My first storm chase took me 385 miles in the wrong direction, racing a line of storms that always managed to keep ahead of me. I was close enough to melt virgin hail on the highways, but a comedy reel of obstacles slowed my progress: school buses, tractors, a 'Welcome to Missouri' sign that had blown onto the road and, best of all, a squadron of wild turkeys blocking my way outside a town called Everton. At sunset I found myself in the Springfield area, heading back west. The destination was Tulsa, but I knew my tired eyes wouldn't make it that far. In the pink light of dusk I turned off for Joplin, and checked-in to the Super 8 on the edge of town.
I was tired. Jurassic Park was on TV. But I ventured into town anyway. I threw on my cleanest dirty shirt and strolled across motel and gas station forecourts to the busy sports bar and grill attached to a brand new La Quinta Inn. This is where I met Daisy.
She was short and skinny, with long dark pigtails and eyes that darted all over the place. When she came over, her eyes locked onto mine in a way that made my brain fizz. She was intense. When she spoke her body doubled over as if she was spinning some invisible hoop, with teeth and eyes shining in all directions like a disco ball. I hadn't spoken to anyone all day, after chasing the almighty Chaos of nature, and now the Chaos of this human caught me cold.
Daisy was convinced I wanted chicken fried steak, when all I asked for was a menu. She giggled. It was a game. I could do nothing but fall in line and play along. She had that kind of effect.
I said the last time I had chicken fried steak was in Rachel, Nevada, and it was gross.
She laughed, said she had a friend called Rachel, and it would blow her mind to hear about some place named after her, and anyway her chicken fried steak was the best. Was I from England?
No, but back to Rachel, it wasn't much of a place, a few shacks and a restaurant called the Little A'Le'Inn in the middle of the desert, near Area 51. A flying saucer sits outside the restaurant to attract weird people like me, and the chicken fried steak was just gristle and breadcrumbs. Can I at least see the menu?
She said I was full of crap and that I was from England, she could tell.
I said no, and yes it was a real spaceship. You know that crash in Roswell in 1947? That's the one. The rancher got paid off to keep quiet at the time, but a few years ago he used that money to buy back the spaceship. He found it in a junk sale in Las Vegas. He knew it was the one.
Daisy was about to call me a name, ask me something profound, or throw me out – I’ll never know which - when a bang came from the kitchen and she hightailed it over, without taking my order. Food had been the last thing on my mind all day, but now with the wafting smell of frying onions I couldn’t think of anything else.
It gave me a chance to enjoy my beer and look around. I've never seen so many TV screens in one place; I counted forty-four in all, each showing a sport I didn't understand. Truckers watched alone, scratching their heads under huge hats while local guys hunched together around tall tables pumping fists at “March Madness.” They drank a lot of beer, and whiskey, and chatted with Daisy's prettier friends. In each corner of the room a businessman sat alone with an electric blue face before a laptop or phone.
When Daisy emerged twenty minutes later she looked like a robot, her cosmic bounce disappeared.
I watched the glum Daisy serve the whole restaurant but me (and some people twice), whilst I used the time to write up my future on a foldaway map. I was due in Minnesota in three days and it felt a universe away. There was too much here to ignore, to just drive away. Then a barmaid came out to take my order; she must have noticed my foodless table and taken it upon herself. Although well passed hunger now, I ordered a burger and fries, figuring it was expected of me. It came quickly and I stuffed the thing down with another beer. A middle aged man appeared from the side door that connects to the La Quinta Inn and placed himself on the table next to mine. I prayed to God he wasn't going to ask me about one of the things happening on TV.
"Hey fella, what's going on with the Paddle Steamers this year?"
"Honestly, I don't know what the fuck is going on."
"Hell no. I don't think even they know what's going on. Should never have let Tommy go, that's mistake number one, right there. The Gators, they're the team this year, and let me tell you why..." Well that was me fucked.
I did what a man has got to do; for thirty minutes I was an expert on college basketball, mumbling and nodding my way through the Madness, occasionally swearing and shouting: "I don't believe it!" or "No way!" or "Fuck you San Diego!"
The place started to empty by ten, so under the gaze of clock-watching staff I got up to pay at the bar. Daisy had long gone. I was disappointed not to speak with her again, she was one of those souls whose aura could be the very stuff that keeps the world turning, keeping us afloat, and steering humanity past the despondent dread the rest of us try to sink it with. Was it something I said? I felt terrible and didn't know why. I heard someone in the kitchen shout: "Where the hell is Daisy?"
Old basketball man was talking away to himself and on my way out I shouted, "Screw em'!" He replied with something I didn't hear as the door swung shut and I was out on the road again.
It was cold, and God was putting on a show. Distant thunder clouds ringed the horizon, and they looked like pink marshmallows holding up the universe, which was blue and black overhead, awash with stars and a high crescent moon. The motels and restaurants shot their neon logos against the night and it looked just about right in the kind of way only America can pull off. Crickets were chirping and the pink clouds shook with lightning. I fell asleep on my oversized Super 8 bed reading Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez.
Dawn crept up with a disappointing grey haze. A grim sponge of a cloud. A lone trucker watched me pack the red Nissan full with creased shirts and sink-washed socks. The car smelled of ripe bananas, which reminded and thrilled me to go in search of free fruit and coffee at reception - you get your kicks where you can in strip mall motels. Reception was empty, so I endeavoured to eat a week's worth of fruit and tiny toast. A corner TV spewed out a ticker of morning horrors. Car accidents. Fires. The big story of the last few weeks was the race riots in Ferguson. It hit me watching the burning cars and blue lights that I was not that far from Ferguson, and this was going on last night while I gazed at a happy moon and stars among the peaceful lights of Joplin. I scratched my head.
The hotel manager appeared and burst my thoughts and I suddenly felt uneasy opening a fifth packet of grape jelly. We struck up a conversation which, me being British and he being Indian, naturally turned to cricket. The World Cup was under way and we both laughed at the fact we were supporting each other's teams, and for broadly the same reasons: "A bunch of cry-babies." Worse the devil you know. I wished him and England well and he wished it back to me and India. He didn't notice my pockets full of grape jelly and bread, and I was back on the road by eight.
It was Thursday and the streets were busy with commuters and kids in SUVs. I always feel like the scrawny kid in gym class when caught in American traffic; almost every car is bigger than my house. Thick tattooed arms and dark sunglasses looked down on me with a full view of my bombsite interior. Even the tattoo looked disappointed.
One of last night's plans had been to visit the tornado memorial before leaving town. It was in a specially built park only five minutes from the motel according to Google. But I got lost in diverted traffic that took me in circles. By the time I found it, on a new hill surrounded by gridlocked roads, I didn't get out of the car.
Why not? I can't say for sure. I sat there in the car looking at the wooden gazebo, it just felt wrong. What right did I have being here? What was I doing here? Yesterday I was chasing storms for fun and here was a memorial to 163 dead men, women and children. Everything was new in Joplin because the town had been destroyed just four years ago. And I was here...for what? I hadn't planned to visit or stay in Joplin. It just happened to be the first turn after Springfield on my way to Tulsa as it started to go dark. I'm sure plenty of strangers have come here to pay their respects, and no one would think anything of me doing the same. So why did I feel like a vulture? I felt sick. Ashamed. I couldn't look at anyone, and I thought back to last night and Crazy Daisy and the likelihood that she had lost loved ones. Most likely a lot of people in the bar had lost someone.
I sat there for thirty minutes or so, trying to imagine the horror that had taken place. The lives taken, and the ones they left behind, forever shattered. It was hard to reconcile the everyday joviality (and judging tattoos) of last night and this morning with such recent, unimaginable pain. The Chaos. The human resilience.
It was cold, my breath was chugging out clouds, so I turned the heater on for the first time since Wyoming, four weeks back, and set out to find the Interstate. At a downtown gas station I poured a giant coffee and picked up some kind of oat based snack for later. Plonking the coffee on the roof while I dumped some empty cups and banana skins, a silver haired man in shorts caught my eye.
"My wife told me to put some trousers on but I guess I just like wearing shorts. Hell, I'm an optimist!" He laughed.
As so often in America, a chance meeting became an intimate conversation within seconds. He had travelled through Europe in the 70's and even stopped in my hometown on the way to Ireland. "A delightful little place!" Questionable, but polite. Before we could exchange more stories, a mammoth black truck beeped for him to get a move on and we said our goodbyes; two people separated by a generation and four thousand miles, but together for eternity in a moment outside a Missouri gas station, in a town rebuilding after unimaginable horror. He hung a bare arm out the red pick-up window to part a sea of traffic, and apparently blind to the chaos he caused, he grinned back at me and shouted above the horns: "Have a wonderful day!"
Well what could I do? I drove on and cried.
Photos by Author
My name's Tom, I'm from Wales, and I have a problem. It's a constant itch to travel to Nowheresville, USA. I like to find out how history came to create the peculiar places I find. My favourite places are Tonopah, Nevada, Wall, South Dakota, and Point Reyes Station, California.