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                   Thursday, June 30, 2016

Kansas, you've got a natural wonder equal to a Grand Canyon, a Victoria Falls, a Mount Everest - and people from all over the world that love you

Storm Chaser/Photographer
25 Years of Storm Chasing
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Note: I just spent some of my own money to promote this post on Facebook and Twitter. I'm not selling anything here, I'm just trying to reach out to Kansas residents. Ads and viral traffic are the only way I can hope to compete with the media.

Lately, I wonder if the Great Plains region realizes what it's got.

Kansas tornado

Year after year, people journey from all over the world to see a natural wonder they can only see here. Every spring, I meet them - on "holiday" from Australia, Great Britain, France, Italy, Croatia and countless other nations around the globe. Many are repeat visitors, dedicating great amounts of their disposable income to spend weeks - even months - roaming places that most of our nation considers "flyover country".

For most storm chasers, the Great Plains is more than just a region to view the natural majesty that brings us here: it's our "happy place" - whether there are storms or not. For a chaser, there is an indescribable comfort and joy of being out on the open roads of Kansas and surrounding Plains states. Even the sunsets are worth the price of admission when the sky is so expansive.

Wheat field

I grew up in the hills and mountains of Appalachia, a place that despite its scenic beauty, doesn't lend itself well to someone with a love of the skies. When I jumped in my truck and headed west on the highway, breaking from mountains to hills into the flat, open country where the sky dominates the view, I was in a whole new world - a paradise to me. I'd imagine it's like how landing in the Bahamas or some tropical destination must feel to the vacationer wanting to escape their daily routine. The open skies, grain elevators, windmills and wheat fields in the Plains are a breath of fresh air, a prelude to the amazing show that paints this aerial canvas every afternoon and evening.

Kansas highway

And then there are the people. Every interaction I've had with Great Plains residents over my many years of traveling the region has been positive, interesting and enjoyable. I love stopping at the small-town gas stations where local residents are eager to chat about the upcoming storms, and always seem appreciative to hear a little "chaser insight" about what's coming. Landmarks like the Big Well in Greensburg and the Windmill Museum in Shattuck, Oklahoma have been a mutual delight for both chasers and the owners. Similar have been my conversations with local law enforcement, always welcoming and again, grateful for the extra insight that our knowledge and experience with severe weather can offer. I have never once encountered anyone in the Great Plains who voices a disdain for chasers.

And where would meteorology and severe storms science be without you, Kansas? From the time the first grainy black-and-white pictures of tornadoes were published, the majestic and mysterious products of your skies have continually inspired countless young people to grow up and become the meteorologists and scientists of our age. It's from that mixture of fascination, awe and discovery that has yielded much of our current knowledge of severe storms and tornadoes.

Of course, these storms occasionally impact a house or even a town, causing horrible tragedy. No one celebrates those events - and especially not us as chasers. We are happy that most of the storms in the Plains spin harmlessly and gracefully over open fields, and every time we're out, we always hope it stays that way. But when it doesn't, many of us have been there to help. It's common for chasers to be on the scene of impacted homes before emergency crews, checking on residents and alerting first responders if help is needed.

Kansas tornado

It has been heartbreaking, then, to see the wedge that negative sensationalist media pieces with false and misleading information has introduced into the minds of local residents in the Plains, and continued to work to drive deeper. They paint a picture of chasers causing chaos, with everyone in the Plains hating our guts. In the internet age, misinformation spreads like wildfire, with corrective efforts paling in their reach.

When I see these negative articles hit, the feeling I have is the same as when you discover that your car's been broken into, glass covering the ground and several items missing. The pit in your stomach comes as you recognize that something has been taken from you, and you'll likely never catch the thief. Every writer and publisher of a negative news piece similarly robs part of the good relationship that storm chasers have had with the people of the Great Plains over the years. I'm really hoping that their willful deception makes you just as upset as we are about it.

We acknowledge there are a handful in our ranks that exhibit bad behavior, and we are not happy about them, either. Kansas (and the other Plains states), I hope you can understand that every hobby, every sport, every community - even yours - has its bad apples. Just like you wouldn't want your state judged by the actions of a few, storm chasers don't like it when the media's hunger for a story and internet clicks does it to us.

If you're undecided about chasers and what the activity is like, I invite you to "ride along" virtually on over 50 chases in the Plains and Midwest via video that many of us have posted. The videos are time-lapsed, so you can skim through entire days in one sitting. I started putting these together in response to all of the news articles you've been reading so that you can see what it's really like out there. For the few that maintain that there are big problems: if you could watch those videos (I have not refrained from posting the more higher-traffic events) and let me know what parts of them you object to, that would go a long way toward helping our mutual understanding.

Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, you have something special - something so spectacular and rare that it regularly captures the attention of the world. While the rest of the country marginalizes you as boring and forgotten, chasers know better. We recognize your treasures, and we have - in more ways than one - been your advocates. The chasing community is your friend, and you've been a friend to us in return. It's my hope that we can transcend the damage done by the media and keep it that way.

In closing - I asked this question tonight on Twitter: Chasers, if you could describe the Great Plains in one word, what would it be? See the responses here.

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The following comments were posted before this site switched to a new comment system on August 27, 2016:

Great article and so so true. Thank you fly over states for your hospitality, and natural beauty. I can't wait to come back again!
- Posted by Anne Wilson from Florida
Beautifully written.
- Posted by mom
A well written article that says it kept secret is the Great Plains are a true piece of paradise.....looking forward to returning again!
- Posted by Jean from Vancouver Island
Grew up and been here in Kansas all my 49 yrs. I don't care what anyone else thinks of this place, but to drive the Flint Hills and smell native flowers in bloom and fresh air, to see the wonders of nature, like we have, including wildlife (ever been stuck in a traffic jam in Yellowstone, people gawking at Red fox or coyotes, cougar, buffalo, deer and elk, or Canadian geese? We got that in our backyards and open Prairie. If we'd just add bears and wolves back to their native Kansas homes again and we'd be Yellowstone!) We have a natural park everywhere you can go. Natural Oak forests in SE KS to Rolling Plains, and migrant bird flight sanctuaries, to rock formations that resemble New Mexico. Miles of sky. Miles of open road. It's a travelers paradise. Come to Kansas and see it for yourself.
- Posted by Janelle from Topeka, KS

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