Adventure American Contemporary

It was forecasted to be a simple thunderstorm. And even a simple thunderstorm would do after the uneventful season we’ve had. As a meteorology student in Indiana, it has been perfectly - boring. We get the regular blizzard left over from Chicago and standard rain showers, but it’s not like we get slammed with a nasty Nor’easter or live right in the smack dab middle of Tornado Alley. That’s not to say that there’s no severe weather, no tornado or flash flood that occasionally rips through here, because of course there is. But in the three years I’ve so far been in my atmospheric sciences graduate program, not much beyond pea-sized hail has happened. Even Professor Jansen’s field course on storm chasing has been fairly irrelevant – though he is the coolest professor in the department so I probably would have taken the class anyway even if there isn’t much to chase now. But when we saw the tiny blip of a thunderstorm on our radar, as measly as it was, Professor Jansen decided it was time to take us on a road trip. 

            “Don’t expect too much to happen,” he warned us as we rode in the department’s storm chasing Chevy Tahoe. Its antennae have been fairly quiet, barely even swaying in the mostly calm wind, and the windshield wipers only occasionally squeak against the glass in the slow rain. “This area is only under a Severe Thunderstorm Watch, but keep track of the updates closely – these things can get iffy in a matter of minutes.” I think he said it only out of responsible obligation, not that he actually believed it as the virtually nonexistent storm seemed to lighten up even more. 

            My friends and cohort-mates, Jasper and Ally, from the backseat sporadically track the radar and notifications issued by the National Weather Service as we roll along the highway. I’m in the passenger’s seat, essentially doing nothing besides staring out the window, just keeping a notepad on my lap in case anything noteworthy should come up but really I’m doodling on it. I’m also in charge of the camera, and I snap one quick photo of the dark blue cumulonimbus clouds before they dissolve away into the plain grey sky – nothing more to see here. I watch the colors of the sky stretch on for miles and miles of grey, in some places starting to break into light blue again, and I start to wonder when Professor Jansen will get just as bored as us and turn back around towards campus. Even Jasper who doesn’t get bored from watching grass grow has zoned out from watching the radar. 

            I turn back to the window where, wow surprisingly, the sky is the same drab grey. Under the stratosphere shade, the fresh spring grass has a nice bright contrast to the mist hanging a few inches above the ground, and the amber fields of Indiana harvest ruffle in the wind that seems to have picked up a little. I glance back up at the sky and notice some heavier clouds have started churning angrily. At the same time, a beep interrupts the Top 40 station on the radio and chimes on Ally’s tablet.

            “The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Watch for the counties of…” the static-y voice announces and Ally paraphrases as much for us.

            “Looks like there’s some rotation picking up just east of here,” she shows us the velocity radar. “Doesn’t look too substantial yet, but there is a slight hook in the clouds.”

            “Could be worth a look,” Professor Jansen says, taking the next exit ramp eastbound.  “Got a weather balloon ready?”

            “Got it,” Jasper confirms as we set on the new course, Ally giving directions. 

            As we drive further into the storm, it becomes clear the system had intensified – rain slams down, occasionally turning into hail plinking against the car with a metallic denting sound; the wind whips up, making trees bend at weird angles and at times, I can feel it push the car slightly off-lane. The sky is now a strange oil paint mix of blue, green, and black, and it becomes almost as dark as dusk. 

            “Ally, how’s that rotation looking?” Professor Jansen asks.

            “Velocity tracker has it starting to spin up but then eventually settling down. No new updates from the Weather Service.”

            “We can keep going then.”

            We are seemingly in the middle of nowhere when the next alert comes in.

            “Tornado Warning,” Jasper announces. “Radar-indicated tornado moving east just below I-294. Looks like it’s coming right toward us within 15 miles.”

            “Any funnel cloud confirmed?”

            “Not yet.”

            “Alright, let’s go, but stay a safe distance away. What’s its path looking like?”

            With Jasper planning out the route, we drive closer to the area the tornado was suspected. At first, it seems like there’s nothing going on – but they don’t call it the calm before the storm for no reason. As we get closer to its trajectory, hail starts pelting the car – at some point, I wonder if it’s going to break the windshield. The wind picks up like never before, causing Professor Jansen to pull off to the side of the road.

            “Trajectory indicates we should see the tornado coming up in about six minutes,” Jasper says. His voice is full of anticipation – part excitement, part anxiety – and he leans forward to look through the window. “Whoa, look at those clouds.”

            The clouds now look like thick black smoke, billowing and swirling in dense layers. 

            And then.

            It appears.

            A cone of clouds dipping from the sky rips through the farmlands, kicking up a haze of dust and debris, raging its way across the horizon. Even from this distance, we can hear its low rumble. It’s not some skinny little funnel cloud spinning tight pirouettes; it’s a monster of a tornado, whirling around slowly but heavily.

            All of us are speechless, dropped-jaw and wide-eyed. My heart stops and then races up to the speed of the wind as I roll down the window and snap a few shots.

            “Look at that, it’s huge!” Ally cries.

            “Send the confirmation to the National Weather Service: tornado spotted,” Professor Jansen instructs. “Get the word out for people to take shelter now. Jasper, get the weather balloon out.” 

            “I’m going to go take a couple more photos,” I say, jumping out of the car. 

            “Be careful, Kevin. It’s still far away now but these things can change on the edge of a dime.”

            I cut across the field, the wind pushing and pulling at me. Out here, I feel the full force of the storm: the rain and hail mix slashes at my face; debris flies around me and makes me duck tree branches, chips of wood, and scraps of metal; and the wind nearly picks me up. Struggling to hold the camera, I shoot the tornado from each angle I can get. I feel so incredibly exhilarated, the thrill and adrenaline of standing in the way of something of such power and force, just far enough on the edge to still escape safely. At some point, Jasper’s released weather balloon zips by before it gets sucked into the vortex, and I realize that edge has kept up dangerously close. 

            “Kevin, get back here!” Professor Jansen calls to me. “The wind changed direction – it’s heading right toward you!”

            But I am frozen in my place, stunned and unable to pry my eyes away from the twister. From this close, I can see the strips of shredded clouds building its shape, the pieces of debris flying in and out of the funnel, and I realize – it’s beautiful. 

            “KEVIN!” the professor and my cohort-mates scream for me to come back.

            The tornado is almost upon me now. My feet barely touch the ground, and the camera nearly flies out of my hands, but there is no way I’m missing this shot now. The twister fills up the entirety of the camera lens, and I snap one shot after the other. 

            “Come back! Hurry, Kevin!”

            “Kevin, I swear, if you get yourself killed, I’m flunking you!”

            Just one more shot, I promise, the tornado turning to its good side and I’m filled with awe, snapping one more shot. Then I realize its good side is the side barreling straight into me. I always thought the howling train sound was just a cliché, but hearing it for myself now, I realize it’s true as my ears pop and realize I can’t hear myself even think: “RUN!”

            So I run as fast as my feet will take me – which I realize is pretty futile with 300 mph behind me. Tornado sirens wail in the distance. At one moment, I’m knocked off my feet and trip into a ditch, realizing I have no time to get out anymore. So instead I pull my arms over my head protectively, hunch down, and pray for the best. 

            Just one more shot, I plead. Let me get one more shot to accomplish something in my life. Finish grad school. Get married. Have kids. Move out of the Midwest. Something more than this.

            I brace myself for impact, when at the last minute, the air shifts and gets calmer again. Daring to peek my head out, I see that the tornado has veered off course, making a U-turn in the middle of the field and going in the opposite direction, and I breathe a huge sigh of relief. Ally, Jasper, and Professor Jansen run out of the Tahoe and pull me out of the ditch, exclaiming how glad they are that I’m alright.

            Brushing the mud off me, I look back where the tornado has started dissipating along the horizon, returning to the sky. I take one last photo of the torn-up path through the grass left in its wake, and follow them back to the car.

April 04, 2024 05:17

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Mary Bendickson
18:47 Apr 07, 2024

Something you don't want to be so close to! Good shot! Thanks for liking my 'Because He Lives '.


Martha Kowalski
19:29 Apr 07, 2024

Thanks for reading, Mary!


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Trudy Jas
16:37 Apr 04, 2024

Awesomes tension. Great pacing. I was there (not that I wanted to be) (I wonder what tornados sounded like before there were freight trains. ;-)


Martha Kowalski
18:24 Apr 04, 2024

Thanks a lot, Trudy - I agree, not my happy place either! Hmm, I wonder...


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Alexis Araneta
15:56 Apr 04, 2024

Ah yes, sometimes, the thrill of capturing a rare photo makes you forget protecting yourself. Lovely one, Martha ! Really unique take !!


Martha Kowalski
18:11 Apr 04, 2024

Thanks for reading, Stella!


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