Few things are as depressing as waking up at 4:50 a.m., knowing your vacation is over and all you have left is a long day of driving. We planned to hit the road at 6 a.m. for the roughly 11-hour trek home. Factoring in an hour for stops—and given the hour we’d gain crossing back into Mountain time—I estimated our ETA in Rapid City to be 6:30 p.m.
You know what they say about those best-laid plans, though…
“See You Next Time!”
The moment we set foot in the parking garage to load the car, we practically wilted. The weather had turned very humid; in fact, a heat advisory was in effect for Tuesday. We figured we were getting out of there just in time to avoid the really unpleasant weather!
Oh, the irony in that statement.
We left Madison right on time and headed northwest on I-90. There was so much moisture in the air, we were inundated with dense fog the entire way to La Crosse. All that beautiful scenery we enjoyed on the way down was hidden behind fog so thick, visibility was measured in yards. I was gripping the wheel so tightly at times, my knuckles were white.
In La Crosse, we stopped once more at Kwik Trip to fuel up on gas and grab a couple of breakfast sandwiches.
If you’re unfamiliar with Kwik Trip, it’s another Wisconsin institution with a cult-like following. Just a gas station/convenience store, you say? Oh, but it’s more than that. They have an in-house dairy and sell their own private label milk, butter, eggs, etc. There’s also an internal bakery with freshly-made breads and pastries; a selection of hot meals to go; and a mini grocery section complete with fresh produce and other basics. They’ll even cook food to order; a staff member came up to us while we were perusing the sandwiches and offered to make us up something fresh if we didn’t see what we liked. No wonder they have been named the best gas station brand in the nation. Plus, the cashiers end every transaction with a perky “See you next time!”
I signed up for their rewards program even though the closest Kwik Trip is roughly nine hours away. I like them that much.
I asked the cashier if there was a grocery store nearby, and she pointed us in the direction of Woodman’s, a few blocks away. We were on the lookout for Jolly Good soda, a local brand popular with Sconies. Woodman’s carried it, so we stocked up on 10 cans to take back home. I don’t even drink soda, but I’ll make an exception for their surprisingly good diet line.
I’m very much a “When in Rome” guy if you haven’t picked up on that by now.
Fueled up and fed, it was time to bid adieu to Wisconsin. We crossed the Mississippi River to Minnesota, but the fog was still so thick, you’d never know there was water down there.
Sioux Falls was 4.5 hours away. We figured the timing would be perfect for a quick lunch. What we didn’t count on was getting caught in a storm so severe, it would make headlines nationwide.
Next Stop Oz?
Once we hit Minnesota, the fog finally lifted. It was so hot and humid, it felt downright tropical. No palm trees, though—just corn.
I started checking the radar on my weather app, as the forecast was calling for scattered thunderstorms. What I saw looked rather ominous: a large cluster of organized storms was crossing South Dakota, bearing down on us. I’m always wary about hail in the Northern Plains; you have to be around here, seeing firsthand the destruction it can cause. At the very least, I figured driving through the storm would be dicey. We were planning on stopping in Sioux Falls anyway, so I suggested we find a covered parking garage for protection and wait out the storm.
This turned out to be a very smart idea.
We stopped at Williquors first in search of specialty ciders, then hit up Pickle Barrel for sandwiches we stuck in the cooler. That would be our dinner, as we were in no mood to cook that day. We found a suitable parking garage, and best of all, it was right across the street from Oshima, the sushi place I discovered on a recent business trip to Sioux Falls. I’d been raving about it so much, I wanted Tara to give it a try. The radar showed the storm heading directly for us but still a ways out, so we ordered sushi rolls and enjoyed a nice, leisurely lunch…even as our phones began blaring emergency alerts. It was becoming apparent this storm would be a monster.
Tara loved her sushi and agreed it was the best we’d had in the Midwest so far. It’s nice to feel validated! We didn’t want to hold down our table at Oshima too long, so we decided to walk over to the parking garage and watch the storm as it rolled in. Things didn’t look too bad at first, but then we noticed a green line on the horizon, racing toward us. Lightning flashed, thunder roared, and the wind kicked up something fierce. Tara and I looked at each other, in awe of the approaching storm. It looked otherworldly; we had never seen anything like it.
At this point, a little bit of fear started to creep in. That green sky was terrifying. I thought we might end up in Oz before the day was over.
Soon, the storm was directly overhead. Day quickly turned to night as rain came down in torrents. The wind was gusting to 80 mph and hail began falling. Fortunately, it was only marble-sized at best.
What a wild experience! We felt fairly safe in a covered parking structure, even though rain and hail were being blown inside.
About 45 minutes later it looked like the worst of the storm had passed—at least judging by the radar—so we decided to venture out. That turned out to be a mistake; the hail may have stopped, but the rain was coming down in sheets, and the wind was blowing so hard it shook the car. We watched nervously as trees were bent over sideways in the gale, branches and leaves flying everywhere. The interstate was a slow crawl and visibility was so poor, I could barely make out the highway signs even as I passed by them. A lot of cars and semis were pulled over to the side of the freeway. They were the smart ones.
We were perilously low on fuel at this point, so I stopped in Hartford, 11 miles east of Sioux Falls, to gas up. The storm was finally beginning to wind down, so we eased back onto the interstate. Had to skirt a couple of blown-over tractor trailers just west of Hartford. Think you’re having a bad day? This should give you a bit of perspective.
We learned later that the storm had been classified as a full-fledged derecho, and it made national news. Ironically, I had missed another derecho that tore through Sioux Falls in May by about 36 hours. Weather geek that I am, I secretly lamented missing out on the action. Tuesday was a perfect example of that old saying, be careful what you wish for.
Finally, the storm passed. The rain stopped, the wind died down, and the sun was once again shining brightly. The remainder of the drive home was uneventful. We didn’t pull into our driveway until 8:30 p.m., two hours later than expected, tired but in one piece.
What a way to end our vacation, though.
What is the wildest/worst/scariest weather you have ever experienced?