It has been said that wisdom is learning from someone else’s experience.
After a number of chase seasons both on the Great Plains and here in Virginia I confess that I have learned a number of lessons the hard way…i.e. by making my own mistakes and subsequently learning from them. In that light I offer the following hard-won tidbits of chasing acumen for others’ benefit.
(1) Navigation: Ensure that you have detailed maps of the area you are targeting. During my rookie Plains chase in 2002 we were caught out of position on a tornadic storm and wound up in a precarious situation involving large (and growing larger) hail with almost no information about escape routes. I have since opted to use the paper DeLorme maps available for each state that show every available highway and goat path. Many chasers rely on mobile navigation programs (as do I) but keep in mind that cell signals may not always be available out in the middle of nowhere.
(2) Safety: Never assume a docile storm cell will remain that way. Here in the Mid-Atlantic average thunderstorms can “pulse” to severe levels more quickly than one would think, producing wall clouds, funnels, and even tornadoes. I have called in severe reports to the National Weather Service on numerous storms that were not previously warned. And another caution…be careful positioning yourself under an “inactive” wall cloud. Even though it may seem inactive it can reenergize very quickly with you at ground zero. That particular experience occurred during my rookie Virginia chase season, resulting in a high-speed getaway via narrow tree-lined roads to avoid a funnel that almost dropped on our heads! And lightning is certainly a force to be reckoned with as I’ve had several bolts strike near my location. One last thought: remember the dangers of hydroplaning on wet roads.
(3) Logistics: Plan ahead for fuel availability, especially on the wide open spaces of the Great Plains. It is truly an unsettling feeling to be in the middle of nowhere in the dark of night as you feverishly calculate the distance to the nearest town that might have an open gas station. (Yep, been there and done that too!) Spare tires should also be checked for proper inflation before they’re needed. Potty stops can also be problematic, especially for mixed-gender chase crews. Even so a roll of toilet paper can take care of most needs. That, and a general lack of modesty.
(4) Common sense: Despite all the technogeek tools available the use of common sense should still prevail. Yes, that navigation program or paper map might indicate a route that heads in the direction you need to go but can your vehicle handle a goat path that may be covered in mud or worse? In one of our Plains chases I was navigating our way through Kansas back roads via a trusty DeLorme map as darkness settled in. Somehow I missed a road intersection and as full darkness fell we found ourselves in the middle of open rangeland with no other lights visible anywhere on the horizon. That would have been okay except that we were on a dirt path in middle of what must have been several thousand head of cattle. Somehow we escaped without ramming any of them but an application of common sense would have resulted in us reversing directions instead of plowing ahead.
(5) Appreciation: Another mantra upon which I keep refocusing is to avoid being wrapped up so much in the mechanics of the chase that I forget to notice what’s around me. Sometimes it’s the uniqueness of the scenery in whatever part of the country I happen to be in. Many times it’s the weather features themselves that I love to stop and experience, like the rush of moisture-laden wind or the rolling thunder that follows a distant CG strike. It’s even the privilege of chasing with family and spending time with them away from the pressures of everyday life. And sometimes we’ve even uncovered the inside story on what became of famous personalities, like the time we found that R2D2 of “Star Wars” fame had retired to a southwest Nebraska farm to serve as an irrigation pump cover. Who woulda thunk it?