by Mike Bay
For those of you who've seen the movie Twister, tornado chasing was glorified and dramatized, despite an unrelated subplot of marital strife between Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. What one had to do with the other perhaps only a married couple could identify with, but I digress.
Tornado season is almost here in the Southeast. In the spring of 2003, Kansas, Missouri and Tennessee saw a series of super cell thunderstorm-spawned tornadoes, killing dozens and injuring dozens more, tragically underscoring a prime reason that storm researchers 'chase' storms: by expanding their knowledge of tornado dynamics, they hope to better determine and detect tornadic formation, increasing warning time in a storm’s path for the safety of those who often are left with precious little time to find adequate shelter. It would certainly be for the betterment of those living wherever tornadoes thrive and 'eat', especially in the Central Plains and southeastern US.
And they tend to grit their teeth and loath six fingered novices who shouldn't try this from home. Like me.
Growing up in Iowa and South Dakota for my first 13 years, I developed a fascination with tornadoes. I've been through a couple. I've seen, from a distance and in the aftermath, what tornadoes up to F-5 category can do. To quote Dusty from Twister, "It's awesome.” I spent many a summer, tracking severe storms based on TV weather reports and warnings, using a worn road map and ruler. I got pretty good at judging what might hit our neck of the woods, and when.
Then we moved to Colorado, and I learned that the mountains threw my old conventional meteorologic out the window, along with my ability to 'read' and 'sense' weather. However, I also learned that Colorado had its own version of 'Tornado Alley': along most of the Front Range, from Colorado Springs north to the Wyoming line, and east to the Nebraska/Kansas borders. As time went on, I saw ample evidence of this productivity in the skies over Jefferson, Douglas and Arapahoe Counties. Tornadoes hereabouts tend to be less awesome than their leviathan cousins of the Great Plains; but that didn't quell for me the thrill of an encounter, or the desire for a photo. I wanted a photo of a tornado. Not one taken by someone else; one taken by me. One where I had boldly skirted the 'bear cage', stalking and successfully bagging my quarry: an F-3 at the least, from a mile away, on the ground, and on a parallel course.
Didn't want much, did I?
In time, opportunities presented themselves. In the summers of 1989 and 1990, I managed to shoot up three rolls of film on funnel clouds in the Denver Metro area, three of which qualified as tornadoes by a cloud-to-ground touchdown (with the extra point landing somewhere in Kansas). In one case, I got an entire series -- from formation to touchdown and beyond -- of one tornado at a mile and a half distance, on that favored parallel course.
What would come as no surprise to the professionals . . . I wasn't satisfied. I wanted more.
Suffice it to say, I came up empty, picture-wise. Equally suffice it to say I was lucky to come up intact, considering conditions and situations I drove boldly (stupidly) into those next three -- at times harrowing -- days. Twice, the elusive 'beast' didn't elude me by much; only pure dumb luck on my part prevented a comparable encounter to that experienced by some poor minivan driver on I-70 in Kansas in 1994 (captured on film by a news crew who found themselves being 'chased' by a tornado, rather than vice-versa).
But what I did come up with, in retrospect, was a definitive how not to chase tornadoes list. Unless, of course, you're me:
Will I do it again?
Probably; opportunity and my thirst for that “perfect photo” remains unquenched. BUT, just so the least lucid of you won't ponder following me potentially into Nature's version of a really windy toilet swirly, here's a few serious and worthwhile links to visit for some excellent information on tornadoes and chasing them from the safety of your computer at home:
Mike Bay is a free-lance humor writer and accomplished ceiling pencil sticker during writers' block. Born in Iowa, subsisting in Colorado, he has parental and other ancestral links on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. He's a former newspaper columnist, a member of the NetWits and National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and has been published in the quarterly Satire, on various websites and ezines, on his very own website (outofthinair) and in an upcoming book, Serenade of the Stinkweed, an anthology of marital experiences by Jeanni Brosius, Bandal Books. A life-long bachelor, he's still waiting to receive his BS in it, and trying to figure out why he needs a degree to prove what he's full of.
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