I’m gripping the wheel as I stare at a funnel cloud. Rather, I’m glancing at it, because I’m trying desperately to focus on the road. The cloud is on my right as I’m barreling down a two-lane road somewhere in Kansas, with vans filled with storm chasers both in front of and behind me. It’s my fifth and final day following the Tempest Tours storm chasers through Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas.
Over the last 1,500 miles, we’ve intercepted multiple supercells, driven on (and off) every type of road imaginable, dodging hail and swirling clouds of dust along the way. The list of weather-related wonders we’ve witnessed is seemingly, breathtakingly, endless.
But right now, I have a problem. My radio—the device that tethers me to the experts and tells me when to pull over, if there’s an animal up ahead, if a tornado has touched down—has just died.
Staying on the outside
What does it mean to chase a storm? As a child, my late father and I would sit on our front porch in Ohio to watch and listen as rain lashed the roof and thunder boomed from on high. Within 30 minutes, the storm had usually packed up and moved on. But if we had gotten in the car with a climatologist like Bill Reid, senior tour director at Tempest Tours, we would have followed the cell to the next town, and on and on, until it lost its strength or became too unpredictable to safely observe. This chase can take hours, and the moments available to jump out and admire a cell can range from 30 seconds to 15 minutes.
That’s the key to storm chasing, I quickly learn: The goal is to be on the outside, not the inside, and that fine balance is maintained by a combination of modern technology, radar, and the trained eye of an expert who knows when it’s time to hit the gas.
On the inside of a cell, there are no otherworldly cloud formations to admire or chances to take long exposures of lightning strikes. As I will experience later, when my radio is dead, there is rain, darkness, and uncertainty inside a storm.
As for the people who participate in this risky charade: Who gets to be a storm chaser, and why do they do it?
“A storm chaser is someone who makes an effort to go somewhere to be at the right place at the right time to see spectacular cloud structure, lightning displays, tornadoes, or hurricanes,” Reid says. “Someone with a passion for weather, who wants to see Mother Nature do its thing.”
For people like 34-year-old Alexander Fisher, it’s a passion that began in childhood and never left. Photos of storms he’s shot hang in his law firm office back home, he says, and he’s chased every season for the last 16 years. The prospect of storm chasing even influenced where Fisher went to college—but he’s not only on the road for tornadoes.
“I like tornadoes. I hope they don’t hit anyone,” Fisher says while photographing a developing storm cell in the distance. “I like to see them, but for me, structure and beautifully shaped storms are better than a tornado.”
Still, he knows a lot of people think he’s crazy, and it’s reasonable to wonder why someone would purposefully go outside in severe weather. Tornadoes have killed 38 people in the U.S. so far in 2019, according to the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center, and the season doesn’t end until August.
While there have only been three documented deaths of storm chasers directly caused by a tornado, an incident the week before our chase sent a chill through our group. Another storm chasing company—Silver Lining Tours—had two vans hit and rolled by a satellite tornado, according to the Kansas City Star.
The vans rolling was news because it isn’t the norm. It turns out that the most dangerous part of the chase is actually the drive.
One man’s treasure is another’s danger
Before heading out on the road, my mind went straight to worst-case storm chasing scenarios along the lines of the 1992 movie Twister. I pictured a cow mooing helplessly as it flew into me, lifted by the tremendous winds of a tornado much too close to outrun.
Our days started out innocently enough. Reid walked the group through the forecast using several different online tools, planning a general route to try and get in position for thunderstorms rolling through in the late afternoon and early evening. Sometimes we’d drive four or five hours to get to where we needed to be.
Then it was a high-octane fueled run, racing through dirt roads, gravel roads, suburban roads, and two-lane highways, pulling over every few minutes to admire the storm cell and then jumping back in so it wouldn’t move too far away—or catch us, depending on which direction the storm was moving.
Bathrooms were wheat fields or not at all. By the time a storm was finished and it was time to hit a motel for the night, most towns had closed down, which meant dinner at a local gas station. Then we’d get some sleep and prepare to do it all again the next day. This drive-all-day, adrenaline-fueled routine with a lack of nutritious food was taxing for me as a first-timer.
Notably, though, the tour wasn’t all about intercepting the storms, because they just didn’t happen every night for us. Some of the best days were spent slowly roadtripping through various small towns and admiring the country’s wildlife. Even though I’ve driven all across the U.S., this truly was a side of the country I’d never seen. One particularly memorable day took us through backroads in Oklahoma and New Mexico where wild turkeys, a horny toad, countless antelope, and one irritated gopher snake brought us to abrupt stops every few miles.
Jeremy “Jem” King admires wide skies and the massive scale of the country so much, he’s returned for yet another tour and brought along his life partner, Barbara, all the way from England. But he says the enormity of the middle of the country—which makes the space so beautiful to tourists—also poses a threat for small communities in this region. “I was quite surprised at how desolate and hard life was out here,” King says.
Many of the small towns we encounter lie straight in the pathways of some of the most destructive storms on Earth. One storm can rip up half a million dollars worth of crops—or more—in just a few minutes. More than once, before the weather really kicks up, locals stop and ask us how bad the storm is going to be. The significance of this is lost on no one.
Lesleyanne Ryan, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran who’s been on the road with Tempest Tours for weeks recounts the humanity and connection that forms—even if it’s brief—between storm chasers and the people whose community the storm impacts. She remembers one storm she chased with multiple tornadoes, where the group pulled into a driveway and something unexpected happened.
“This man came out, and we thought he might’ve come to say, ‘Get out of my driveway.’ But he came up and said, ‘There’s a tornado coming—do you want to get into our shelter?’”
Ryan says she still gets goosebumps when she thinks about it. “When I turned around and looked, I saw at least three kids just opening up the cellar right next to the house and barreling down into it,” she says. “And it was just like, whoa. We can drive away, we know where we’re going, we know where the tornadoes are, mostly, and these people—they’re kind of stuck there. They have no choice but to hunker down. And they don’t know if they’re going to come out of that and find the place flattened, or just wet.”
The sheer strength and possibility of what a single storm can produce is weighing heavy on my mind during our final chase. I keep my radio off during the day because I know it’s running out of battery, but I turn it back on after the funnel cloud and several gustnadoes are spotted. The radio goes silent shortly thereafter, and it honestly can’t come at a worse time. This is the most intense cell I’ve ever seen, with boiling clouds spitting lightning bolts at the ground with a vengeance.
After we stop to admire it for a few minutes—spotting another funnel cloud while we’re stationary—we race back into the vehicles and hit the road again. Rain pummels the car through a wind so ferocious I see it rip pieces of roof from a mobile home being transported by a tractor-trailer. Then comes the dust cloud.
It is almost completely opaque, and it’s entirely covering the road. I can hardly see the taillights of the van in front of me, and I have no idea what’s on the other side of it: a deer, a pile-up, a funnel cloud that’s actually met the ground? I’m talking out loud to myself now, trying to keep my cool. And the reality of the situation comes down to one question: Do I trust Bill Reid with my life? The answer is yes. And so I press the gas and grip the wheel.
A tornado never did touch the ground that night, and I obviously didn’t die. In fact, I feel more alive for having chased the storm. But more than that, I feel a deeper connection to the road and my country than I did before I went on the tour. A tornado would have been a treat, but I’ll never be the same because I saw a side of humanity and America I couldn’t have seen any other way. Will I come back again? Most definitely.
Will I drive myself?