My Week Shadowing a Tornado Hunter in Oklahoma

I’ve been hooked on tornadoes since I was a kid. I used to dream I was lying in my backyard as a black funnel cloud passed silently—and safely—over me. A shrink later told me the dream represented “safe danger,” but I never understood half of what he said, including that. As I grew older, I became a climate dilettante. I read about global warming and the coming ice age, wondered why barometric pressure affected dogs, and drew cloud charts in my daily planner. I saw Twister, of course. And I kept having that dream.

I wanted to see a real storm for myself, but there was the business of finishing grad school and raising kids. So I back-burnered tornadoes for decades and nearly forgot about them. Then, last winter, I saw a blurb in a travel magazine about stormchasing tours. I thought only Hollywood actors or meteorology nerds were allowed to chase tornadoes. But for $2,300 a week, I could, too. I justified it to my now adult children, saying that if I died, at least it would be while doing something incredibly cool.

And I did. Not die—do something cool. 

I decided to book the Mayhem 1 tour with Extreme Chase Tours, one of some 20 stormchasing outfits in the country, which promises a 90 percent chance of seeing a tornado over the course of six days. Not only was the company vetted by the review site StormChasingUSA, it had fewer people per van and was relatively affordable compared with others (many run $2,500 and up). All trips are based out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the epicenter of Tornado Alley, a swath of land that runs from central Texas to South Dakota and spawns many of the approximately 1,200 events each year.

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