Just 3 months until tornado-chasing season, Gregg!

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A day in the life of an F5! Tornado chaser

Tick-tock: Choose your package and book your ticket to Oklahoma City!

As is evident in the video, the view from behind is often as compelling as the view ahead. In the roomy Chevy Suburbans that we use as chase vehicles on our tornado safaris each May, that third-row vantage point can save you a lot of cash.

Combined with an opt-out of our all-inclusive meal plan, our fist-ever Discount Plan saves budget-conscience thrill-seekers $1,245 dollars over the All-Inclusive Plan.

Neither plan includes round-trip airfare to OKC, where every chase begins and ends. So book your F5! Tornado Safari now in order to secure your airfare at a reasonable rate. By the end of February, airfare will begin to take flight. And Discount Plans will be gone by March!

SIgn up for a 2024 Tornado Safari

For a lot of folks in the Irish-dominant enclave of Beverly on Chicago's far south far side, life doesn't expand much beyond the few square miles where the street names transition from double-digits numbers into the 100s.

So it was for Mike McDermott, who grew on South Leavitt Street, attended Brother Rice High School down the street and matriculated to college, where he had vague notions of extending his football-playing days.

But a spine injury sustained while diving on a fumble in practice forced him to choose between the gridiron and possible paralysis, so Mike set his sites on getting his degree and moving on to the real world.

Chicago is really two different cities divided by the Loop, the Chicago Transit Authority track the encircles downtown. With the exception of a few well-heeled south-side neighborhoods like Barack Obama's Hyde Park, the money lies north of the Chicago River.

Mike's services took him north more often than south, and he found more and more occasions to visit one of his sisters in the northwest suburbs. The more he visited, the more he became intrigued with the curriculum at another college, which offered meteorology courses.

Mike sampled as many as he could schedule around his full-time gig and the brutal commute -- sometimes approaching two hours -- back home. Now in his early 30s, was hooked. Mike took a week off work to chase tornadoes with his fellow classmates in the spring of 2001 and 2003.

"There was a lot of driving and there was a lot of hand-written analysis back then, because the internet wasn't really widespread," he noted. "The teacher would supply us with all this raw material and we'd have to forecast where tornadoes would be, and I was pretty good at it. A lot of times I'd get it right. I remember thinking how much easier this would be if we had some of these digital tools onboard."

On his 2003 trip, the students hit the mother lode: six tornadoes in a week. "It was amazing," he said. "But then life happened."

Two decades passed before the winds of fate blew this way. Now in his early 50s, Mike arrived on the doorsteps of a new flooring client in early 2023. He was greeted in the driveway. "Mike? Mike McDermott?" the client inquired. Mike was stumped. It took him a few minutes to recognize the adult version of a kid named Stan from his south side neighborhood.

As the job progressed, Mike and Stan became reacquainted. At the conclusion of one hard day's work, Stan began poking Mike about his dreams and aspirations. Mike admitted that he had once been fascinated by weather forecasting and tornado chasing. Stan, gobsmacked, finally revealed his profession: an executive with he a Southern California company called AnythingWeather, founded by Gregg Potter -- the same Gregg Potter who started F5! Tornado Safaris nearly a quarter-century earlier.

As partial compensation for his craftsmanship, Stan sent Mike on an F5! Safari in 2023 -- as a crew member specializing in navigation.

"I'm looking at all this equipment, including onboard Doppler radar," Mike said, "and it's all coming back to me. You have everything at your fingertips now. Everybody does."

But his return to meteorology wasn't without a gastronomical storm. Mike developed a nasty case of food poisoning, which peaked at precisely the moment the F5! crew and their clients rolled into the National UFO Museum in Roswell, N.M. Mike saw his first alien -- captured for posterity below -- and immediately beat a retreat for the bathroom.

"After a week on tour in 2023, I knew he would make a great fit on the F5 crew," Gregg said. "Mike always had something interesting to say. There are a lot of long hours on flat highways in the chasing game. We want crew members that the clients like to be around. Mike fit the mold."

Mike's return trip to a chase vehicle in 2024 will make him an official crew member. He's not sure where it's all heading, but he's not concerned with reading the tea leaves, either.

"I feel grounded in Beverly," he said. "I live two miles from my mom. But having a place like this to come home to makes traveling all the more special. I feel lucky to be doing this with Gregg. I'm having fun. Wherever it leads me, it leads me."

Meet Mike on a 2024 Tornado Safari 

Let's face it: There's a lot of down time between our adrenaline-pumped chases each May. Half the fun is revisiting old road haunts and discovering new locations to eat, drink and be merrily entertained. Because F5! goes where the wind blows, we've cataloged hundreds of towns, restaurants, bars and hospitality venues over approximately one million square miles of the Great Plains in the past 24 years. Each month, we'll revisit some of our favorites.

F5! driver and navigator Jason Webb has been responsible for rooting out many of the off-the-beaten-path locations we've featured over the past six months. For the second month in a row, Jason offers up one of his favorites: The Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D.


January 2024 Issue: Carhenge (Alliance, NE)

 December 2023 Issue: National Wind Institute (Lubbock, TX)

November 2023 Issue: Enchanted Highway (Regent, ND)

October 2023 Issue: Carlsbad Caverns (Carlsbad, NM)

September 2023 Issue: Garden of Eden (Lucas, KS)

August 2023 Issue: UFO Capital of the World (Roswell, NM)

July 2023 Issue: The Big Texan (Amarillo, TX)

Eight months into our ON THE ROAD series of the unique and often bizarre venues screaming for tourists dollars on the dusty backroads of the Great Plains, some commonalities have emerged among the places that F5! Tornado Safaris tends to revisit.

This month's entry, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., defies many of the conventions of Great Plains Americana: it has permanence both in time (it opened in 1892) and foundation (it's made of brick); it has long-term financial viability; it is more or less impervious to the brutal weather that limits other kitschy Great Plains attractions to seasonal hours of operation; and it overhauls its appearance from year-to-year, encouraging repeat customers.

There is much to admire about the Corn Palace, whether assessing the venue from an architectural, artistic or business point of view.

Architecturally, the Corn Palace has undergone two complete makeovers since opening 132 years ago. The first, beginning in 1905, was part of a brazen but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to relocate the state capital from Pierre, in the center of South Dakota, to Mitchell, 150 miles to the southeast. The second, in 1921, was outsourced to a Chicago architectural firm renowned for designing some of the country's most notable movie theaters. The distinctive Russian-style onion domes and Moorish minarets were added in 1937.

Artistically, the corn murals are the main event at the Corn Palace; massive depictions derived from an annually rotating theme that line the outer walls as well as the interior spaces within the two-floor, 43,510-square foot complex. Many visitors are stunned by the vivid hues of the murals . . . until they discover that local corn comes in 13 distinctive colors.

Corn, of course, is a perishable commodity, and 325,000 ears of it -- split in half length-wise and secured to outer and inner walls with 1.5 million nails -- must be replaced annually. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, it's a year-round effort that starts anew when the last half-ear is secured. Although admission to the Corn Palace is free, the donation boxes inside the complex note that the ongoing renewal of the murals comes at a cost of $130,000 annually.

Choosing an annual theme and designing all the murals to adhere to it (the video below displays the Corn Palace's circus theme in 2022) used to fall to individuals: South Dakota artists Oscar Howe, Calvin Schultz and Cherie Ramsdell formed a 69-year lineage overseeing the murals from 1948-2017. For the last six years, that weighty responsibility has been spread among design students at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.

As for business, the Corn Palace is self-sustaining despite its free-admittance policy to the museum area. Its 3,200-seat arena (festooned with corn murals) is host to winter sports teams at Mitchell H.S. as well as South Dakota Wesleyan (the Kernels, appropriately enough). The rest of the year, the venue is populated by concerts, festivals and conventions. Each pays a $1,750 day-rate rental and 5% of the door to the Corn Palace, which generates up to $8,000 per event in concession sales.

The Corn Palace also is supported by tax dollars, seeing as how the venue is directly or indirectly (through hotels, bars and restaurants) responsible for the bulk of the city's annual $12 million sales-tax revenue -- more than twice the revenue produced by sales in South Dakota cities of similar population (14,000).