up.

We would have made more money, but we kinda snuck backstaqe at the end of the show. We ended up in the hospitality section of Shoreline, next to the fire dancers who performed during that nights Rhythm Devils portion of the show. Yes, Imaya had out cooled me and, right after my arrival in Reno, she fire danced for me when I didn't even know who it was, and here were the Dead featuring some amazing fire dancers. We even gave an old timer hippy named Kelly who sold beads a ride to Berkley after the show. It was a LOONG day as we left Reno at about 9 AM, arrived in the parking lot around 2 PM, left shoreline around 1 AM and went back to Reno.

And yes, we saw the google campus while in Mountain View... we are geeks after all.

And we will be back for Phish in August.

Imaya had a lot of work for finals, and Friday night was her graduation party. I met a ton of her family and family friends and she had a great party. I ended up with her, her cousin, her brother and her sister at a hookah bar in the middle of the night. It was cool.

Saturday had her walking in her graduation and had us attending a family friends graduation party. By the end of the week, I had attended 3 graduation parties with her family and let me tell you, her family and their friends can party down!

All good things must come to an end, and so it was with us. On my last night in town, I met Imaya's good friend Stephanie when she invited us to watch the improv comedy show performed by the Utility Players in the Cabaret at Studio on 4th. Afterwords, we tried in vain to find some food still open and ended up drinking very good beers at Silver Peak Grill and Taproom. The food was great, Imaya had the Ahi salad, I had the crawfish jambalaya. They were both delicious.

And then we had my final day in Reno, which was spent running around trying to get a bunch of shit to do. I went to Imaya's work and said goodbye, and took a cab to the bus station. Why a bus? I hate flying. Although, after this experience, I now hate buses too. Where was I going? How was my trip? WTF is Mulch doing in Texas? The answer will arrive soon. To be continued...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Eric's Blue Raincoat

I just want to send personal thanks to Mr. Leonard Cohen for being in what was without doubt, the best seat in the house for what I think was his second performance in the United States in 15 years... even if the history books do not record the fact that you played for a very small crowd of crew and say Coachella the 17th was your 2nd US performance... I was there and know what you did Thursday...

I was dead center next to the camera your manager made me put down, wearing the goofy straw hat, dancing in my "seat" and singing along with you... ask your amazing blond backup singer who I shared a moment with when I caught you altering the words "anal sex" during The Future and she giggled at me when I was startled by the change... she played the harp, beautifully, and she caught me noticing that you altered the lyric... I wonder if I will ever know why you censored yourself....

(btw, i would not be disrespectful enough to actually be singing when you were, I was mouthing the words only)

Dear Mr. Cohen,
As a fellow Lithuanian, I can only respectfully ask that you allow your concerts to be recorded by anyone and anyway as long as its not for profit... you are no spring chicken and what you have to offer is truly amazing and far beyond what you may realize that you have... to not allow it to be shared is almost criminal... I have faith that you want to do what is right... and what is right is your legacy and sharing the amazing gift you and your band have been given... give it away for free and you will sell more than you can imagine... and again, thank you for the very private intimate show you put on for the crew... I know many didn't realize what you gave but I want to assure you that at least 1 person did... and I hope your performance at Coachella touched those who needed it in the way you touched me... and again, allow it to be shared... please don't make anyone shut off the recording again... your gift is amazing, warts and all...



"I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959. Elizabeth thought I looked like a spider in it. That was probably why she wouldn't go to Greece with me. It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather. Things were clear. I knew how to dress in those days. It was stolen from Marianne's loft in New York sometime during the early seventies. I wasn't wearing it very much toward the end."
 

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