Storm Chasing

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.

 

My view from my room in Salina, KS

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.

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17 thoughts on “Storm Chasing

  1. I have lived in the capital city of Kansas my whole life, and as sad as it is to admit, your account of western Kansas is quite true. The funny part, is almost any small town, especially any with a WalMart, the common answer is to go walk around Walmart late at night. That or, drive up and down “Main” street. Hopefully it didn’t scare you off of Kansas too terribly though, Taco Bell isn’t know for its class no matter which state its in 😉

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  2. Ryan, these are very interesting! I love to “people watch” myself lol

    Some of these people sound like the ones from my former hometown in South Carolina! haha

    I will read more later…Keep up the great work! You’re a great writer!!

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  3. great site ryan. linked here from rossblog. i too travel whenever i can. been to 49 states (ak to yet visit) and a dozen or more countries. i experienced a similar restaraunt story in laramie wy. a friend and i were on a roadie and we stopped for lunch at a roadside in laramie. it didnt take long to get a real strange vibe sitting there. now i’m not at all flamboyant or fabulous but i think some of the rough cowboy type (not brokeback cowboy type) picked up on something. maybe my attire, i dont know but i felt very uneasy and threatened. needless to say we hastely ate and got the f%&* out of there. several months later it just hit me out of the blue that laramie is where matthew sheapard was killed. so sad places like that still exist.

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  4. Ryan..for god’s sake. Those girls live everywhere..not just Kansas and Missouri. In LA you probably are never in a position to meet girls like that…but they’re there!
    I bet you realize that now…

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  5. Love the site Ryan, you are an amazing writer and can’t wait to read more.
    Now I know where I have seen your face before, Storm Chasers. My son who is almost 5 absolutely loves the show. Loves everything about tornados. Yes. He is amazing to watch when he is watching Storm Chasers. So involved.
    Loving “The Written Road”. Thank you Ryan.
    Colleen in PEI Canada

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  6. I think this is going to be a fun read. I live in Kansas and do know how people can be here. I also know that there are a lot of “normal” people living here to. I just hope people that have never been here wont judge us from what you wrote.

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  7. While I do feel that you have made some true representations of Midwestern life, I also feel an intense vibe of arrogance running through your writing. I imagine you are the type of man that prides himself on being open-minded and thoughtful, but your observations betray that portrait.

    I was born in Des Moines, Iowa and have family in many parts of the barren, “red” and forgotten Midwest. I, too, have traveled extensively and now live in Chicago. However, I try everyday to open my eyes, remember and respect the places and people that I come from and acknolwedge that we are all trying to just through life.

    Ryan, a little humility goes a long way.

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  8. Storm Chasing and people watching…how exciting. I really like your style of writing. Your descriptions and pic made me feel like I was there.
    love the blog

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  9. Ryan,
    I am also a referal from the Ross blog. I love your style of writing. I have also traveled/lived many places as I was in the army and I am now still married to it. I have visited 9 countries and almost all 50 states (including Alaska and Hawaii). I have lived in 3 countries and 7 of our states. What is very unfortunate is that many people in the area you are writing about behave in the manner you describe. It always irritates me when someone actually IS the stereotype one has always heard about. I have met many people from many places. (I have some crazy butt stories if you’d ever like to hear about whacky things people have said from different parts of the world). There are people that fit their stereotype. That being said, I hope you can also see that not everyone does. I do look forward to hearing more about your shennanagans.

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  10. Ryan, I find your writing quite average and your view of people, quite frankly sad. You seem to generalize “people from the red states” without really even knowing us. You comment that these were states you never planned to visit..and I must say how sad.

    To be a good writer, one must give the viewer an opinion, an yours leaves a bitter taste of human kind sour. An observation is one thing, a critical and mean comment another. You were there “chasing storms” and thank goodness you were not doing a human interest piece.

    I am from the south, the deepest south, Mississippi, and yes, I have my teeth, don’t frequent Walmart much, and never smoked while preggers.

    Those women you saw on the park bench were human beings, though not a fashion savvy as you, Ryan, being from California. Part of being a writer to is to observe and also to learn from what you are seeing. If I ever ventured into writing, I hope, I would have an open mind along the open road and inhale every experience and learn.

    We are all different, thank God for that, and I hope we all don’t end up skinny Starbucks vanity-minded Pinkberry eating bores like you. Learn to improve your view of the world Ryan, afterall you are human too.

    How would you feel if someone criticized your “lifestyle” and made fun of you in their blog. People of these states, I am sorry, you were portrayed as Taco Bell toothless idiots. We are not..and that is why the south is known for their hospitality.

    Oh..one more thing Ryan..not all states murder and kill people like you mentioned in your article. Being from California, you would think you understood violence a little more.

    Grow up Ryan and read a book about compassion..go on Rosie’s cruise..she understands compassion and is a cool chick to boot. She is opinionated, but not cruel. Learn from her next time you think about nasty words printed on this blog.

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  11. Hi Ryan –

    Love your new site! (thank you Ross for pointing us to it!). I must say you certainly have a niche for writing – I thoroughly enjoyed it and will return for more 🙂

    P.S. You’re such a cutie!

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  12. Hi. I am a huge fan of the RossBlog and thought I would check out your blog as well. I was quite disappointed. You always seem like such a sweetheart on the RossBlog and such a nice guy, but when I read your blatant generalizations of the Midwest and the people who live there, I couldn’t believe this was the same person. First, I live in Oklahoma and love it. I think we have the prettiest sunsets out of anywhere in the world, and the people here are compassionate and REAL. I have never been to LA and will therefore resist from making any snide remarks. I think you and a lot of people from the east and west coasts need to appreciate the differences in citizens of the U.S. I really hope that you will visit OK and see what I mean. We are not all low-life, toothless conservatives. Open your eyes. I think you will be amazed at how false our portrayed image is. I hope you do well with your writing and whatever else you plan to do with your life.

    with sincerity,

    jen

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  13. Wow, people stop being so sensitive. If it bothers you much then don’t come to this site and insult the guy.

    Ryan, this is an awesome blog and I just bookmarked it. This will be an addition to the things that’ll get me by after a bleak day at work. lol

    Much Love

    Like

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