Cyclone Road


Saturday, April 24, 2010


Quiet little Northfield, Texas has a pretty important intersection for storm chasers: Ranch Road 656 to Turkey and FM 94 to Matador. These paved, two-lane roads diverge around a large wilderness of thousands of acres and a choice one way or the other commits you entirely to that direction. That’s why in Northfield I stopped around 4:00 PM to wait for more isolated storms than the ones in the far northern Texas Panhandle. From Northfield, I thought, better storms to either my north or south were in reach.

I was finishing a cold chicken burrito from the Sonic in Childress when an isolated cell west of Brice caught my attention. This intercept required I go through Turkey and use the roads north from there. I had plenty of time, but none to waste since I suspected an outflow boundary was present up there—had counted on it in fact— though I hadn’t found it yet on the West Texas mesonet or radar and visible satellite. Still, with the intensity and orientation of earlier storms a remnant boundary seemed likely, and if an isolated storm anchored to that boundary it could organize rapidly. This was the reason I wasn’t in southwest Kansas or southeastern Colorado. I was putting my seatbelt on when I noticed a sign thirty feet down the RR 656 toward Turkey: BRIDGE CLOSED AHEAD.

It's funny how fast a chase will go from lazy and relaxed to batshit crazy.

Because I was unwilling to risk another closure among the tangle of county roads leading to SR 86, my long return trek brought me back through Cee Vee, north again into Childress, and northwest on 287. Like many others I turned north on SR 70 out of Clarendon and spotted the tornado located immediately southwest of Jericho.

I pulled over to shoot the tornado and over my left shoulder saw a tornado-shaped object far in the distant southwestern sky. I ignored it, already preoccupied with a new DSLR and new 10-22mm lens, but when I checked again the tornado look-alike had changed shapes from a large cylinder to a classic cone. The radar presentation suggested a light rain shower, which is why I assume Amarillo NWS didn’t warn for several minutes despite Spotter Network reports. I continued shooting the ominous Jericho tornado, a large cone silhouetted in black. Looking southwest a third time I conceded that this was indeed a real tornado, the most distant one I've ever witnessed and tried to photograph. My guess is I was between five and seven miles from the “Goodnight” tornado, named for the nearby town. I mounted my old 17-40mm lens but it wasn't much help: this thing might as well have been in New Mexico. Luckily a horse strolled into my foreground and offered at the slim hope of a salvageable image.

I shot the Goodnight tornado for fifteen minutes while the storm approached. I probably should have followed the Jericho storm to Alanreed like others, because they saw some interesting tornadoes that I missed, but the Goodnight storm produced another small tornado around 6:05 PM. Also another storm, a third supercell, was approaching the outflow boundary. I hoped the magic could last, but too much cool outflow from the prior cells disrupted the process. This storm took on the flat, high-based appearance of a storm that has crossed into the cool side of a front.

Up on I-40 I joined a caravan with Jeff Snyder, Gabe Garfield, Dan Dawson, Robin Tanamachi, and others, and we turned south for the Matador supercell. Bob Fritchie caught us around Swearingen, Texas, where we tried to spot the large tornado reportedly on the ground to our west. That marked the end of the chase.

While fueling up in Paducah I was happy to meet Connor McCrorey, Kris Hair, and Kris's chase partners. Bob and I found chicken fried steak in Wichita Falls and parted ways.

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