Storm Chasing is primarily a game of being in the right place at the right time, as is most of life.
June 12th, 2013 was one of those days that seemed as if being in the big red highlighted circle was all that would be required to see a good storm. The Storm Prediction Center had Northern Illinois and Northwest Indiana highlighted with a moderate risk for severe weather. The expectation for the day was believed to be an evolving squall line of damaging wind that would trek across the area after the initial supercells had merged together.
I departed from home west of Indianapolis a few hours before noon in the old red beloved clunker and headed west on I-74, eventually onto I-39 north towards Rockford IL, where I would team up with a couple chasing bros that lived in the area. As the car rolled through the lanes in Bloomington, IL where I-74 and I-55 converge and I-39 begins, the SPC upgraded the Moderate Risk to a High Risk.
The shit is about to hit the fan and splatter everywhere! was more or less the conversation I had with Donny while I was leaving the Bloomington area, where Illinois State University is located, and cruising up I-39 on what is one of the most empty stretches of interstate to be found outside of the western states.
A distance of 120 miles between Bloomington and Rockford, there is nothing to be seen on this stretch of interstate but corn, corn, occasional wind turbines, and corn. Gas stations are remarkably sparse considering the relative population of Illinois.
The old car was a 1998 Neon with no air conditioning and a somewhat loud but still great running engine, which rode about two inches off the ground. Who the hell thought those things were a good idea for teens to be driving? The doors didn’t even have window frames which was kind of fun, but I digress, the windows were always down as they had to be, primarily due to the fact that the heat had to be blasted at all times to prevent the engine from overheating. Driving 80mph held the engine at a steady 3700RPMS, and the tires rolling down the concrete of Interstate 39 produced the loudest, highest pitch hum your ear drums are capable of experiencing.
Needless to say, every trip made up and down this lonely stretch of road resulted in acute but significant tinnitus; the radio on max was barely able to overpower all of the road noise. Tie all of these factors into the wonderful landscape of completely monotonous corn stalks in all directions, you had to be either a seasoned road dog or a complete madcap whose <link>only home were those very lonely roads</link> to enjoy a four hour trip such as this.
When I finally arrived in Rockford and parked in front of Donny’s house, we went inside very briefly to do some ‘advanced meteorological forecasting’, which consisted of hastily clicking a few buttons and pointing on the map and saying “right here.” Right here as in exactly where we were sitting.
We got in Donny’s car and headed a few miles up the road to Rockton, practically inches from the Wisconsin border, where I met Alec for the first time, so far as memory serves. Sometimes when you are chasing, you come across so many different people in the middle of nowhere for such a short duration, you can forget whether you actually have met them before, and whether </link> blowing a vuvuzela at them counts. </link>
The chase started off with us heading west out of the Rockford area. Unbeknown at the time, today was going to be a day of U-turns and loopty loops, which is how most chases seem to turn out. Our first stop and wait of the day occurred very briefly at the Stockton Travel Center, located on rural US highway 20 about fifty minutes west of Rockford. There was a cemetery across the street that provided an odd but appealing landscape for the developing thunderstorms.
As it was a High Risk day and tradition at the time, a pack of cigarettes magically appeared and the cancer consumption began. Cigarettes are appalling, but chasing on a high risk day could never be considered healthy by any sane person, no matter how many people tried to shame us at the time. In fact, almost everything associated with storm chasing is naturally unhealthy.
We quickly ended up heading back east on US 20 towards Rockford, which became a freeway just west of the city, as a storm had rapidly developed and was heading directly toward downtown Rockford. Just fifteen minutes after appearing on radar, a tornado warning was issued. We barely made it into prime position just south of downtown when the ominous skies began barking down upon us.
Looking north off of US 20 and now beginning to enter city traffic, a wall cloud had rapidly developed and was lowering closer to the ground, but at first glance didn’t appear too terribly harmful. It wasn’t 45 seconds later that a “Well look at that” moment turned into a “Holy fucking shit” situation.
We were located just south of the Southgate Shopping Center, when I got a few quick but ample looks from the backseat at what is still the most intense rotation I have witnessed in the flesh. There were hills and a few buildings partially obstructing the view to the ground, but this wall cloud was obviously pissed as all hell.
The entire section of the sky was rotating sideways similar to that Zero Gravity or Round Up ride at amusement parks specifically designed to make people vomit all over their own faces. The motion was nothing short of violent, wrapping extremely rapidly inward from all directions and then upward simultaneously.
We were cruising down US 20 occasionally dropping expletives with exclamation points concerning the ridiculous rotation when, if memory serves correctly, Donny sent a text to one of his friends who was visiting that shopping center at the time, commanding them to get the hell out of the way. We more or less assumed a huge tornado was about to plow into Rockford.
No more than 60 seconds later we entered a massive rain shield, and were caught in the downpour on the freeway. The rotation disappeared from our viewpoint and we were momentarily filled with uncertainty about what was happening.
The rotation was never seen again, and the storm essentially dissipated within the next ten minutes. What appeared to be a pending catastrophe ended up being all bark and no bite, and Rockford was completely spared.
Following these brief tense moments, the car was now headed back west to wait for any more potential development that might be occurring to the west just across the Mississippi river. Making another U-turn on US20, we found ourselves right back at that Stockton Travel Center, lighting up another poison candy cane while glancing around at the clouds along with that cemetery across the street.
Additional development was slow and not very promising at first, so we headed a little further west towards Iowa. Everyone seems to hate going into Iowa, one reason because so many chases end up as complete busts, but in this situation crossing the river could mean game over if storms fired just to the east and a bridge back across to Illinois was too far away to get back to the storms in time.
We ended up right back at that Stockton Travel Center for the third time of the day, so I took the opportunity to snap a few photos of the developing storms. Now the entire day was beginning to come into question as the damn storms were taking their sweet ass time doing anything worthwhile. As the early afternoon turned later, we were once again heading back west towards the Mississippi River.
Illinois is a godsend for storm chasing, as nearly the entire state is extremely open, perfectly flat, and contains a completely gridded network of roads across the open farmlands, nearly all of which were paved and paved well.
All of these wonderful factors and it seems that there are less chasers in Illinois for big events than you can find anywhere else in the central third of the country during even rather small events, and Illinois always gets a plethora of large tornadoes. Maybe they don’t know about the wonderful terrain, maybe they don’t want to drive that far, maybe they are xenophobic for the eastside of the Mississippi River. Regardless, I love the place for chasing and hope everyone continues to stay away.
Of course, driving after tornadoes always presents some asinine circumstances. We were now just south of Galena Illinois and heading further south towards Hanover, moving ever closer to the Mississippi River. Not only was this particular part of Illinois not completely flat and open, it was becoming one of the most dense forests I had found myself in during chasing, and there were friendly hills assisting the forest in obstructing views and the road network as well!
The skies went from dark to nearly black as we ascended deeper into the forest, before a brief clearing in a soybean field nestled along somewhat of a valley appeared. There was a fragmented wall cloud forming, and it was partially moving towards us. Deep in the forest and hoping for a tornado, it seemed today was going to lead where completely the opposite of a normal Illinois chase, heading nearly due south on a windy, hilly gravel road through the forest.
The storm, now somewhat following us, had been tornado warned for several minutes, but we really had no idea what the hell was going on, due to a complete lack of any visibility. It was a couple of clearings around a curve and a hill when Alec shouted something about seeing a tornado, but we couldn’t really confirm at the time as the opening was so brief.
Several hundred feet down the road, the vehicle came to an abrupt stop. No prior warning was given to the passenger in the seat hanging out the rear window attempting to see what the hell was going on in the sky.
We all jumped out and ran into an open field next to us, attempting to get a glance at the storm. There was nothing but trees to be seen right here, however within 15 seconds the trees began to whip around violently as a loud and high pitch whooshing sound could be heard over the hill. We stampeded back to the car, shoes sinking a few inches deep into the dry but soft mud with every step.
“There it is dude! Multi-vortex! FILM FILM FILM FILM!!” Alec shouted back at us while losing focus of the road and halfway stopping unknowingly in the heat of the moment.
“Drive drive drive” I said back somewhat begrudgingly as I had already been doing my job, filming out the back window through those damn ass defrost lines. Why can’t we peel those damn things off during the summer?
There it is! A pretty damn good looking miniature stovepipe tornado, considering it was fairly shrouded in rain, at least compared to a typical classic storm on the plains. The tornado was conveniently located directly behind us, crossing the top of the hill straight down the middle of the alley of trees.
Donny and Alec argued for several moments, which provided some wonderful audio color to the video. I just sat backwards while filming and staring at the tornado blocking out their shenanigans, lucky and thankful to be stowed in the backseat for once in my life.
After we lost sight of the tornado and turned onto some more open roads, I noticed we had about eight cars following us now, a couple of which I recognized. I naturally proceeded to hang half of my body out the window of the moving car in order to perform a buffet of obscene gestures at those trailing us.
Back in Rockford after dark, we stopped at a Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the end of the Chicago Blackhawks playoff game, Dono’s favorite hockey team. Coming from Indiana, I knew jackshit about hockey, but always thought it was fun to watch, so I halfheartedly rooted for the Hawks to win given the circumstances. All of the weather wieners on Facebook seemed to either live and die for the Blackhawks, or wanted to slaughter anyone who rooted for them. Chaser Facebook has always been a terrifying realm, and no decent human being should ever dare enter it.
The Hawks won! After a celebratory dollar beer at a hole-in-the-wall bar in town, I left to head back to Indy around 2am Central. Four and a half hours plus an additional hour for switching from Central to Eastern time, I wouldn’t be arriving back home until at least 7:30am. The summer solstice was one week away, so the very asscrack of dawn was around 4:45am central, where I found myself on empty I-74 between Bloomington and Champaign Illinois.
In the distance over Indiana, the remnants from the previous evening storms were putting on a hell of a lightning show, enough to illuminate the crisp cauliflower tops of the storms which were nearly 100 miles to the east. I jerked the wheel to the right at the ramp of Exit 166 and sped up the ramp before turning left onto County Road 2. A mile up the road, I swerved onto one of countless east-west running county roads in the midst of the land of corn, and drove just far enough that I was sure no cars would be anywhere within sight or sound.
Here I was, standing alone with nothing but the corn, watching the sky change colors and the lightning illuminate the sculpted storm towers far in the distance. I had just seen my sixth tornado in the past three weeks, as well as my life.
A pipe dream just two years prior, I had landed on the path of one of my first passions, and was making a bunch of friends along the way. Was it going to continue? Was it just a one year, one summer event that I got to enjoy for a very short time while I was young? I had no idea, and I didn’t give a flying fuck.
I realized that life was happening right now, at this very moment. It wasn’t happening in fifteen years after I had obtained my college degree and gotten that perfect career that everyone in my life had hammered into me for so long. My dreams weren’t going to magically come true after 20 years of doing some bullshit I had no interest in, some bullshit that would not benefit me in anyway, and thus by nature would not benefit anyone in my life.
Your dreams require action. Immediate, unrestrained action. You cannot simply take 27 steps towards something you have no interest in, and expect what you have a passion for, an obsession for; to suddenly *POOF* and materialize into your life.
If your ideal life vision does not involve working at XYZ Corporation and getting a 401K plan, then pursuing that goal with the idea your actual life vision will someday come true thanks to the work you put in somewhere else and money you earned, you are living in a fantasy world.
Money is helpful obviously, but money alone will not put you on the path you want to be on if you are neglecting the REAL needs, the real desires, the real vision for your life.
I was driving a car that was as far from being suited for storm chasing as can be at the time, and spending savings from the jobs I had worked over the past five years, most of which was originally planned for college. It wasn’t much, but combined with a burning and untamable desire for witnessing extreme weather up close and driving around the most unknown areas of the country, I was already taking the first steps towards my ideal life without even realizing it.
Three years later and I’m still on that path, with many more similar experiences, and while that path can be quite difficult, I sure as shit don’t see myself getting back on the wide road of ho hum ever again.
Are you pursuing your vision of your ideal life? Have you taken the time to actually envision what you truly want from life?