Cyclone Road


Thursday, August 10, 2006

Ten years ago today, on August 11, 1996, Clete Estes and I took off in my forest green Jeep Cherokee (there was nothing Grand about that stripped-down but reliable first chase ride), and motored into the teeth of a powerful summer derecho. The squall line left thousands without power in southern Oklahoma and north Texas and chased us back to Denton where I checked into the Denton County Skywarn on my very first storm chase.

The only other habit (better word than "hobby"?) I kept for ten years in my life was smoking. Smoking and chasing have a lot in common: expense, inconvenience, stress on mental and physical well-being. Eventually smokers sound like they have massaged the inside of their throats with sandpaper, while chasing leaves its addicts caustic in other ways. Chasers get tired of explaining the compulsion. Some become social misfits, having spent more time with the endless ribbon of asphalt than their fellow human beings.

Normally ten years isn't very long to have done something, but time flies in the world of computerized chasing. Ten years ago, we fantasized about heads-up windshield displays of radar and location; now we're all but there. We shared a single email list, WX-CHASE, with pretty high posting standards. I read every post for three months before I sent anything. Stormtrack was a paper magazine you read in the comfort of your winter recliner. For the most part, everybody got along. Money wasn't in the equation yet: no stringers or tour groups or photo sales. (Speaking of which, my Trego pic made next year's weather calendar). Almost all chasers were in the game for one of two reasons: an intense curiosity or academic interest in meteorology, or a passion for the aesthetic beauty of supercells and tornadoes. Some carried both.

So do I pine for the old, open road where I often went several days without seeing another chaser? When chasers were better known for their photography or forecasting than their controversial blogs? Fuck no. Even on the eve of the techno-chasing era, I busted way too much back then. Storms around the corner might as well have been on Mars if you didn't have a cell phone or nowcaster to call you. Many of the products we take for granted were either not available or not yet invented; sometimes we forget how many favorite magic numbers and indices came straight from VORTEX work. Internet was practically impossible on those creaky cell modems from Ositech. Wi-fi-what?

Today there's a million chasers, sure, but it works out nicely when every tornado has an entourage of still photographers and video camcorders, others calling the NWS or reporting the storm via ham radio. The percentage of undetected tornadoes has surely dropped significantly since 1996. The warning system has more lead time, researchers better data, and residents real-time, life-saving information to help survive tornadoes. The whole of Tornado Alley is more aware of severe weather because of what chasers have done and how many take to the road every spring.

I embrace the contemporary technology because forecasting is fun. Given the chance to keep forecasting right up until a tower explodes through the cap, I'll take it. I'm sure old-timers felt a surge of pride when a five hour old forecast verified in the absence of more information; but usually forecasts don't age well in a vacuum. They become obsolete and chasers bust. At $3 a gallon, I'll forgo pride.

I still love the road, although I'm beginning to understand why older chasers trim their yearly ventures. Your eyes get tired at night. You can't eat the rotten foods several days in a row. In a tough year, when you know you'll be back again in twelve months if you're alive and well, you want to quit wasting your time and go home. There's always next year. May is right around the corner. In late winter, you begin to check the calendar, think of the good friends you only see in May or June, crossing paths on the Front Range or the Caprock or the Sandhills of Nebraska. That feeling hasn't changed: the sharp anticipation of what another storm season will show you; that peculiar sensation in the first mile of a long trip when you realize that, by the time you return, there's no telling what you will have seen.

Ten years gone, it's still good to be a chaser.

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