In the movies, it seems like tornado chasers drive a few miles, find some green clouds and a tornado drops from the sky right in front of them. Like so many stories on the silver screen, Hollywood has taken a few liberties with reality.
That doesn’t mean the experience of seeing a tornado in real life is any less exhilarating than the heart pounding moments depicted in the movies. Coming face to face with my first real tornado, an EF4 near Tipton, Oklahoma, was an experience I still can’t describe to anyone who hasn’t seen a tornado up close.
Perhaps it’s the desire to have such an extreme frame of reference that drives so many people to tell me that seeing a tornado is on their bucket list. Funny -- seeing a tornado never was on my bucket list. But then again, I can’t say I’ve ever given much thought to such a list.
While the experience of seeing a tornado may be bucket list-worthy for many, I doubt their list includes butt-numbing treks across barren landscape for days on end, gas station food, gas station toilets, and the aroma of cow dung that’s never far away.
I know, the minor inconveniences of long road trips are worth it for a chance to see such an awesome force of nature. But, it never ceases to amaze me just how repetitive the landscape of certain states can be. Driving down a rural two-lane blacktop in parts of Kansas and Oklahoma is like running on a treadmill. You may be racking up the miles, but the scenery isn’t changing.
I’m also amazed that every gas station in the Great Plains seems to carry the same beef jerky, cylindrical food products and packaged chicken salad sandwiches. It’s also surprising how many gas stations still have toilets outside -- and yes, you do need a key to gain entrance.
And then there’s the smell of cow manure. It seems like every 15 miles that gag-inducing aroma permeates the chase vehicles. Blame it on the massive cattle pens that produce America’s beef. I won’t venture into the merits of these modern meat machines, but let’s just say they smell like...
I’m sure many bucket-listers would give their left (insert appendage here) for a chance to further enhance their tornado chasing experience by riding in the Dominator, an armored vehicle that drives into tornadoes. If you’ve watched the reality show “Storm Chasers” on the Discovery Channel, you’re likely familiar with the maroon colored Chevy Tahoe that Reed Timmer and his team drive into the path of an oncoming twister.
While most chasers keep a healthy distance from tornadic winds that can reach hundreds of miles per hour, Reed and his team get as close as their vehicle can survive in the hope of taking weather readings inside the vortex.
I’ve become quite familiar with the Dominator these past few days while working as a photographer on Timmer’s new online reality series. As the lead photographer on this particular chase, I spend my days sitting in the backseat, camera in hand, waiting for something exciting to happen.
Take note thrill seekers: Riding in the Dominator is not as glamorous as it may seem. It’s hot, then cold, then hot again. You sweat like a can of beer on a Mississippi summer afternoon. It smells (even when there’s no cow farm nearby). And it’s noisy. I’m talking monster truck with the windows down on a gravel road noisy.
Speaking of gravel roads, neither dirt nor gravel roads mix well with the Dominator. The dust kicks up and infiltrates the inside of this tornado tank, coating everything in a fine powder. Holding your T-shirt over your mouth probably doesn’t block much, but it feels better knowing you’ve made the effort to shield your lungs.
On the up side, you do get your picture taken a lot at every gas station stop, red light and even when passing someone on the freeway. People love the Dominator, and who wouldn’t? It’s an amazing sight in its own right.
The long hours, gas station experiences and lung-choking atmosphere are all a distant memory, however, when you finally arrive upon a storm that’s about to produce a tornado. Low, black clouds hang over the horizon ready to drop a tube at any moment. The Dominator pulls to the side of the road and the entire team jumps out to catch a glimpse. Everyone points to the sky looking for that one small sign that nature is about to unleash its power, right across the highway.
Then the winds gust, the temperature drops and hail begins to pelt you in the head like a child dropping quarters off a skyscraper. The team jumps back in the vehicle and races to keep up with the lowering rotation. We race through blinding rain, swirling wind and larger hail. Despite the promising structure of the storm, no tornado is ever visible.
As the sun sets and the storm weakens, the team heads back to Norman, Oklahoma, to prepare for another chase day. Weather models show this to be one of the biggest outbreaks in the Great Plains in years.
Everyone is primed and ready to hit the road again in the eternal pursuit of the chance to experience a force of nature Hollywood simply can’t match.