Running from Tornados in the Deep South

A silver Ford campervan parked near a campfire in Arkansas


It had been a long day, to say the least.

With baby and our two older boys onboard, we left a trash pit of a free camping spot on Lake Enid. Oxford, Mississippi was our goal. We’d stock up on groceries, check out the local skatepark, and then it was an easy 20 minutes to some Army Corps of Engineers site that promised at a minimum warm showers and a place to pop the top for the night.

Instead, after pushing our skateboards around a fun—but waterlogged—Oxford Skate Park, we heard the shrill scream on the radio. A staticky, piercing banshee wail “Tornado Warning in effect!”

A Tornado Warning is the real deal. It means “Scientist types have seen a tornado, it’s real and coming your way.”

They have two levels of severity when it comes to these things. A Tornado Watch means, “There’s a chance a tornado might happen, in all reality it likely won’t.”

A Warning means, “There’s definitely a tornado coming at you. It’s real, and we’ve seen it, hope you took the Watch seriously, it finally is real.”

Most people from Pennsylvania to Michigan to Kansas and Florida grow up living through courntless Watches. We ignore it. They say, “Always have a flashlight, canned goods and water!”

And we never do. I mean, they also say to seek shelter in a basement. Even if you’ve got a backpack or shelf full of canned goods in your tornado basement, what then? Did you install an oven down there too? Do you have a can opener? A full set of dishes, maybe a fork, or will you be gnawing open a 22 ouncer of Bush Grillin’ Beans with your teeth and scooping them out cold with your non-bloodied finger?

For those of us with no tornado basement, and instead a canvas and fiberglass pop top on a van roof, the only real option was to reenact the movie Twister and start storm chasing! Or rather, storm fleeing, all the way to Arkansas…