It's a May evening in the Texas panhandle, and daylight is running out. To the north, a towering storm cloud sprouts up and over our heads, hung with the little pockets of water vapor called mammatus, the hallmark of a violent storm. But that storm isn't the one we're after. We're after the tornado.
We're storm-chasing, and this, although we don't know it, is the best chance we'll have in a two-week tour to see a twister. Brilliant bolts of lightning are hitting nearby as our leaders jabber excitedly over the CBs, trying to figure out which storm to chase. South, we decide. We've been driving in huge circles all day, but finally, the reports on the radio indicate we might have a good one. Go south.
I grip the video camera, taking shots of orange clouds and lightning out the passenger-side window of the Blazer and thinking about the soundtrack I'll dub on later. Let's rock and roll!
Storm-chasing isn't your average vacation. It isn't your averag hobby, either. For the men and, occasionally, women who pursue it, it is nothing less than an obsession.
I found Cloud 9 Tours on the Internet last winter. For $1,700 (the price is up to $1,900 this year) plus air fare, I could hang out with chasers on the Great Plains for two weeks and maybe, if I were really lucky, see a tornado.
Charles Edwards is the man in charge. A good-natured, 30-something computer specialist at the University of Oklahoma Norman, he would always rather be storm-chasing. He takes off whenever the skies look promising, and for all of May and half of June -- the only time of year when tornadic storms consistently occur -- he devotes his time to running the small expeditions of Cloud 9 Tours.
This spring of 1997, it's him and fellow chaser Steve Courton who meet me at the Oklahoma City airport. Edwards is tall, rangy and quiet, while Courton chatters at length about the prognosis for "good" weather -- the kind of weather the rest of Tornado Alley dreads. He and Edwards discuss it further with Jim Leonard, a longtime tornado- and hurricane-chaser who meets us for lunch at what they affectionately call "the trough," Furr's Cafeteria in suburban Norman.
As I will quickly learn, cheap hotels are a chaser's best friend, and cafeteria-style lunches, truck stops and Mickey D's are the norm. No one goes storm-chasing for the food.
I'm adjusting to the landscape. It's flat here. Really flat. But that's why it's so perfect for storms to develop -- and for people to chase them. On the East Coast, tornadic storms are hidden by trees and hills. On the plains, where in the springtime, chilly air from Canada presses south to slam into warm, moisture-packed air from the Gulf of Mexico, the volatile mix cooks up severe storms. The most dramatic of these is the supercell, a forbidding storm with an area of rotation, or mesocyclone, that can be more than five miles across: the ideal hatchery for a tornado.
Chasers from all over the country are drawn to the plains this time of year. While they don't want to see a town razed by a twister, they definitely want to be there if one plows through a field.
I kill a sunny day with visits to a kind of meteorology war room at the University of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma City Zoo and a weather-balloon launch at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman before the rest of the tourists arrive.
Unlike the usual customers, these are not weather junkies. These are a dozen gregarious Germans who have won "Twister" video sweepstakes, accompanied by two handsome blond journalists from the German magazine Bild. The sweepstakes winners know some English, and from talking with them, I begin to realize that most of them don't really care if they find a tornado. They want to find Levis.
At last, the tempest
A couple of days of uncooperative weather and sightseeing give way at last to a chase day! Our forecasters aren't making any promises, but it looks as if there could be storms firing in the Texas panhandle. We set out on the long trip toward Amarillo.
I'm in the Blazer with driver Matt Moreland, a meteorology grad of OU. The other tourists are in two big vans, which Edwards and Courton are driving; Windchaser Environmental Films photographer Lan Lamphere, a Nashville news team and another NBC team from Alabama fill out the entourage. It's starting to look like the caravan in the tornado thriller "Twister." All we're missing are Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton.
Hours of driving follow. This is the part of the chase that is not for the faint of heart -- the boredom. I happen to love looking at fields and little towns with their grain silos and Dairy Queens, and even more, gazing at the clouds, trying to decipher the puzzles they contain. I learn a lot from Moreland about storm structure and formation as we drive toward where we hope storms will develop.