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The decision process, and 'Future Homes' runners-up
For the past couple of months, I knew the day was getting closer - and I'd been deeper in thought and frequent in prayer about which location to choose. This was a harder decision to make than I'd thought it would be. You'd think it would be easy to have the blessing of complete and total freedom of where to go, but there are so many great choices that it was hard to pick one. (Again, in case you missed my ealier post: I relocated to the St. Louis area this month - here are the details).
So why not the Great Plains? I decided against a Plains location for a few reasons. The first and maybe the most importantly being that my life does not completely revolve around storm observing. It is a big part of my life, but it isn't everything. Moving to the Plains would mean I'd likely see all my family only a couple of times a year due to the cost of traveling for both me and them. Storms will never mean enough to me to justify that. Second is the economy. The cost of living in a small Plains town is small, but so are the opportunities to keep the bills paid. Isolation was another major consideration. A big reason why I left Charleston was the isolation, I didn't want to move into an identical social situation somewhere else. I wasn't too keen on living in either the Oklahoma City or Wichita metros. I don't mind those cities at all, in fact I enjoy stopping there - but they didn't have the same 'home' feel as other places did. Tulsa was the exception there, with a 'comfort' factor - but just too far away to go. The only reason I'd want to move that far is to have the wide-open views found in the rural western-central parts of Oklahoma and Kansas - and that exact same thing can be found in Illinois.
Another big factor is that I love the 'road trip' part of springtime tornado season, so any local convenience factor of being in OK/KS wasn't much of a draw. The Plains is my 'vacation/escape' zone, and I felt that living there full time might diminish its novelty. Being in the STL area means I'll be much closer to Plains events, but I will still get to keep that westward 'road trip' aspect in the spring. Tornado season in the Plains is only about 3 months long anyway - not much weatherwise to be there for from July to March. Lastly is the fact that early spring, mid-summer and late fall are active times in the Midwest for severe weather. This area is still largely ignored by traditional Plains storm observers, meaning I'll be able to enjoy some events without the massive crowds, maybe even have some supercells and tornadoes all to myself (just like on September 22, 2006).
I am not completely discounting the Plains for the future. In fact, a 'second home' may still be a great option sometime down the road. I've always thought somewhere near Enid, OK would be ideal for that. For now though, that's not even on the horizon yet.
Future Homes: the final rankings
I made a post back in February of last year that listed my top picks for potential new home locations. For the most part, those possibilities stayed the same. Over time, I started to rank a few places higher on the scale - and St. Louis ended up by far above the rest. Here are the 'finalists' and the reasoning behind each one that I had typed up several weeks ago, just to put my thoughts into words.
#1: St. Louis
St. Louis had been making the most sense to me for several reasons, not the least of which it had become one of my favorite places over the years. STL has been my 'launching pad to the Plains' for nearly ten years, and as such I spend a lot of time either driving through, stopping for the night, eating and/or just hanging out there. It has always felt good to arrive in St. Louis, and I have become fairly familiar with the area, its neighborhoods, landmarks, churches and roads.
St. Louis is a large metro area, in contrast to the social isolation and weak economy of the rural Great Plains (and West Virginia for that matter). It will be easier to keep a steady stream of new web work in a big city (I will be keeping my WV job remotely, in fact CIS will be marketing in this region now in addition to Charleston and Raleigh, and I will be taking on a larger sales prospecting role here).
For storms, St. Louis is within an easy drive to the Great Plains, with two quick major routes to most chase targets via I-44 and I-70. And Route 61, a mostly 4-lane highway to the north, provides quick access to Iowa. This makes any expedition tours I happen to book a much more attractive prospect. Missouri and Illinois themselves have tornado events on a fairly regular basis. (I have always thought of STL as the "eastern Denver" with a similar proximity to frequently-covered areas.) STL is also in the middle of the decent Midwestern severe weather zone, with a good number of local expedition-worthy events during the spring, summer and fall. Chicago is also a relatively short drive (or Amtrak train ride) to the north, as are the nice chase areas of northern Illinois and Indiana. Gulf coast hurricanes and lower Mississippi valley tornado outbreaks are a straight shot southward.
My new location is within an afternoon-evening drive to Pittsburgh and Charleston, and a day's drive to Raleigh back east - meaning I can still see my family and friends on a normal basis without going bankrupt on fuel and hotels. Air travel is a viable option, with the lower-cost Southwest airlines currently serving Lambert.
As I mentioned before, the rural areas on the fringes of STL "Metro-East" in Illinois are always where I liked the best. I looked at the small towns just north of I-64 like Shiloh, New Baden and Lebanon. The landscape is nearly identical to the places I love in the Great Plains - flat and open with a big sky in all directions. It's kind of like the 'Plains outside of the Plains'. Downtown is close (within 30 minutes), Metrolink trains run from Shiloh (should I ever need them), and there should be plenty of business in Fairview Heights/Belleville to negate a need to cross the river into Missouri every day. My goal was to find an apartment or house to rent in or just outside of one of the small towns in this area.
#2: Warrenton/Poseyville, IN
Number 2 on the list was there due to some similarities with STL's Metro-East - flat land close to a city. Here, Evansville provided the economic/social base while the rural towns along I-64 offered the flat, open prairie landscape. Another area with the 'comfort factor' and lots of open skies that I'd always liked traveling through. The drawbacks were that Evansville is much smaller than STL, the Wabash and Ohio rivers were logistical barriers to observing (few bridge crossings), and no north-south interstate options are close by.
Louisville was #3 mostly because it had the economic and social benefits of a big city on I-64, only closer to West Virginia. It also has the inexplicable 'comfort' factor. And although the terrain is not very chase-friendly in the immediate metro, the area is still within the Midwest's zone of elevated severe weather activity. The Illinois state line is only two hours westward, with the flat Indiana prairies just a short drive to the north and rolling Bluegrass hills to the south and east.
Strange as it may seem, I liked Louisville because it would have kept for me a little bit of a drive westward for Plains weather expeditions. In St. Louis, I'll miss part of the 'road trip' of driving west on I-64 toward my expedition targets, watching the sunset on the Illinois prairies and rolling into St. Louis after dark. In fact, I knew I'd really miss any part of the springtime I-64 westbound drives if I moved anywhere west of Charleston. Louisville still made a move seem worthwhile, while keeping a little of something I've come to enjoy in life - escaping to the open road in the spring.
I hadn't really thought much about what part of the Louisville area I liked the best. I thought the outlying areas along I-64 in Indiana seemed the most appealing, around Georgetown and Laynesville. Again, a place in a rural metro-area-fringe town would have been the most ideal.
In a distant 4th place, Lexington's appeal was similar to Louisville's - a nice-sized city closer to family and friends, keeping a good drive westward on I-64 for observing. Lexington's thunderstorm frequency is ten times higher than Charleston due to being outside of the Appalachians. The only problem with Lexington was that much of the outlying areas are occupied by upscale horse farms, which would make it harder to find economical housing. Roads around these farms are also narrow with few places to park for storm photography. Winchester was a possible solution - outside of the 'horse farm zone', along I-64 and close enough to the metro to benefit from the urban economy.
What about the Plains?
I ruled out the rural Great Plains locations for now. It's just too far away from family, in a generally more difficult economic zone, and presents the problem of overall isolation. I love it out there, to be sure - and I should have plenty of opportunities to 'escape' to the area and enjoy it on weather expeditions (made easier/cheaper by the shorter westward drives). Tulsa and Joplin/Baxter Springs (which were on my original list) were actually close runners-up to the above areas, and if I decide to move again, may appear on the new list if and when that ever happens. I decided against them mainly due to the distance from family, and the fact that I still enjoy covering the lesser-covered events in the Midwest.
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