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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.

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