In the Spring ’06, I accepted a TV assignment for Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers” to document a brave group of scientists and storm chasers who study and follow severe weather throughout “Tornado Alley.” For eight weeks, we traveled in a caravan throughout parts of the (red) United States I had never before seen (and didn’t plan on seeing in my lifetime).
Several weeks into tornado season, our entire crew, which was comprised of storm chasers, scientists, and TV nerds, docked in Salina, Kansas to asses the weather and wait for the next big storm to start. To pass time, we played cards in the hotel parking lot and used spray bottles to keep cool from the soaring 100 degree temperatures. Nothing like an asphalt heat wave to keep you from doing what you’re supposed to be doing.
Sometimes we cruised the streets of downtown Salina, which featured a strip of franchised restaurants and used car dealerships, when our countless games of Texas Hold Em had run their course.
From North Dakota to Nebraska to Oklahoma to Texas, we stayed in places like Salina night after night, meeting people we never knew existed before entering their state’s line. Our caravan of chase vehicles would roll into these towns slightly after dusk and roll out the next morning once the weather started brewing.
Because the pace of daily life slows down in the middle of the country, often times doing something ordinary became an experience all its own.
Below is a three part series of experiences I had while traveling through those towns.
May 18, 2006
Tonight I decided to walk to the local Taco Bell for dinner. It’s just down the street from my Best Western hotel in Salina, KS off Highway 135. A good idea at the time, but after the sun went down, no one else was around. Just gas stations and all night diners. I thought to myself, “Who lives here?”
The girl who took my order was portly and didn’t have any front upper teeth. She was sweet, and she smiled (well, she tried) when I thanked her for taking my order.
Several guys who sat near the rear of the restaurant laughed and made crude comments. I noticed them as soon as I walked through the door, because something about them made me uneasy. This is, afterall, the state where people get killed/ raped/ murdered for no reason at all (“In Cold Blood”, anyone?).
After I settled into my schooldesk like chair, the “scary” boys began screaming racial slurs to the workers behind the counter. The TB employees shrugged off their comments and then got right in on the fun. Girl with no teeth No. 2 (yes, there were two of them) called the drive-thru window man, “One slow ass nigg**!” He had no reply because, I reasoned, she probably calls him that everyday.
Moments later, a faceless, nameless worker from the back shouted, “Where are all the Mexicans tonight?!?!?!”, to which several of the employees shouted back, “Yeah, yeah!” Then without missing a beat, one of the scary boys shouted back, “I’m Filipino fools!”
There was one normal-ish looking man who came in to order food. Pink shirt, tiny checkered pants, black leather belt, black dress shoes. I wondered what he did for job and where he lived because in that moment in time, he didn’t fit in the snapshot. Not at all.
Finally Girl No. 1 with no front teeth called my order number, and as I picked up my tray of food, she told me I got a free caramel apple empanda because she took so long making my order. Apparently this is the place to be on Thursday nights. They had a line of cars around the building.
In minutes, I scarfed down my bean and cheese burrito and crunch wrap supreme, while enjoying the comforting taste of greesy nacho cheese and crunchy corn tortillas. Some things are the same no matter where you are in the world.
Other things are not the same at all.
May 24, 2006
It’s just after 1 a.m. on the morning of the 24th. Our caravan of vehicles crept into Cameron, Missouri a little after midnight. A long day of chasing storms has come to an end. We crossed three state lines in a matter of a few hours: Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri.
Now I sit propped up only by my hotel bed post and pillow. Our hotel is run down and looks like post-war Sarajevo. The pool is nearly empty with a foot of muddy water occupying the bottom.
We’re chasing a storm that’s located in Iowa; north of here by several hours. Tomorrow morning we wake up and do it all over again. A few hours of sleep and then back to the road.
Today was a rush. My first storm chasing experience. The rain thrashed the side of our vehicle. The clouds crept through the sky at an alarming pace. Other strangers followed our lead, hoping to get a glimpse of some far off tornado. We chased all the way into rural Nebraska; it was a desolate, barren land. It seemed like a place people and time forgot. No one choose to stay or settle. A lonely land.
June 4, 2006
When I sat down to read the paper and have my coffee this morning, I didn’t want any visitors. I hadn’t enjoyed a cup of Starbucks coffee in five days, and today was my day to savor the bold flavors only Starbucks can provide.
I purposefully found a bench behind the Days Inn Hotel off I-83 to have some privacy. But today was not to be my day.
Before I even unfolded the top section of the Omaha World Herald (or take my first sip), two hotel employees waddled out the hotel’s back door and crashed my party. They sat right next to me.
Molly Maid No. 1 lit a cigarette, while Molly Maid No. 2 waited for her turn to drag. I knew they had their eyes on me. Each had facial jewelry, which, I’m learning, is fashion forward in the Mid-West. Eyebrow, lip, tongue, chin or nose. (Just pierce it!)
“Watcha reading about,” said Maid No. 1. She had no manners. She sucked down what was probably her sixth cigarette of the day and blew smoke right in my direction.
“Just the morning news,” I replied.
“You from here?” she asked. “No, just travelin’ through,” I replied, with as little interest as possible.
A few minutes and several puffs passed without any words. I started to feel anxious from the silence, so I asked the two what they did for fun. Just typical small talk, even though I knew their response would be bleak.
“Not much to do,” Maid No.2 answered. “Sometimes we go to Wal-Mart at 2 in the morning. It stays open all night.”
I almost lost my composure, but I couldn’t laugh in their faces.
Not that her answer should have surprised me because since arriving in York, the only things worth seeing were the drive-thru Starbucks and the rainbow painted water tower that marks the city line. There’s nothing around for miles and miles.
“Watcha doing here?” Maid No. 2 asked. She was blonde and obviously not as bright as her co-worker because I already answered that question.
“I’m travelin through. Stopping wherever and whenever I can.”
“That beats cleaning hotel rooms,” said Maid No. 1. “I wish I could do that … but I’m pregnant.” I looked at her body and now noticed the bump.
Before long, they shared the last puff of their cigarette and said goodbye.
I’m sure not in Kansas anymore, I thought to myself. But, then again, pregnant girls who smoke cigarettes and go to Wal-Mart for fun probably live in Kansas, too.