In May I went on a seven-day storm chase through the heart of “Tornado Alley,” hosted by Tempest Tours, a company of professional storm chasers who organize group tours for weather enthusiasts. It was a remarkable experience, made so in large part by the guides who took us on a 3,000 mile journey through parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska in search of turbulent weather.
Our lead tour guide was Bill Reid, a veteran storm chaser who plans his year around the peak chase months. Holder of a master’s degree in climatology, Bill spends his “off-season” in California, working as an airport weather observer and as a grocery store clerk – jobs offering sufficient flexibility to allow him to spend May and June in America’s heartland.
The driver and guide for my van was Brian Morganti, a retired business owner who began chasing storms a decade ago and now works for Tempest. When the chase season is over, he returns to his home in Pennsylvania.
These guys don’t make a lot of money working this gig. I gather that most of them pay for their adventures by leading tours. What they do get is the gift of seeing nature in an awe-inspiring and powerful state. Having gotten one taste of it, I can understand what draws them back again and again.
Of course, to new storm chasers like me, the measure of a successful chase tour is whether we intercepted a tornado (or two, or more). And that we did: Our tour group hit the jackpot within hours of our orientation meeting, intercepting a storm that produced multiple tornadoes in northern Oklahoma. Here is one of the first tornadoes we saw:
[Photo: David Yamada]
But what truly surprised me was how taken I was by the vistas we encountered throughout our week – the roiling super cells, cloud formations that seemed to stretch on forever, beautiful sunsets unobstructed by high-rise buildings, and nighttime lightning storms flashing on and off in the distance.
Even when the tornado intercepts are few and far between, these guys (and yes, they’re mostly guys, with exceptions such as “Twister Sisters” Melanie Metz and Peggy Willenberg) get to see this stuff throughout their stay in Tornado Alley. And over meals at roadside diners and fast food joints, they talk about their adventures with attention to detail and gusto. They discovered storm chasing in different ways, but they are united by a fascination with tornadoes, ongoing study of the weather conditions that produce them, and the thrill of the chase. They are among a small number of people who have managed to turn storm chasing into a job.
Indeed, in terms of passion for one’s work, this ranks among the Gold Standard.
Tempest Tours: http://www.tempesttours.com/
Bill Reid’s website: http://www.stormbruiser.com/
Brian Morganti’s website: http://www.stormeffects.com/
And visit the website of writer Jenna Blum, whose 2007 feature on storm chasing in the Boston Globe travel section led to my signing up, and whose next novel builds on her passion for stormy weather: http://www.jennablum.com/.