Mike Hollingshead is one of the lucky ones.
The Blair native walked away from his job one day and found himself eventually making a living by doing something he loved: storm chasing.
That was eight years ago.
This week, Hollingshead hits the jackpot: His photo of a Bradshaw, Neb., tornado is featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine.
“I never expected this to keep working. I didn't expect it to keep paying the bills,” he said.
In the National Geographic photo, a menacing pillar of brown churns across a damp, verdant landscape. The image contrasts the destructive power of nature with the frailty of life, an apt metaphor for the magazine's featured topic: the mysterious surge in deadly weather.
Over the past 30 years, National Geographic notes, the number of $1 billion-plus weather disasters has nearly doubled to 87, up from 46. In counting storms, the magazine contrasts the 1996-2011 period with 1980 to 1995.
Included in the magazine are several of Hollingshead's photos of a June 20, 2011, tornado outbreak in south-central Nebraska.
The particular twister that appears on the National Geographic cover occurred near York. It traveled 15 miles along a mostly rural path, reaching EF2 strength — 130 mph winds. Along the way, it stripped trees, mangled center pivots, downed power poles and ripped the roof off a residence.
Rough as this tornado was for those affected, for Hollingshead it was the just-in-time payoff he needed then and now. The past two summers have seen a lull in severe weather around here, making it hard for him to earn a living both years.
“If this (National Geographic offer) didn't happen, I'd be getting a job right now,” he said. “This has totally saved me.”
A lifelong resident of Blair, Hollingshead said Nebraska offers benefits in storm chasing.
“People always think the big storms are in Texas and Oklahoma. That's so silly; they're just as big and bad up here.”
Among the notable benefits of being based in Nebraska, he said, is that it lessens the likelihood that he'll get lured by the big storm hunts in the southern United States, the ones that attract so many storm chasers that traffic jams can occur on isolated roads.
“It's like a sea of chase vehicles,” he said.
In April this year, he said, so many storm chasers headed out for a storm near Wichita, Kan., that the line of traffic lasted 15 minutes. This kind of backup typically occurs near cities to the south, like Wichita, where local residents add to the cavalcade of professional chasers. That's one reason why he likes chasing in Nebraska and farther north — there are simply fewer vehicles on the road.
In 2002, Hollingshead was working a variety of jobs, but mostly maintenance work for Cargill, when he bought his first camera. He became fascinated by what it could do, and within two years had quit his job.
His timing couldn't have been better: 2004 was a “crazy, crazy” year for storms, he said. And his shots of the aurora borealis bought countless hits to his website, ExtremeInstability.com.
Then came the 2006 ice storms that wreaked havoc across Nebraska. And by 2008, Hollingshead and a colleague had enough photos to publish a coffee-table book, “Adventures in Tornado Alley, The Storm Chasers.”
Hollingshead, 36, is single and likes to go solo when he's out on the hunt. Fewer distractions, he said.
Look through the photos on his website, and you'll see he has an affinity for the sublime as well as the destructive.
“I like all of it, really,” he said. “Ice crystals in the air, fog in fall, crazy numbers of geese at Squaw Creek (National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri). There's always something cool to shoot.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1102, email@example.com
This NOAA page offers information on the June 2011 tornado outbreak in Nebraska.
Take Mike Hollingshead's home page for a whirl at extremeinstability.com.