I promise anyone that is reading this that this blog is going to have a good deal of variety. I have a good deal of travel plans starting next week, in which I will be traveling almost non-stop the first half of June. But, for now, I guess there are going to be two consecutive blogs about storm chasing. It is May, the peak month for tornadoes, and I plan to blog about the interesting places that I go. It just so happened to be that two back to back entries ended up being storm chases. I mean, I am not going to blog about things that are not too interesting, like my dog chewing up my underwear yesterday. I guess I could write about partying, but for now I am keeping this a travel blog.
This is my first season of chasing out of Denver, so I am still getting used to certain things about chasing from here rather than Chicago. Storm chasing from Denver means that you will always be going east to try to catch the storms, and trying to catch them from behind. This is the opposite of chasing from Chicago which almost always entailed going west. Strong thunderstorms often form on a weather feature known as a dry line. Dry lines are boundaries between dry and moist air, with moist air to the east and dry air to the west. It took us a couple of hours to get to the moist side of the dry line (which is more favorable for storms), but when we first started to see storms form, we were still in a very dry air mass near Akron, Colorado.
From now on, I am going to refer to U.S. highway 34 from Greeley to the Nebraska state line as “feed lot highway”. I didn’t take another picture of the feedlots because one picture is enough, but I am still amazed by how may cows you encounter along this road in eastern Colorado. I noticed that there is a gigantic feedlot about four miles west of the town of Wray, Colorado. If there is a west wind, that town must smell horrible, and all 100 or so people must be pissed off. There was a part of the drive when we were unable to get the smell of 1000s of cows all jammed up into something like 5 acres of land out of the car. I remember the first time I drove by a feedlot (also on a storm chase). I remember thinking that I had finally encountered a worse smelling road than the New Jersey Turnpike, and it only took me 19 years!
We chased four storms today. The first two we caught up to near Holyoke, CO, about 35 miles north of Wray. The first storm we caught actually showed some rotation, and produced some major hail. I looked it up later, and the reports we saw indicated hail sizes of up to 2.75″. Luckily for our chasing vehicle, we did not end up in that section of the storm, but we did see some smaller hail, as seen on the road in the below picture.
We followed the first storm for a while, and then started following the storm just to the east of it. Tracking this storm took us across the stateline into Nebraska.
This is the best picture I could get of the welcome to Nebraska sign on state route 23. One of the strange things that makes me happy is when a state highway crosses into another state and maintains the same number in the adjacent state. This is actually somewhat rare. For example, Indiana state highway 2 becomes Illinois state highway 17 when you cross the border. If you look at state highways on a map, you will see that it is way more common for them to take on a different number when crossing a border. But, this crossing was an exception, Colorado state highway 23 became Nebraska state highway 23!
By the way, when it comes to state welcome signs, Nebraska is without a doubt blown away by all of it’s neighbors. South Dakota’s welcome sign has an image of Mount Rushmore. Kansas’s has a sunflower. Colorado’s is the classic wooden sign saying “Welcome to Colorful Colorado”. Wyoming’s forever west ones are a neat depiction of the state’s cowboy heritage. Iowa’s say “Fields of Opportunities”. Okay, that is kind of a stupid slogan, but at least it is memorable. Home of Arbor Day? Really, Nebraska? Of all the facts about your state that you could present to me every time I enter Nebraska, you chose Arbor Day? I’d rather see a picture of Warren Buffet every time I enter the state.
Anyways, that storm kind of crapped out, so we went after a few storms a bit farther north, near Ogallala. Here we actually saw a funnel cloud. It did not reach the ground and therefore was not a tornado. In fact, there were no tornadoes reported today, only large hail and strong winds. So, seeing this, we did feel like bad-asses for being on the best storm of the day even if it was not a tornado.
These pictures came north of Ogallala, near Lake Mcconaughy. Basically, somewhere along the line someone decided to dam up the North Platter River just northeast of Ogallala, NE. Behind it, as is typically the case with dams, a lake was created and suddenly Nebraskans had a place to bring their boats. This is not too interesting of a story, but I am sure it is more interesting than Arbor Day.
The other problem we ran into was lack of a good road network in the area north and east of Ogallala. Therefore, we had to let this particular storm, which was the most interesting one we saw today, go. Luckily, there was one other storm behind it, tracking northeast from the west edge of Lake Mcconaghy. So, we decided to watch this storm go by- well until sunset.
At this ranch, where there were hundreds of cows out on the range, making plenty of noise (it was really funny actually), this spectacular sunset took place. There was something kind of awe inspiring about the way the sun set gradually just to the left of a major thunderstorm that was producing frequent lightning. It’s the kind of event that you really have to be there to truly appreciate, but let’s just say it was one of those things that really got me thinking.
I tried to get a picture of lightning, but it is hard to do so with a cell phone camera. But, I really liked the feeling of being on an empty two lane undivided road looking straight into a thunderstorm around sunset. I think it just had a specific feeling to it. It’s kind of like stepping into the unknown, and taking a path less traveled, but still knowing you are not going anywhere too terribly dangerous. It is stepping far enough outside your comfort zone to generate an excitement in you, but not so far that you get truly scared, kind of like trying a new restaurant or taking a new class.
This scene also reminded me of a time in my life when roughly half of my weekends would start out this way; traveling on the open road on a Friday evening. This was in college and graduate school when I would frequently be headed elsewhere in the general Midwest area; Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Ann Arbor, Saint Louis, Bloomington, Champaign, etc. I remember months where I would literally have spent 24 total hours traveling, but realize that I had not even left the corn belt. Most of those weekends actually ended up being somewhat similar. They would involve parties (or bars, etc.) with a couple of people I knew, and a bunch of people I did not know. It was exactly that mix of the familiar and the unknown that is captured by driving down a desolate road into a thunderstorm. In a way, it is the balance we are all seeking. Very few people are satisfied continuing to do the same thing over and over again for their entire lifespan. So, we all must learn new things, meet new people, and develop new experiences. But, we must all do so at our own pace.
As I watched the sun slowly descend the horizon I continued to ponder what it meant. I thought to the feelings I had on those countless Friday and Saturday evenings on the road last decade. It is usually about what lies ahead. Sometimes life can get frustrating. When life does get frustrating, it is the promise of some kind of new experience that can help alleviate the feeling of melancholy that attempts to infect your mind.
It is impossible to know what kind of storms you are going to see when storm chasing. Anyone that says they only want to go storm chasing if they know they will see a tornado simply does not understand storm chasing and should not be invited on future chases. The unknown needs to be embraced. It is the same with traveling to a place you have never been to before, trying something you have never done before, or meeting someone new. The place may be a disappointment, like when I was 8 years old and I thought Plymouth Rock would be bigger. You could always try a new activity or a new type of food and discover you don’t like it. And, we have all met assholes. But, the uncertainty is part of what makes it exciting. Any task where a certain outcome is guaranteed quickly becomes just another task, indistinguishable from work, chores, etc.
This is why I gamble. This is why I go to parties and dance with complete strangers. This is why I am always looking to go somewhere I have never been to before. And, in a way, this is why I chase storms and study the weather. There is always a chance for a surprise, which makes these experiences the exact opposite of watching a movie you have already seen. I for one, cannot wait for my next journey into the unknown, regardless of what type of unknown it is.