23 Mar 2008
Ever stand out on your deck in a thunderstorm and marvel at the sky? Yeah, me too. Then I get in my car.
When I was seven years old, after much deliberation, I told my parents that I would one day become either a garbage man or a tornado chaser. A short time later, issues of "Storm Track", a storm chasing newsletter, started showing up in our home's mailbox. My dad had chosen to encourage the lesser evil.
I held on to this dream all the way into college, where I spent a year and a half steeped in meteorology, desperately trying to be one of those lucky research assistants you see on the Discovery Channel being told by their scientist overlords to run out in front of tornadoes with some space-age looking tornado probe or radar dish. It wasn't to be. No matter what your college recruiter tells you, the truth is that meteorology isn't sexy. It's all numbers and calculus and weather models and computer monitors. You want to see the weather, baby? Go outside. You want to do something fun at college? Get a liberal arts degree.
I remember when it first occurred to me that most people you'd call storm chasers aren't scientists but, rather, people like you and me -- regular Joes with an unhealthy fascination of clouds stacked three times taller than Mount Everest. It was back in 2002, when I first stumbled onto a storm chasing email list. These guys were less like Jacque Cousteau and more like a cross between John Wayne and those guys you see at the Star Trek conventions -- total nerds, but with giant, steel cajones. And damned smart.
I read up and studied and pored over books, trying to understand all I could about storm dynamics. I gave it my first go one fine afternoon that Spring; just me, my Honda Civic, and my EOS-3 versus a homegrown Nebraska supercell. I thought it'd be easy. I thought I knew enough. Boy, I learned lots of exciting new things that day. Things like: softball sized hail falls at 120+ miles per hour and will not only bounce fifteen feet off the ground when it hits the road but also crush your windshield and put fist-sized dents into an automotive body. And: if you find yourself idiotically driving through softball sized hail, trying to get away from a developing tornado as little bits of glass bounce off your dash, it's useful to reflect on how stupid it was to ever think of a storm as anything other than something that can kill you.
Since then, I've done a lot more research into chasing strategy, gotten a lot more serious about staying safe, and chased a whole lot more storms. It's worth it. I've been all over Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, stalking the wind. Nowhere else on the planet will you find weather like this, where the sky gathers up its skirts and takes a running leap at the earth. There is nothing in life quite like leaning back into winds that are being sucked up into the storm that is spinning like a top in front of you. You feel as small as you are and life feels as big as it is. Everything else goes away; there is only the sky. And I can't stop looking up.