May 16th 2017 | McLean, Texas | Long-Winded Version
I'm asked frequently what storm chasing is like, or even if folks can ride along one day. Hunting down tornadoes can be extremely rewarding. I've spent 15 years doing it now, and have no plans to stop. But those impressive photographs aren't possible without the hours of forecasting, driving, and general boredom that go largely unseen. As such, about a year ago I wrote a piece titled “So this is storm chasing...” chronicling a recent successful tornado hunt here in central Illinois. But, follow up questions always lead to “What's the furthest you've traveled for a tornado?” or simply whether or not I make it all the way out to what's more commonly known as 'Tornado Ally' in the American Great Plains. Being a storm chaser from Champaign-Urbana is totally different than existing as one who simply wakes up in Oklahoma, ready to go. Sure, we get plenty of spring and summer storms around here – but what does it take to travel thousands of miles and wrangle a Texas tornado? What's that like?
It's the evening of May 15th. The day before a trip that had been scheduled in my calendar since January. I've spent one last evening with my family out at the lake with the dog. The car is loaded as the sun hits the horizon. I'll see it rise, and then set again before I actually do any sleeping. The plan is for me to meet my long-time storm chasing partner, Colin, at his home near Peoria, IL around Midnight. With a couple hours until I need to leave I know that I should try and sleep, but the adrenaline is already setting in. Tomorrow looks fantastic for supercell thunderstorms and tornadoes... in the Panhandle of Texas. I do lie down at least, but only for an hour or so before it's time to hit the road.
I top off the gas tank, grab a can of cold brew coffee, and pull on to the interstate as the storm chasing mentality sets. I let out an actual “Woo!” realizing I could be watching a photogenic tornado on the open plains in less than 24 hours.
I pulled into Colin's driveway right on schedule, and made a quick turn-around tossing all of my gear into his car before jumping into the front seat as he takes over driving for the next leg. Colin is the best driver in storm chasing. I like to mention that a lot – so I'll just get it out of the way early on here. Another stop for cold caffeine, and the show is back on. Next up – meeting our friend Alex (who is my partner in covering the weather forecast for our beloved Chicago Cubs over at @CubsWeather on Twitter), who had flown from L.A. To Kansas City to join us.
If you've driven from western Illinois across northern Missouri you know there's very little to talk about, and this is especially true when done in the dark of the night. With that being the case, we'll jump to the part where the sun is rising as we roll into Kansas City and pick up a surprisingly chipper Alex, who remarks that Colin and I are also remarkably awake and ready to go. I really tried shutting my eyes once or twice during the 5-hour drive from Peoria to K.C., but the excitement of being on the Great Plains was too much, and there was always one more piece of weather data that I just *had* to look at. 20 years ago, storm chasers were making their forecasts at home, and then largely flying blind once they left their driveway. Perhaps you could find a pay phone and phone-a-friend for help, or hit up the local library and borrow one of their public use computers to look up the latest weather info. Now we've got 10x the data coming out every single hour accessible on your smart phone and ready to be slurped down with a straw in rural Missouri during the early morning hours. It's a different world. A world where it's easy to drown in the countless colorful maps. Anyway, I digress... point is, I didn't sleep.
With the sun now fully illuminating the Kansas Flinthills (think Windows '95 default wallpaper) we stopped off for the first of many McDonalds breakfasts. More coffee (hot coffee, this time), some hash browns, and a breakfast sandwich and we're back on the road. Down the Kansas Turnpike we go, quoting all of our favorite classic tornado videos that we grew up watching in the 90s as we passed the small towns where they were filmed.
South of Wichita, KS we stopped again and I did a quick video blog update for Chambana Weather as I chronicled our trip. I remarked about how great it truly looked for tornadoes later in the day. You can't ask for anything more. Often the long drive out there is for nothing more than a staging day – a day to get into position and see a few sights while you wait for the weather pattern to get active. This was the major factor contributing to zero sleep, and the correlating idea that it simply didn't matter because adrenaline was running the show from here on.
There was no time for celebrating though – we still had a long way to go. We weren't running late by any stretch, but after about 9 hours on the road, we still had the state of Oklahoma to cross before we were in position in the Panhandle of Texas. Through Oklahoma we went, around Oklahoma City, and past more infamous classic tornado towns. There would be no sit-down lunch today. We stopped at a truck stop just before hitting the Texas border for a pit-stop, fuel, and a handful of snacks. I think I skipped the caffeine on this one. I promised my wife I'd eat a vegetable every day. But you know, it's a truck stop in rural Oklahoma. I grabbed a 'Naked' green smoothie and called it the best I could do for now.
One more stretch. The target was in sight. We crossed into Texas, forecast still looking prime for supercells and tornadoes by late afternoon. We trudged down Interstate 40 and finally came to a stop in Shamrock, Texas. We parked it and fueled up at a gas station that doubled as a Taco Bell.
This is where the fun starts. You're finally at your target destination. We've driven 14 grueling hours straight, through the darkness of night and early morning light. Now, it's early afternoon. The atmosphere is heating up and the sky is percolating. As we sit at this gas station in Shamrock, TX, the parking lot fills with huge trucks covered with weather instruments, antennae, and 'storm chaser' decals. Familiar faces begin to appear. My friend Dick (who I hadn't seen since running into him in the same situation, before a storm chase in Aberdeen, South Dakota in 2010) and my other buddy Mike who I'd only know through the online storm chasing community appear, and we hug it out in the potato chip aisle. Storm chasing is weird like that. These are my best friends. Friends that I feel like I know as well as my own family. And yet the only time we spend with each other is during these truck stop run-ins in rural America. We spend nearly two hours in this parking lot, catching up, making frequent snack runs, sharing old stories and giving our best guess as to how the day will play out.
Eventually I find my spot in the passengers seat, pull out my laptop and load up my radar software and let out an “Ahhh!!”. A few baby storms that had been taking their time organizing had suddenly erupted into a small cluster of supercells. They immediately had that “I want to produce a tornado” look on radar, and adrenaline levels shot through the roof. Colin was inside using the bathroom, or grabbing some food. I really don't remember what perfectly reasonable thing he was doing, but I began doing an equally unreasonable dance of urgency across the parking lot waiting for him to appear so I could run over and show him the exciting radar images. It was go time!
We charged down I-40 toward McLean, Texas, before it was time to stop... again. There were two storms very close to each other, both looking equally promising. Which do you go for? Trust me. You don't want to be the guys who drove 1,000 miles through the darkness of night, only to pick one storm hastily while the storm 15 miles away puts on a show. Instinct and excitement tell you to just go for it on the closest of the two storms. Let's just see something! But even after 15 hours now on the road, patience is the best approach. We stopped in another dirt parking lot, this time spotting our friend Amos from Denton, TX who I hadn't seen since we were standing under a Kansas supercell together in May of 2007. Ten years later, and it's like we saw each other yesterday.
After about 30 minutes of letting the storms evolve and intensify, it becomes clear that the second storm, further to our south was the correct bet. We pulled out of the parking lot and hit the highway and drove south.
Finally... finally, our storm came into view. This is what it was all about. We're standing in a grassy prairie in the Texas Panhandle, watching a Tornado Warned supercell thunderstorm spin away as it moved toward us.
After repositioning once to get out of the rain, we had a gorgeous unobstructed view of the base of this storm as it began to spin faster and faster. A supercell will often cycle, going through multiple attempts at producing a tornado. It can be maddening to a point. We've come this far, we've forecasted this well, we're watching this storm do its thing, and all it wants is to flirt and dance around the idea of producing a tornado.
But then, before you know it, it happens. The storm makes that final push. The wall cloud (the area of the storm that spawns a tornado) begins to spin like a carousel. The air becomes heavy. Sirens wail in the distance. A slender funnel cloud drops from the sky. Hands are white knuckled to my tripod shooting video as the wind now howls into the storm, only removing my hands to periodically shoot still photographs. I used to shoot almost exclusively video while on these chases, until I discovered the joy of hanging your tornado photographs on the wall. Now I've got this mental reminder going off constantly... “shoot some pictures!”.
The carousel spins faster and faster, until the funnel cloud reaches down and touches the ground. There's no way to accurately describe tornadogenesis. Much like the total solar eclipse that just occurred, it's absolutely surreal. It's like you're staring at something that shouldn't be there. The clouds are touching the ground, in the most beautifully violent way. I was about 50 feet away from Alex and Colin right now as we watched this, the most classic Texas tornado one could imagine gracefully gliding across the horizon. We celebrated non-verbally a few times, before making eye contact one last time relaying the idea that it was time to move. The tornado was becoming wrapped in rain and it was time to reposition for a better view.
In time as we blasted back north on the same highway we'd only recently used to drop south to get ahead of the storm, the tornado disappeared into the rain. It was only as we were about to jump back onto the Interstate that one of us shouted, “there it is!”. The tornado made one last dramatic appearance, popping out of the rain as it roped out and spun into thin air. We stood their, cameras in hand in the pouring rain, sirens still sounding in the background as this tornado said farewell.
Now what? Stay with this storm, which is very much a rainy mess at this point? Or risk leaving it before it produces a second tornado, and instead drop south for the next storm in the line and hope it follows the same storyline and produces a tornado for us? Storm #2, we decide. It's not long before we've left it and are charging down the interstate that we hear reports that the storm we'd just left is now producing a new tornado. “Crap! Hopefully it's hidden in rain and nothing photogenic.” we tell ourselves and charge ahead. “The next storm will do it even better!”.
The next storm is a beauty, that's for sure. A spiraling massive cloud that doubles down on the incredible howling inflow winds. This one rips our hats from our heads blowing them over barbed wire fences, tosses tripods, and sandblasts us with Oklahoma dust. Oh yeah – we're back in Oklahoma now.
The storm continues to wrap up, but something about it just doesn't look right. It's of the high-precipitation variety now, which is especially difficult for storm chasing, or viewing tornadoes at least. They can be the most menacing, powerful looking storms, but their tornadoes are often hidden, and dangerously at that. Grabbing a glimpse of a high-precipitation tornado often requires battling low visibility, very large hailstones, and high winds. That doesn't touch on the idea that you're driving blind, and the tornado is hiding just up the road from you, completely unbeknownst to you.
This storm did produce a damaging tornado near Elk City, Oklahoma, but it wasn't mean to be for us. We enjoyed the show that this storm had to put on from a distance, before deciding to leave the rain-wrapped intercepting to the rest of the crowd. Fatigue is finally setting in. We're exhausted, sweaty, our clothes are rain soaked, and our faces covered in dirt. There's one more storm that shows some promise to our south, so we make one final play as the sun sinks toward the horizon. My second consecutive sunset without having slept a wink.
This storm, while equally beautiful, doesn't show any hope for producing a tornado. You reach a point in the evening where it just feels like the atmosphere is tapped out. We'd been treated to an incredible tornado near McLean, Texas – but the dream of multiple tornadoes wasn't meant to become a reality this day.
We enjoyed a photogenic rainbow over an old abandoned farmstead before plotting a course to the nearest steakhouse. The last two storms had been a “disappointment”, put in quotes because the storms themselves were absolutely gorgeous, but lacked that tornado element that we so greedily sought. You'd better be careful in thinking that after driving 1,000 miles, that the sky is obligated to treat you to tornado after tornado. They are hard to catch, and coming away with what we did on the first day of our trip was something to celebrate.
And celebrate we did! We found a steakhouse in Lawton, Oklahoma and treated ourselves to cold beer, and warm steak. With some savvy booking we were living the bougie life, sleeping in the local Hampton Inn. We took turns using the shower to wash the Oklahoma dirt from our skin, and hunkered down... to stare at our phones, looking at photos our friends had taken on their own hunt that evening, and perusing weather data for the coming days. Tomorrow was to be a down day, so the time to catch up on rest was now.
We slept in, leaving at the last moment before the check-out bell rang. You're pretty sure there's no actual check-out bell, but have you every actually waited around the find out?
There is no check-out bell.
But there is the very real chance that you check-out on time, drive an hour away from the hotel, only to have the phone ring with a courtesy call from the Lawton, Oklahoma Hampton Inn asking which one of you left their bag full of camera gear behind.
It was me, okay? I left all of my camera gear in our hotel room.
After promising the buy Colin and Alex a beer in Oklahoma City that evening to make it up to them, we turned around and retraced our steps. We were all well rested and still riding the high of the McLean, Texas tornado so it was no sweat off our backs.
With no storms in sight, we spent the evening at an Oklahoma City brewery, before walking over to Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark to watch the Oklahoma City Dodgers baseball game. A tornado in our back pocket from the evening before, baseball on a summer evening, and a big storm chase tomorrow. This is what it's all about. The game ended in a walk-off victory for the local Dodgers, and we made our way to the car, and then to our hotel room in Enid, Oklahoma. Tomorrow looked big... really big. The elusive 'High Risk' tornado outbreak across Oklahoma and Kansas.