Driving Through a Derecho, or, Toto, We Are Unfortunately Still in Kansas
Okay, more like, “Phil and Ruby, we’re unfortunately still in Kansas.”
Phil and Ruby were the two German Short-Haired Pointers that I was helping my friend Shonna transport from Marin County, California, to their owners in Harding, New Jersey. We had a week to get across the country with our precious, adorable, sometimes-stressful cargo, and I’d chosen for us a fairly straight line to get from A to B. We had hotels booked in Salt Lake City, Colorado Springs, Nashville, and Shenandoah National Park. But for some reason I was drawn to the time we’d spend making our way across the state of Kansas and the night we’d stay in Topeka.
It sounds like a weird thing, feeling excited about Kansas. And it’s hard to explain my fascination with a state most known for tornadoes and being painfully flat and boring. But here’s what I came up with before I left for the trip: I’m feeling worn out on my city, living in the city in general, and a drive across Kansas seemed about as far as I could get – conceptually – from the place I call home. Needless to say, I’d never been to Kansas, and I really didn’t know anything about it (fun fact: I still don’t). But there was something about the idea of Kansas that called to me.
Kansas is, indeed, flat and boring and doesn’t seem to have a lot going on. Again, this was more of a conceptual fascination; I had no expectations for anything spectacular. But what was interesting about our time driving through Kansas was a unique weather pattern we came up against without even realizing it.
Naturally, Shonna – in the co-pilot’s seat – spent a fair amount of time talking and Googling facts about tornadoes while we were in the Sunflower State, and that became disheartening as I found myself driving us toward a black wall of clouds on the horizon. It was ominous to say the least. But forward was our only option, so with lightning and the occasional crack of thunder to welcome us, we made our way toward the dark curtain ahead.
Kansas truly is very, very flat, and on that day it meant we had a lot of time to wonder about what exactly we were driving into, and remark on the lightning striking the sky all around us. When we finally caught up to the darkness (truly, it was like driving from day into night) what we got was wind, torrential rain, and more lightning. I was still driving, feeling tense. As a native to Oregon, I can handle my fair share of rain, but what spooked me was the cars around me – about 50 cars all at once turned on their emergency flashers. A handful of people started pulling over. I was perplexed and at one point sincerely wondered if they knew something we didn’t and whether we should actually be worried.
Of course, everything was fine, but I drove on in the storm for what felt like – and may have actually been – hours. When we finally made it to our hotel in Topeka we watched as the dark clouds followed us. We quickly took the dogs for a walk and made it back inside before it started to pour. In the hotel room, Shonna found a news alert on her phone. A derecho storm system had hammered through the midwest causing damage for 1,000 miles. So that pretty much cleared that up. But we were wondering what you might be wondering. What on earth is a derecho?
According to EarthSky.org, a derecho is, “a violent storm that can produce widespread damage, usually associated with a rapidly moving band of showers and thunderstorms.” There are also some pretty specific requirements that differentiate it from your run-of-the-mill thunderstorm. For instance, “There must be a concentrated area of convectively induced wind damage/gusts greater than 50 knots, or 60 miles per hour (97 kph).” And, “The area must have a major axis length length of 248.5 miles (400km).” As CNN’s Jennifer Gray puts it, in a somewhat cheery weather-reporting voice, “Winds within a derecho can be as strong as a weak tornado but it lasts for hundreds of miles…” Yikes.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t notice the winds so much as I drove toward Topeka in what felt like an endless storm. Probably because I was driving 30 miles per hour under the speed limit due to the crushing rain. But one moment does stand out: Phil, terrified and barking, as one of our hotel’s huge patio umbrellas tumbled across the lawn just before we got back inside and the sky opened up again. So, I suppose there was some wind.
Thunderstorms continued to find us for the rest of the trip. In Nashville. In Shenandoah. During a lovely patio dinner in Sutton, Quebec – quite literally right after commenting on what a nice night it was – the sky got dark and a sprinkle of rain turned into a downpour. Thunder and lightning quickly followed. All we could do was laugh and marvel at our luck while the waitstaff rushed around clearing the tables.
When all was said and done we made it through all the storms the trip threw at us. And I came away with a unique and stand-out memory of Kansas. It definitely wasn’t anything I expected, and potentially kind of a fluke. But maybe that lent its own magic to Kansas. And from now on I’ll think of it as a flat, boring, but thoroughly unpredictable state.