Sunday, July 14, 2024

From the Magazine: Storm Chasers

When most envision their summer vacations, they picture warm beaches, cool water and frozen drinks somewhere far from home and work. These pampered retreats from day-to-day life don’t usually include, say, tearing down a midwestern highway through a wall of sand to see where the next lightning strike will be. But Tim and Cindy Snow don’t vacation like most.

Storm chasing has become more of a subculture than a hobby for those daring enough to venture into extreme weather for scientific discovery, or just for adventure. After seeing the work of storm chasing videographer Mike Olbinski, Tim and Cindy Snow decided their yearly “experience” vacation away from the duties of the George Snow Scholarship Fund would be in Arizona during monsoon season to learn the art of storm chasing photography in a workshop hosted by Olbinski himself. “We have such amazing lightning here in Florida,” says Cindy, and they wanted to learn the skills to be able to storm-chase at home.

Tim Snow says that Olbinski was like a dog chasing a bone when he caught wind of a storm. He’d quickly wrangle them into his Toyota 4Runner and speed across the mountainous desert highways, eyes half on the road and half on the radar on his phone, with the Snows white-knuckling the manic drive. “I was somewhere between the adrenaline high and fear for my life,” says Cindy, but that the lightning is so exciting that “you don’t really give a lot of attention to the danger of it.”

Tim and Cindy would be the first to tell you that storm chasing is not a luxurious endeavor. Eating rotisserie hot dogs from a gas station where you’ve been parked for four hours waiting for lightning to blip on Olbinski’s radar meets the bare minimum criteria for a vacation dining experience. “It’s a lot of hurry up and wait,” says Cindy. But when a bolt strikes, life moves at lightning speed. “When it starts to happen, it’s happening, and you better be ready for it,” says Tim.

The Snows were riding with Olbinski around Douglas, Arizona, after already driving for hours without even a hint of lightning. It had been an uneventful day until dark clouds began gathering across the Mexican border. “You could just see it was crazy, so we ran over there, pulled over on the side of the road and set up,” says Tim, and they managed to snap this picture (above) just before the sunset. “When you hear [the camera] click and you know you nailed it, you get excited,” says Cindy.

These photos (above) were taken after a long day. Tim and Cindy were exhausted, and Olbinski was driving them back to their rental in Tucson when he saw lightning hitting east toward New Mexico. “We’re going home and he’s on his radar, and all of a sudden he cuts three lanes across, then goes in the opposite direction,” says Cindy. “He’s hauling ass on whatever road it was, and we got a speeding ticket,” says Tim, and apparently this wasn’t the first time. Cindy says the officer knew Olbinski, who tried to sweet-talk his way out of the ticket but ultimately failed. Undeterred, Cindy asked the officer if he could give them a police escort to the storm. “You can imagine how that went,” says Cindy.

On the day this photo (above) was taken, the Snows witnessed the Holy Grail of storm chasing: a haboob. A haboob is a giant dust storm, one that stretches from the ground to magnificent heights and rolls across the land like a thick, brown fog, and the Snows had the misfortune of encountering it while they were driving. “You see the dust rolling in, and it overtakes you where nothing is visible,” says Cindy. “It’s a little scary, because you don’t know what’s in front of you or what’s coming behind you, [and] you can’t pull off because you don’t know where the road ends or starts.” They saw a semi truck flipped over on its side from the haboob, which made the Snows think about how much lighter their 4Runner was than a semi.

Tim says that Mike Olbinski had a way of getting them to the perfect place to shoot while also making sure they were safe and dry. “When you’re dealing with lightning, my concern is how do you get on the right side of it,” says Tim. This photo (above), taken just outside a storm, is one Cindy particularly enjoys. “It’s kinda cool to see the clear sky with the lightning and also the rain and the buildup in the clouds,” says Cindy. Getting a perfect shot isn’t easy, but the work is well worth it. “It’s very fulfilling,” says Tim. “When you’re doing it, it’s kind of driving you crazy, because you’re in a little car, and you’ve read everything you want to read on your phone and there’s nothing to do, but when you get home, you start looking at some of the shots you got, and you’re like, ‘yeah this was totally worth it.’”

For more mesmerizing photos from the Snows’ vacation, check out this web extra.

This story is from the May/June 2022 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Tyler Childress
Tyler Childress
Tyler is the Web Editor and a contributing writer for Boca Raton magazine. He writes about food, entertainment and issues affecting South Florida. Send story tips to

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