Storm Chasing Fueled by Gas Station Grub in the Central U.S.
By Donnie Sexton
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
My photographer pal Terri had been bugging me to join her on a storm chasing photo workshop. Terri had done the research and found a company called Extreme Photo Workshops, run by Tim Baca.
My most pressing question for Tim before signing up was, “What if there are no storms”? Tim replied, “There are always storms this time of year.
“It’s a matter of finding them and then driving to where they are. We might end up in Texas, Kansas, Colorado, or even South Dakota.
We can focus on landscapes while waiting for the storms to materialize.” This sounded reasonable, so we paid our deposit.
After all, we were headed to Tornado Alley, loosely defined as an area in the US that encompasses northern Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and eastern Colorado, known for having tornadoes.
Terri and I (girls who wanna have fun) travel well together. Our recent adventures took us to Tanzania, Tuscany, and Turkey. She loves snacks, so her suitcase is always overloaded with beef sticks, granola bars, fruit roll-ups, and candy corn.
I’m unclear how the notion of traveling with candy corn during my photo workshops started, but it has become a tradition. Whether I’m participating or leading a group, there is always a bag of Brach’s candy corn (yellow, orange, and white) in the camera bag.
Tornado Alley, Here We Come!
Our late May adventure started in Oklahoma City. We met Tim, his partner Lauren, and Dave, an amateur storm chaser who joined us to help with the driving. Over dinner on Friday night, Tim discussed the week’s plan. He was pumped with excitement, indicating the next few days looked great for storms, especially across the Texas panhandle.
We headed out early Saturday in a rented Suburban. Tim rode shotgun glued to an oversized computer screen with all sorts of weather info while Lauren took the wheel. He schooled us on tornadoes, supercells, and other weather phenomena we saw on the monitors as we drove across the Texas panhandle.
We followed Route 66, with our first stop being the Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo, to photograph this public art installation created in 1974. Ten old Cadillacs (1949–1963) are buried nose-first in the ground in a field at the same angle as the Pyramids of Giza. Over the years, the cars have been spray-painted in a kaleidoscope of colors. Anyone with a can of spray paint is welcome to add their creativity to the installation.
After a few hours of driving, we made our first pit stop at Toot ‘n Totum, a rather funny name for a convenience store. In our downtime, which was plenty, I looked it up.
As described on their website, “In those days, customers would literally drive up, toot their horns, and the store’s clerk would tote the orders to the cars. This style of friendly service inspired the name we embrace to this very day.”
On the Chase for Supercells
Tim predicted a possible supercell in the late afternoon as we continued driving. A supercell is a thunderstorm that contains a deep and persistent rotating updraft called a mesocyclone and can produce severe weather, including damaging winds, baseball-sized hail, and sometimes weak to violent tornadoes.
However, the best we encountered on our first day out was lightning strikes after dusk, but it gave us a chance to try out the lightning trigger gadget we had purchased, called a MIOPS. As we learned with storm chasing, you never know where the day will end, so around 9 p.m., Tim called for lodging in the nearest town, then we pulled into Taco Bell for dinner and finished the day checking into the Quality Inn.
For the next six days, our storm chasing didn’t get underway until 11 a.m., as the skies were void of any activity until late afternoon. You might wonder how we entertained ourselves until the storms started to materialize. The idea of focusing on impressive landscapes blew right out the window.
We passed miles and miles of farmland flatter than a pancake, some with green crops poking up but most with leftover stubble from previous years. There were pivot wheels, tractors, a lone tree now and then, a few cows, patches of yucca plants, one rundown historic church, and a dilapidated boxcar.
But there wasn’t so much as a quaint red barn, no meandering creeks, and no wildlife to add a compositional element. So our entertainment, aka killing time, came in the form of endless visits to gas station/convenience store combos and the occasional fast food joint around meal times.
Allsup’s Junk Food
By day three, the candy corn was gone, replaced with gas station corn dogs, burritos, popcorn, Pickles in a Pouch, and new to me, Whatchamacallit candy bars.
We became darn near intimate with the ins and outs of Love’s, Hutch’s, Stripes, U Pump It, and especially Allsup’s. My favorite was Russell’s Travel Center, along Route 66 in New Mexico, with a free classic car and memorabilia museum.
Russell’s had a large rack of cotton candy in tubs with killer flavors – churros, grape, pickle, frosted doughnut, and bubble gum, to name a few. Terri returned to our rig with four varieties to replace the candy corn. What became evident at these gas station/convenience store combos was how popular storm chasing has become. It’s a thing in this part of the US, a big thing, with almost a cult following.
One afternoon, we pulled into Allsup’s and hung out there for three hours, along with at least 50 other storm chasers, all shooting the breeze. I chatted with a group of men from France and another from Germany in their third year of storm chasing in the US. It became evident that gas stations/convenience stores were the logical place to hang out and socialize while waiting for the clouds to gather force.
When Tim decided to move from this Allsup’s closer to where the storm looked to be sizing up, we motored down the road for 30 minutes and stopped at another Allsup’s, where we waited for over an hour.
This time, the entertainment came in the form of the Bandito motorcycle gang, around 40 of them, who pulled into gas up and feasted on burritos and hot dogs.
I tried chatting them up and even asked if I could photograph the back of their vests, but the resounding answer was no. They had a 1% patch on their vests, which piqued my curiosity.
In reading up on it, it has come to mean that 99% of bikers are law-abiding citizens, and 1% are outlaws. It was probably good that I didn’t ask to sit on their bike so Terri could take my picture!
We never witnessed a tornado while storm chasing, but we had a few nights with lightning-infused skies that challenged our photography skills. With digital cameras, we captured some menacing cumulonimbus clouds, shelf, and mammatus cloud formations.
A few storms brought some ferocious winds followed by rain that saw us scrambling for cover in the rig. On the last night, we witnessed a magnificent supercell, with the setting sun lighting the underside of the formation in a beautiful orange glow. The week proved to be a colorful learning experience about the nature of storm chasing.
Storm Chasing Dangers
I never felt unsafe with Tim during our week of storm chasing. We moved quickly when wind, rain, or hail was threatening. The biggest danger to this activity is the driving, as storm chasers put the metal to the pedal to get in position, along with other drivers watching the sky versus paying attention to the road. Storm chasing deaths are mostly attributed to car accidents.
I could only find one documented incident in May 2013 where Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young, all experienced storm chasers, were killed when the El Reno tornado overtook their vehicle outside Oklahoma City. The most recent deaths occurred in late April when three University of Oklahoma meteorology students were killed in a car crash after chasing a tornado.
Once Is Enough
Would I sign up for another storm chasing workshop? Probably not, as there was too much downtime with no guarantees of seeing epic storms. Teri and I have signed up for a new adventure next May – a photo workshop in Indonesia.
During that trip, we’ll be on the hunt for Komodo dragons. Much like Tim, who helped us chase storms safely, we’ll rely on rangers to help us get up close and personal while keeping us safe from these freaky lizards.
Find out more at Extreme Photo Workshops