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!"

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