The Revelation of a Fierce Beauty
from the Book FIERCE BEAUTY: Storms of the Great Plains
A photographer is someone who has his head in the clouds and his feet on the ground.
In August 1977, a few days after Elvis Presley died, I stood in the muggy air on a hot summer night outside a gas station in Nevada owned by Eugene DiGrazia, who had bought the property in 1932. “Gas station” is a misnomer, for the Valmy Auto Court, lit by neon like an Edward Hopper set piece, was once a miner’s shack dating to 1900 that had evolved into a combination general store, post office, Shell station, and Greyhound bus depot. At that time the population of Valmy was less than three-dozen people and a few dogs. DiGrazia had been appointed the town’s postmaster by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s postmaster general, and the notice of that appointment was tacked to a wall.
In a 1987 interview with Los Angeles Times writer Charles Hillinger, DiGrazia said, “I bought the gas station, store, post office, bus depot . . . when I was 19 for $1,800. I later bought 140 acres surrounding the place for $2,100 . . . the station had only one pump and in the beginning cars and trucks were few and far between. A narrow two-lane road went through here. Gas sold for 25 cents a gallon. I paid 19-1/2 cents for it.” DiGrazia continued, “We saved for 12 years to get a telephone and have contact with the outside world. I bought 30 telephone poles for $1,500 in 1942, and a friend and I strung a wire along the poles for 2-1/2 miles to tie in with the main telephone line.” And then he added, “Whatever happens, as long as I live, I want Valmy to stay just as it is today, which isn’t much different than what it was when I first came here.”
An hour’s drive west of Valmy, if you turn south on State Route 400, you will soon be on dirt and gravel roads leading off to the Humboldt mountains to the east. That summer in 1977 I was with musician Bruce Springsteen, and I was making photographs that eventually would be used on an album called The Promise. Driving on one desert road after another for nearly thirty hours straight, with the top down on our rented, red 1965 Ford Galaxie, we turned left, swerving through the washboard ruts, heading toward Unionville on a gravel road that went into the Humboldt Range and beyond, into infinity.
After driving several miles farther on we stopped, and I placed my Hasselblad camera on a tripod and asked him to drive a half-mile down the road, then turn around and head toward me. Bruce humored me as I made some photographs, and then the sky began to darken. After I shot a roll, we left the road and went back to Interstate 80 to a nearby roadside café.
In less than half an hour the sky had turned black, and I insisted we go back to the gravel road. As a cumulonimbus cloud formed in the sky above the long, thin ribbon of a road going off in the distance, I photographed as Bruce drove the car toward me several times, kicking up a dusty plume. Soon it began to rain as flashes of lightning filled the valley. The hypnotic scene etched itself into our eyes and minds, and a few days later Bruce wrote the lyrics to a song called “The Promised Land.” I will never forget hearing the words for the first time:
There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Faith. That was the word that stayed with me from that stanza. In two lines, the confluence of “twister” and “faith” haunted me. What held the people to this land, and why did they live here? In his father’s obituary in the December 2, 1990, Reno Gazette-Journal, DiGrazia’s son stated, “I don’t think he ever thought he could die . . . even at 77 he acted like he was 25. He was up and at ’em to the end.” DiGrazia held his ground in Valmy as a jack-of-all-trades, including service for fifty-three years as postmaster, longer than anyone else in the West; and like Springsteen’s father, he was also a bus driver.
A storm in the desert had provided Bruce with the material for an anthem, and he ended each stanza by declaring “I believe in a promised land.” I always wanted to go back to that biblical, storm-filled day when we drove up on a hilltop and watched as lightning revealed the valley floor in staccato bursts of thunder. Standing in the rain as the wind whipped against our bodies, we leaned into the squall, laughing with sheer energy as though we were privileged to be present at a small moment of Creation. I photographed several bolts of lightning from the hill, and then we drove down into the valley and back out onto Interstate 80, heading west toward Reno.
It would take more than three decades before I went back—not to Nevada, but to Tornado Alley and the Great Plains.1 As I watched TV one night in the spring of 2012 and saw the havoc wreaked by the dark blur of a tornado, I thought back to that night in 1977 when we were racing the storm. As the survivors told their stories of loss and devastation, I had an epiphany—the time had come to go out to the plains to photograph the fierce beauty we had witnessed that night in Nevada. I owed myself a road trip. I had a story to tell, photographs to make, and soon I was reading every book I could find about the prairies and plains.
No matter how many miles I drove, it was never enough. The first 50,000 miles on the back roads of Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma soon gave way to another restless, long drive, and then another. One midsummer day, I drove into Concordia, Kansas, and went to the Orphan Train Museum. Many of New York City’s children were among the 250,000 orphaned, homeless, and abandoned youths sent to the Midwest by train during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Shortly after the spring equinox for the past several years I have flown out to Kansas and driven south on State Highway 177 to Cottonwood Falls, then turned right onto one of the streets named for trees: Walnut, Locust, Mulberry, Oak, Elm, Maple, Sycamore, Cedar, Pine, Cherry, Plum. Being there—and walking along the quiet cobblestone street that rises in several blocks to the magnificent limestone French Renaissance edifice of the Chase County Courthouse—has become a ritual.
One morning I sat on a bench, watching long shadows as they raked across the storefronts of a town worn down in the middle of America. And then I heard a harmonica, coming from a café. In that instant I was back to the day when Springsteen and I were on that dirt road. I was back to something I could hold on to, and in the holding find a center and direction. The words of “The Promised Land” still haunt me forty years after first hearing them:
I done my best to live the right way,
I get up every morning and go to work each day
I got up and walked south, past the bank, the post office, the café, the bookstore, the used clothing shop, and up the steps to the courthouse, perched on a hill—the oldest courthouse in the Midwest that is still in daily use. I had no business there, but the cloistered interior of right and wrong, of crimes and misdemeanors, was a sanctuary for my thoughts as the world went by outside. After a few moments, a man passed by in the hallway, greeting me as he would a friend. After pleasantries, I sat down on another bench, waiting for my eyes to clear and my mind to settle on some form or shape, and for the eternity of my thoughts to give way to being in the present.
Another man walked in—a farmer in denim bib overalls—soon followed by a man I took to be a lawyer, who greeted the farmer and then read several pages of a document out loud. The lawyer intermittently asked for affirmation of each clause; then suddenly 238 acres had a new owner. I asked myself if anyone could own the ground out here. For if there is a place where the country holds you, I was in it. I was here to smell the ozone, watch the fire in the sky, and stand in the face of dread.
In early spring, before the storms line up along the prairie’s flatlands, farmers in the Flint Hills of Kansas burn the tallgrass, turning the brush into hundreds of acres of wildfire rushing across the prairie. One night, in Clement, Kansas, in the deep shadows at the fire’s edge, I spotted a young girl astride her pony, the heels of her red boots dug deep into the stirrups, her blonde braids running across her blue plaid shirt, and her wide-brimmed hat cocked back across her brow. She watched, riding in her dreams, hypnotized by a vision she would cherish throughout her life. A song drifted up the hills, part Joan Baez, part Lucinda Williams, part Emmylou Harris.
I looked out to the fire as the balladeer’s transcendent voice floated in the shadows and orange embers crackled and spit sparks in the night. There is nothing, absolutely nothing out here, some people say. This flat, empty universe beats like the heart of everything that is; out here, there is a sense of purpose, of being, of knowing there is this place in which to dream and think and find yourself, watching something so primeval that it defies the borders we set upon our lives.
“You’re all lunatics!” yelled a man watching us outside a convenience store. Our storm-chasing group was standing around in various stages of exhaustion in a parking lot in Sterling, Colorado. Although our accuser had the wild eyes and frenzied look of a schizophrenic, he had a point and made me think back to the moment in the fall of 2012 when I first realized I wanted to go storm chasing, and I registered for two chase tours the next year.
Whenever a photographic assignment took me out to the middle of America, I was smitten with the openness, the landscapes of infinity, the storm light and the skies, the mythic country of the prairie and the plains that informs the romantic ideal of the place we call the heartland. There’s a car commercial on TV that takes its words from Walt Whitman:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road
Healthy, free, the world before me
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
My love affair with flatness and the open sky began in the early sixties when I was 18 years old and my family took a trip out west. The monotony of western Kansas caused my father to pull over one afternoon and ask me to drive, and suddenly everything changed in my worldview behind the wheel of a Buick as I saw a panorama filled with sky. Years later, I started keeping notes as long, adrenaline-filled days of chasing storms left me in a rush at night:
The Great Plains are a contrast between serenity and that ominous foretelling of Armageddon when the sky turns dark, and the wind erupts in blinding clouds of dust. I feel the wind and smell the cottonwoods and seldom see anyone else on the empty roads that run through quiet towns. Who lived in these abandoned houses, and where did they go? What was their story, and what was their destiny?
Chasing storms was an excuse to take the months and years I needed to drive hundreds of thousands of miles on the dirt and gravel roads of the Great Plains—to explore the landscapes that run from the Rio Grande up through the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and then north into Canada. Unless you’re born there, you pass over the Great Plains in a plane headed to one coast or the other. I had in mind an extended road trip over several years and seasons—a reckoning of mood, because I wanted to see the center of the country I live in, to put the strip malls behind and take a break from social media, cell phones, and TV.
I used two maps during my travels to photograph for this book. The first was a real map—
a series of printed maps—that included detailed notes about abandoned towns, tallgrass prairies, and churches built in the nineteenth century that lie scattered on the back roads of the High Plains, north from Colorado into the Dakotas and Montana.
One day I came to a church near the town of Last Chance, Colorado (population 23), that had the letters D.H.D. above the door: During Hard Days. If there is a lesson out here in this country that alternates between howling winds and silence, it is humility.
This spring I flew out to Rapid City, South Dakota, rented a car, and drove south through
the Oglala grasslands. I stopped and stepped out onto an unmarked gravel road to just stand and look at the wild grasses undulating in the wind. In four hours, not a single other vehicle went by.
The other map was one of spirit, pieced together from random fragments of experience, waiting for this journey. Wrapped in the howl of a coyote one night, I slept under the stars near Hot Springs, South Dakota, while restless wild horses whinnied and snorted in the crisp air outside my tent. I read descriptions of the plains in the novels of Willa Cather, as well as those of Cormac McCarthy. My map formed in the light of the magic hour in Terrence Malick’s film Days of Heaven, as well as in the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, and it came from the songs and voices of John Prine, Woody Guthrie, and Hank Williams. It was a map made from the photographs in David Plowden’s books of America’s small towns and informed by the words in Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
America is the land of the Homestead Act, the Santa Fe Trail, the place that gave us Crazy Horse, the Crow, the Cree, the Cheyenne, and the Comanche. It’s where you can find places like Outlook, Montana, and Lookout, Oklahoma, and towns named Texhoma, White Earth, Red Shirt, and Last Chance—all on the Great Plains. In South Dakota, there’s Sleepy Hollow, Belle Fourche, Mud Butte, Bison, Porcupine, White Owl, Wounded Knee. In New Mexico, there’s Wagon Mound, Hope, Loving, and Truth or Consequences. And in Texas you find Wink, Valentine, Jordan Crossing, Cat Creek, Bacon, and Dryer Place. If you keep driving up through the high plains of eastern Colorado, and up into Nebraska, you will go through the Sandhills and along Edgemont Road, through the Oglala National Grasslands; then through the Badlands of South Dakota, past old churches to the border town of Fortuna, North Dakota; then into Saskatchewan and to places with names like Star Blanket, Carry the Kettle, Holdfast, and Swift Current; and back down again into Wildrose, North Dakota, or perhaps Wolf Point, Montana. The 100th meridian runs through small towns in the middle of America.2 In a roadside North Dakota diner filled with chiaroscuro light, I heard Patsy Cline’s voice call out: “Crazy/I’m crazy for feeling so lonely/I’m crazy/Crazy for feeling so blue.”
Standing by the side of the road on the plains of eastern Montana, I watched as shadows washed the land, like waves on an ocean of green below a blue sky filled with small puffs of white clouds. It was pastoral, yet it was electric, bathed in sensuous prairie light. In front of me was a landscape that had pulled the pioneers west, yet in an age of multilevel concrete superhighways, the view was much as it was a century earlier.
In our travels that day we passed feedlot abattoirs, buried ICBM missile silos, and perhaps a meth lab or two hidden in a valley. An oil boom in Montana and North Dakota has forever changed the landscape of the High Plains as the fracking of oil in the Bakken shale deposits continues relentlessly. The year after I began photographing storms, construction began on the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, which runs 1,172 miles through the states of North and South Dakota, as well as Iowa, carrying oil from the Bakken reserves to oil tanks in Illinois.
Near Hawkeye, North Dakota, I watched hot flashes of fire from refineries form in the sky above a road south of the Missouri River. Just a few miles away, the Mandan chief Four Bears was painted by George Catlin and Karl Bodmer in the 1830s. Now his name is on a casino and an eponymous website, 4bearscasino.com. There’s an ominous sound in the air, like the hissing of hundreds of snakes, as flames leap into the sky and the shapes of orange demons disrupt the cobalt blue stillness.
Today, the Bakken shale deposits are flush with oil, yet the Ogallala Aquifer is disappearing. Its once vast underground reservoir of water is a metaphor for all that is being sucked out of the plains. That evening, I photographed clouds lit by the glow of lightning, and then the night sky filled with stars; the darkness was punctuated by the haunting whistle of the Santa Fe rushing by through rail yards, past ghostly silos, the sentinels of western Kansas. I am restless, standing at the prairie’s edge in the cool night air outside another nameless motel in a small town along Tornado Alley.
On May 31, 2013, at the intersection of two gravel roads not far south of old Route 66, and east of Oklahoma’s U.S. Route 81, a two-and-a-half-mile-wide EF3 tornado threw a small Chevy Cobalt into the air, crushing veteran storm chaser Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and meteorologist Carl Young. This storm, near the town of El Reno, contained intense internal radar-indicated winds approaching 200 miles per hour. In the arcane “Enhanced Fujita” scale, the El Reno tornado was initially determined to warrant an EF5 designation, but because it passed through mostly rural areas, and because damage to structures was not catastrophic, it was downgraded to an EF3.3
I watched the news the next evening with rapt attention because I had flown home from Oklahoma City the previous week, after finishing two weeks of successful intercepts of tornadoes in Texas and Kansas with the Arlington, Texas, company Tempest Tours. It is one thing to sit within the headquarters of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, and it is quite another to go out into the field and gather real-time information. Tim, Paul and Carl were the first chasers to be killed in forty years, as they placed a probe close to the storm’s path.
In the wake of the El Reno tornado, there were serious calls for regulations on future storm chasing, yet there were questions as to how they would be implemented. And with the 1996 movie Twister in the public psyche, storm chasers were being compared to the fictional characters in that movie, especially as Oklahoma City is an unofficial base for chasers, along with Denver and Dallas. El Reno had the widest tornado in recorded history, yet less than a decade earlier the small town of Hallam, Nebraska, was flattened by a tornado that was nearly as wide. In recent years, eight of ten towns in Nebraska have fewer residents, and despite efforts to attract people to Hallam, its population has slowly dwindled.
GPS, cellular networks, Wi-Fi, the Internet, and other technical improvements have made storm chasing into a sport, yet many amateur chasers have degrees in meteorology and are genuinely interested in the science of what they observe. Darkness comes, and with it the eerie green light of hail thrashing within a vortex. A rear-flanking downdraft of unsettled air pushes down, and then the sky goes black, pulsing with flashes of turquoise, crimson, and amber. You hear hail cutting through the trees, and see it rushing toward you on the laptop’s radar.
William Taylor Reid has owned a green Nissan Xterra for more than a dozen years, and as we drove from Oklahoma City to Denver on Route 66 on a day off between storm-chasing tours, I noticed there were more than 265,000 miles on the odometer. Then I saw that both the odometer and the speedometer were broken. Perhaps the gauges had exploded in dissent. As we stopped to get gas west of Amarillo, he absentmindedly asked aloud to himself and to anyone within earshot, “Hmmm, what side is the gas tank on?”
Reid works as tour director and chief meteorologist for Tempest Tours, and on a warm, humid day near the end of June 2015 we pulled up under the canopy of a small gas station in West Texas. Reid could rattle off all the relevant statistics about any significant tornado of the past several decades—the date it occurred, and the day of the week, and the events leading up to the moment he intercepted it. He knew many of the back roads and the names of every county in every state in the Great Plains. When I first met him, he had driven more than 450,000 miles in Tornado Alley, looking for storms.
On a long day when we had driven more than 500 miles in the tour van, Reid pointed out the window and suddenly remarked about a small stick of a sign on the side of a dirt road in Colorado, “That sign wasn’t there last year!” We drove to the top of a small hill, and he put the data aside and just looked up and watched the cumulonimbus clouds form above the horizon. Scanning the sky and the data, looking for any deviation, any slight ripple in the graphs, the charts, the squiggles of temperatures and dew points, is all part of the language of meteorology and the art and science of chasing storms. Reid looks for the dry adiabatic lapse rates, or a convergence of cold and warm air and a mathematical sense of a storm’s convective available potential energy. He also just looks out to the horizon and throws a chaff of wheat, and watches the wind carry it.
When a situation turns particularly dangerous, or Reid determines that there’s an imminent hailstorm, he’ll yell, “OK, that’s it, we gotta get out of here. Back in the vans!” On another day, we drove south past fields of corn and wheat. A blue sky, white clouds—all of it about to turn to hell at zero Zulu, or midnight in London. That’s 7 p.m. in Tornado Alley, when the cumulonimbus clouds tilt over from shear and meteorologists’ fingers begin their trackpad dance with streaming radar. It was looking good for stormy skies, and perhaps a twister would drop its thin spindle from the clouds tonight and race across the prairie’s ruler edge.
“Look, it’s a ‘whale’s mouth’!” Bill exclaimed, as the hail-filled sky west of Vega, Texas, began to glow in shades of turquoise, rose, and gray. Both of us had our heads tilted far back, observing the clouds fill the sky from horizon to horizon, watching the light change as the entire sky took the form of a prehistoric behemoth. I had never seen this phenomenon before, but I made a mental note and cataloged a “whale’s mouth”; two years later, I would do the same with the spectacular anticrepuscular rays that Bill described to me as they fanned out above a field in Kansas.
On a chase late one June evening in 2014, we headed to the small town of Norton, Kansas. Reid’s blog post describes what happened next:
We drove the 12 miles or so back north to Norton, but were blasted by very strong and dust-filled west winds! Outflow from the strong convection to our west was roaring across Norton County, and a strong core or two loomed nearby. We made it into Norton without getting blown off of the road, and we hid beneath a strong drive-thru bank building in town. From here we were able to get out and watch the “festivities.” Wind gusts of perhaps 70 mph swept through downtown Norton, and I got some video of parts of a roof getting blown off.
Once the storm waned, I walked down Main Street toward an intense glow. Clouds of dust swirled around a gorgeous old movie theater as its neon tubes clattered from the buffeting winds. The next year, I returned and photographed it at dusk on a calm evening, the dazzling Deco building glowing with pink and green neon, as it sat in a pool of quiet darkness at the end of the street.
Single-minded in his worship of data, Reid bases his decisions on empirical facts. It’s not unusual to see him with his chin in his left hand, crouched over his laptop in the van as the fingers of his right hand trace contours on a trackpad. He jumps from one data site to another, looking for an anomaly—a place where there’s a distinct change in pressure or temperature. If you ask him about a particular storm, chances are he chased it and can give a running account of the dynamics of its formation as well as describe its track, as if he were following it right then and there in real time.
It’s not an uncommon trait for a meteorologist, but Reid’s ability at total recall is more like that of a chess grandmaster. When Reid began chasing storms more than thirty years ago, there was no Wi-Fi or GPS. Often, he’d stop at a library in a prairie town and use its computer to look at data that was hours old. It’s not unusual for Reid to drive to the highest nearby vantage point and look out to the horizon to get a visual fix on what the data shows.
As recently as four decades ago, very little was understood about the formation of supercells.4 The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) began in 1952 as a special unit of forecasters at the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C., and moved to its headquarters in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1995. The SPC is responsible for forecasting the risk of severe weather caused by thunderstorms, specifically those producing tornadoes, hail, and high winds.
We watched a primeval storm of dust blow hard on the high plains of Colorado today. Perhaps it was the beginning of a new Dust Bowl that would ravage the plains. In slow motion a supercell formed, pulling hundreds of acres of red clay topsoil more than ten miles up into a roiling sky. We drove for hours through rain, hail, and thick, choking clouds of brown dust, watching the radar as a “wheel of fortune” tracked our path on the back roads of towns that appeared as fleeting shadows through dust-streaked windows.
Chase season begins in early April when the storms are more violent, and when warm, moist air flows into the Deep South from the Gulf of Mexico. By Memorial Day weekend the storms have moved north to the High Plains, up into Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas. Storms usually initiate late in the afternoon on the Great Plains, often in a diagonal line of supercells moving from southwest to northeast.
As the energy from one storm consumes the power of adjacent storms, Reid is forced to commit to one end of the line. Adding to Reid’s options, it’s also common for several strong supercells to develop in adjacent states, all within a plausible chasing radius. As well, any decision must consider potential chase targets for the following day, and whether he’ll have to forgo chasing a storm far to the south if tomorrow’s storm is hundreds of miles to the north.
Reid’s choice of which storm to chase is based on a substantial number of variables. Graphs, charts, formulas, and even decades of experience can be meaningless because the weather is capricious. Storms are organic and can never be predicted precisely, so a day that ends in failure often produces another set of valuable data that becomes part of his game. I asked him about his “worst call,” and he stoically remembered the following:
June 22, 2012, was a MAJOR disappointment because I was not patient enough. I missed what was probably the most spectacular tornado of the season. We were waiting and waiting on a
road in the Nebraska Panhandle, maybe 20 miles south of Harrison. Conditions looked great for tornadic supercells, but the cap was very strong.5 A storm went up to our south along the Colorado-Nebraska border. There wasn’t much happening in our vicinity yet. It was only a couple of hours to sunset. I got nervous and wanted to salvage something for the day and the tour, as this was our last day and last hope for a good storm. I decided to start driving south and kept looking back to the northwest—nope, still nothing that way. We wound up on a spectacular LP (low precipitation) storm—great corkscrew structure, with no tornado. The storm of the year occurred in extreme southwest South Dakota, not too far from Ardmore. Unreal images from that one, with plenty of daylight. If I had held firm with my target area, we would have easily been on it.
Reid’s love of the Great Plains is deep-seated—if there’s not a potential storm nearby, he’s likely to follow a dirt road that meanders through a tallgrass prairie or passes through a remote ghost town rather than head onto the interstate. In his book Great Plains, Ian Frazier wrote, “The beauty of the plains is not just in themselves but in the sky, in what you think when you look at them, and in what they are not.”
Meteorologists describe storms in the language of mathematics, of pluses and minuses, of temperatures and dew points, of statistics and probability, of rising and falling, of shear, lift, instability, moisture, and the convective available potential energy that often cascades into chaos. Whatever else meteorologists live for, those who chase storms live for the time between early April and late July when the storm-chasing calendar defines their lives.
Reid’s calm, steady voice overtakes my thoughts as his eyes lock on the radar loop on his laptop and he talks over the radio to the other van:
Tornado warned . . . fifty-eight knots, low-level Delta V, hail marker is two and a half inches, the shape is really nice, the top is fifty-six thousand and the warning says ‘tennis ball’ hail moving north at twenty-five . . . funnel clouds have been sighted on this storm. OK, the radar loop shows that the Garden City storm is moving north with a nice hook at the west end . . . the other cell at the west-southwest of Dodge is dying. New cells are forming south of the tornado-warned cell, catching up and merging into the core.
When I started chasing storms, I watched the sky turn the darkest black, as if I was looking up into a celestial sphere in a night deprived of stars. Dark gray ripples shimmered in the void, and my perception was that a giant black curtain hung over a stage, undulating with the wind. The darker the sky became, the more I had an ominous feeling that what I was about to witness was an apocalypse, and I was pulled between running away and walking toward some malevolent force that was about to reveal itself. Several loud, wavering notes of thunder cut through the silence, like a thin sheet of metal being struck, reverberating with strident sounds like those that close Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” The shrill cacophony was unnerving, yet far less so than the long silence that followed.
I kept peering into the obsidian sky, dense with darkness, expecting it to rip open in front of me and belch hail in a rushing torrent of cold green ice. I was hypnotized by fear and reverence—fear for what could follow the sounds I had just heard, tempered with reverence for a force of nature I had never before observed. The sound came again, emanating from no specific point in the inky emptiness, howling like a great leviathan breaching from within the sintered clouds.
Scattered across a low ridgeline of grasses, thirteen Tempest Tours guests, along with two drivers and professional meteorologist Chris Gullikson, watched an impenetrably dark supercell spin counterclockwise, gathering energy while it shot incandescent strands of lightning between smudges of black and gray clouds. Chris, a full-time saddle fitter from Wisconsin, had also worked on a whooping crane reintroduction project in which he taught young birds a migration route using an ultralight aircraft to lead them from central Wisconsin to Florida’s Gulf Coast. As he began precisely calling out a rolling description of what we were witnessing, describing the inflow and outflow bands, the updrafts and downdrafts, the flanking line, the anvil, and the shelf cloud, his voice betrayed his excitement as the mesocyclone punched up into the troposphere. In the early hours of the next day, he posted a detailed description of the day’s chase process on Facebook, expressing the doubt and angst all storm chasers face every time they are confronted with the contradictions of various meteorological models:
June 17, 2017
Began the day in Concordia, Kansas, with no clear idea where to position. A surface boundary extended westward into northeast Kansas and pulled us east into the oppressive, mid-seventy-degree dew-point air. As the afternoon wore on, I kept an eye on southwest Kansas where the conditions were looking more favorable for an isolated storm, despite a strong cap. By 6 pm, towering cumulus clouds began building around us. Satellite imagery was also showing a line of cumulus clouds to our southwest near Dodge City. It was decision time, and I felt we had a chance of seeing a better storm by driving 2.5 hours southwest towards Pratt KS. It was a tough decision to stick with as we drove south of Salina with a 50,000-foot storm tower clearly visible just 20 miles to our east. A few miles west of Pratt the flared base of a beautiful supercell began to reveal itself with frequent cloud-to-ground lightning. We turned south on a paved road three miles east of Haviland and pulled over along the side of a wheat field with an incredible view of the storm’s base.
Sirocco, zephyr, chinook, mistral—all words for wind, a noun that describes an elemental force, those breezes that launched Homer’s Odyssey, as well as the characters in Springsteen’s song “Thunder Road.” A popular series of books has titles that try to sum up the endgame of life, reducing it to a bucket list of succinct choices on a menu: One Hundred Places to Go Before You Die, One Thousand Things to Do Before You Bite the Dust, Ten Thousand Places to See Before You Disappear into the Ether. The presumption of that conceit is that life is a checklist to be completed on a road to redemption or perdition. As we stand underneath the cloak of a cloud spewing bolts of ionized gas, the hushed murmur of excited voices tells me we are here to be in a place that is, for us, the One Place We Want to Be While We’re Alive.
As long days fade into the final hours of light on the High Plains, and a chase begins as a storm is born, the temporal language of science becomes more spiritual and transcendent. Descriptions that are precise become down-to-earth exclamations of fear and wonder. As meteorologist Bill Reid is fond of saying when all the data point to a perfect storm, “We’re in Fat City!”
It’s not unusual to drive hundreds of miles on a chase day, and in my first season chasing storms a driver set a record of 932 miles on one long day as we headed north from Denver into the high plains of Montana and then crossed into Saskatchewan. A typical day for chasers can start in Oklahoma City, then move into Kansas and Nebraska before going further north to end the night in South Dakota. If there’s a storm at twilight, often there’s a drive of a hundred miles after last light before getting to the nearest small town where there might be motel rooms.
Outside the windows of the chase vans, the world of the plains blurred into vignettes—a stand of cottonwoods, horses huddled in the shade of a tree, cattle grazing, grain elevators, faded barns, wooden fences, railroad boxcars, and boarded-up towns. The scenes repeated, and boredom was broken by an abandoned house or an old car rusting in a field. The van detoured off a dirt road onto the interstate, stopping at a convenience store; while the driver got fuel, the chasers stretched, bought fast food, and eavesdropped as the meteorologist checked the latest data, streaming real-time weather from the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
A red-tailed hawk pivots its wings in a vee, locked in a dihedral glide, tilting side to side, riding the wind. The sky unfolds in sheets of light, shedding its skin, changing texture like a piece of torn silk folding in upon itself. Undulating in luminous bands, the ghosts of the wind are like shadows fading into each other, their shapes changing again and again into different forms.
Every day we crisscrossed a history book of reference points, often marked with state plaques—the trails of Lewis and Clark, the Nebraska ground where schoolchildren froze in the blizzard of 1888, Texas Panhandle towns of the Dust Bowl, and a sign pointing down a road to the Sand Creek massacre. The blizzard of 1888 plunged much of the plains into subfreezing temperatures, including Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakota territories, as well as Kansas and Nebraska. Thousands of people were caught in the blizzard, and the death toll was 235. Outside the van, there was just a lonely emptiness as we followed the gentle contours of Nebraska’s Sandhills. Inside, people were emailing and texting, and a few had dozed off.
One afternoon as we drove south of the Missouri River in North Dakota, I counted a dozen hawks sitting on fence posts along the road. Once, as I walked alongside a field, I accidentally flushed hundreds of red-winged blackbirds that had been resting in the tall grasses. I watched them bolt up and curve in an arc, quickly forming into a murmuration of frantic energy, plunging toward the ground, then shooting up before changing direction again and again in a blurred hive of dark energy. Finally, the birds settled down into a field of wheat, hidden in the amber stalks.
The long days take their toll on the conversation, and in a van bristling with cell phones, tablets, laptops, and chargers, bored chasers drift into their private worlds. In the hot June sun, a long day came to nothing—a high-pressure dome west of us held down the storms. The same lame jokes were told again, while some of the chasers peppered Bill Reid about the prospects for tornadic weather in the days ahead. We pulled into a Motel 6 in the dark, shuffling our tripods and dragging suitcases, emptying the seats of trash, waiting for our room numbers to be called, along with the Wi-Fi password and wake-up call time. Dazed with exhaustion, we dragged ourselves past the indoor chlorinated pool and tried to focus on the numbers on the doors. When we finally found our rooms we began charging camera batteries, then sorting and organizing our electronic gear.
Some nights I stayed up late, downloading images, answering emails, and writing notes; other nights, I fell asleep in my clothes, waking up hours later, restless and disoriented, my neck twisted uncomfortably against the hard pillow. I got up before first light, shaking out my legs, walking the moonlit streets of towns, listening to trains as they rolled through in the dark while heat lightning flashed in the shadows of clouds.
Most of the chasers were there for the fireworks—to see a tornado. They were there for bragging rights—they wanted a funnel to drop to the ground so they could live-stream it on Facebook before a fusillade of hail came hammering down without mercy. Social media and the desire for instant gratification have changed the dynamics of chasing in the past decade. Dr. Charles “Chuck” Doswell III, a former research meteorologist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, often writes about the phenomenon of “chaser convergence,” and in his online blog, he described the way it has evolved:
When I began storm chasing it was a pleasant experience to encounter some of my chase comrades—we jokingly called it “chaser convergence.” In order to be successful at storm chasing in those days, you had to make your own forecast, and you chased with little hope of obtaining any updated weather information along the way. We carried a portable weather radio and when we were within range of a station we could get some limited information. We had to learn to read the sky and try to use our experience to guide our decisions in the absence of up-to-date information. Seeing a tornado was a rare treat, not an expectation.
That feeling of fellowship and camaraderie has given way to a sense of irritation when encountering a long line of chasers while following a storm. Rather than establishing a connection to the natural world that we used to feel when experiencing a powerful storm, we find ourselves buried in a long line of chasers. It’s more like attending a sporting event than feeling joy at being embedded deeply in a living world.
After ten days and nearly 4,000 miles of driving without seeing a storm, the tension is palpable and pervasive. As a novice chaser, I’ve reached a separate peace with the long days of boredom and solitude.
On a dull day, our storm-chasing group drifted north through Texas and the Rita Blanca grasslands, then up through the panhandle of Oklahoma, and down a gravel road until we came to a small Baptist church sitting in the middle of the plains. One of us tried the door, which was open, and my friend Helwig went inside and sat down at the piano and began to play Brahms as grackles and horned doves darted above the freshly plowed fields. Some of us stood inside as he segued to boogie-woogie and then back to Brahms, and others stood outside in the warm breeze as the music came through the open door. There were no storms that afternoon, but it was a moment that will stay with me forever.
The next day we continued north along the Front Range, watching the sky for signs as storms collapsed around us. Then, as we turned to leave, I saw the distinct shape of the phenomenon known as a “whale’s mouth”—the turbulent underside of a shelf cloud—as it quickly formed within the cold gray sky. Years before I tried to photograph one, but as the squall line of rushing cold air pushed down hard, I was hit by a wall of rain as it raced along at 65 miles per hour.
Several years ago, I started making trips to other parts of the plains, especially up to U.S. Route 2, the fabled “Hi-Line” of the Great Northern Railway of Montana, skirting along the border of Canada, across the High Plains east into the new oil-fracking boomtown of Williston, North Dakota. Out there, the land is measured in sections, 640 acres to a section—a square mile—or just under 28 million square feet. I travel there to get lost as much as to find myself, to drive my car down an empty section line road and stop and get out and listen to the wind.
On an unbearably hot and hazy day, while heading west on U.S. Route 20, I stopped to get coffee in the small town of Genoa, Nebraska. I did my normal cruise, heading one way, then made a U-turn and slowly drove in the opposite direction on Willard Avenue before pulling into a diagonal parking spot, squeezing between two pickups. I walked into the Great Plains Coffee Shop and ordered a cup of black coffee before beginning a nonstop conversation with a woman named Adele, who told me about moving there from Iowa, riding her Softtail Harley on the open roads of the plains. Staring out the window at a roofless building across the street, she explained that a few months earlier a “straight-line” wind had blown the top off of it. She could have sworn it had been a tornado, but the townsfolk had corrected her and had called it a straight-line wind.6
Just then, a stout farmer in tan overalls shuffled in the door and shyly walked up to the counter. “Curtis!” Adele announced in a throaty voice, warm with emotion. No sooner had Adele said this than he swung a blue plastic pail forward, telling her he had brought her some fresh tomatoes. “Well Curtis, how about a big cup of fresh coffee?” It was a ritual that had no doubt been repeated many times over. Curtis turned to me, winked, and whispered, “We got it sweet here, don’t we?” I noticed two men sitting at a table across the room, their heads bowed and their eyes closed, their arms extended across as they held each other’s wrists. Then, I saw them mouth the word “Amen” as they finished their prayer at lunch.
The first time I tried to photograph the sky in the Great Plains, I looked up at a cumulonimbus cloud vaulting 10 miles up into a rotating supercell and realized I needed a lens with which to look at infinity. Infinity was not just a line far out on the horizon where the land fell off an edge; infinity was a profound sense of place, an awareness of being and belonging, a coming into a country where Nature described my entire perception of the world.
During my first storm chase in Nebraska’s Sandhills, I watched an electrical storm as cattle grazed on the hillsides at dusk while an iridescent wave of colors hung in the sky. It was a spectacular display of pyrotechnics, and I was mesmerized by the rapid blasts of lightning filling the air with the pungent aroma of fresh ozone. In the midst of the lightning striking all around us, Alison, a young chaser from Melbourne, Australia, discovered a small frog shivering in the grass.
On another storm chase, I was standing on a dirt road at dusk, looking up at a seething anvil, when a bolt of lightning struck a telephone pole forty yards away. It burst into fire in a shower of sparks and crackling flames, and the sound hissed in my ears for several minutes, along with the beating of my heart. Before it struck, I had no fear and no sense that danger was so imminent.
Late one rainy night, we drove down the washboard gravel rollercoaster of Dead Horse Road near Chadron, Nebraska, as bolts of cloud-to-cloud lightning lit the landscape in an eerie blue light. Just after I set up my tripod, a pickup truck drove over a ridge, catching me in the glare of its headlights.
On another evening in Stamford, Nebraska, a pearlescent cumulonimbus cloud shot 10 miles straight up above our heads while bolt after bolt of cloud-to-ground lightning struck the earth, as fireflies pulsed in the darkness, telegraphing the night’s mystery in flashes of light.
Some days the storms we thought we wanted and were looking for never reached us, but the relentless pounding of the winds always threatened to blow us off the land. If I could choose one place to stand at the summer solstice, it would be on the High Plains, somewhere between Igloo, South Dakota, and Zero, Montana. There, the light at the day’s end rakes low across the dirt roads of the Dakotas as clouds rise high above telephone poles pushing to infinity.
The wail of coyotes and the glow of constellations fill the plains with simple graces: the rustle of wind in a stand of cottonwoods, the radiance of light on the Big Sioux River, and the flicker of shadows among abandoned houses. The moon drops from a void of black and blue while stars ascend into it. Darkness falls under the weight of the sky as lightning and dust devils spit terror at the edge of the Earth.
This is my visual diary of a journey to a hauntingly beautiful part of America; a place often maligned as flat, lifeless, and empty. It is also a record of a feral world where merciless storms convene each spring on the prairies and the plains. Willa Cather called the plains the “floor of the sky,” yet no one can express what it is like to stand in the tallgrass prairie while lightning and hail strike the ground around you. Chasing storms is in my blood, and I feel empty when I’m not there.
Storms are the sacrament of landscape—a vast cosmos of roiling energy that mushrooms miles above the ground at twilight. They connect us to a world where the absence of everything ends at the horizon, in a terrain bound to unyielding, brutal and primeval energy spawning dreams and meditation. The storms of the Great Plains are the revelation of a fierce beauty, without compromise or distraction—only the thin line that runs along the prairie’s edge between the sky above and the land below.
1 Tornado Alley is a colloquial term, first used in 1952, for the area of the United States, extending into Canada, where tornadoes are most frequent.
2 The historical demarcation between arid land and humid land—the 100th meridian—has moved east closer to the 98th meridian over the past century.
3 The Fujita scale is used for rating tornado intensity (from F0 to F5), based primarily on the damage that tornadoes inflict on structures and vegetation. In 2007 it was replaced by the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale.
4 A supercell is a thunderstorm that is characterized by the presence of a deep, persistently rotating updraft.
5 A cap is a layer of relatively warm air aloft, usually several thousand feet above the ground, that suppresses or delays the development of thunderstorms.
6 A straight-line wind is a damaging wind from the strong outflow downdraft of a storm.