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A Stormy Celebration

April 8, 2013

Having grown up in Missouri, in the heart of Tornado Alley, I have a healthy respect for tornados and regard them as something to stay as far away from as possible, so I was amazed when my friend and fellow writer, Mary Shafer, mentioned that she planned to go storm chasing to celebrate a landmark birthday. I thought at the time that I’d love to have her share the experience with the readers of this blog. It’s taken a while, but here she is. I think you will find her account as fascinating as I do. If you’d like to know more or to contact Mary, here’s her website:

(with apologies to Jimmy Buffett)

In June of 2011, I turned fifty. Having watched several of my friends go through the Mary Shaferexpected mid-life crisis, I decided I wanted no part of that. Instead, I wanted to cross a major item off my bucket list: I was going storm chasing. After all, I reasoned: If I don’t do this by the time I’m 50, what are the odds I ever actually will? 

I also knew I wanted to start researching my upcoming novel series — The Storm Diaries ( — about a forensic meteorologist who solves cold case mysteries around weather disasters. Hmmm, let’s see…write off an adventure I’d always wanted to have as a legit research trip? Sign me up! 

So first I launched my @StormDiaries Twitter feed and started building a following, as I followed other storm chasers to get to know that crowd. I told everyone I would be live-tweeting our chase as long as I had cell service. When I left on the trip, I had 27 followers. When I returned home two weeks later, I had 243! Author marketing lesson: If you build it — then Tweet the hell out of it — they will come.

I registered online with Silver Lining Tours out of Denver, because it’s helmed by Roger Hill. Roger holds the Guinness Book World Record for most confirmed tornado sightings, and has a great safety record. I wanted to get close to a tornado, but I didn’t want to get killed by one.

I got my wish, and a bit more. 

It had already been a horribly destructive year for extreme weather. Just a few weeks before I left on my tour, Roger had managed to keep the entire caravan of an earlier tour safe (but just barely) as they drove through Joplin, Missouri, when the infamous EF-5 twister tore through that southern city. (Watch real-time footage from Roger’s van!

The United States’ primary tornado season is roughly mid-March through the end of June. Because it warms up faster in the spring, Dixie Alley—areas of the lower MississippiValley, the upper Tennessee Valley, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina—seems to get hit earlier. Later on in the season, the action moves west to what’s known as Tornado Alley—roughly, the area between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians, concentrated over the Great Plains.

Our tour officially started out of Denver on Saturday, June 11. But I was already there visiting family, so was able to go on an impromptu tour the day before, chasing a storm front across southwestern Colorado. No tornadoes that day, but the next, we took off early to follow another system and ended up inside the 90 m.p.h. outflow of an EF-1 twister near Albion, MT. It damaged grain elevators, knocked down power lines and flipped over a moving van. Pretty intense for my first official chase.

Mary's Tornado

Beneath the anvil of a supercell. These are called mammatus clouds, and usually appear after a violent thunderstorm, which this one was.

 We chased several more days, all the way into Missouri again. On June 17, the day after my birthday, I received the most stunning belated gift: We followed what’s called a cycling storm (just keeps producing mesocyclones that breed tornadoes) for 11 hours across eastern Colorado and deep into Kansas. It never did throw a tornado, but I got this great photo of me in front of the wall cloud that looked like it was ready to drop one any moment.
My birthday was celebraated with a wee cupcake, but who needs a cake full of candles when you’ve had a solid week of glowing lightning, the compary of like-minded storm freaks, and a constant, over-the-top adrenaline rush? It was a true adventure in every sense of the word, and now my only mid-life crisis is a new addiction.
Thanks, Mary, for sharing your adventure. When I need to add some authentic 91gm51xGLPL._SL1500_[1]weather detail to a story, I know who I’ll turn to for advice. I admire your courage and enthusiam, but I still prefer to remain a respectual distance from tornados. 
Mary has written a best-selling book about another calamitous weather event – the deadly flood of 1955 – Devastation on the Delaware.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2013 1:37 PM

    Uh. Oh. Sounds like bungee jumping, only more dangerous. Have to admit I’m not a storm chaser, but I can imagine that it gives enough food for plenty of novels!

    • April 11, 2013 8:38 PM

      The bungee jumping comparison is a good one. I’ve always loved storms (listening to thunder roll or watching the sky change as a storm approaches), but can’t imagine deliberately putting myself within range of a full-blown tornado. I’ve seen what they can do.

  2. Mary Shafer permalink
    May 3, 2013 1:56 PM

    Sandy, thanks so much for inviting me to guest post on your blog! And yes, I’ll always be your on-call consultant for all things weather!

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