Storm Chase Log: "Cornfield Nightmare" 6/14-6/15 2012-Kansas-777 Miles
This particular chase was no different than any other before it. The potential for severe weather and tornadoes was on the horizon as I set out for South West Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle. All of the parameters were coming together to make for what looked like a modest chase. Tornadoes were not a strong possibility and there was a chance that storms would not stay discrete and could squall out really early. Due to the lack of severe weather in May and 2012 as a whole, I was prepared to chase anything and everything in June. So, as typical I left for my target early in the a.m. on June 14th. It was late, or early I guess, depending on how you look at it. As I was making my way towards Kansas I got a funny feeling. Not really a panic or anything, but something felt off. I have felt like this before about some chases. Why am I doing this? This is not a worthy chase. I should just turn around. To me this is one of the hardest things about being a storm chaser. You really have no idea what you are in for. You could be making a huge mistake by wasting money on gas and food. Will I be missing precious family time for a lousy chase? Was this chase going to be worth spending the money? The problem is, you could say this about 90% of chases. Most of them are iffy, and not all of the needed ingredients are in play. So, typically, if a chaser listens to these feelings he/she will miss some amazing weather. Rarely, is a chase a complete bust. Usually a diamond in the rough appears and I always am able to pull out some amazing photos. So, I have gotten really good at ignoring my conscience. Well, let’s just say this time I should have listened.
After waking up from a short nap at the at the Walmart in Garden City, I headed towards my target in Southern Kansas just at the Oklahoma panhandle border. The next few hours were typical. More junk food. More waiting. More reviewing models and numbers. I spent the majority of the day near Liberal Kanas. As the day progressed, storms were not firing and the numbers were looking better further to the North. So..as is the drill. I waited some more and began to meander further North. Around 5:30 a few cells began to fire near Dodge City and points South and West. I was a good hour away from these cells, so naturally I had to move quickly. Storm motion was from NW to SE..so I was not in a bad position. I was making good time until I hit a traffic jam just before Cold Water Kansas. Usually when I hit a traffic jam, I can wait it out. Usually the cause is a train or something crossing the road. Well this traffic jam was caused by some major road construction. I had to get around this jam, or I would miss the short time where the storms may be discrete. My forecast was in the back of my mind, knowing that these storms were going to turn into squall lines pretty quick. So, I flipped a U turn and started looking for a detour. On my right hand side I could see what looked like an East/West dirt road that I might be able to navigate around the traffic jam. I turned on the dirt road and in my haste missed the sign that read “Not a Maintained Road”. Ok..I just heard you groan while reading that. So, I am cruising along and this dirt road starts getting a little hard to navigate. Not out of the ordinary, and typically my Chevy Impalla (yes just a Chevy Impalla) can handle most dirt roads (barring they are not wet). I press on and all of a sudden this dirt road turns to quick sand. Now you say quick sand..right Zach. Kansas does not have quicksand.. This is not a lie, and I have never seen dirt of this consistency. So logically what is my next move. GUN IT..I can make it through this. Um, I didn’t make it through it. I am stuck. Not just stuck. I am buried 2 feet deep in sand that is finer than salt.
At this point I get out of my car to survey the damage. I see the problem to be much larger than I anticipated based on my first time touching this consistency of sand. Of course, I try to gun the car back and forth . I put some clothing under the tires to try and gain traction. NOT HAPPENING. My car is not going anywhere, and in fact, anything that I try to do is making the situation worse.
At this point I start to realize that I may be in some trouble. Upon surveying the land, I find out that I actually did make it quite a ways on this dirt road. I am about 4-5 miles from the paved road. There are no houses near by..only corn and cows. To top it all off I am in somewhat of a ravine. No one will be able to see my car due to hills on both sides of me. Ok, calm down, I can call a tow truck to come and pull me out. At this point the chase would have been a bad one. Anytime you have to spend additional money on anything during a chase that you had not anticipated, it is a bad thing. Especially anything that was due to your own ignorance. So, I get back in the car and prepare to call a tow truck. I glance at the radar. What is this? Oh dear lord. The original storms I was chasing are not only severe warned with large hail, not only tornado warned, they are coming directly at me. I will be hit dead on soon by large hail and possibly a tornado. The only shelter I have is my Chevy Impalla, and granted it can take a lot, I don’t want to test its limits in this fashion.
Panicked, I call the tow truck company. I reach a nice gentleman, small town-thick accent, but nice. He proceeds to tell me that there is a very large storm heading this direction and I should probably take shelter. I tell him I realize that, I am a storm chaser. He say oh you must be excited. I say no, actually I am marooned in a corn field without adequate shelter. He chuckles. I ask him if he can please send a tow truck. He says no he can’t risk his 50k piece of equipment in golf ball size hail. I am stuck. There is nothing I can do about it and I am going to get hit head on by a monster storm. Time to tuck my head between my legs and start praying.
At this point, I calmed myself and figured what the heck. I am going to get some incredible pictures from this ordeal, and I did. The story does not end here though. Thankfully, the storm weakened just before hitting my location. No tornado, and only small hail. I was able to get some of the most incredible structure photos I have ever shot. The storm eventually passed and me and the car are fine. So, I call the tow truck guy back, and he answers. He says he will be out to save me in an hour or so. I wait and I wait and I wait some more. I am thankful that I will be towed out of this mess soon. It is started to get dark, and I I hear the rumble of the tow truck about a couple miles from my location. I get out of my car and take a look. It looks as if the tow truck has stopped on a hill. I stand there and I can see that the tow truck guy has gotten out. I wave at him..he waves at me. We do this for a few minutes before I decide to end this game and walk over to see him. I walk the mile and a half and greet the tow truck guy. He has an odd smirk on his face. He says how the heck did you get out here boy. I said I have no idea. He says well you are in trouble my tow truck aint gonna make it to your car in this quick sand. Jaw drops. I say ok what can I do? He says you are going to need a Bobcat. I say ok that sounds good. He laughs and tells me sorry bub Bobcat aint available till the mornin.
We reached the level of worst chase I have ever been on before the tow truck driver sentenced me to a night alone in a corn field in Kansas. I have to tell you. I was scared. I don’t care how big and tough you are. If you watched Children of the Corn as a kid, and then have to spend a night in the same setting, you are going to be as scared as a 5 year old is of the dark. Morning did come and I was hungry and thirsty and dazed. The bobcat guy came and was able to pull me back to the paved road. He tells me never to do this again and I say yes sir you can count on that. Lesson learned. Never get so busy on a storm chase that you are unaware of your surroundings. Boy did it cost me. Not only cost of my sanity after spending a night in a dark corn field, but bobcat rentals are not cheap. Especially, if there is only one Bobcat in the county. I counted my blessings and paid the price for my stupidity.
I eventually made my way back home and arrived the afternoon of June 15th. My wife of course was worried and angry. She was thankful that I had not gotten killed as she is with every storm chase. I will never forget the night I spent in a cornfield in Kansas, hungry, alone, dark and I swear I saw people walking in the corn. AAAAA!!!!