Tornado territory has traveler on alert |

Tornado territory has traveler on alert

Polly Letofsky
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Editor’s note: Vail resident Polly Letofsky has been on the road since she left town Aug. 1, 1999, on her mission to become the first woman to walk around the world and promote awareness of breast cancer. From Vail she first walked to the West Coast, then crossed to the two islands of New Zealand, up the eastern coast of Australia and on to Malaysia and Southeast Asia, India, Turkey, Greece, Great Britain and Ireland. She’s now back in the United States, having arrived in New York City and crossed New York State to the Canadian Border at Niagara Falls and made her way to her home state of Minnesota. She’s still catching up on some of her journals from the summer. She is expected to reach Vail at the end of July. You can follow along with Polly’s journey on her Web site,

CANTON, MO – My feet have thawed, the skies are showing some blue and that means it’s time to belly up and hit the road again. I’ve spent the past two months moving around from house to house trying to stay warm with friends and family in Minnesota, L.A., Palm Springs and Sydney. All very well and good – but this homeless life is getting old.

After four years I’m coming to the end of my rope with the homelessness – the constant adapting, the packing and unpacking everyday, not having a fridge, and being able to control what food I can eat. It’s starting to take its toll.

A year from now when I’m in the depths of careerhood and presumably whining about how life isn’t exciting, I want someone to remind me of how nice it is to not have to figure out where I’m going to stay every night.

I want someone to slap me upside the head and remind me how nice it is to just get up and move about my day without packing up all my clothes and stuffing them into a stuff sack with wrinkles, dirt and all.

I really look forward to having a laundry basket in my life – oh, to be able to sort the dirty clothes from the clean ones. When I cross that finish line this July and get my feet steady on the ground the first thing I’m going to get to symbolize my new life of stable domesticity is a laundry basket. And a blender for smoothies! Can’t wait.

Worrisome weather

But my dream of a life with laundry baskets, blenders and jobs with paychecks is still five months away. The distance between the Polly of now and the Polly of then is 1,200 miles. And like a track runner who picks up the pace when he hears the bell signifying the final lap, there’s a decidedly bouncy hop in my step.

That bounce will carry me down the Mississippi into Missouri then turn west where I’ll inch my way through Kansas and into Colorado.

Let’s be clear though. Just because it’s the home stretch should by no means suggest simplicity. These last open prairies are the natural disaster capital of the world. This is an area I’ve been nervous about since the early planning days.

Case in point: Missouri is home to the most destructive tornado on record. Back in 1925 a tornado ripped through Annapolis leaving a 1,000-foot-wide trail of demolished buildings, uprooted trees, overturned cars and 823 dead folks.

The most powerful earthquake in the U.S. was also here in Missouri back in 1811. The good news is that hardly anyone but buffalo lived here in 1811.

Then just last year when I arrived back in the United States, the headlines across the nation were about a series of 300 tornados criss-crossing Missouri and Kansas lifting up the odd cow/house/city that dared to stand in its path.

Walking through Missouri, Kansas and eastern Colorado in spring and summer is walking through the awesome Tornado Alley during high season.

Imagine the size of my eyes then the first time I spoke with Roger Tiemann from the La Grange Lions Club. I asked if there was a hotel nearby and he said, “Well, now, heck, there sure used to be. They’d just got done buildin’ a nice Comfort Inn when it was blown clear away by a tornado last May.”

And like it was a non-event on par with say, a paper cut or stubbed toe, he goes on, “But we’ll find ya a place. In fact, they might be done rebuildin’ by now.”

Out on Highway 61

For the past week I’ve been keeping an eye on the USA Today weather map. Minneapolis is still in light blue, most of Iowa is covered in darker blue. The very, very southeast corner of Iowa – Keokuk – is when the map shows a stream of green. Green is good.

Yellow or orange would be better but green is good. Green means temperatures are in the 50s.

I was cold, wind-burned and Old Lady Grumpy when I walked into Keokuk last December with frost hanging off my nose. Terry, the President of the local Lions, offered to store Bob in the basement of his workplace during the winter. He made sure Bob was cozy and warm next to the heater, then lent me a suitcase. I caught a train back up to Minneapolis to start my hiatus.

Saturday morning I rescued Bob from his toasty hideaway, packed him up and under protest forced him out on the road again. Bob’s excited about the upcoming domestic chapter in his life as well. He’s either going to be a planter in the den if I can have a den or a stuffed end table.

The Lions Club of Keokuk walked a full hundred yards with us then waved good-bye pointing us towards Highway 61 south towards the Missouri border.

Funny things happen when you step over the border from Iowa into Missouri. Suddenly everyone is speaking with a tawang, like, “Welcome to Missoura, y’all. We speak with a tawang. But we ain’t from the south. No, Ma’am, we is both north and south. Here in Missoura we fought both sides o’ the Civil Waw.”

And the second you step over the border, Iowa is completely forgotten about. No one ever mentions it again and, in fact, they aren’t sure at all where Iowa is. Poor Iowa.

Most people in the union don’t even know Iowa is a state. Every four years when the presidential caucuses pop up and Iowa is thrown into the forefront of national news people around the country turn to each other in their barca-loungers and say with full perplexion, “Honey, what’s Iowa?”

I had a lovely time in Iowa. It’s truly been one of the bigger surprises in my journey. But it’s like a great joke that you heard last night. You know you loved it but the next morning when you try to relay it to a friend, you stumble over yourself and can’t remember a word.

At the Des Moines River I turned around and waved good-bye to Iowa, I knew it would be a long time before I even heard of her again.

Then I walked across the river and said howdy to The Show Me State.

Google ‘Show Me’

“What’s the Show Me State mean?” I asked Sam, the Lions member in Canton. He said he doesn’t know. He says he should know, he used to know, but he forgot.

The Show Me State is what’s on the ‘Welcome to Missouri’ signs. And the license plates. And the vacation planners. But no one seems to know what, why, who or where it came from. I made a note on my to-do list for the next time I’m at a library. I scribbled, “Google Show Me.”

When I reached the town of Canton, Sam took me on a tour of the remnants left behind by the tornado last May. First I checked in at the brand new Comfort Inn right across the parking lot from the brand new grocery store. That poor grocery store had been blown clear to smithereens and back again.

In fact, this whole town of Canton, population 2,500, had been socked hard.

Sam tells me it was on Mother’s Day last year. There was a tornado warning from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. so everyone in town took cover in their basements and cellars with a good stock of food and battery-operated radios.

They watched as Cliff, their neighbor across the street, went around his house collecting all his photographs. He methodically took photos off the walls, off the mantel – photos of the weddings, kids, graduations, softball games, anniversaries. They all thought he was a bit crazy. After all, summers in these parts are full of tornado warnings.

At 6:30 Sam came out of the basement and looked out his kitchen window. Skies were sunny and blue and he praised the weathermen for having their fingers on the pulse. But at 6:33 he noticed things spiraling through the sky. I say whataya mean things? He says, you know, things, like fences, cars, farm machinery – Subway sandwich shops.

For 10 minutes the funnel roared through little Canton randomly ripping up some people’s homes and lives out from underneath them, while sparing others by the lucky stroke that they had settled their property 100 yards to the right.

It ripped a clean line through town, blowing away houses, cars, flattening buildings, even cut its way down a hill plucking up a whole forest of trees and spewing them across the country side.

When the roaring stopped, Sam came up out of his basement again and the first thing he saw was Cliff from across the street climbing out of his cellar gripping his box of photos. His house no longer existed.

Miraculously no one was killed. Sam told me that one guy was swept up and spun through the air for a full block before being dumped out of the funnel. He’s still having troubles but he’s alive.

Tornado tracks

As Sam drove me around town you could still see the devastation a year later. Every other house is under construction. There are stairways that lead to nowhere and driveways attached to empty housing lots.

But the college has reopened; the Comfort Inn and the grocery store have reopened. The Subway shop is probably somewhere near Topeka. Don’t know if it’s reopened.

Then Sam drove me down to the river to show me the flood levels from the record floods back in ’93. They were the worst floods in recorded history.

He says that normal water levels on the Mississippi are 11 feet. When the river hits 24 feet you, better start clearing out the house. In July of ’93 the river rose to 33 feet. It wiped out houses a good five miles from the river sending them bobbing right down to New Orleans.

Sam showed me all the remnants and commemorative plaques from the area’s natural disasters and it started to occur to me why they call Missouri the Show Me State.

During my first days in Missouri people have been showing their support by honking and waving, treating me to lunch, asking if I need any help with my baby (Bob always gets that). At this point I feel comfortable that if a twister were coming, someone would stop and help bring Bob and me to the safety of a Wal-Mart storage cooler.

For my part I know throughout Tornado Alley I’ll have to constantly be listening to the radio and keep an eye behind my back.

On the other hand, if I catch a funnel I’d get to Colorado – and thus laundry baskets and smoothie blenders – a heck of a lot quicker.

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