Friday, May 28, 2010

Day 6 - Cheap Sunglasses (and Tornadoes)

Tuesday began as most days did during a storm chase. This one however, began a bit better. John and I both hoofed it about 3 miles into the town of Sterling, CO for our daily workout. After having skipped yesterday's workout we were both fresh and eager to hit it hard today. I head for the local HS track while John, ever the one-upper, heads for the local junior college fitness center. We both have most-satisfactory workouts and after laying waste to the Holiday Inn Express breakfast bar we scream south in search of thunderstorms.

The other 493 chasers are already circling the nearest cumulonimbus as we navigate south then east, then repeat, as we stairstep towards storm city. We stop in the lovely town of Eads, CO for gas and caffeine. While waiting to pay, I overhear from the clerk that the closest McDonalds is 102 miles away. I felt much safer hearing that.

Just as we had calculated, after passing through the town of Sheridan Lake, John spots a small tornado south of the road. Who names these towns anyway? Sheridan "Lake"? There isn't a natural body of water within 100 miles. Sheridan Beach would have been as appropriate, or Sheridan Woods (I think the east-Colorado State tree is firewood).

As I jump out of the car to photograph this F-something tornado, I inadvertently step on my sunglasses. Of course, who would advertently step on one's sunglasses? And why would one's sunglasses be on the floor in the first place? Of course you could assume that I stepped into the sunglasses holder on the center roof console, but that would be a bit difficult if not silly.

But I digress. Fortunately, the sunglasses were purchased at Ace Hardware in the "Daily Deals" bin for a mere $2.99. It's not like they were expensive glasses that would lead me to become distraught with their demise. Not like I spent $9.99 or something. Not like it would affect my future financial situation.

Several other tornadoes touched down
and we took pictures of them.

I went the rest of the chase without sunglasses. John had some but he did not share. it's not like you really need sunglasses when chasing under stormy skies. If it were sunny and all, then there probably were not too many tornadoes to watch, right? And whats with the UV rating on these things. They all profess to have protection up to like a gazillion UV - both UV A ...and...UV B! What about UV C? Are we going to protect our retinas from A and B all this time, then 10 years later find out UV C was the culprit?

A large wedgelike tornado appeared to form to our east. We weren't all that sure it was a real tornado, but we took pictures of it anyway; to prove we knew it was a tornado, in hindsight.

While only one lens of my $2.99 sunglasses were damaged, I figured it was not worth repairing them, or worse yet, wearing them with only one lens in place. If I were like a pirate with a patch on one eye, this might make a little sense. Of course what pirate worth his booty would wear sunglasses in the first place.

We later caught a couple other nice tornadoes then filmed some totally awesome mammatus clouds over some old shacks. (Heh-heh...I said mammatus). Of course photographing mammatus over some new tract homes would not be too photogenic. I am not sure why, but I guess old decrepit things have a special place in our hearts.

We had steak and IPA beer at the City Lights Cafe in Colby to celebrate. John ordered a Manhattan, which perplexed the waitress. He then proceeded to spill it on both his laptop and camera. DOH!!! 25 years of thunderstorms and he nearly ruins his equipment with a F-ing Manhattan!

I bought new sunglasses the next day.

Day 9 - Wyoming? Wy Not!

The day would have been a total bust had it not been for the terrific running trails we discovered in Ft. Collins. The Poudre Trail wound through a beautiful nature preserve, complete with numerous small bridges and quarter mile marks for we anal runner types. We voted this the second best running trail we have encountered, behind only Boulder.

After grabbing new walkie talkies at the local Radio Shack and subs to go at the Silver Mine Sub Shop we raced north to Wyoming. The big threat was up in Big Sky country but we had our limits to how far we would, or could, go to chase storms. It was 2 PM and other than some annoying cirrus, there was not a cloud in the sky.

We stopped at a nice rest stop near the town of Chugwater (sister town to California's SipLatte'), which was about 30 miles north of Cheyenne. No clouds on radar. We walked over the the nearby Sinclair Station - the one with the green brontosaurus on the sign - for some drinks to accompany our Silver Mine Subs. The highlight of the day was finding bottles of Sioux City Sarsaparilla and Cream Soda, made with real cane sugar - as opposed to that fake cane sugar. Very refreshing. I also grabbed a "Throwback" Mt Dew, also made with that real cane stuff. Life was good.

After semi-blowing off the day, we headed east towards Scotts Bluff, our high-risk target for sleeping. While we never saw more than a poof of cumulus clouds the whole day, we did take some consolation in watching all the chasers up in a Montana tornado watch box chase "poop squat" clouds most of the day.

We arrived in Scotts Bluff near dinner time, ready to crash at the local Holiday Inn Express. It was full. So we lowered the bar and went to the Comfort Inn. Booked. Days Inn? Not. Super Eight? Eightysixed. Bob's Roadside Bunks? Nope. The entire town was booked by insurance claims adjusters, doing their best to quantify the damage by last-weeks hail storm. We saw many blown out windows and dented hoods. We saddled up next to the Super Eight to borrow a little of their unsecure WiFi, and found a room back in Torrington WY, 30 miles back up the road. Torrington is Wyomingeese for "Lodi", but without the scenery.

We scored a room at the Day's Inn. It had obvouisly seen better Days, but we decided to rough it for one night. The good news was they provided a free draft beer to each customer. The bad news was it was in a smoke-filled, Karaoke-ready bar and was limited to the Bud and Coors family of beers. Despite that, we pulled up to the bar and enjoyed a couple of ice cold Coors lights while watching a bit of the Lakers-Suns game, partially obscured by the cold-room door. It was so refreshing we endured another round, at $2 each. Even the smoking guy to my right could not drive us away. We were experiencing local culture, and I liked it.

I expected all the locals to be drinking Buds, or whiskey out of dirty glasses, but much to my surpirse, the three older cowboy-looking types at the table behind us were drinking red wine and a Blue Sapphire martini, up with one olive. My childhood images were shattered. After our second beer, and John's karaoke rendition of Billy Joel's Piano Man we exited the bar looking for dinner. We asked the guy working there where to eat and he suggested "here". "We have really good food". I looked back at the restaurant to find one sorry-looking guy nursing a steak.

On our way to dinner, we checked out the local Junior College, where John hope to to his gym work the next mourning. We drove around the back to find it, but we also noted the Wyoming license plates. I informed John that Wyoming had the fewest people of any state, not to mention the highest average elevation. I am full of good knowledge. Not a minute later we noticed a car parked at the JC with license number "6". WOW!! Imagine that, with California's 7-digit plates, we find a single digit license plate. That must be one old guy! A few seconds later, John outdid even that - number ONE! We had stumbled across the first license plate issued in Wyoming (which started issuing plates in 1913 in case you wanted to know - good knowledge). We almost expected it to be attached to an old horse, but nooo..., it was a Chevy Silverado pickup.

We drove down Main Street and settled on the local multi-cultural cafe of Jose Paizano's Itallian-Mexican-American Food. Perfect. Who doesn't like Italian-Mexican-American? To our surprise the place was more than half full. We scanned the oversized menu and decided against the angel hair pesto tostadas with fries, and played it safe with just spaghetti with meat sauce - no salsa. We noticed they had wine on the menu and decided to entertain ourselves with asking about it. The very nice waitress gave us the "you aint from around here" look and then recited the entire wine list - "Chardonnay, Chabliss, Rose (like the flower), White Zin and Merlot (what? no Merlott?). I was about to ask what winery, but caught myself as we both ordered the Merlot. She came back with "chilled or room temperature?" O-kaayyyyy......

While waiting for our wine I informed John that all 50 states had wineries, since the addtion of South Dakota's berry wine in the 90s. We had seen a Wyoming winery as we drove from Scotts Bluff. The vines did not look real happy, like they wanted to go home. Much to our surprise the waitress brought us two mini bottles of Sutter Home Merlot. Dang, that ain't no fun. I was honestly hoping for something like "Tumbleweed Cellars" or "Steer Flop Vintners". Sutter Home never tasted so good. The spaghetti, salad (with red wine vinegar and olive oil!) and garlic bread was quite good too.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Day 5 - The Tacos are Our Friends, They're Blowing in the Wind

Sunday's 500 mile chase was exciting but full of frustrating events. While in hot pursuit of a potential tornado-producing storm we made a couple wrong turns which put us out of position. The first occurred when we encountered a fork in the road and were directed in the wrong direction.

Our efforts to recover from that navigational faux pas were quickly rewarded by another ill-timed occurance. The lone highway which took us back to the wonder storm was completely blocked due to a poor valet job by a local turnip farmer.

The day ended just north of Goodland, KS with us taking photos of power lines backlit by continuous lightning strikes. At 9 PM we headed to our favorite lodging in town - The Holiday Inn Express. It was after 9 PM and the town was rolling up its streets for the night. We had to grab dinner somewhere quick, or resort to Conoco burritos once again. Fortunately the drive-thru window at Taco John's was still open, for another 20 minutes (this ain't no college town).

We still had the radar up and noticed two straggling storms bringing up the rear of the tornado-warning parade. They were screaming north at 50 mph with a bullseye on Goodland. I dawdled over the order window menu - trying to decide between the grilled opossum tacos and the "curiously delicious" Cheese Cruds. The car shuddered in the 40+ mph south winds, with gusts to warp 3. As we pulled up to the pick up window, the two teenagers inside took their time preparing our meal. Minutes passed. The storm was at the city limits, with a radar image which used all the colors available. I knew we shouldn't have ordered the extra gwok.

Finally the window opened at the taco dude hoisted our 3-bag order to the window. The wind tried its best to slam the window shut, and I had images of our taco plates blowing into Nebraska. The window-to-window exhange was made with only the loss of a medium-hot taco sauce package. We warned the two guys inside that they may want to leave work a few minutes early, or head for the veggie fridge in back.
As we headed south a mile to our Shelter Inn Express, the winds intensified. Gravel pelted our car. The covered registration parking area was jammed with 5-6 vehicles. I doubt there was a rush on rooms as opposed to a bunch of weenies afraid of a little hail. More gauling yet was one vehicle was a pimped-out Hummer H2 with oversized chrome rims. It makes me hate Hummers even more - built for combat, but afraid of a few hail stones!

Just as we pulled to the curb, only minutes away from tacos in bed with the Laker-Suns game on the widescreen, the entire town lost power. DOH!! As John tried to exit the drivers side, his door blew shut on his leg - DOH!! He actually said something else.

We scampered into the darkened lobby with our taco plates under each arm, and pushed through the gawking Hummer boys at the lobby door. With the emergency lights on we could at least sit at a lobby table (I like the word "lobby") and distinguish the difference between the guacamole and the cheesy-goo tubs. John checked us in as I layed out the Mexi-feast under the best-lit complimentary-breakfast-buffet table. It seemed to work just as well for the not-so-complimentary cold taco dinners. The huge picture windows rattled hard, as though they were going to come crashing in at any moment.

Just as we were about to take our first bite of "real" food in over 12 hours, the horror struck! The Bud Light was still in the car!! Dinner was halted immediately, and then we noticed...there were hardly any people around the lobby area anymore.

Why? As we took a short bathroom break, we noticed what appeared to be a line coming from the Women's Restroom. Yes, yes. That's typical. But not with a bunch of men in the line too. The Women's Restroom was the Tornado Shelter, and, that's where everyone had jammed themselves. Of course, being the knowledgeable meteorologist that he is, John knew that there was NO tornado risk from these storms.

So we resumed our dinner supping, alone in the lobby area, while everyone else cringed terror-stricken in the Tornado Shelter. But wait!! What about our libations?

After sending John out into the hurricane-force winds and horizontal rain for the Buds, we resumed our meal. Soon after we headed up to our dark but dry room. We pressed the elevator UP button and waited. Hmmmm. Seems as though though it too runs on lectricity. We gave it another minute then headed for the stairs. Yelp will hear about this.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Day Two - No Mas La Quinta Por Favor!

5/20/10 - After sleeping on pillows which reembled overstuffed beach balls, in a non-smoking room complete with ash trays, we decided that La Quinta was Spanish for The Insomniac.

We began day 2 with our usual punishment for not finding a tornado the day before - a long run in a small unscenic town at the crack of dawn (i.e., 10 AM). After our hour-plus jaunt we treated ourselves to the free La Quinta breakfast buffet. A quick perusal of the breakfast bar offerings brought to light the explanation of why the average physique of the locals resembled that of a super-sized lawn gnome - biscuits and gravy, sausage and egglike globules, hash whites and mega-sized waffles. The fresh fruit looked suspiciously like fruit cocktail while the two choices of cereal were Fruit Loops (another fresh fruit in these parts?) and Frosted Flakes. There was ONE packet of instant oatmeal left. The "help" seemed perplexed when I asked if there was more of the oatmeal or any cereal in which the first three ingredients were not some form of sugar.

With a noon checkout looming John called the front desk to ask for a late check out - extra 30 minutes, something which most hotels have no problem with. However, little did John know, the Wicked Witch from the West was still alive and kicking. Not only did she deny John's request but reminded him, in no uncertain terms, that any time spent in the room after 12 o'clock would be dealt with harshly. We left quickly, before she could set loose the flying monkeys.

Since the storm gods were on furlough for the day, we used the time to repair our computer power supply. A new toggle switch from Radio Shack and a 1/4" 24-thread nut to reaffix the positive terminal along with two new spade-type wire connectors to mate with the new switch. This has nothing to do with the chase, I just wanted to reaffirm my meager engineering skills.

After the hardware needs were taken care of we then addressed our future gastronomic requirements (i.e., we got food) by visiting the local Dillon's Super Store. Real honest fresh fruit, robust cereal and a plethora of pseudo-nutritious libations. With a long line at the regular checkout and a 12-item limit at the quickie-check we availed ourselves reluctantly to the "Express Self-Checkout". It was neither.

After misscanning half of the items, being scolded more than once by the checkout machine and requiring assistance from the nearby clerk numerous times we were finally able to cart our stuff to the car. A quick Google Map search for a Starbucks came up empty, so we relented to the drive-through Giddie-Up Java Stop. "Room for sugar?"

With possible storm action in northeastern Colorado on Friday, we decided to aim for Goodland as our resting spot for the night. We first headed west through Garden City (which is neither) then north to HW 70. Once on the 70 we stopped for lunch in Colby at the Oasis Truck Stop (it was BOTH). Not only did it have a Starbucks, but also a Quiznos and free WiFi. Chaser heaven.

With our lodging selection narrowed down to anything-but-LaQuinta we cruised into the brand new Holiday Inn Express. Very nice place with great WiFi and pillows made for normal human heads. This was one place where the room selection was NOT "Smoking" or "Not-so-much Smoking".

Day 1 2010 - 500 miles of Fun

The 2010 Storm Chase has gotten off to a much better start than last year. Not only did we make it to the airport in record time, but both our parking lot shuttle bus and flight were right on time. We used the indoor parking at Espresso Park this time, saving big bucks by not valeting it. Jan (that's the male "Yon" like from Belgium) the shuttle driver held up the bus as we approached. He smiled as he gladly tossed our bags into the back, knowing he had another big tip coming. The 27 other passengers inside the bus were not so chirpy, giving us the "how dare you hold us up" evil eyes. The bus rolled out of the lot and everyone got back to texting on their Blackberries.

To ensure a good seating selection, John had paid extra for the "Preferred" boarding pass, one that allows you to check in 12 hours before the peons. We got seats just like everyone else, but with an attitude. The flight was nearly full and John ended up in the middle seat - a "Preferred" middle seat - rather than allow someone to sit between us as we plotted our strategy for the day. The guy overheard us discussing running and it turns out he was a runner too, who was testing out the triathlon scene. We discover he is a part time chiropractor who lives in Antioch. I was hoping he would offer us a "free" spinal exam at some point, but the seat belt sign was on for most of the flight.

Upon arrival at the Denver airport, we grabbed our luggage and raced to the awaiting Hertz shuttle bus. Once again the bus was ready to roll soon after arrival. Once again it was packed full. Visions of long lines at the rental desk passed through my mind. But wait! John is a "Gold Club" member. That is even better and more impressive than "Preferred Boarding". Gold members get off the bus first at their little "elite" island of special cars, leaving the peon drivers behind for a few slow laps around the lot before dumping them at the "regular" rental car desk. As the bus driver announced the Gold Club stop and opened the door,nearly the entire bus load of people got off. Being privilaged is not as cool as it used to be. At least there was one non-privelaged guy left of the bus to look down my nose at. Hah...he will be ALL alone at his rental desk.

Unlike 2009 we rented a more conservative vehicle than the Eco-Devastator, which used more fuel than the plane we flew in on. A mid-sized Dodge SUV was our choice. Plenty of room with just enough attitude. We had 560 miles to cover to make the twister party, slated for northwest Oklahoma, according to the progs. If we averaged 80 miles per hour we would make it just before the sun went down. It will be close, if everything goes as planned.

I immediately did an unplanned thingy. I entered HW 70 westbound. The Oklahoma storm thingy was east. Five miles and ten minutes later we were back heading the right direction. Three hundred miles into our race, we got a call from Chase Team Scott (our buddies from various weather service offices across the US). They were on one of the big storms that blew up and had seen their "first tornado of the day". Rub it in. To console ourselves we pulled over for gas at in Colby at the Fuel 'n Stuff gas station. A diet Mt Dew and a Strawberry Kiwi Juice later we were blazing south into the teeth of the storm....180 miles away.

After several aborted attempts and tracking down the right storm. Wait, can't say "abort" in Kansas. New law.... After several non-Pro-Life attempts at tracking down the right storm we tossed in the proverbial towel and headed back to Dodge (City). As we drew nearer to town we began noticing several signs of a strong storm nearing Dodge - dark clouds, inflow bands, lightning, heavy rain and the clincher -tornado warnings. Just as we had planned. Do a head fake on the Oklahoma storms and catch one sneaking up from the rear.

Despite not seeing any tornadoes emanate from the storm, it was a nice way to end a 480 mile drive, not to mention a clean car.