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Joplin, MO

This post will be a little out of order. I haven't filled in the gap between my previous posts about our drive out to California, but you'll have to bear with me.

We spent the night of Saturday, May 21 at a retro Route 66 motor-lodge (in the truest sense - there were little garages next to every room) in Tucumcari, New Mexico (do not ask me to pronounce that). Sunday morning we got a very early start because it was to be our longest day of driving - 10 hours, not including stops - to make our last night's stay in Springfield, Missouri (which left six hours of driving the following day to get home).

The drive was mainly uneventful. We were a bit cranky with each other, as is to be expected when you are thirteen days into a cross-country drive. We stopped in Amarillo, TX, at the Cadillac Ranch, which was pretty cool, and weird. A line of cars that have been cut in half, then jammed into the earth at 45 degree angles, in the midst of a truly working "ranch" - cows and cowpies and the whole bit. You just pull off I-40 and go through a revolving gate. People spray paint the cars and a couple who was just leaving let us have their gold spray paint, so the kids got to be immortalized in graffiti (at least, until someone came along and painted over it).

Okay, back to the subject at hand. We stopped for lunch at a McDonald's in El Reno, OK, then drove another four hours or so to a rest area at the edge of Joplin, MO. Everyone did their potty thing, then the kids wanted to play on the playground for a bit. But after a couple of times down the slide, it started to sprinkle, so we loaded back up into the van. As I was buckling Truman into his car seat, I overheard two drivers chatting in front of the rest stop. One said, "Yeah I heard on the radio they spotted a funnel cloud, so I pulled off here." Hmmm, I thought. That doesn't sound good. I took over driving and we pulled out, and it started to rain a bit harder. We turned on the radio to get a weather report. Of course in these cases, they are always giving the warnings and watches in terms of counties, and as we weren't from there, we had no idea what county we were in or which counties we were close to. What we did hear was the radio guy saying we should "Get off the roads," and suddenly I recalled a scripture in the Doctrine & Covenants: "It becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor." I felt like I should heed this warning and I said to David, "We should pull over somewhere and wait this out. It was barely 6:00 p.m. and they said the warning would expire by 6:20.  He was a little irritated, but before he could protest, I was exiting at the first road we approached. We had the choice of turning right or left as we exited. We turned right, went about a block, and into the parking lot of Cracker Barrel. We unbuckled the kids and then carried them inside, because by then it was raining a bit harder. We still thought it was just a storm we were going to wait out, and we'd be back on the road shortly. The best-laid plans of mice and men and all that.

Now, if you were a four or five year old child, a Cracker Barrel store is a pretty ideal place to ride out a storm. However, within two minutes, the electricity went out, which frightened all of us a little bit. I was honestly a nervous wreck once I realize how much GLASS is in that place (holy cow what was I thinking?). Lucy was very scared as well and at one point asked David to hold her, which any parent of an eight-year-old girl knows is very unusual. Truman and Penny, on the other hand, had the best time ever. We moved close to the bathrooms, both because that was where one of only two emergency lights were located, and also because we knew we would duck in there if the storm took a nasty turn (we didn't go in there already because it was pitch black in there, and that'd be even more frightening). This put us right next to the Webkinz display, and Tru & Pen spent quite awhile taking them all out, lining them up, giving them names... and I did catch Truman more than once squeezing one of them for comfort.

And so we waited.
The storm got louder at times. There was very noisy  hail, and since the place has a tin roof, it seemed all the more ominous. Cell service went out, or maybe the lines were just jammed. A very sweet CB employee was stressed out trying to reach her granddaughter on the phone, with no luck. I was able to update Facebook via text, but couldn't get any internet connection. A few customers were ready to go and paid their bill in cash and left. We felt like maybe we should say something to them, but what would it be? We heard there was a funnel cloud? Surely that would be offensive, assuming they didn't have sense enough to stay put in a storm. So, we waited. And about a half hour later it started to clear a little bit. This was a very slow-moving storm and took longer to pass than I think originally thought. So we cautiously went back out, put the kids back in their car seats, and then started the van. That's when we heard the first reports on the radio. "It looks like complete devastation here in Joplin, folks. The city of Joplin as we know it no longer exists..." And David and I looked at each other, like, What? From our perspective in the CB store, it was just a strong thunderstorm. Maybe a few downed power lines or tree limbs, perhaps some damaged windshields from the hail, nothing more than that. "A tornado has struck in the area of Rangeline Road," they said. We had no idea where we were and the TomTom wouldn't work under the thick cloud cover, so David ran back inside to ask where that was (if we were past it or would be driving into it). He came back and said we were basically ON Rangeline Road - we were technically on a frontage road called Richard Joseph Boulevard (which happens to be my dad's name) but had exited at Rangeline Road. 

Well, what to do? We decided to try and move on to Springfield, keeping behind the storm if possible. We got back onto I-44. Immediately, the damage was visible. A dozen or so semis had overturned, and several passenger vehicles had been crushed. There was a little black car under an overpass all smashed up. There was a silver minivan in the median, sandwiched between two semis, and all the windows were blown out and there were no people anywhere to be seen. In a few spots, motorists had pulled over to check in the semis and see if the drivers were okay. Power lines were down all over, and highway signs had been bent backwards at steep angles. Trees were stripped of their bark. There aren't many buildings visible from that area, but one large warehouse structure's roof had caved in on one side. We were just in shock, because we couldn't even see it, and we were (we later learned from a clever Google map someone made) that we were 2,000 feet from the tornado area  -  basically a left turn onto Rangeline instead of a right, and we'd have been in a restaurant right there that was leveled.

We kept the radio on. I have to say, the guy on there was doing a phenomenal job. He was upbeat and positive and at the same time, giving lots of information. The radio station became the way to communicate about where the damage was, because cell service and electricity were nonfunctional. People were calling in and asking, does anyone know about this area? does anyone know about so-and-so? One woman called in and said she was pregnant with twins and couldn't reach her husband at the General Mills plant, did anyone have information about that? and then just a minute later, another woman called and said, "I work in the office there and want her to know all our employees are safe and accounted for," and then the wife called again just to say thank you. So many people were calling in, it was incredible. One of the radio station's employees came on and said his children had gone into the crawlspace of their home and their house had been totally leveled, it was gone, but the kids were okay. Two of them were being taken to a hospital for broken bones but would be okay. It was incredible to hear all these horrific things, these people must've just been in shock to be able to talk about them within minutes of the tornado.

We slowly made our way to Springfield, but once we did have to pull over again. They were saying the storm was near Sarcoxie, and so were we, so we waited it out again. On the drive to Springfield we were past on the opposite side of the interstate by multiple ambulances, firefighters, and caravans of makeshift first responder teams. It was like we wanted to scream into the radio, they are coming! they are coming! When we finally reached Springfield, I saw a tree in a farmer's field. A fully grown, giant tree, with its soil and roots still attached, lying gently on its side in the middle of the field. I wish I'd gotten a picture of that, but I was just in shock at the moment. This was about 50 miles away. There was also the biggest, most incredible double rainbow we've ever seen.

It turned out that our hotel was right next door to the Springfield hospital. The man at check-in said his son lived in Joplin and his apartment had been destroyed, but he was okay. He also told us that if another warning was issued, he personally call each occupied room, and that the best place to take shelter was across the street in the ER, which was in the basement of the hospital. Unnerving, but good to know. Throughout the night, we heard countless ambulances and the helicopter coming and going bringing people from Joplin, and going back for more people. It was surreal to see on the TV the place where we just were an hour before. It was surreal to even have been there. I keep thinking about the woman who couldn't reach her granddaughter. I hope her granddaughter was okay, but I know odds are good that she wasn't. We felt terrible that there was nothing we could do to help, aside from getting out of the way. It definitely made us less argumentative for the rest of our trip. We needed a slap in the face, apparently, and we got the message. We think we have all this control over our lives, but in reality we have zero control. When the sky can swoop down and suck you up at any moment, you really have no control at all. 


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