How We Survived a Tornado… in a Tent

It wasn’t a Big Tornado, but it Totally Counts:

On the first day of our stay in Arkansas, we mostly explored the campsite that we had set up in the dark and went to get groceries and other supplies. (Grocery shopping with a bunch of college students is neither the most organized nor the most efficient way to buy supplies.) However, shortly after we got back from the grocery store, we all received tornado warnings on our iPhones -despite the trip being an effort to ‘unplug’ on my behalf- and subsequently blew off the tornado warning.

When we started to feel raindrops around four o’clock though, we were a bit more concerned. We immediately took precautions to keep our things dry and tack down the tents, and packed the things we wanted to stay dry in our cars. A few of us started getting antsy because the wind started howling through the thin pine trees surrounding our camp. Our scared little butts were in our cars faster than any of us could say ‘falling branches’ and 13 out of the 16 of us took to the road to find shelter. Three brave souls remained behind to make sure that our tents didn’t try to make their own colony in the middle of the lake.

The rest of us drove for about ten minutes on the road heading East, and we only stopped at an antique shop lovingly named Burl’s County Smokehouse because Emma, the driver of the car Delany, Melissa and I were in, really had to pee. Even though we were only a few minutes from our campsite, there was hardly any wind, no rain, or any hint of a tornado, and only distant rumbles of thunder threatened our safe sojourn.

Outside of the shop there were a multitude of attractions, including an old, stand-alone jail cell, train cars that were converted to motel rooms, an inert tractor and mill wheel , and the ‘Arkansas $&!#house’ outhouse. There was also a tabby tom cat named Smokey who magnetized to the legs of anyone willing to come close and pet him.
Inside, the shop held even more wonders. The fragrance of handmade soaps, moonshine jelly, deli meats, and the unique must that always clings to old places permeated the air. We snapped up some soaps and cinnamon apple jelly, and briefly considered claiming one of the antique prostitute licenses for our own; however, the proximity of a skeleton foot in an old boot threw us a bit too far off, so we went outside to visit Smokey again. While we briefly considered kidnapping Smokey for our own, we didn’t want to deprive the owners and future visitors of his purr-ticular kind of hos-paw-tality, so we clambered into our vehicles with our new finds and headed back to the campsite.

We saw some slight devastation as we drove in. Sticks, small branches, and wooden splinters littered the roads coming in, and the sky was still a dark, swollen looking gray. Things at the camp were looking marginally better though, only a few tent pieces had flown astray. After we righted the tent flaps and put our vital equipment back in our tents though, more rain and wind arrived and forced us to huddle in our make-shift village.

In my own tent was the same group that had accompanied us in the car to the antique shop plus one lovely addition, Shelby. We all gathered around the meager light of Delany’s flashlight that we had tied to the apex of the tent. I attempted to teach the group a card game, but Delany, tense and suspicious of my motives, wasn’t having it. Outside, the weather was about as volatile as Delany’s mood. The wind tore at our tent flap, and water dripped in the temporary openings provided by the loosened rain-cover. After the consistent dripping got to be too much for our strained wits, we MacGyvered a solution. In a truly collegiate manner, we jury rigged a plastic garbage bag to the mesh ceiling with hair pins. Surprisingly, it held the water for the rest of the storm, and our tense card game continued.

After about an hour and a half of continuing on in this way, the storm passed, and we emerged into the dying light of the day. Greeting us was one of the most stunning sunsets of my life. The angry purple clouds were marching intently to the East, and the vermillion sun was slipping below the horizon, reflecting a flaming palette of colors onto the backs of the cloud formations.

Later I found out that an EF 1 tornado had passed right by our campsite, and had proceeded to wreck some docks and condos farther down the lake. Luckily though, our tents held us safe, and we were able to continue to enjoy our trip.

The sky over Lake Ouchita after the tornado
The sky over Lake Ouachita after the tornado

All in all, it turned out to be an intents first day in Arkansas.