Last week’s weather was a dream in Champaign-Urbana: 70s and sunny, low humidity, San Diego-type weather.
Of course it was. I was back at work.
I had taken the previous week off, quite possibly the worst choice for a summer vacation, weather-wise, in my entire career.
June, as you may have seen in our paper, was twice as wet as usual, with 8.33 inches of rain in Champaign-Urbana. It rained on 18 of 30 days in June, and I’m pretty sure all but one day of our vacation. Each day brought a new thunderstorm warning.
The first hit just a few hours after I filed my last assignment for work. As we drove toward Omaha to visit relatives, the sky over Iowa grew blacker and blacker until the front hit us with a blast of wind and rain. We could barely see, as radio announcers talked breathlessly of large hail and high winds ahead.
After a few nerve-wracking miles, we decided to pull off I-80 and have dinner at Gramma’s Kitchen (felt like a safe choice) until the storm passed.
We kept our cool in front of the kids, though, and they were enjoying the adventure. Until the excited hostess greeted us as we walked in: “Are you here because of the BIG STORM?”
Yes, I murmured, we just wanted to stop for a while to have dinner.
“WELL,” she continued, “they’re talking about BASEBALL-SIZED HAIL and 70 MPH WINDS!”
My kids started looking at us nervously, and my son said, “Mom, the lights aren’t going to go out, are they?”
Flashback to last summer: Driving home from a rained-out Danville Dans game, we tried to skirt a tornado-laden thunderstorm headed our way, to no avail. We finally took refuge in a friendly bar in Broadlands. All went well until the lights went out. Waitresses brought out candles as the storm howled overhead. My kids did not consider that an adventure -- although they got to drink Sprite.
Back at Gramma’s, I assured my son the lights weren’t going to go out this time. Whereupon the waitress announced, “We’ve got the CANDLES all ready!”
Gritting my teeth, I pulled her aside and quietly asked when the storms were expected to finally pass through. She checked the TV “Storm Tracker Update,” or whatever it was called there, and told us we’d be wise to wait 90 minutes.
Now I’ve never been that bothered by storms, and I’ve driven through my share of rough weather. My dad, a milkman and eternal optimist, used to call us before school or work to tell us about road conditions. No matter how bad it was, he’d always say, “You can make it, just go slow!” So we did, and we all grew up to be confident drivers.
Ubiquitous weather radar has changed all that. Storms have become these giant orange blobs marching across the screen, waiting to toss our car into oblivion and kill our children. At home, I find myself transfixed by www.weather.gov, refreshing the radar every few minutes to see EXACTLY when the tornadoes might hit. Maybe we know too much.
So we waited it out. We got through the rest of the trip unscathed, though an hour and a half behind schedule. Lightning, streaking from horizon to horizon, followed us most of the way.
It rained most of that weekend in Omaha, and more storms hit us on the trip home. And a few days later, after my daughter and I took a quick trip to St. Louis, the Fates decided we hadn’t had enough.
I stepped outside my sister’s house to drive back to Champaign on Sunday evening and it started pouring. (Mind you, it had been hot and fairly sunny all day -- but I hadn’t checked the weather radar.) As we drove out of town on I-70, it appeared most of the storms were moving to the north. But evil omens lay ahead.
First I almost ran over a giant blown truck tire. Then I had to pass the truck that had lost the tire, its remnants still flapping on the wheel. Next up: a deer poised by the side of the highway, who appeared to be deciding which car to leap into.
So when I looked ahead and saw that familiar greenish-gray sky over Vandalia, ablaze with lighting, I really wasn’t surprised. We buckled down for the storm.
This time I could barely see tailights in front of me. Cars were not only stopping along the side of the road but on the interstate itself. At one point no one was moving, and all I could do was pray that a semi didn’t plow into the back of us.
We finally got off, let the worst of the storm go by, then battled blowing rain for another 30 miles. My -- husband now checking the weather radar dutifully -- called with updates and said the skies should clear once we hit Effingham and turned north. He was right.
Turns out the storm dumped 6 inches of rain on Vandalia in less than two hours. The town was still cleaning up last week from what residents described as “the worst storm they’ve ever witnessed,” according to the Leader-Union newspaper.
Of course it was.
Our vacation had its high points: Seeing the grandmas, the College World Series, my mom’s 84th birthday, “Toy Story 3,” a wonderful live production of “Beauty and the Beast,” and just clearing my head of deadlines. We even squeezed in a couple of trips to the pool, in between storms.
But I’m thinking: Can I get a do-over?
And fair warning: I have another vacation in August. Get your umbrellas ready.
News-Gazette staff writer Julie Wurth can be reached at 351-5226, jwurthnews-gazette.com, or on Twitter.com/jawurth.
Photo: Storm clouds gather slong Interstate 70 near Vandalia on June 27. Photo by Julie Wurth