Travelling Hopefully

15 May

I don't like the actual travelling part of the holiday, and the more varied the means of transport the more I worry. So I rose at 6am to leave at 7.30am for the drive to Heathrow. Well, actually, the drive to the car park. I found it last time no problems, but today I became lost. My handy iPhone got me found again, and I reached Heathrow in acceptable time to check in and get through security.

I had a window seat, and got some nice views over Greenland and parts of Canada. The airline stewards brought water around regularly and the meal was even edible.

I had given myself two hours to change planes at Chicago. The first indication of trouble was at passport control. I was in the queue for 45 minutes, and by the time my turn came I was praying that there wouldn't be any problems. When I reached Alaska last year I had to go to a separate section because an earlier passport had been lost, and I had about twenty minutes of questioning before I was let through. But I wasn't held up this time.

So, now I had one hour before the plane to Oklahoma City left. I found my luggage, went through Customs, and then dropped it off again. I was told to go to Terminal 2. When I got there a mass of people waiting to go through security was all I could see. My own flight information had said 'Terminal 1', so I asked and was told that's where I needed to be. 

Now at Terminal 1, and a very long queue through security. I was down to 40 minutes before the flight left. So I started asking people if they minded if I queue jumped. It must be said that people were happy to let me go past them, even some 'Go, girl, go!' comments which I'm sure were meant to be encouraging.

Through security, now twenty minutes before flight departure. But I couldn't see my gate, 'F', listed, only 'B' and 'C'. So I went to the information desk, where a kindly woman decided that rather than answer my question 'Where is Gate Fd2? My flight leaves at 5.18pm' she thought she needed to calm me down first. So while I tried to get instructions from her she first insisted patting my arm and making soothing noises. In the end I took her 'Turn left at Starbucks' and decided I'd work it out from there.

It's not easy trying to run with about 20 pounds worth of camera equipment on your back...

I arrived at the gate and on to the 'plane at 5.05pm. Well, thirteen minutes to spare. What was I worrying about? 

I am now in the hotel room. My check in luggage did not arrive with me. My bag will arrive on a later flight and is meant to get to the hotel at 11.30pm. In the meantime I was given a pre-packed bag of toiletries, so I have been able to brush my teeth! I will go to bed soon in my clothes. It's been a long day.

16 May

I was awakened at midnight by a 'phone call to let me know my luggage had arrived. I blundered downstairs to collect the errant case and then went back to bed. Of course I woke up at 3am USA time (9am UK time) but I forced myself to stay in bed until 7am. 

After an interesting breakfast (good coffee, bad creamer, thin bacon and what I can only describe as an egg patty) I went back to my room to organise my packing. The tv in the room offered over 30 channels but I couldn't find anything worth watching, so I read for awhile.

Our briefing was at 11am. Safety announcements (including what to do if/when hail breaks a van window) were made. It seems that an anchorman from 'The Weather Channel' is joining us. His team are going to film our chases and most of us signed the necessary waivers. The guy's name is Jim Cantore, which probably means something to people in the USA. In addition to his support vehicle and our two vans there is a fourth vehicle, a private photographic charter, which will be with us for six days. The reason for mentioning these photographers will soon become clear. What is the group name for photographers? A snap of photographers? 

We also had a briefing about upcoming weather conditions. Various maps were shown on a large screen, and we had a crash course on dew points and wind shears. I pondered the arcane knowledge which I gain on my travels. In the Arctic last summer I learnt how to interpret ice charts. Now I am learning how to look at dew points and convective forecasts.

Since there was little storm activity today we had a relaxed start to the trip. We had lunch at a grill place, then drove out of Oklahoma City. I sat in the back seat of the van, sharing the three person seat with John. John is also from England and has the same camera and lenses as I have--though he has also brought a second camera and a few more lenses. Much chatter was to be had, and eventually I took refuge in a 'Doctor Who' audio adventure on my iPhone. 

I have never visited this part of the USA before. The flat plains might bore some, and perhaps they will bore me by the end of the trip, but today I found them fascinating. The grasslands also feature forests and lots of animals. We saw various birds, and managed to name a few plus saw a number of raptors we couldn't identify. We drove past a prairie dog colony (I so enjoyed seeing them in and around their burrows!), saw a trio of wild pigs, a herd of deer, and heard a pack of coyotes nearby.

A stop at a Walmart allowed us to buy either junk food or fruit/veg depending upon our weight. I was in rapture at foods which I grew up enjoying but which I can't get in the UK. Oh, the deep joy of holding a box of Wheat Thins! John and I are sharing a bag of carrots and I also bought some bananas (couldn't find any Fair Trade) and Trail Mix. 

We stopped at various photographic opportunities. I couldn't see why so many took photos of an old truck in an old gas station (the light was in the wrong direction), but I did enjoy the abandoned house. However, so many photographers in one space is difficult--we keep getting in each other's shots. We walked across an old wood and steel bridge which straddles both a (currently dry) river and the state line of Oklahoma and Texas. Another stop was made for people to photograph an overgrown prairie graveyard. I didn't bother, again due to the poor light conditions. We had a lovely sunset, which I shot through the van window with my compact camera.

We pulled into our hotel at 9pm. I decided to eat in my room and made a quick trip across the road to a convenience store to pick up some beer. 

17 May

The forecast promised no storms for us, and the forecast was right. Our 10am briefing in a hotel bedroom showed better prospects lie ahead, so today we would drive north, through Oklahoma and into Kansas, so as to be in a better position for what may happen later in the week. We passed through some dust storms and high winds.

Fortunately the vans are quite comfortable and come complete with air conditioning. There weren't as many photographic opportunities as yesterday. One fellow chaser had asked to have her photograph taken by a 'Kansas' sign, so that was indulged. There was also some excitement, at least amongst the photographers, at an old barn. 

Otherwise we chatted, I listened to a number of 'Doctor Who' audio adventures, and I tried not to be tempted by the vast quantities of junk food available at pit stops. I did try the (infamous?) delicacy of ‘chicken fried steak’ for lunch. The steak is not fried in chicken, but in the breaded coating you can get on chicken. 

One of the cameramen from the 'Weather Channel' spent some time in our van. He interviewed a number of us, including me, as we travelled. We were also held up at a railroad crossing whilst bits of windmills went past.

So a day of driving through flat plains. Less wild animals but more domestic, including calves and foals. I've finished my Wheat Thins but I have indulged in a bag of corn nuts. They go very well with beer.

18 May

At breakfast I talked to the producer of the programme for the Weather Channel. He asked to interview me, so light and camera were set up in my hotel room at 9am and I talked to camera. I know how these documentaries work; no doubt my half-hour of talk may feature for all of two sentences. But I was happy to help out.

A day of hope and forecasts. At our 10am briefing there was much angst over whether to go to Colorado or back into Oklahoma. Two different storm fronts were on offer, and it was the case of which might give us the better show. As the storms weren't forecast until the afternoon we spent some time visiting an attraction in the town (Liberal) called ‘Dorothy’s House.’ A prairie house has been moved and decorated to appear as Dorothy Gale's house. Next to it, in a large industrial shed, a whole 'Wizard of Oz' exhibition has been set up. Our guide was excellent, telling the story and singing songs from the movie with great skill. It was a rather fun way to spend an hour or so. 

Afterwards we started off towards Colorado, but mid morning we stopped for a further consult. I had time to take some photos of the Kansas plains (mostly dry, except where modern agriculture brings in water) before we headed off back to Oklahoma.

Lunch consisted of me breaking a firm vow never to visit a MacDonald's. But speed was of the essence so I took one for the team.

As we drove we joked and told tales to one another. A number of these people meet up every year to chase together. The chap I sit next to has the nickname 'Tripod' and I may end up with the name of 'Vicar.' We did have a laugh at a baseball cap I found at one pit stop. It was bright pink and bore the inscription 'Jesus is my Boss.'

Mid afternoon we were chasing a promising cloud. We stopped for several photos, but the cloud broke up. A stop at Glass Mountain State Park allowed for some photos in rather poor light.

A little later there was great excitement amongst our American chasers when we bumped into another group from the Weather Channel called ‘The Great Tornado Hunt.’

We drove late into the night, stopping for dinner at a family run diner. At 10.30am we checked into our hotel and I went to bed without beer.

19 May

Briefing at 9.30am in a hotel bedroom. Today looked much better for storms, but again we needed to wait until things developed later in the day. So we went to Walmart when I loaded up on fruit (and Wheat Thins!). We swung out of town, admired the clouds building up, swung back into town, used some loos, back out of town, clouds, into town... by the end of the day one fellow occupant of our van groaned, 'Please, I don't want to go back to Pratt again!'

Bird life good again. I saw Red-winged blackbirds, a Baltimore Oriole, and I think a Nightjar.

In the afternoon the storm blew up. We had been outside the van when the shout came, 'Everybody inside!' I've never seen rain come on so fast and so fierce. This happened a couple more times. The first few we were held up as people tried to get back to 'their' seats. I suggested we stop worrying about that when the rain came--just get the first seat to hand so others can get in!

We stopped at one viewpoint and the winds gushing in were at 40 miles per hour, with occasional bursts of 50 miles per hour. I found a sturdy post to hold whilst attempting to take photos. One member of the camera crew had a small, hand held video camera and he filmed our struggles against the winds. Warm winds, by the way. At another stop we found hail about the size of an American quarter, just a bit larger than a British pound coin. 

At another stop we heard the sirens of a nearby town's tornado warning system. The clouds were swirling above us, and vortices were forming. Our guide was worried that a tornado might be forming over our heads so we jumped into the van and drove a short distance away. However, although the storm did produce a couple of tornadoes we weren't in the right position to see them.

What did amaze me was how absolutely dark it became under that storm. It was only 5pm (sunset is around 9pm) yet it was as dark as night under that thick cloud cover. And, of course, lightning made us jump from time to time. Much of it was cloud to cloud, but we also saw some cloud to ground.

We went on one last drive because our guide thought we might be in for a good sunset. And we were. We watched storm clouds march over the fields, lit by the setting sun. The wind was rather mild and tripods (including mine) sprung up along the edge of the road. On the way back to the hotel we stopped to watch the cloud to cloud lightning occurring in the distance. We got into our hotel at 10pm. A long day, but a very exciting one!

20 May

The usual morning pattern. Briefing, time at WalMart, lunch. We went to a place called 'Woodie's Smokehouse' where I had a half rack of pork ribs, along with coleslaw, beans, and something called ‘Texas toast.’ There was a vegetarian sitting across from me so I tried to tone down my appreciation of my meal. Afterwards we stopped at a car wash to clear out the mud and gravel we'd all be dragging into the vans. A number of people hoovered and cleaned. I concentrated on my own skills base and took photographs of the process.

Before I left for the trip my sister told me, 'Remember, it's called "storm chasing." That implies that you're behind the storm, chasing it, not in front of the storm to catch it.' However, today was 'storm catching'. We'd drive ahead of the storm edge, stop, get out, photograph, then dive back in as the rain and hail came down upon us. Then another drive to get in front of the storm, out, photographs, rain... and so on. 

We saw some small funnel clouds form in the sky above us, but there wasn't enough spin to turn into anything more dramatic. Although driving through rain and hail is rather dramatic anyway!

Good bird life again. I saw two Turkey vultures on the ground, close enough to see their bare skinned faces. 

There was another small change in our van's occupants as the camera man joined us. He concentrated on getting weather shots. We also discovered how popular storm chasing is. At one point we were in a long convoy of chaser vans, and we kept passing other chasers who were parked on the roadsides. To the credit of our guide, he always seemed to find good vantage points which weren't crowded with other chasers.

Jim Cantore and one of the camera crew left us late afternoon. The other will rejoin us tomorrow, as he would like to have footage of a tornado to finish up the documentary. Sadly for them, the real light show started up after they'd left us. Dust must have been in the atmosphere, for the setting sun threw up fantastic reds and pinks on the clouds. We stopped a couple of times to photograph the event. I can assure you that the colours on the photos are real, not Photoshopped. It was an incredible sight. I left my business card in the mailbox for the house, offering the occupants a copy of my photo if they email me.

We stopped at a MacDonald's (the only place open after 10pm) and although I entered I did not order any food. It was 11.10pm when we reached out hotel for the night in Wichita, Kansas.

21 May

We woke up to sunny skies. I worked hard on my photographs from yesterday and got them up just in time to pack up my room and join the morning's briefing.

To expand our retail therapy experience we went to a Target where I failed to find an iPad 2. I did buy a Smart Cover, though, which I can hold and pretend covers an iPad 2. We had lunch and then headed off.

It was a long drive eastwards through Kansas. We stopped for some photography by an old barn, and the cameraman was intrigued by my travelling companion, Gunther. The dachshund was interviewed and I hope he didn't say anything to embarrass me.

For this early part we had sunny skies, and I enjoyed the change of scenery from wheat fields to grasslands, trees, and rivers. Little did I know that we would all be cursing trees later on...

As we neared Topeka we could see several storms brewing up alongside us. It was now a chase to get in front of the storm, and to find a clear area in which to watch what might develop. Now the trees were annoying us, often blocking the storm from view.

We found a hill, by Airforce land, at which we stopped. The supercell looked like a flying saucer, and you could see how the clouds rotated in a circle. The funnels moved away from the fence, giving a more scenic foreground, but never made it to the ground.

We packed up and found another clear area nearby. Again the storm was beautiful, and two funnels formed but didn't reach the ground. Hail the size of quarters (British pound coin) littered the ground around us. Every so often wind would rush past to join the storm. 

Another mad chase. We heard the tornado warning sirens go up as we passed through towns. Now the trees really annoyed us, and there was a short but sharp outburst of swearing in the van. We hurtled down all sorts of roads, from paved to dirt, and as there were other storm chasers in front of us we also ate dust from time to time. After much zig-zagging we came up to a hill. We stayed there past sunset, until the lightning show died down.

We headed off at 9pm, listening to reports of tornado damage in the nearby towns. Several stops were made to admire and to attempt to photograph the lightning. At one stop a man from a local volunteer fire department came up to the van to warn us about the local tornadoes. At least one local town had been 'swept away' by a tornado. A sobering reminder that these storms may be beautiful but they are also deadly.

We reached our hotel at midnight. I collapsed into my room and had the opportunity to listen to the next door's television all night. Just as well that I'm a good sleeper.

22 May

Once again I managed to get my photos processed and this blog updated just in time to join the daily briefing. We were to head further east, towards Missouri, although our guide hoped we could catch the storm before we started to fight with more trees. I have come to realise why it is good to pay experts for this--they know the areas which allow good storm spotting, namely fields and prairies rather than built up areas and trees.

We drove for a couple of hours and caught the storm. This was one much wetter than yesterday's, which meant it was harder to spot funnel clouds or tornadoes. We crossed into Missouri, and around 6pm we stopped in a farmyard. Someone shouted that they thought they saw a wedge tornado. There was a congestion around the van door as we all hesitated, not wanting to commit selves and cameras to the rain until we were certain. But then we heard it. The sound of a large tornado has been compared to that of a train, and I agree, but would throw a large angry animal growl into the mix. Now we all plunged into the rain, taking photographs of the tornado which we could hear better than we could see.

We jumped back into the van and headed up the road, looking for a clearer area. Again the shout went up of 'tornado!' This was a rope tornado, spun off the main one, and I just managed to get some photographs before it disappeared.

The rain was now coming down in earnest. We continued to drive and to stop, although we didn't see any more tornadoes. In one driveway the occupants of the nearby houses came out to see and chat with us. Our driver assured them that he didn't see much risk of a tornado in the clouds overhead. Then the winds picked up and we were told to return promptly to the vans. I wonder what the locals made of our quick departure!

Rain and hail beat upon the van as we drove off again. After sunset we came across the destructive path left by the large tornado. Trees were splintered, power lines were down, and a house had been destroyed. We don't know if anyone were inside that house. It was a very sobering sight, reminding us how destructive tornadoes are. Later we heard that Joplin, a town not far from us, had been hit hard by tornadoes, with multiple deaths. View a video here.

The rain became heavier and heavier. We took shelter from hail from time to time. Another near midnight check in to our hotel. I think I'm going to need a holiday after this holiday!

23 May

I slept in until 7.20am before going off for a bagel breakfast. The television in the hotel lobby carried coverage from the destruction caused in Joplin. The death toll kept rising throughout the day. 

The cameraman from the 'Weather Channel' asked for one last interview with me, which we did outside the hotel. We're hoping to get copies of the final documentary, which should be aired in three months' time. I'll try to let my USA based friends and family know the date and time.

At the morning briefing there was a debate as to whether we should have stopped at the ruined house to offer our help. Could we have been of assistance, or could we have gotten in the way of the professionals or become victims ourselves? There were strong views on both sides of the debate.

We headed back into Oklahoma, stopping for lunch. We met some weather people from California who are out here storm chasing for a few days, and it was agreed that they could follow us. We also had a stop at Canton Lake. We saw a turtle in the waters, and admired the Cliff swallows feeding young in their clay nests under the bridge. Red-tailed hawks circled above. At a river nearby I saw a Belted kingfisher.

Storms are a matter of timing. When our guide thought the time was right we headed off again. The skies darkened and we headed alongside the storm. A call went up 'funnel!' So we stopped, and several of us braved the rain to wait outside. We were rewarded by a funnel tornado, which touched down on the plain near the town of Okeene. Wind, of course, is invisible, and so the tornado can only be seen in the clouds and at the touch down point. We tried to get back to the area again, but police cars blocked the road.

The rest of the day we drove and tornado hunted, but the storm lost momentum. We stopped for a pit stop and the young man at the counter was thrilled to see 'real storm chasers!' I think we made his week. I also liked the fact that in the middle of rural Oklahoma I could use my UK debit card in an ATM machine and get out cash.

We stopped in a field to admire a large, black cloud which swirled in the distance. Then it was a quick scramble back into the vans to search for cover from an on-coming hail storm. We got out of the van before it went into a port in a car wash. And that was a stupid move. The rain and hail came down fiercely on the roof above, and blew in from the front and back. I had my camera equipment in my backpack and I had a waterproof shield which I could put over the pack. But my three companions had no protection handy for their cameras. I lent out one camera cover and tried to provide shelter under my pack cover for the others. In the meantime we all got thoroughly drenched.

We found the van in a bay next to us, and the vehicle was backed up so we could get in. We drove through mighty rain to get to our hotel, which was packed with storm chasers booking in for the night. It was good to have an early night--into my room at 9.30pm! I only hope I can get my shoes to dry out before tomorrow.

24 May

I had an email from the occupants of the house which I had photographed last week. I sent a low res copy of the image and offered to send a high res for free if they wanted it. I figure it's the least I can do.

All the weather reports indicated that today would feature a large outbreak of thunderstorms and tornadoes. We saw the severe warnings on the charts at our morning briefing.

Many storm chasing vehicles were lined up in the hotel car park. One was the 'TVI'—Tornado Intercept Vehicle. I understand that a television programme in the USA features this vehicle. We all had fun taking photographs around it.

After lunch we again hovered around the area we hoped would give us the best chance to spot a tornado. During the day we moved from place to place, hearing about tornadoes on local radio but not seeing any ourselves.

A day of little action but two startling moments. One was when I felt something on my back, and when I scratched and looked what was trapped under my nail I found that I'd removed a tick. Ugh. I hate parasites. I crushed it. The second moment was when we'd stopped in one small town for a pit stop. The tornado warning sirens went off and we saw, in the distance, a black cloud. However our guides were not worried--their radar showed that we weren't facing a tornado.

We booked into the hotel at 9.30pm, and I actually have time for a beer tonight. 

25 May

Our guide pointed out that the best chance for a tornado was in Missouri, the land of the trees and poor visibility. Did we want to chase? Majority vote said yes, so we set off and drove. Lunch was a sandwich in a moving van.

I did a short tutorial about RAW and Photoshop on the back seat with a van occupant. I've done a bit of teaching about photography the last few days and it's been great fun.

At 4pm, in the Greenville area, we pulled over at a truck stop and hurried down to the road. One of our guides tried to wave at the traffic, warning them not to continue. While we watched and photographed, a large tornado swirled across the road. We saw it disappear behind the trees, and some attempts were made to photograph it again. Abandoned tractors offered extra height.

Back into the vans, and we chased the tornado for a number of miles. At one point we went past the damage left by the tornado--uprooted trees and a damaged house. Although the trees got in the way we did see the tornado for some time, and took many photographs through the van windows. Then the tornado lifted and we stopped to catch our breaths. Two of us said, almost simultaneously, 'I need a drink.' It took me awhile to calm down again. It was rather thrilling!

We poked around a bit more, but didn't find any other interesting prospects. We stopped at some waterlogged fields to admire the sunset. Then we packed up for the day and headed off for a nice dinner.

26 May

A long day of driving to get us back to Oklahoma. A number of us fly home tomorrow from Oklahoma City. We had our last briefing before setting off. 

We stopped to view some of the damage left by the tornado we'd witnessed the day before. A house had been torn apart and debris littered the other side of the road. I couldn't bring myself to take photos of what little was left of the house. The occupants had gone elsewhere when they had heard the tornado warning, and so weren't in the house when it was destroyed. One van occupant took up a cash collection which she gave to the family. It was another sobering reminder of what these storms can do.

We drove on through lovely wooded landscape of the Ozark Mountains. I was pleased to spot a Cardinal and a Great Blue Heron.

One van occupant asked if we could try to find an IMAX theatre showing the movie 'Tornado Alley.' A search on-line brought up Branson, Missouri. So late afternoon we rolled into the rather interesting town. It appears to be a holiday destination, full of live shows, exhibits, rides, and other attractions. We got a group ticket and enjoyed the movie, which had some stunning tornado footage. 

Afterwards we had dinner in a place called 'The Golden Corral'--an all you can eat buffet place. Then a drive through Arkansas (which brings us to five USA states visited this holiday) before reaching our hotel in Oklahoma at 11.30pm. 

27 May 

We had time for one last group shot before heading off to Oklahoma City. Half of us were catching flights that day, others the next day. I was in the former category, and I'm pleased to say that I had a hassle free trip home. 

So, many thanks to Tempest Tours, our guides/drivers, and all those with whom I've travelled. 

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