Standing in the women’s bathroom with eight others, I could see several blue-shirted individuals quietly walk past the door through an adjoining back hallway. Against the wall a few feet away, a young woman with a blue surgical mask trembled and looked on the verge of collapse. Shaking too hard to hammer out a text message on her phone, a female lieutenant spoke to her loudly, “Breathe, breathe deep. Count, one two, three.”
As I surveyed the room, my eyes met those of another woman at the far end. She turned her head to the inside of a stall, quietly sobbing in fear. A blue-shirted man standing across from me, hair nets on his head and beard, stared at his phone while others in the room chatted nervously.
The cook commented about some odd dance version of Cotton Eye Joe blaring from a ceiling speaker as my wife chuckled and danced a few steps. A civilian, an older woman in a winter coat standing across the room asked her, “Do you clog?”
“I left chickens in the oven.” the cook confessed.
“Uh-oh.” muttered the lieutenant, a concerned look on her face. She warned the manager via her radio headset.
Later, the restroom door swung open and a dark-haired man appeared, tattooed arms outstretched, holding a tray full of food.
“We’re waiting for the all clear. But you’re free to go. Would you like something to eat? I have a few breakfast croissants, chicken tenders,” his voice trailing off into the background.
“We’ll go now. Thanks for everything. See you next time.” We waved and everyone laughed.
No, this isn’t a description of a dream induced by eating too many bratwursts. It’s a snippet of 30 minutes spent voluntarily confined to a Kwik Trip convenience store in Wisconsin Rapids, WI during a bad storm and tornado warning.
Thinking we’d cut in half the journey home after a week fishing near Florence, we decided to make Viroqua our nighttime stop. A friend warned bad weather was predicted but we went anyway. A line of storms developed, pushing west to east across the entire state. We drove into the middle of dark radar red.
It was fortuitous we hit Rapids when we did. Another 30 minutes would’ve put us somewhere in the middle of nowhere near cranberry country and the Sandhill Wildlife Area. Instead, as the tornado sirens blared, we turned into Kwik Trip, store #128, hoping to wait out the weather. The manager gave us an option as they locked down – go or stay. We stayed.
A word about Kwik Trip. If you’ve ever spent any serious time in Wisconsin, you know of these temples filled with fresh eatable food, groceries, beer, goodies, and other sundry convenience store items. Social media maven @alexwehrley calls it a “premier vacation destination…a five-star restaurant that happens to sell gas.” A little bit of an oversell perhaps, but they sure are handy, and I tend to seek them out when I’m on the road.
As the storm grew more severe, the KT team huddled and the manager made decisions. Everyone moved to areas in the back of the store. We went to the women’s restroom with six women and two men. Others moved to a different room. Gas pumps were shut off. Key staff communicated by radio. The manager occasionally spoke over a loud speaker telling outside customers the pumps were off and store was closed due to the tornado warning. Employees comforted frightened colleagues. The young, visibly scared women mentioned earlier, finally calmed down enough to make a phone call. It seems most of her fear was for her father’s safety.
“Go to the basement now,” she told her father. Her dad’s nonchalant response to her warnings elicited a post-call comment, “I’m going to kick his ass.” The nervous room busted out laughing.
We later learned a few tornados did touch down, one not too far to the southeast; the exact direction we were driving. So, a missed turn and last second decision to stop provided an opportunity to get coffee, eat a great chicken salad sandwich, and hunker down in a safe place with a couple dozen real nice folks.
On this excursion north, once again, memories were made fishing with my wife and a good friend on a small lake not many miles from the Wisconsin - Michigan border. But a storm on the journey home and the people of a Wisconsin Rapids Kwik Trip provided the final exclamation point!
Oh, so how was the fishing? It was pretty good. As the loons called to one another, post-spawn smallmouth bass were crushing surface lures in the evening at the shoreline as smaller fish feasted on mayflies. We chased shadows on the fish finder. A few eater walleyes made it home in the cooler, and a few toothy hammer handle snot dragons kept it real. Can’t wait to do it all again!
Originally Published, Driftwood Outdoors, June 22, 2022