Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Retiree’s head is in clouds
PURSUITS: EXTREME WEATHER? BRING IT
BY LIANA BAYNE
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Nick Travis can cross a major item off of his bucket list.
The 67-year-old retired reading teacher, a self-described “weather freak,” joined about 17 other people on a tornado-chasing tour that spanned 7,000 miles over two weeks.
(More video: CBS News report)
Travis’ group started in Oklahoma City and ventured as far north as South Dakota and as far west as Colorado.
Travis said he’d been interested in weather since he was a boy growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I used to just sit up and watch the snow fall at night,” he said. “I was fascinated by anything happening with the weather.”
The trip had long been on his list of things he wanted to do.
Travis, a Spotsylvania County resident, moved to the area in 1972, when he returned from service in Vietnam.
He became an elementary school teacher and worked for 37 years at several Stafford schools, primarily as a reading specialist.
But he always tried to incorporate his interests—paleontology is second only to weather—in his work. As a reading teacher, he tried to give his students material that dealt with scientific topics.
“Especially the boys” enjoyed reading about dinosaurs and extreme weather, he said. He also shared his interest in paleontology with his sons.
But he was never able to persuade anyone to go storm chasing with him. Now that he’s been retired for six years, he decided to go for it.
He chose the storm-chasing company Silver Lining Tours after reading about it on 0nline weather-message boards he frequents.
He paid $3,400 to join 17 other tourists and four guides in three vans equipped with weather computers and highly advanced GPS systems. The group traveled to various locations based on projections about where storms might form.
The chasers encountered multiple super-cell thunderstorms that created large clouds. Travis called the clouds “mother ships.”
“There’s nothing like seeing it in person,” he said. “It looks like a UFO from a Spielberg movie. When that cloud rotates and lowers, there’s nothing in a movie that can capture what it looks like.”
Travis said many times, he’d hop out of the van and stand awestruck looking at the formations overhead.
Travis said he loved the thrill of jumping in the vans at a moment’s notice and barreling through farms and dirt roads toward a storm.
“When they say chase, you chase,” he said.
One day, the group followed a tornado that touched down overnight in a town in Nebraska.
Three houses and a car wash were destroyed by the storm, but nobody in the town was injured or killed, Travis said.
Another memorable moment happened when the group was trying to drive through a thunderstorm that was producing large hail.
“The hail sounded like a machine gun full of rocks,” he said.
“But,” he noted, “you’re safer on a chase team that knows what they’re doing than alone in a house out there when a storm hits.”
He said being around severe weather didn’t scare him nearly as much as other experiences he’s had.
He rated taking a hot air balloon trip several years ago as more frightening than storm chasing.
He said he loved being around other people who shared his interests in severe weather.
One of his new friends is University of Miami junior Alex Goldstein, a meteorology major who’s been on seven storm-chasing tours with his dad.
“You meet a lot of people you wouldn’t otherwise,” Goldstein said.
“Nick was great,” Goldstein said. “We shared a lot of interesting conversations. He might have been the oldest person I’ve ever seen on a trip, but you’d never guess it.”
Travis said his group had members not just from around the country but also from Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
“It was a fun bunch,” he said. “Everybody had a smartphone with different weather apps. The only iPhone app I ever paid for was a $10 weather app. I felt bad about it at the time, but after seeing everyone else [on the trip] with the same things, I didn’t feel so bad about it.”
He said he thought the trip was worth it and hopes to go again next summer.
“It was always something I wanted to do,” he said.
Even though his girlfriend declined to join him and his mother asked him if he were crazy, Travis said others were happy to see him live his dream.
“My brother and friends were for it,” he said.
He’s trying to check things off his list now and enjoy an active retirement.
“You always have today. You don’t always have tomorrow,” he said. “You’ve got to get off your butt and do whatever you want to do.”
Liana Bayne: 540/374-5444