After going through an unreasonably lengthy “pre-adventure”, the first official tornado chase in two years had begun.
(Not including a couple of hurricane chases…)
Since leaving the Wichita airport, we had stopped at Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and Five Guys before we finally got our asses on the actual road out into the open skies of Kansas.
As we rolled northwest on KS96 toward Hutchinson, it was almost surreal to be back on the open and empty plains after spending so much time in indescribably crowded, hot, and polluted Asian cities.
Great Bend Reunion
Great Bend Kansas. Population of about 20,000. We’ve probably been through this quaint town 25 times in the last five years.
On the south side of town, we stopped at a KwikShop gas station around 2:30pm. As I am pulling the rental Nissan into the gas station, I notice several cars that have a bit of a peculiar familiarity.
“…Hey guys, is that Andrew? It is! It’s Andrew Newcomb!!”
Uh Oh. I was far from prepared for this. Before I could even get out of the car, I had a small huddle of friends I had not seen in quite a while.
“What’s up man!? I thought you were in Vietnam! How are you here already?”
That was a great question that I wasn’t sure of myself.
Alec, Brett, and Stephen were three friends that I had known for about six years. Given we hadn’t been on the plains in two years…it had also been two years since I had seen them.
Stephen had just purchased a house in Oklahoma City, and Alec was apparently living in it now. “It’s a good size man, you guys should stay when you’re out here chasing at the end of the month.”
The entire time I knew Alec, he had lived in the Rockford, Illinois area…about a foot from the Wisconsin border. Like all good storm chasers, we frequently found couches to sleep on in the Oklahoma City area during the spring. Now, Alec had a new girlfriend and was joining the police force in Oklahoma City.
Explosive Cloud Growth
When we first arrived at the gas station, there were only small puffy white clouds on the western horizon. The majority of the sky was blue and basically uninteresting in terms of storms.
During the 15 minutes we were stopped at the gas station, the cute puffy white clouds went from somewhat interesting, to moderately interesting….to very tall, sharp, mean looking storm towers…and extremely interesting.
I walked back over to the car Stephen was sitting in, and Brett sat down in the trunk while looking at the hourly forecast model.
At most another three minutes passed before the storm became noteworthy on radar…and the “extremely interesting” mean storm towers became a “Holy shit let’s go!” black wall of an impending close range supercell.
Alec also didn’t seem to believe how fast the sky had turned from blue to black. I was taken agape for a moment, perhaps mostly because it had been so long…but the storm still meant business seemingly out of nothing.
On the Road
I ran as fast as I could back to our car and jumped in the driver seat in attempt to beat the other cars that were leaving for the storm at the same time. I beat everyone but Alec, Brett, and Stephen…thanks to the legendary semi truck that seems to spontaneously appear directly in front of me whenever there is an urgent matter.
We were speeding north on US 281 out of Great Bend, and soon following the highway as it conveniently veered west directly into the path of the storm.
We sat about 8 miles west of Hoisington Kansas from 4:45 to 5:10pm. From here, our unusually slow movement to the northeast began and lasted for several hours.
The storm had become tornado warned just as we were pulling off the road to sit and watch it for a while. A notable but not overly significant wall cloud had formed a few miles to the west and showed signs of wanting to produce a tornado.
An unusually long wait
After about 15 minutes of “It’s going to do it! Tornado coming down!”, it became pretty clear that there was not about to be a tornado anytime soon. The rotation in the storm grew much less interesting.
Onward we crawled to the east along highway ??. Today’s storm was moving at only around 15 mph, making it extremely easy to keep up with.
In fact, I personally have issues with storms that move too slowly and aren’t producing tornadoes or other excitement. Impatience develops, and a general sense of irritation from the “Hurry up and wait for nothing” situation develops.
It would seem the silliness of the reality of the entire situation surfaces to the mind. Taking two flights, renting an SUV, and driving several hundred miles through fields of overwhelming cow shit…for the chance to see some clouds. Perhaps we could be doing something better with our time and money?
Nonetheless, I know better than to get impatient with the sky…most of the time. We started to abandon this storm after over 15 minutes had passed without it being tornado warned.
There was a new cell that looked much healthier, was more isolated, and about 35 miles to our south.
Our storm sure was looking like shit compared to the new storm further to the south. It was becoming wrapped up in all kids of rain, and seemed to be suffering from interference from the numerous small storms that were all around it.
There are few temptations greater in the chasing realm than pulling the “drop south” trigger, and moving to the next storm down the line that appears “more isolated, closer to the moist air mass, and is not the one we are on.”
So I started south on an indescrinable county road towards the newly enticing storm to the south. Not more than 5 miles had passed when began to feel a sense of ignorance and stupidity climbing up my spine.
I immediately pulled over to the next dirt road to take a longer look at the situation, bathing in my own indecision as to what to do at this moment.
We were about 25 miles from the southern storm, but only about 8 miles from the north storm at the current moment.
“It looks like it might be trying to wrap up again” Sarah said while looking at her phone.
I’m not playing the ZigZag Insanity game today.
Too many times on a chase either by myself, or with friends…we have ended up making about 46 U-Turns over the course of an hour. Sometimes it pays off, but more times than not it seems to only cause nausea and indigestion.
So, I resolved to follow the original storm for as long as we could, for better or worse. This was our original target afterall.
Stick to your Guts
We got right back on the ass of the storm that looked like mediocre dogshit, while the storm nearly 40 miles south continued to look good and boasted a tornado warning.
Alec, Brett, and Stephen continued to head south for the other storm. Each minute that passed showcased me attempting to ward off another ounce of potential regret. Potential regret.
After about 20 minutes they were now on the southern storm, and while it was still tornado warned, it did not look quite as healthy as it did when we first took off south.
A tornado warning reappeared on a small portion of our northern storm. I stepped on the gas to head closer into the warned area, and immediately felt better about all 26 years of my life.
There was still much to be decided however. For the next hour, we creeped up KS156 watching a very slow and subtle circular dance of clouds just to our west.
I was beginning to assume this would be one of those days where we watched wall clouds swirl around and shout “It’s coming down!” at the sky….only to end up at the Days Inn with nothing to show for the day.
Patience Pays Off
Around 7:40pm, the monotonously teasing wall cloud suddenly appeared to be stretching tiny fragments of itself towards the ground. The view was not the best primarily due to the amount of rain so close to the circulation. However, some trees and small hills strategically placed by the devil were not helping.
It seemed evident a tornado was all but formed, so I turned onto a dirt road in attempt to get a better view and away from some of the chaser traffic.
HILLS! Here we are in the middle of Kansas, and I always manage to find the only obstructing hills within 100 miles.
I parked the car, ran up the short but steep hill…..
….and there was our first tornado in two years.
The audio display of this tornado was more impressive than the visual presentation. We could easily hear the roar of the tornado, which sounds almost identical to a waterfall. Every tornado I’ve heard sounds more like a waterfall than a freight train.
An older gentlemen about 20 feet away on the same hill shouted over at us.
“That’s really a tornado! Oh my god. I’ve lived here my whole life and this is the first time I’ve seen one!”
That was pretty incredible to hear. The gentlemen was at least 50 years old, and if I had to judge a book by a cover he was either a farmer or at least worked on the land for most of his life.
We jumped back in the car in attempt to find a way to get closer to the tornado, but not before listening to the roar for several more seconds.
Just then, another???? local man came and told us…in so many words…that the roads we were on were muddy.
Major Traffic Jam
As we were heading due north again on the paved county road, we fell into a massive onslaught of other vehicles. For the next fifteen minutes we barely exceeded 20 mph. There were probably 30 cars directly in front of us, and beyond that was the wide open road.
I still can’t understand why were all going so incredibly slow. Obviously someone at the front of the large line of cars ha no idea what they were doing out here. Unfortunately there were too many rolling hills and oncoming cars to get ahead of everyone safely.
Nonetheless, we managed to have the tornado within visual range out the right side of the car for several minutes. It had crossed the road about four minutes after we left that dirt road with the local man. Around ten minutes were spent with no idea if there was still a tornado ongoing between the two sightings.
Power Lines Obliterated
Soon, the traffic rendered the tornado unreachable, even with it’s relatively slow speed. Bastards!
We spotted a building that initially appeared to be heavily damaged on the side of the road, and no one else had stopped near it. I quickly but careful stopped in front of it and yelled out the windows.
There were some people outside, and their house was completely untouched. However, their barn was heavily damaged…but by no means destroyed. They were very lucky.
After turning east onto KS18, we crossed into the fresh wake of the tornado. There were powerpoles leaning sharply, and then several broken completely. We weaved carefully around one powerline down on the edge of the road.
A bit further down the road, even more power lines were down along with their poles broken into several pieces. There were at least 5 different lines lying across the road. We drove slowly over each of them.
Just after it appeared we were clear of everything, I began to speed up. Sarah shouted back at me several seconds later, and incredibly there was yet another powerline in the road.
This one was somehow suspended in the air at about the level of our windshield and drapped across the entire road. We had to wait for oncoming traffic to stop before carefully passing on the opposite shoulder. Had I not slammed on the brakes just in time, running into this particular line would have meant….a big fucking problem.
As the day grew dark, we found ourselves in almost the identical location as our last tornado had taken place in late May of 2016. We followed the storm as it crawled northeast until just after dusk.
We ended up seeing an additional tornado through the lightning strikes, which was fairly far away and only lasted a few minutes.
The lightning show taking place overhead in the darkness, was beyond incredible however. It is disappointing we did not have a real camera OR a real video camera with us in order to get high quality images of the show. Hell, we weren’t supposed to be out here in the first place.
A Familiar Meal
It was now nearly 10:00pm, and the adrenaline of the day came to an intense crash. The hunger and stomach pain came surging into the car like a volcano kept at bay for too many decades. We need to find food immediately before hell ensued inside of the car.
Now you might be able to guess that there weren’t many choice as usual for food this late in the day after a chase. So of course, we ended up at Sonic, America’s wonderful drive inn.
It wasn’t just any of the 3,550+ ordinary Sonics across the country. It was THE Sonic……the same Sonic we ate dinner at around 10:00 pm after we saw our last tornado two years ago.
I didn’t believe it at first, I thought my memory was horseshit.
“Abilene Kansas? Isn’t this the same exact Sonic as last time? Wasn’t this where there were about 57 pickup trucks being aggressively driven around in circles by 14 year old boys?”
Indeed it was. There was no mistake here, and the pickup trucks were still driving around for the sake of making loud noise and spewing smoke into the air…although it wasn’t quite to the extent as the previous visit.
Choking on my Cheeseburger
I sat in amazement while eating my 472nd lifetime Sonic Cheeseburger of what had just happened today.
We buried our 706 day tornado-free streak.
I was incredibly thankful that Sarah yelled just in time to avoid a life-altering accident with the powerlines.
The thought of the local gentlemen just happening to see his first tornado right next to us was especially touching.
Most of all…..we had woken up at 4:00am in Atlanta that morning. The day before we were on top of Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains. It didn’t even seem like it had happened.
During the post exhilaration, there was almost a sense of regret at how fast life had moved. But then again, what other way was there for things to go?