tale of a tour: part 3
The lone tornado
May 7 begins with a "moderate risk" of severe storms forecast by the Storm Prediction Center. Moderate-risk days are chasers' favorites; while chances are reasonable that severe storms will develop, they aren't jinxed by a "high risk" forecast. Chasers are superstitious that way.
Our forecasters have decided that Turkey, Texas, will be the best place to see some action. We begin the trek southeast through the panhandle, with a stop in the scenic Caprock Canyons. Outside of Turkey, we hear on the radio that a watch box has been issued, and we're near the southern end of it. While chasers will tell you they don't chase tornado watches, they still take them seriously. We head east and hear that tornadoes are hitting in Kansas and Oklahoma, too far north for us to contemplate. So we stop in Childress to think things through.
We aren't alone.
It's Chaser Convergence, a common phenomenon when serious storm-chasers are after the same storm systems. VORTEX goes through. Matt Biddle's decal-clad El Camino pulls in, though it appears someone else is driving. Marty Feely appears with one of his Whirlwind Tours. Jim Leonard and Casey Crosbie show up.
Tourists and chasers sit around for hours, drinking sodas and watching the Weather Channel. We hear that storms are firing where we were yesterday, too far away for the amount of daylight we have left. We head north and end up going west -- back toward Amarillo -- even as we hear that storms are indeed going up in Turkey, our original destination.
It would be funny if it weren't so frustrating.
But the storms, to our north and south, are dramatically lit by the setting sun even as they spew lightning all around. We take a chance and head south, encouraged by what we hear on the radio. The rolling landscape in this part of Texas is now our worst enemy; just after we turn north again, we see it -- in between hills -- a distant tornado to our west. I videotape, not sure it's a tornado at all. But the tape proves that, north of Clarendon, we indeed caught a glimpse of a twister.
It breaks apart as we stop to watch the advancing storm.
Then we hold our breath as its wall cloud shows obvious rotation.
We are all videotaping compulsively -- well, those of us with video cameras, anyway. A running joke is the "stormgasms" that excited chasers come up with as they are videotaping extraordinary weather. If you rent or buy some of the many videos on the market -- the best are in the "Tornado Video Classics" series -- you'll hear what I mean. I haven't mastered the art yet. On my video, I say "wow" a lot.
We take shelter inside the cars as the lightning gets closer. The sun is setting behind the storm, a fearsome orange, as a new area of rotation begins to kick up some dust from the ground. "That's a really nice meso spinning up there," Charles says over the CB. Country music plays on the radio as the chasers try to guess what the storm will do. This might be an "F0" tornado, as Matt Moreland calls it -- but because it soon dissipates, we hesitate to give it the title. Still, the storm is dynamic and awe-inspiring as it rushes toward us.
Again, the rest of the caravan seeks shelter as Matt and I, joined by a member of the Alabama TV crew, punch the core. This time, we're hammered by golf-ball-size hail. And the drive south to join the others is among the most memorable, as we follow the towering storm as it shimmers with lightning and glows with the orange and blue colors of sunset.
Heading back to Amarillo, we're treated to another spectacular lightning show in the east, of CGs (cloud-to-ground strikes) and anvil crawlers (which stretch across the clouds). In the west, the skies are clearing, and Comet Hale-Bopp shines ethereally in the velvet darkness. The CBs are nearly quiet. Everyone is tired and humbled after a day of experiencing nature at its most powerful and enthralling.