We knew it was coming. We had seen the clouds gather for most of the afternoon as we drove up the highway from North Platte, near central Nebraska. By the time we checked into our motel and ate at a local restaurant, it was clear to everyone that this would be an eventful night.
Not a tornado. That's what we desperately wanted to see - a dark, swirling funnel of wind stretching beneath a massive supercell. We had driven from Oklahoma to Kansas to Colorado and now to Nebraska hoping to find one. But no luck.
So we had to be content with a thunderstorm.
Not that anyone was complaining. We saw a memorable light show that night. But the 18 of us who had piled into three vans with Storm Chasing Adventure Tours - one of several companies that offer weather geeks a chance to pursue storms during tornado season - hoped for a twister. Even a small one.
If chasing tornadoes sounds a bit daft, consider that tours like these are usually sold out months in advance, and that on days when a tornado touches down, the highways are sometimes flooded with storm chasers hoping for a memorable glimpse. Mike Forrester, a driver and freelance videographer who shoots severe weather for the Weather Channel, said one Kansas highway resembled a parking lot earlier this year as cars followed several churning tornadoes.
Our group heard amazing stories from our guides about tornadoes that had been witnessed just one week earlier - more than a dozen during a five-day tour and 11 emanating from one supercell in Attica, Kan. "The biggest lightning I've ever seen in my life," Forrester said.
By comparison, our thunderstorm paled. From the restaurant patio, several of us watched it form in the growing darkness, marveling at the intermittent lightning and thunder. When rain began to fall, we scurried back to our van, then returned to watch the stormy night from the covered motel entrance.
The thunder was so loud it set off car alarms. Electricity was temporarily cut off. Motel guests gathered at their windows to gawk at lightning that streaked in all directions.
Impressive, although not the prey we were seeking. One week after our tour ended, at least six tornadoes touched down south of Wichita, Kan., near the path we had driven on our fourth day. Others were spotted in Nebraska. We were one week too early, one week too late.
Still, we had an eventful chase.
Here's the day-by-day journal of the trip:
Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska
Miles traveled: 786.
Fifteen hours on the road, starting in Oklahoma City. We saw wheat fields in Oklahoma, cornfields in Kansas. We stopped in Dodge City, Kan., and drove past Boot Hill - but saw no tornadoes. The National Weather Service issued a tornado watch warning until 9 p.m, leaving us hopeful that something might develop, but other than some ominous clouds later in the day in northeast Colorado, there was little more than drizzle.
Our van carried a diverse group: Steve Richman, an ophthalmologist from Rhode Island; Efrain Miranda, a mortgage banker from Chicago; Gary Webster and Wendy Turner Webster, a TV actor and his TV host wife from London; and Ken Lennox, a photographer who was hoping to get some shots of Gary and Wendy for a British magazine.
There were others on the trip from overseas - England, Amsterdam and also from a variety of states.
They all loved storms.
"We live in such a staid, old weather country that we're not used to this weather," Gary, the Brit, said on the first night. "There's all this great technology, but nature can still tap us on the shoulder and say, "You haven't got it yet.' We have to respect nature."
Nebraska, South Dakota
Miles traveled: 156.
The day ended with a spectacular thunderstorm, but it was preceded by more driving, more waiting. We pushed north into South Dakota and spent several hours in a casino parking lot in Rosebud, S.D. Earlier that afternoon, we got our first look at a mammatus cloud, a collection of pouch-like clouds that forms in sinking air. Although thought by many to be a precursor to tornadoes, they are more typically seen after a thunderstorm has passed. But standing on a dirt road next to an open field, we were awed by the sight.
The storm that evening gave us a real hope that we might see a tornado before our tour ended. The weather was getting more threatening, the clouds darker.
Miles traveled: 487.
Still in Nebraska, we awoke early and drove south, covering familiar ground on U.S. Highway 83. Todd Thorn, who started Storm Chasing Adventure Tours in 1998 and leads every group, drove the lead van toward Kansas. No one, not even the other drivers, could be certain where he was headed. He tracks weather patterns on high-tech computer equipment and monitors the Weather Channel for information on storms, then heads off in the appropriate direction.
At a rest stop, Ken, the British photographer, bought a chocolate doughnut and some candles for Wendy, who turned 37 that day. After we sang and she blew out the candles, she told us, "I wished for a tornado."
Miles traveled: 442.
More clear skies. From Salina, Kan., we drove south on Interstate 135 toward Oklahoma. On our way out of town that morning, Todd made a quick turn into a motel parking lot, where a tank-like contraption was parked. Todd and Mike spotted it first: a TIV - Tornado Intercept Vehicle created by Sean Casey, who has been filming tornadoes for an IMAX film to be released in 2008.
The vehicle, made using the engine and chassis from a truck, weighs 14,000 pounds and was designed to allow Casey to film tornadoes from a distance of several hundred feet. There's a hydraulically powered camera on top, but inside it looked like a bachelor's unkempt apartment.
In northern Oklahoma, we headed east and stopped in Wakita - a town of about 500 that has one claim to fame: It was the primary location for the post-tornado destruction scenes in the 1995 movie "Twister."
At the corner of Locust and Main is the Twister the Movie Museum www.twistercountry.com) a collection of photos, posters and various memorabilia left over from the making of the film. The most recognizable piece is "Dorothy," the large metal canister that was built with the intention of sending up sensors to measured a tornado's force.
Some of us hoped this might portend a tornado sighting of our own, but we were mistaken. Todd, though, led us on a wild ride later in the day - down one highway, a quick U-turn, a stop on a dirt road, then just as quickly, another direction on another highway at racetrack speeds. But the weather stayed hopelessly clear.
Miles traveled: 188.
On our last day, with no prospects for a twister-generating storm, Todd led our caravan south a few miles into Texas, just so we could say we traveled to six states in five days. But after stopping in Gainesville, Texas, for a few minutes, we headed north again, to Oklahoma City, our starting point.
Someone heard a report of a tornado in North Dakota, but the drive would have been too long and too distant to attempt, mainly because most of us had flights the next morning from Oklahoma City. We had already traveled 2,059 miles.
In Norman, Okla., we visited the National Severe Storms Laboratory, which studies severe weather in order to issue timely warnings to residents. There were plenty of displays to read in the lobby, but the lab was closed to visitors that day.
At dinner that night, there was a collective sense of disappointment. But many in our group talked excitedly about trying it again next spring. Some have already signed up for another spring tour and a group reunion.
"It's a little disappointing not seeing a tornado," said Kate Taylor, a nurse practitioner from England, "but I've already given a deposit for next year's chase. I want to continue the hunt."
A lot of us felt the same way. Even without a real twister, the chase was almost good enough.
If you go
Here are some of the tours available. Prices do not include airfare or meals.
Cloud 9 Tours, www.cloud9tours.com, (405) 214-0320, offers three two-week tours, departing May 7, 21 and June 4. Cost: $2,500 ($400 non-refundable deposit). Silver Lining, www.silverliningtours.com, (281) 759-4181, has four six-day tours and three 10-day tours. Six-day tours depart May 1, 12 and 23; 10-day tours depart June 11, 18, 25 and July 2. Cost: $1,950 for six-day tours, $2,700 for 10-day tours ($600 non-refundable deposit). Storm Chasing Adventure Tours, www.stormchasing.com, (303) 888-8629, has two 10-day tours and 11 five-day tours. First five-day tour departs May 3; 10-day tours depart May 10, 22. Cost: $1,900 for five-day tours, $3,000 for 10-day tours ($500 non-refundable deposit). Tempest Tours, www.tempesttours.com, (817) 274-9313, offers two six-day tours, one eight-day tour and two 10-day tours. Six-day tours depart May 28 and June 5; 10-day tours depart May 4 and 16; eight-day tour departs June 14. Cost: $1,800 for six-day tours, $2,200 for eight-day tour, $2,600 for 10-day tours ($500 non-refundable deposit for all tours).
Tornado Alley Safari, www.tornadosafari.com, (972) 889-0196, has two six-day tours departing June 7 and 13. Cost: $1,100 ($200 non-refundable deposit). Tornado Express, www.tornadoexpress.com, (702) 284-5695, offers six and 13-day tours. Six-day tours can be extended to 13 days. Cost: $1,250 to $1,650 for six-day tours, depending on departing date; $2,250 to $2,700 for 13-day tours, depending on departing date ($300 non-refundable deposit). Upper Midwest Storm Tours, www.stormtours.com, offers three six-day tours and one 10-day tour. Six-day tours depart May 28, June 5 and 14; 10-day tour departs May 16. Cost: $1,700 for six-day tours, $2,450 for 10-day tour ($500 deposit, $100 additional for private room). The National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., is open for tours occasionally. Reservations are required. For information: (405) 360-3620, www.nssl.noaa.gov.