Road Trip - KansasbyRomantic1©
This is a stand-alone story – the twenty-third episode in my Road Trip Series. Jim's past experiences are referred to in this story, but not in detail that reading those stories would provide. An ordered list of the story titles in the series to date is at the end of this episode Read, enjoy, vote, and communicate.
Tornado, Aftermath, and Sex
Before I left Grand Island, Nebraska, I checked the weather between there and Salina, Kansas. A strong weather front looked as though it would pass late in the afternoon, so if I hurried I might beat it. I called and made reservations to stay at the Best Western motel in Salina, and after asking got permission to park my motorcycle in an enclosed hallway at the motel so it's stay dry. The forecast worried me since it included severe winds, hail, and the possibility of tornadoes over a widespread area.
To speed up my trip south from Grand Island, Nebraska, I took Interstate 80 east about thirty miles before getting on U.S. 81 South – a route that would take me right into the center of Salina on a fast road. I expected the journey would take three or four hours, putting me in Salina around five o'clock that afternoon.
A signpost marked the arbitrary delineation between the two states. I stopped and took a photograph of the sign marking the state line. I also took the envelopes of Karen's ashes for Nebraska and Kansas, and only a few steps apart, I let the ashes fly in the light breeze. I noted how my grieving Karen's loss wasn't as heart wrenching as it had been months earlier when I'd left on my trip. Dr. Marty Sanders, the pretty psychiatrist in Nebraska, had been right, I was healing. My loins stirred at the memory of both our talk and our passionate time together.
I had thought the land coming from South Dakota to Grand Island was flat; the land along this route was even flatter. Further, the landscape was almost devoid of trees; one could see from horizon to horizon in any direction, and count the trees one might see on one or two hands. In most places, the land didn't even undulate. I thought of how this had once been the floor of some prehistoric ocean.
The start of my trip after a quick lunch in Grand Island was sunny with temperatures around eighty. A few puffy cumulus clouds dotted the sky, but as I traveled south, the cumulus clouds joined into larger cloud masses until they eventually blocked most of the sunlight from the area. The closer I got to Salina, the darker the core of the clouds also got. In Nebraska, the clouds had looked light, fluffy, and nonthreatening, but nearer Salina, the clouds looked dense, heavy with moisture, dark, and dangerous. The base of the cloud deck above me started to develop the dark puffy pattern I knew as mammatus clouds, a harbinger of tornadoes.
The more I persisted in my travels south; the lighter the traffic got, until I found myself the only vehicle on the road for long stretches. The lack of other cars or trucks on the road worried me; I wondered if they knew something I didn't. I stopped for gas near the town of Minneapolis, Kansas, but no one there could add anything new to the weather forecast. They attributed the lack of traffic to it being a stormy Sunday. As I left, I wondered if the 'real' Minneapolis knew this mimic farm town of barely two thousand people, according to a sign I passed, even existed. Occasionally, I'd pass a riverbed; most were dry, yet wide enough to carry a significant amount of water.
Off to the west, I could see the start of a thunderstorm, the rain slanting to the ground beneath the dark cloud. Around me, virga seemed to fall from the overhead clouds – rain from the clouds that evaporated before reaching the ground. One thing I remembered from the meteorology course I received in my Special Ops training was that virga often seeded the storm cells around it, amplifying the cloud volume into huge cumulus monsters that held millions of cubic feet of supersaturated air. The results could often be disastrous.
I accelerated along the highway, anxious to get to the motel before the heavy rain began.
I didn't make it.
About two miles north of Interstate 70 the first raindrops found me – large droplets of water hit the bike, my helmet facemask, and my leather jacket with large loud splats. Through my jeans, I could feel the sting as I ran into them. There were few of them, but they were significant enough as I rode into them that I had to slow down.
I looked for cover, and saw an exit for a rural road – State Road 143. U.S. 80 went over the road on a couple of substantial bridges – one northbound and one southbound, so I figured I could hide beneath the highway under one of the bridges and stay dry until the storm passed.
I exited the highway, turned left at the bottom the ramp, and had just gotten underneath the highway when the gust front of the nearby thunderstorm rolled past me. Strong winds sliced through the area, gusting to over fifty miles per hour – maybe even higher.
I parked my motorcycle on the shoulder of the macadam road under the bridge, and then realized that the wind gusts were significant enough that it might blow over despite its weight. I could see the bike wobbling on its stand. On a hunch the bike might blow over, I positioned the bike beside a pylon for the bridge, untied my bedroll from the front of the bike, created a cushion on the ground, and carefully lowered the bike onto its side so nothing would scratch the paint job on the tank or the chrome accessories.
Under the bridge, there was a steep slope of paver bricks leading up to the underside of the highway I'd come from. The higher up the slope, the less likely it appeared that rain would penetrate. I scampered about halfway up the slope, and sat, hoping the cell would pass quickly and I could get on my way again. To my left, I had a view to the west, and to my right, under the bridge for the northbound travel lane, a view to the east.
To the west, the sky darkened even further. Moreover, the color of sky was strange – somewhere between the brown of the soil in the area and dark green. The cloud bottoms looked really odd, all puffy, and mottled, almost like a snapshot of dark molten lava.
I saw the first funnel cloud only sixty seconds after I sat down. To the west, a couple of miles away, the dark clouds birthed a descending cloud tendril that obviously had rotational speed, enough so it spun for another minute before disappearing back into its mother cloud formation. No sooner had it disappeared than a larger one started to form and reach to the ground. The wind whipped wildly through the space under the bridge, creating eerie sounds. I watched as the base of the funnel touched down; an explosion of dirt and debris from the field it had struck swirled up into the air mass.
Suddenly, from the east on the country road came a red pickup truck loaded with a half dozen bales of hay and some sacks of feed. The truck screeched to a stop when it got under the bridge, sliding in near a bridge support opposite my motorcycle on the opposite shoulder of the road. The driver's door opened and a young woman wearing a western hat, boots, jeans, and a checkered shirt got out of the truck. Her hat immediately disappeared in the high wind: one second it was there, and the next it had vanished. Her long Auburn locks waved wildly in the wind. She turned to run to the same slope I sat on. She took one step, and a high-speed gust raked under the bridge and lifted her six or eight feet in the air before she rolled to the ground. The truck door blew closed with a loud pop. The rain blew almost horizontally under the bridge, and day had nearly turned into night.
The woman sat stunned where she'd fallen. She leaned into the wind almost at a forty-five-degree angle trying to stand before she fell to the ground again. The wind rolled her over a couple of times, moving her along the asphalt towards unprotected space between the two bridges.
I bolted down the embankment and with the wind at my back raced to her side, kneeling once I reached her. I yelled, "Are you all right? I saw you fall. I'm hiding from the storm up there." I gestured over my shoulder to the protected alcoves at the top of the embankments under the bridge. I offered my hands for support, and she latched on immediately. I got a brief smile.
"Just my pride's bruised," she said loudly. I helped her up, and we held onto each other as we fought against the wind to move back up to where I'd been when I first saw her. The wind speeds immediately under the over-passing road were less than at road level.
As I went to settle in to watch the storm from my earlier perch halfway up the embankment, the pretty woman said, "No, we've got to get higher, as deep into one of those protected spaces as we can get. This is a bad one – really bad; probably a four or five I'm sure, and it's headed right for us." I recalled enough about the weather to know that a tornado rating of four or five made it a killer and destroyer, with winds over two hundred miles per hour.
We scrambled up the pavers as high as we could go as the fury and sound of the storm intensified. I yelled over the wind to her, "I'm Jim. I was on my way to Salina, but didn't make it. How long do these things last?" I assessed the young woman as we started to huddle away from the fury of the wind: mid twenties, hardy stock, pretty, and busty.
She practically yelled back over the din of the wind, "My name's Midge. The twister will pass us pretty soon. This one has a wide base – several hundred yards; that's big – and bad. They move about ten miles an hour out here, but they take crazy loops and can come back over the same area again. The rainstorms might be around until after sundown; although with this weather front I'm not sure. The weather bureau said everything was moving fast, but issued the tornado warning until midnight."
The wind blew faster and faster, creating its own vortices as it swirled under the bridge. We'd had protection from the rain when we first took up our position, but now the wind eddies blew the rain everywhere, so we slowly were getting drenched even though we were high and supposedly protected. I had my leather jacket on, so didn't mind too much, but I watched as Midge's shirt slowly got wet and started to cling to her body.
The wind speed past us kept rising gust by gust, as did the crescendos of noise from the approaching tornado. I had to look; I hitched myself to the edge of the alcove we were hidden in, holding onto the steel support beam spanning the road above for security. I peeked out into the maelstrom. I could see the bottom part of a huge dark funnel cloud that twisted and sped along the ground approaching us. The funnel was less than a half-mile away with a wide base. Debris and dust flew out of the side of the beast in all directions and from all heights. I stared in awe at this powerhouse of nature.
I hustled back to where Midge sat; "We're going to take a direct hit. It's only a half-mile away." We both tried to wedge ourselves more securely into our small but open alcove. I put Midge against the abutment wall, and wedged myself against her and against the two steel beams that made up the side of our alcove. With winds this high, I started to seriously worry about the motorcycle.
Looking down at the roadway from inside our alcove, we both watched as the wind plucked first one and then another and another bale of hay from the bed of the pickup, tossing them to the east and out of sight at a high rate of speed. Soon, the entire bed of the pickup truck was empty, whereas it had been full of feed and hay only seconds earlier.
Some kind of wooden shed crashed into the outer beam of the bridge as though a giant hand had hurled the structure at the bridge; we both jumped. Midge yelled at me, "Protect your face; cover your face!" Midge huddled closer to me for her personal protection; I put an arm around her and tried to wrap my leather jacket around the two of us. Shards of wood and splinters flew everywhere for ten seconds after the shed exploded, and then the remains of the small building disappeared out the other side of the bridge. A heavy floor joist from the shed had slammed into the front window of Midge's pickup truck giving the truck a surreal look, as though it had a battering ram.
The noise got louder, increasingly sounding like a roaring freight train racing by right next to us at high speed. The bridge shook. Dust and farm debris raced by only a few feet from us; the eddies pelted us with some of the detritus. At that point, I guessed the wind velocity under the bridge had passed well over a hundred miles an hour. I couldn't believe the speed would go much higher, but I was wrong.
As the din got louder, the wind speed increased. As the wind speed increased, more debris smashed into the bridge, Midge's truck, and my motorcycle. The sky got even darker.
I watched as the wind spun the Harley from where I'd carefully set it on its side, and slowly slid it twenty or thirty feet until it came to rest wedged against the farthest bridge pylon at the base of the embankment. The Harley weighed over seven hundred pounds. I hoped it wouldn't slide outside and be pulled up into the vortex. Part of me entertained the idea of racing down the embankment to the bike and somehow securing it to the post, but I thought better of the suicidal idea.
Midge's truck wasn't so lucky; as the wind speed rose, the vehicle slowly started to move backwards in jerks and starts; the brakes locked the wheels yet it slid anyway in the high wind. The red truck slewed slowly in the wind until it was nearly broadside to the road, and then it tumbled over. The whole truck just blew over ... and over ... and over. The truck picked up speed as it rolled out from under the protection of the far bridge throwing up handfuls of broken glass and plastic parts into the wind with each rotation. We were both shocked. And then, the truck rose up in the air and disappeared from our view. Midge grabbed my hand and hung on tight. My ears were popping wildly from second to second with the changing air pressure.
A huge tree branch flew by us, barely touching the ground. The conical top of a silo smashed into the side of the bridge, turning into unrecognizable shards of aluminum as the mass hurled by us. The whole bridge shook so much I worried about its integrity as a hiding place. Seconds later, part of the roof of a house tumbled under the bridge, disintegrating as it rolled past in the high wind. Above us, on the surface of the roadway, we could hear other large objects smashing into the ground, some significant enough to shake the foundation of the bridge.
Midge and I started to hold our ears the noise became so loud; she buried her head against me, under my leather jacket. Even in our shelter, we were both trying to protect our faces from flying debris. I'd left my helmet strapped to my bike; now I wished I'd brought it with me. When I took a quick look at the motorcycle, I noted that the bedroll and tarps were long gone; along with a least one of the bags I'd tied on the bike with bungee cords. Oddly enough, I could still see my travel guitar tightly strapped to the sissy bar.
And suddenly, the wind speed started to drop precipitously and the noise abated slightly. The darkness that had settled on us minutes before, slowly started to lighten. Midge peeked out from under my jacket; she flashed me a worried look, a glimmer of a smile, and then a look of great concern. We waited another minute and then cautiously came out of our safe place, moving down the embankment a few feet. The winds under the bridge had dropped. Outside, the rain had started to come down in sheets again, but more vertically than horizontally. Over the noise of the receding tornado, I heard thunder.
The funnel cloud had passed over us and moved off to the east, aiming directly at several farms I had seen earlier. In the distance, I could hear the wailing of sirens. I turned to Midge; she said flatly, "Tornado warning sirens. They trigger automatically, I think. They're located all over the county." Her voice had the shaky tinge of terror in it. I could tell Midge had been really scared; I guess I should have known better.
We inched our way down the incline from our shelter high up under the bridge. An occasional gust of wind pelted us with big raindrops, but neither of us seemed to notice amid the rubble left by the vortex.
I went to the motorcycle, pulled the bike from where it had wedged against the bridge pylon, and hoisted it into its upright position. The left-hand side of the bike was badly scarred and scratched by the grit and small stones it slid over. The chrome exhaust pipes and engine covers as well as the side of the gas tank had taken the brunt of the slide. One handle bar end showed damage as well. A directional light had broken off near the base of its mount, held on only by the internal wiring. A piece of wood, from the destroyed shed I guessed, had penetrated the seat like the end of a spear. I pulled it out as a souvenir of another brush with the devil; the one-inch hole also would be a reminder of what had happened minutes earlier. If the bike hadn't caught on the abutment, no telling how bad the damage would have been.
Amazingly, the small travel guitar remained tied to the sissy bar; both saddlebags and one of my strap-on travel bags were intact. I checked my laptop computer and discovered a crack across the face of the screen; the unit still seemed to work. My helmet remained attached to the bike, although some piece of debris had scarred the visor's right side.
Midge watched me assess the bike. As the rain slowed, we both ventured to the parallel bridge and then outside. The tornado had moved further away now; the sound of a train it was making could still be heard. We looked for the red truck, but saw no sign of it. I scrambled up the embankment to the roadway above. I spotted a pile of red debris over a half-mile away. I signaled to Midge, and she came up and joined me as I pointed out the sight to her.
Midge stood for a moment, checked out what appeared to be the remains of her truck, and then watched the departing twister. I could see a tear form in the corner of her eye. She pointed to an area in front of the twister; "My farm is right over in that area. I hope it leaves the house alone."
Nearby, the battered remains of an industrial trailer lay in the middle of the highway. If there had been any cargo in it, the cargo was long gone. The metal beams that ran the length of the trailer were badly bent out of shape. There was no sign of the tractor.
Heavy raindrops still pelted us periodically; a few would come down and then they'd stop. Once, a few hailstones the size of marbles forced us back under the bridge for a moment. When they'd ceased we went up to the overhead road again.
Midge and I both tried to use our cell phones, but we got 'No Service' messages on our screens. Even more disheartening, not a car or truck could be seen for miles on the long flat highway I'd been on before I sought shelter.
I asked Midge, "You're from around here, so where can we summon some help. The twister must have done some damage before it reached us, and it ran right over those farm buildings to the east." I pointed. Midge assured me that emergency equipment would appear shortly; that they're used to this type of thing.
We scampered back down the embankment to the motorcycle, and I fired up the engine. "Get on," I commanded to Midge. She hopped on, and we slowly threaded our way through the debris on the country road as we headed to the nearest farm about a half-mile away.