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Remembering the Stoughton Tornado

Stoughton, Wis., tornado from Aug. 18, 2005 (from http://www.crh.noaa.gov/mkx/document/tor/images/tor081805/stoughton-c.jpg).Every year when severe storm warnings are issued, I’m reminded of just how strong some of these storms can be. Back in August 2005, I had a first-hand glimpse of the damage a severe storm can cause when I helped clean up after a tornado hit my town.

On Aug. 18, 2005, an F3 tornado carved a ten-mile long, half-mile-wide swath of destruction across rural subdivisions and farms in Stoughton, Wis. When the winds stopped, 156 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged and another 84 homes were slightly damaged. Countless cars, boats and other vehicles were damaged or destroyed. Damage exceeded $35 million. Tragically, one person was killed.

In the following days, I volunteered to help with the clean-up. Let me tell you, cleaning up after a tornado is a humbling experience. In the damaged part of town, everywhere I looked there were houses reduced to piles of bricks and splintered lumber, and cars condensed into twisted hunks of sheet metal.  

During the storm, Mother Nature went out of her way to show how fickle she can be. Amidst the destruction, one house I went to seemed completely undamaged. The dining room table was still set for dinner and there was a neat pile of papers on a desk ready for attention. The kitchen however, was gone. In fact, the entire back half of the house was gone. It was as though someone took a gigantic knife and carved off the back half of the house but left the front intact and undisturbed.

Throughout the day, I overheard many interesting answers to good questions:

Q: “I thought you had brown shingles on your garage?”
A: “I do. But the garage that’s leaning against my house belongs to my neighbor down the street.”

Q: “What happened to your car?”
A: “It’s in that tree over there.”

Despite the impact the tornado made on their lives, I was amazed how some people maintained their sense of humor. One man told me he now regretted spending the extra money for 40-year shingles when he had his house re-roofed the previous year. Another commented, “I hope my wife isn’t mad that I didn’t get the dishes done.”

Before the next severe weather alert hits your area, take a few moments to look around your home and identify where you or your family may be vulnerable. Find your best place for shelter and make sure everyone knows where to go and what to do when severe weather threatens. 

Summer biking adventures start and end with family

Hermsmeier My experience as a child growing up in the Chicago suburbs on Lake Michigan provided casual family bike rides on paved trails, go-at-your-own-pace and feel the wind in your hair – before helmets were necessary.

However, my husband likes riding across the state of Iowa in RAGBRAI or the length of Wisconsin in the GRABAAWR (each about 500 miles in 5-6 days). So, you might guess our family bike rides are more than around the block.

Our daughter has been zipping along more than 15 miles on average per trip, at speeds of 12+ mph over the rolling hills of Wisconsin before she even graduated from training wheels. We’ve ridden the Sugar River Trail in New Glarus, Wis., the Ice Age Trail loop at Devils Lake State Park, and Glacial Drumlin from Cottage Grove, Wis., to Deerfield, Wis. (for the ice cream…) and back.

HermsmeierShe enjoyed it more when she could be dad’s riding buddy traveling in a trailer bike attached to his road bike.

Through the years, one landmark trip was the 24-mile round-trip adventure to Crystal Lake in northern Wisconsin. We were dripping with sweat and tired when we arrived – so the crisp, cold water of this crystal-clear lake near Minocqua brought a welcome refresh.

Weaving through country roads from our cabin in Boulder Junction, we biked with anticipation with our snorkeling gear in tow. We explored the lake and swam across. While not the same as our Caribbean adventures, this trip “up North” provided our only clearly visible lake bottom view.

We set a new milestone in family biking adventures with our now 18-year-old daughter on a recent vacation to California. The 12+ miles up and down hills in San Francisco to cross the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, Calif., blew us up against the rails of the bridge with blustering winds around the towers, and provided grand views worthy of post-card status.

The spiral downhill ride into Sausalito led to a final ferry ride back to the city. The sore muscles and numb fingers gave way to new bragging rights for literally crossing a new bridge in our family’s bike riding resume.

Where’s your favorite biking destination?

30 Days of SummerEditor’s note: There’s still some summer left! Get ideas for your family and join the conversation by checking out the #30DaysOfSummer hashtags on Twitter and Facebook. 

Lightning Bugs and Summertime Memories

Fireflies in a mason jarWhenever a summer evening is hot and muggy and the back yard is lit up with lightning bugs, I remember the night my kids and I collected as many of the glowing bugs as we could to make an "all-natural" lantern.

It started innocently enough. One summer evening, with not much to do, we were looking out a window in to the backyard, and it started coming alive with lightning bugs. Slowly at first, but then transforming into a theatrical light show of little greenish-yellow glowing dots.

My kids, being little at the time, were fascinated and thought it was pretty great. So we went outside to get a closer look. Since they were enjoying the show so much, I said, "Let’s try to catch as many as we can, put them in a jar and have a 'lightning bug' lantern?"

Both thought that was a great idea, so I went into the house and got an old Mason jar with a lid. For the next half hour or so, the three of us ran around the back yard catching lightning bugs and carefully putting them in the jar. We were smiling, laughing and having a great time! I think if any of the neighbors would have looked at us they’d have thought we were crazy, but we were having a blast.

With each bug flickering on and off, we had soon caught enough to keep the jar steadily glowing and pulsing with light. We had no idea what to do with them once we caught them, but we thought it was fun just to watch the glowing jar. So there we were, sitting at our picnic table with a jar glowing with the luminescence of captured lightning bugs. After a while, I think the bugs got tired of being our entertainment, so they stopped flickering as often. Since bed time was approaching and the light was going out, we took off the lid and let the bugs fly away.

Now, several years later, my kids and I still look back at that evening with fond memories. It’s not uncommon to start a summer conversation with, "Remember that night we made a lightning bug lantern?" 

30 Days of SummerEditor's note: What's your fondest summer memory?  Leave a comment, or visit the American Family Insurance Facebook page today and throughout the summer. Join the conversation by checking out the #30DaysOfSummer hashtag on Twitter and Facebook.

Share Your Favorite Tale of Life on the Road

Impromptu travel leaves lasting memories. Share your treasured moments for our upcoming e-book – Dreaming of the Road. The best experiences are the ones that aren’t planned. They simply happen.

Like dropping everything to follow a hot air balloon. Or having a front-yard conversation evolve into a backyard campfire with friends.

My favorite family memories involve spur-of-the-moment decisions to get away – to simply pick a spot on the map, plug in the GPS coordinates and hit the highway in search of adventure.

No agenda. No timeline. No constraints. Just some salty snacks and a thirst for adventure.

Through this ad-hoc approach to travel, my family has discovered unfamiliar aspects of familiar locations. We’ve found new attractions by accident (especially after a wrong turn or two). And in almost every case, we’ve unearthed hole-in-the-wall restaurants whose cuisine and character far exceeded their outwardly appearance.

Yup, I love the road trip – and I bet you do, too.

That’s why I’m excited about American Family’s first e-book, Dreaming of the Road, to be released this fall. This digital publication will feature lots of practical tips for planning your next highway or back road adventure, and feature lots of personal road trip tales.

Here’s the best part: American Family wants your stories for possible inclusion in the book!

To share a tale, simply complete our online form. Just for contributing, you’ll be on the list of those to receive the e-book first.

I bet you have lots of great ideas. I look forward to reading them.

See you on the road!

Escape to America’s best idea – National Parks

That's me at the Roosevelt Arch - the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park.My life is a series of different-sized screens. From a 3.5-inch smartphone, to a 55-inch flat screen TV – and all dimensions and devices in-between – I spend much of my day focused on a digital reality.

When I need to flee the screen’s electronic grip, I head outdoors. Often times, the simplest escapes involve a quick trip to the backyard of my suburban home in Wisconsin. It could also be a bike ride or a visit to my state’s plethora of parks.

But I’m most happy anywhere I can find the familiar tan and forest green logo of the National Park Service. Officially created by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, national parks – and their idea – have been around much longer. President Ulysses Grant established Yellowstone National Park in 1872 – the nation’s first national park.

National Parks are part of our country’s fabric – and were established by visionaries who believed in the power of nature and the importance of preserving it – forever.

Indeed, they’re our best idea.

However, growing up my friends had different summer dreams – of baseball stadiums, big cities and beaches – not national parks. My family’s compass almost always pointed to the West, where interstate highways led us to less glamorous places with names like Badlands, Little Bighorn or Bryce Canyon.

I was a child of the National Park Service, and I haven’t forgotten the lessons I learned in some of its 51.9 million acres.

Last summer, I gave my kids (10 and 12) a similar education, going on what they dubbed “The Great American Road Trip.” OK, that’s a bit cliché, but we did have a fantastic, 3,800-mile journey through South Dakota and Wyoming.

Here are my two awesome kids at the Yellowstone National Park entrance.Everywhere we went, so was the National Park Service. We saw (and smelled) mud pots, bison and geysers. We tent-camped in national forests and parks, paying a penance to sleep under billions of stars in lieu of cushy queen beds and free WiFi.

We ate and slept among nature – not protected from it in some stuffy, air-conditioned hotel room. Our dinners were on wooden picnic tables that thousands of other campers like us used before. We disconnected from reality for two weeks, and it was hard to come home – back to our screens. Back to reality.

But we returned recharged. And my kids learned the lessons of my youth - the ones only nature can teach: appreciation of life’s simpler gifts.

John Muir – a pioneer of national parks – said it best more than 100 years ago:

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease.”
― John Muir, Our National Parks

In his free time, Tom Buchheim blogs about the curious intersection of sports and social media at http://www.fourthand140.com

30 Days of SummerEditor's note: We want to hear your favorite summer escape. Leave a comment or visit the American Family Insurance Facebook page throughout the summer. Join the conversation by checking out the #30DaysOfSummer hashtags on Twitter and Facebook.  

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