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“Chasing wind” on a storm tour of Tornado Alley

Roger Hill, of Silver Lining Tours, points toward a developing supercell thunderstorm during a 2007 tour. Photo by Laura Bly, courtesy USA TODAY

Roger Hill, of Silver Lining Tours, points toward a developing supercell thunderstorm during a 2007 tour. Photo by Laura Bly, courtesy USA TODAY

For many, this week’s Texas and Oklahoma twisters and their destructive aftermaths evoked childhood nightmares from The Wizard of Oz – and a conviction to stay as far from Tornado Alley as possible.

But for travelers like me drawn to displays of nature’s power, those shaky, through-the-windshield scenes of bruised skies are as tantalizing as they are terrifying.

While storm aficionados have been roaming the Plains and Upper Midwest with a camera in one hand and weather map in the other since the 1950s, commercial chasing took off after the 1996 film Twister. Meteorologists scoffed at the movie’s flying cows and constantly churning skies, but its sympathetic portrayal of weather geeks sparked a surge of copycats, at least 20 of whom who lead sold-out trips from Texas to the Dakotas during prime tornado season in May and June.

I tagged along with veteran chaser Roger Hill of Silver Lining Tours for a USA TODAY story in the spring of 2007, and learned that “hunting wind” is marked by long periods of boredom – think stuffy vans, fast food and monotonous scenery – punctuated with brief bouts of excitement. I didn’t spot any funnel clouds, but did encounter quarter-sized ice pellets and an evening of celestial fireworks.

Hill and his fellow storm chasers, many of them male baby boomers more addicted to atmospheric science than adrenaline, are sensitive to the emotional and physical toll of a violent storm. Most tornadoes occur in the open and don’t cause significant damage, and responsible chasers stay a mile or more from the action, he noted. (Hill was leading a tour out of Oklahaoma City on Monday, and witnessed the formation of the two-mile-wide tornado that tore through suburban Moore; because of its proximity to populated areas he decided against pursuing it.)

Hill is certified in CPR and first aid, and if his group encounters injured or stranded victims “the chase stops right there.”

“My purpose isn’t to see someone’s house in shambles. It’s to enjoy the storm,” Hill told me. “It’s going to occur whether I’m there or not.”

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A new view of Orlando

I’ve never been an Orlando kind of gal.

With no children of my own and an aversion to both steamy weather and manufactured fun, I’ve been happy to let other travel writers cover the commercialized kingdoms of Mickey, Shamu, Harry Potter and their ilk.

But during a layover at the Orlando airport the day before Mother’s Day, I met the Howard clan from Le Roy, Ill. – mom Lacey, dad Jim, and their beaming kids Finley and Landon. By the end of our 10-minute conversation, I’d broadened my perspective…and my heart.

Landon had his fourth birthday on Saturday, and I learned he had plenty to celebrate: Though he was diagnosed nearly two years ago with Stage 4 neuroblastoma, his cancer scans have been clear for six months.

When we connected, the Howards were heading home from Kissimmee-based Give Kids the World, a 70-acre resort designed for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.

The nonprofit, which was founded by a Florida hotel manager and turns 25 next year, works with area theme parks and other businesses to provide cost-free, week-long stays. And volunteers – including Orlando tourists – can help fulfill young patients’ dreams with morning or evening stints that range from bussing tables to assisting with makeovers at the resort’s La-Ti-Da spa. Universal Studios even offers a “Give Kids the World” volunteer vacation package. Priced from $589 per adult, the deal includes three nights at a Universal Studios on-site hotel, two-day base ticket, early park admission and Universal Express “skip the lines” ride access, and a four-hour volunteer opportunity – plus a $100 donation to Give Kids the World.

In a place I’d always associated with artificial dreams, Give Kids the World sounds like the real deal – and here’s hoping Landon and his family have many more Orlando vacations in their future.

The Howard family - dad Jim, mom Lacey and their kids Finley, left, and Landon - spent a week in Orlando through Give Kids the World

The Howard family – dad Jim, mom Lacey and their kids Finley, left, and Landon – spent a week in Orlando through Give Kids the World

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Into the Unknown

Good Traveler PlansFor more than three decades, my journalism career as a professional voyager and voyeur has taken me to places I’d never imagined and people I’ll never forget.

I’ve slurped scum-covered pond water during a week-long survival course in Utah and shared a bottle of rose with Peter Mayle in Provence; run a 15-foot gauntlet of blazing pine branches during Bhutan’s version of Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls and soared over Africa’s Victoria Falls in a contraption best described as a “lawn mower with wings.” I’ve interviewed the manager of London’s Reform Club as part of an eight-day, eight-country, round-the-world marathon to mark the 100th anniversary of Jules Verne’s death, and plumbed the secrets of a Libyan bath house as one of the country’s first post-sanctions American tourists.

Now, I’m facing perhaps the most daunting, yet exhilarating trip of my life – retirement in its official form and a leap into the unknown. Thanks to an offer from USA TODAY, I’ll be able to expand recent passions (here’s looking at you, iPhoneography) and explore new ones, from learning Spanish abroad to idling on a lakefront porch. I’ll always keep traveling – but for the first time, I’ll be intent on savoring the journey without fixed plans…or an arrival date. I hope you’ll join me via Bly on the Fly – it may be my best yet!