The tornado siren on my iPhone went off as I sat in The Epic Van, a slight sprinkle pattering on the roof. The storm app showed a red line around Nebraska’s Webster County, now under a tornado watch. It meant the angry storm lines on the radar, green bands with yellow centers and red spots, were capable of “firing” funnel clouds.
Tom and I were in Red Cloud, Willa Cather country. We had read My Ántonia, Cather’s exquisite and heartbreaking novel of early prairie life, and were so enthralled that we had taken a detour on the high plains to see her stomping grounds. We planned to visit the sites tomorrow.
I was starting to regret the move.
We had eaten a late lunch at The Palace, where a farmer who strolled in for coffee complained that the storm seemed to be sliding south and east, the longed-for rain missing his acreage. “Sum’ bitch,” he said, as the men at the counter laughed.
In the van, we turned on the radio to reports of heavy rain, baseball-sized hail and funnel clouds. In the areas under tornado warnings, where twisters already had been sighted, the announcers added particularly chilling words, “Know that no mobile homes or RVs are safe. Abandoned them now. Find shelter. The heavy rain may hide the tornado. Don’t wait until you can see it.”
Of course, I knew this. Yet here I was, traveling in an RV in Tornado Alley, the corridor of Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas that has more tornadoes than any other place in the world. We’d encountered rain and thunderstorms, but this was shaping into an unusually wide and frightening system affecting the entire region and predicted to last several days.
I suggested fleeing, driving anywhere, although we couldn’t go far before dark, and there was no clear path in any direction. Even more than being caught in Red Cloud, I feared being caught on the open road, nowhere to hide. We decided to stay put and keep watch.
We picked a spot to park for the night, near the town’s picnic pavilion, and settled in. Tom started boiling water to cook potatoes.
The town siren went off.
“This is it,” I said. “Back to The Palace.”
Tom put the pot of boiling water in the sink, I shoved Pippi into her cat carrier, and we drove toward the restaurant a couple blocks away.
Noticing people calming walking through the downtown, remembering the siren had blared only once, we realized it was the six o’clock, quittin’ time siren, a staple of rural communities, one I often heard in my grandparents’ Kansas town. It was the same siren that would be used for a tornado, but it would go off continuously. At least we knew it worked.
Relieved, and feeling kind of stupid, we headed back to our parking spot, and chatted with the family living across the street. The father and two sons all worked at the feed lot outside of town and had just gotten off work. Mom worked for the 911 emergency system, so they always knew about storms before almost anyone else.
“Nothin’s ever hit here,” the son said, his confidence not exactly winning me over.
“Where would you go in case of a tornado?” I asked, not just out of curiosity.
“Oh, we’ve got a cellar,” Dad said.
“Well, you come and get us if you hear something,” I said, not joking.
He laughed, and assured me he would. I laughed and said I’d be pounding on the door, if necessary.
We got back in The Epic Van. I told Tom I wouldn’t be sleeping. I put the cat carrier by the door.
At 9 p.m., the National Weather Service lifted the tornado watch for Webster County.
Still, the rain came, hard. The Epic Van rocked in the wind.
I watched the radar patterns on my phone. Big ugly red patches of lightning and hail developed south of us. Their possible paths, pie-shaped on the radar, often included Red Cloud. Each time, they slid off to the east. Eleven. Midnight. One.
Then, about 2 a.m., a severe hail warning, heading straight toward us. I kept watching, expecting it to move off to the east. Nope. Heading straight toward us.
I started The Epic Van and drove toward Casey’s gas station, where the awning might protect The Epic Van’s rooftop solar panels. Just as I got there, the hail alert disappeared. Still, we sat there for 20 minutes, watching the rain dissipate, my nerves jangling.
Finally, the radar showed clear skies all around.
“Screw Cather,” I said. “I’m sleeping for a few hours, then we’re getting the hell out of here.”
Tom, who regularly sat through tornado watches as a boy in Illinois, thought we should at least take in the Cather sites before leaving. I disagreed. Right there, at 3 a.m., we had a deep discussion about risk and fear, panic and practicality, foolishness and phobias.
As we drove back to the pavilion, I spotted what looked like a golf-ball-sized hail in the road, just one, but proof the threat was real. I stopped and jumped out in my bare feet to retrieve it. As I bent over to grab it, I realized it was an actual golf ball. Damn.
The next morning, after three hours of sleep, just after dawn, we drove off.
About 30 miles north, only minutes as the crow flies from where we were parked, we drove through Roseland, where a twister had touched down. Trees uprooted. Houses destroyed. The Catholic Church damaged. Wires down. A shed housing farm equipment torn to pieces, it’s metal siding strewn along the twister’s path, wrapped around telephone poles, flung into the distant fields. Luckily, no one was injured.
“Sobering,” Tom said. “Un-huh,” I said.
We kept rolling north.
At Broken Bow, where we stopped to pick up our mail north of the ongoing storms, we went into the Prairie Grounds Café & Gifts, and I had one of their Dirty Tornadoes, a shot of espresso, chocolate and chai tea powder. It tasted like safety.