A Game Of Chess

This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, May 30, 2007 was originally posted on June 03, 2007.

DAY 6: “The juice is flowing.  We have good sheer,” tour leader Bill said in our morning briefing, standing in front of the projected weather map.  “[I see some rotation.]”  For the first time on our trip, the SPC declared a “moderate risk” of tornadoes — all this time it had only been “slight.”

“I’d say our chances of a tornado, F2 or stronger, are I guess fifty-fifty.”  There was a wave of gasps in the room.  Groggy, sleepy eyes suddenly lit up.

“It’s probably going to be a big day,” Bill concluded.

SHOWTIME FOR THE BIG DAY wouldn’t come until the mid-afternoon, which gave us several hours to kill.  Earlier that morning I went with Jenna, the writer who had been tagging along the tour with photographer Marcia, to make a run to an actual supermarket to get fresher food than a convenience store could provide.  “We’ve been living on birdseed,” she told me as I saw the empty sunflower seed packs in her rental car.  The Ranch Market of Clayton, NM down the road was where we went, a locally-run place where the grocery baggers still escorted your goods to your card, to my surprise.  “[Despite the plastic crap,] people should come out here just to see that people still live like this,” Jenna told me.

Feeling a bit like Morgan Spurlock in Supersize Me, I went for some healthier choices:  apples, freshly baked bread, tomatoes, mozarella (for sandwiches) — and for the kids in the Kitschmobile, pinwheels.  Similarly, Jenna got items like grapes and carrot raisin salad, and contributed to the Kitsch Krew, an Orange Crush cake.  With that in hand, we didn’t completely ignore junk food; I got a bag of Fritos — the Flavor Twists, of course — and a new can of our favorite guilty pleasure, Frito bean dip.  Jenna decided to kick it up a notch by getting some pork cracklins.

“Pork fat rules around here,” the friendly cashier lady said.

“I love pork fat,” Jenna said.  “And you can quote me on that.”

Before heading out, Jenna noticed the plastic bubble toy dispensers common to grocery stores — one of which sold toy skull rings.  “Oh, skull rings!” she exclaimed like a little girl.  We each put in our fifty cents, hoping to get the ring that looked like the flying monkey from The Wizard Of Oz, but instead got two identical skulls. 

“We’re skull buddies,” she told me, raising her ring to mine.  “Skull power!”  They were to provide us luck in seeing a tornado that afternoon.

“So are you guys going steady now?” Stacy joked back in the van, noticing the ring on my finger.  I told her the back story.

“It’ll be a whirlwind affair,” Rob said.

Shopping wasn’t confined to the grocery; across the street from the Days Inn, next to the Clayton Dinosaur Trackway (with a broken triceratops and a brontosaurus), was Rope’s Casual Western Wear, a complete draw for shopaholic Leisa.  She browsed the apparel while I got some gifts.  The grandmotherly woman at the counter asked what we were doing in town.

“We’re storm chasers,” I informed her with a bit of pride. 

She thought we were a little crazy and was a bit concerned.  She reminded us what had happened a couple of weeks prior to Greensburg, KS, a town that was completely leveled by an F-5 — the “Finger of God” as they said in the movie Twister.  “As long as it saves lives,” the old woman said.  From experience, she felt one was coming later that day, as if to feel it in her bones.

“Anyone out here feels it,” Sacramento James told me.  “It’s ingrained.”

WITH MORE TIME TO KILL, our caravan drove into downtown Clayton to do the limited sightseeing one could do.  In fact, the streets and shops were practically deserted.  “There doesn’t seem to be much apparel in Nan’s Apparel,” Leisa said, noticing the empty-looking clothing shop.

“Maybe Nan’s a nudist,” Rob said.

We went to the Herzstein Memorial Museum, which preserved the cultural heritage of Union County, New Mexico, a historically significant place being on the historical Sante Fe Trail.  The museum wasn’t just about cultural history — with its replicas of old-fashioned homes, memorabilia, saddles, and train set — but touched on its value in paleontology, with a hands-on fossil table so you could brush a dinosaur’s teeth

From there we went to the Rabbit Ear Cafe, one of perhaps five places to eat in town, a homey place with vintage Coke paraphernalia, men in cowboy hats, wood paneling and a sign that simply said, “LAUGH.”  Our group split up to different tables, the Minnesotans at one, Marcia the photographer at another, and me sitting with the two Jameses, and Brits Mel and Peter

“I’m glad I’m not the only one that thinks that’s funny,” Mel told me, giggling at the menu with me; a chicken fried steak, with a salad, vegetable, bread, mashed potatoes and a drink was only $5.80.  The jovial Mel had never heard of a chicken fried steak before and giggled at the novelty of it.  “Chicken Fried Steak is something you make in college when you’re drunk,” she said.

THE CHICKEN FRIED STEAK put me in a food coma, and before I knew it, we were back in the state of Oklahoma, in the narrow panhandle, driving through some town with a big rotunda in the downtown area.  “I want everyone to go around in the circle and honk their horns,” Bill instructed over the radio.

“Just keep doing this to get the vorticity going,” Brian replied.

After a couple of more convenience store pitstops, and a brief stop at No Mans Land Beef Jerky — the “jerk store” as we called it for all you Seinfeld fans out there — we were finally out in the fields waiting for a supercell to develop.  Bill flagged us down with a pinwheel to the side of the road, where Dr. Bob, the Ph.D in meteorology, lectured to the weather nerds what was going on in the sky — it looked like two cells were going to split or collide.  I stood back by a fence with Ruben, the Texan military dog trainer.

“I know there’s a lot of science behind this, but it’s also a lot of luck.  I can only look at this for so long,” he said, looking up at what any normal person would call a nice, sunny day.  “I want to see some action.  I want to see cows flying… trees… that bridge.  I want to hear, ‘Oh shit! Get in the cars!’ I want some action.”  While Tempest Tours didn’t guarantee a tornado sighting, we at least wanted to see something to get our money’s worth.

“Well we have to see something,” I told him.

“At least it’s not cold,” he said, retaining learned information from the coldfront that undercut the almost-tornadic storm two days prior.

“OKAY, WE’RE MOVING OUT!” tour leader Bill announced to the troops.  We drove again, following a storm on radar, out of OK and into The C.O. (Colorado).  Soon, a few raindrops appeared on the windshield.

“We’ve got precip,” I said.

“Did you just say, ‘precip?’” Stacy questioned.

“Yeah,” I told her, sporting my new meteorological lingo.  “Well you said ‘CG’ before.”  We decided that from now on we’d only talk about rain in meteorological terms.  Is it raining?  Huh?  You mean, do we have precip?

Dan mentioned it was “raining” at one of our storm watch stops.  “You’re not allowed to call it ‘rain’ anymore,” I told him.  “You’re a meteorologist now.”

There were many meteorological terms used on our several storm watch stops as we rode in the vans and followed the storm’s progress for hours — five in total at the end.  “Oh the base looks good from up here,” Jenna raved.

“Oh, nice CG!” Brian would say, impressed with a pretty cloud-to-ground lightning bolt

“Is there a technical term for thunder?” I asked as I heard a rumbling from above.

“No, it’s just ‘thunder,’” Brian answered.


Some people noticed an RFD on the ground, a Rear Flank Downdraft, where the dirt comes up as if starting to be sucked up from above.  “[Oh, looks like there’s some downdraft over there,]” guide Kinney noticed.

“Apparently it’s a truck,” I told him, relaying information I got from Brian.

“[But] look at the size, there’s no way that’s a truck,” he insisted.  Then an 18-wheeler drove by.  “Oh wait, it’s a truck.”

There were so many possible tornadoes that Ruben compared it to The Boy Who Cried Wolf.  We made the best of the time though, taking pictures of the landscape and the cloud formations — like the “gluttius” clouds (dubbed by Jenna) — and posing with the pinwheels as to be in Magritte’s “The Son Of Man” painting or Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”  I posed with my Twister spinner like I was hitching. 

Other chasers were in a holding pattern too.  “Must be the Twister Sisters,” Jenna said to me as a group led by two women pulled up, speculating it was the chasers from Minneapolis.  We also bumped into the chaser we met at the Sandhiller in Wray, CO with the “More Cowbell” shirt — this time he had a “Sweep The Leg” one from line in The Karate Kid.  We were all optimistic though; Stacy confided to us in the Kitschmobile, “Bill said to me, ‘Everything’s going to get crazy around six o’clock.’”

“Is that including us?” said She Who Cracks Wise.

Then were was thunder — not a solitary boom, but a drawn out growl, like a lion on the prowl.  A CG flashed.

“There’s a Wheel of Fortune on this one now,” Dr. Bob announced.  “Ninety-two mile per hour sheer.”

“Jump in,” Brian told us.  Eventually we drove back into the Oklahoma panhandle.

“[TORNADO CHASING] IS LIKE A GAME OF CHESS,” Marcia told me, quoting one of the British twins Jon or Matt who didn’t want to be quoted.  “You have to position yourself so you don’t get killed.  And so you can win.”

It’s one thing to see a tornado develop, but it’s another to escape from one if it ever touches down.  It’s not entirely easy in the plains with dirt roads that quickly turn to mud, and roads whose nearest turn off is miles away.  Fortunately the Tempest Team was aware of this and planned accordingly. 

“I think we should go back south, closer to the eastern option,” Bill said on the radio as the storm cell developed before our eyes.  However, Dr. Bob chimed in, “I’m not too happy about this one now, in terms of its health.” 

We turned onto the eastern route to see the storm at a different angle. “Looking at it,” Brian said, “It kind of croaked.”

“Looks like a bunch of multicellular junk,” Dr. Bob said, always seeming to play Devil’s advocate for any optimism in tornadic development.  It was weird to hear him on the radio because his voice, not just his face, reminded me of Ron Howard.  Suddenly Richie Cunningham was saying things like “multicellular junk” and “I’m in the car because I don’t really like CGs.”

“There’s a chance of this coagulating into the storm of death,” Keith said to us on another storm watch stop.  He was wearing his U of Oklahoma shirt, boasting, “We don’t just study severe weather, we


severe weather.”

“They just tornado warned our county,” Bill announced. 

Dr. Bob analyzed the latest data.  “I think we’re looking at maybe more than one cell here.”

The sky grew darker and darker as our five-car caravan sped off.  “The county is warned, the sheer marker is eight point oh.  The hail marker is half an inch,” Bill shared on the radio.  We continued to drive, Brett at the helm of the Kitschmobile.

“Looks like this could be [funneling],” Dr. Bob said. 

“We’re one mile and a half from the eastern route.”

“Looks like our best southern option is twenty miles east.”

“Satellite now has the wheel going east.”

The vans ran through the plains as all of our eyes were fixated on the twisting mass of clouds above us to our left.  “Looks like it’s coming down,” Brian said. 

“It’s coming down,” Brett seconded his father.

“Let’s get out, I can’t focus with the drops in the window,” I said, clenched to my little new video camera.  We stopped on the side of the road as the massive, twisting supercell began emanating a cigar-like cloud formation coming down to earth — a sight instilling a state of both excitement and awe.  Our eyes were fixated, hearts racing, mouths gaped. 

“It’s magnificent,” Stacy said.  “It’s so beautiful.  I can’t even believe what I’m looking at.”

The cloudy funnel we were waiting for was upon us.  “It’s getting it’s act together,” Brian said.  The funnel slowly came down, but then paused hesistantly.  It stood as if to just be poking out to look around, before starting to retract back into the sky.

“Is it getting weaker?” Leisa asked Brian.

“It’s not weakening.  It’s just reorganizing.

We hopped back in the vans to drive to another vantage point.  Dr. Bob chimed in on the radio.  “I think this is going to accelerate at some point.”

“It’s trying,” Brian said.

“Isn’t it intense?” Stacy said to me, as the van sped off. 

We parked just a few miles out of Keyes, OK, as the monstrous rotating supercell loomed above ominously.  It looked like a huge vortex to another dimension, larger than the town itself — larger than life itself.  It started to get into attack formation.  It’s going to level that town, I thought.  The funnel began to form again to touch down on earth.  The sky grew darker and darker.


Tornado sirens blared in town, building the drama, putting a little lump in my throat.  It was the sirens that finally made everything real; all this time seeing a tornado was a novelty, but the sirens reminded us that it was a threat to our lives.  Chaos was developing outside, with the winds blowing, the funnel forming, the sirens blaring, the cars zooming passed us to get the hell out of town.  The beastly spinning mothership was already launching an attack — it was the closest I’ve experienced to what I can imagine to be an alien invasion.

“Did I just see lighting strike twice in the same place?!” I exclaimed.  That’s not supposed to happen!

“We just saw it too!” the British twins and West Virginians told me.  “We saw one [strike down] like seven times!”

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore… Now let’s get the FUCK out of here!!!”

“Let’s go!” commanded Bill to the group.  We dashed for the vehicles in a panic.  Katie scraped her leg on the rambles and started bleeding.  The winds were getting stronger, the sky darker, as the funnel really started to take the form of the destructor.

“Go! Go! GO!” Marcia the photographer called as we ran for the vans.  Rob anxiously waited for me to enter because he had the seat in front of me and I didn’t have my own door.

The caravan zoomed out; the tires would have probably screeched if we weren’t parked on dirt.  rrrrrRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEHHhhhhhrrrrr…  The sirens kept going.  On the radar map the county was in the red. 

“The southern sheer marker is 126!” I heard over the radio — anything over 100 was favorable for a tornadic touchdown.  The funnel loomed behind us as we sped away (picture above).  The storm chasers had become the storm chasees, but we followed one of the chess-like exit strategies and got to a safe area.  It didn’t really matter because the massive funnel that was forming was already retracting. 

We stopped for a breather and another look, and Mel was noticing the unreal multiple lightning strikes — “repeaters” as Brian called them.  We continued to ride as the sky grew darker; the supercell had encompassed and surrounded us.  A funnel cloud appeared to our right like a small attacking cloud formation from the organic, living mother ship.  A CG flashed behind it. 

“It’s a funnel,” Brian informed us.  “Not a tornado.”  Technically, funnels aren’t actual tornadoes unless they touch down or connect with a landspout from below. 

“That’s a tornado as far as I’m concerned,” Stacy said, ignoring the technicalities.  The funnel quickly retracted, but we were excited to see the show.  “I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth.”  (Later I heard Ruben say the same thing.)

“This calls for some beef jerky!” I told the Kitschmobile Krew.  I also busted out the Frito Twists and bean dip.

OUT OF HARM’S WAY, we stopped to gaze upon the mothership supercell, looking more like an atomic mushroom cloud from far away.  “Feel that?” Kinney said, noticing the rush of cold air.  “It’s like a whoosh.”  I figure the storm was weakening like it did last time, bringing an exciting day to an end, and went over to Jenna and Marcia’s car to share my Frito Twists. 

“We [also] have been dip,” I said.

“Don’t tempt us,” said my skull buddy.

The celebration was short-lived; repeaters in the distance got more intense.  The sharp, thin rivers of electricity seemed to be getting closer.  “This is funny,” Marcia said, realizing the reality of the situation.  “We’re just standing here in a lightning field.”

BEEEEP!  Bill honked the horn of the lead white van signaling us to vamoose, which was probably a good idea.  The attack was not over yet; perhaps it was just reorganizing again.  It was near six o’clock.

We were driving down the road under the dark sky, and Rob noticed something out his window.  “Wait, what’s that?” he said.  “Look.”

“It’s coming down,” Brett announced.  Another funnel, this one looking more like a weird tentacle, was coming from the organic amorphous beast.  The storm had us in check, with every one of our moves susceptible to another attack.

“It’s not a tornado, just a funnel cloud,” Brian said, getting technical again.  “[But it’s pretty.]”

“I think this one may be a tornado,” Dr. Bob said over the air.

“Looks like it’s coming down,” Bill said.

“Woooo!” I heard a girl’s voice cheer — I pegged it for Jenna.

The funnel elongated, but then quickly retracted as we drove closer to the southern escape route;  on the radar screen, the purple core of the supercell was chasing us.  Another area of tornadic activity appeared near us and we drove to the top of a hill for a better vantage point.  Each van did a quick K-turn before parking to set up for an easier escape.  We all dashed out, the guides clenched to their camcorders, to capture the event — this one looked promising, at least from a technical standpoint.

“Come on down,” Bill called out to the funnel slowly forming.

“Come on, do it!” Keith seconded.  “It’s getting motion.  If it doesn’t tornado now, I’m going to be mad.”  Unfortunately, this one retracted before touchdown too. 

Back in the vans, we drove off, wondering which direction to go — the storm was still alive.  Up ahead was the town of Guymon, OK.  “I don’t want to be in town if this thing hits,” Bill suggested.  We drove through town to the other side.  Then suddenly, hard-hitting precip starting pounding on the roof of our ride.

“We’ve got hail,” Stacy announced, like in the movie Twister.

“This is gonna get really nasty everybody,” I heard on the radio — I think it was Kinney’s voice.

A torrential downpour of precip came down on us.  The wipers swayed a mile a minute as we drove out of the storm path.  “Looks like this thing may become coagular again,” Dr. Bob announced.

“Okay, let’s get out of the rain and take another look,” Bill replied.  We drove to another vantage point to see, but the storm had weakened.  On the radar map, the county was out of the red.

“Looks like they lifted the tornado warning for the county,” Dr. Bob stated.  “And now it’s a severe thunderstorm warning.”

“The best option is to find a place to say goodbye,” Brian suggested.

We parked on the side of another dirt road as the supercell-turned-severe thunderstorm floated away with the wind.  We bid it farewell and welcomed the sunset to the west at the end of an eventful day.

“[Remember it takes a lot of things to make a tornado happen,]” Kinney reminded us, knowing technically we hadn’t seen a real tornado.  “Good show though.  Scary at times.”

Scary at times, yes.  In fact, later we learned that a tornado had landed behind the one that we saw almost form above Kays, OK — we just couldn’t see it because of the HP (High Precipitation) blocking the view. 

THAT NIGHT we drove to Amarillo, Texas to get into position for the next day, stopping once at a McDonald’s where, after all the junk food I’d had that day, I actually declined a meal.  (Well, I couldn’t resist a small fries.)  We got our rooms for the night at a Quality Inn and turned in after a long, tiring but exciting day.  In our “game of chess” with the massive supercell, I guess it was technically a stalemate, but if you ask me, we won.


Peter, the elderly but youthful British man, was always seen wearing souvenir t-shirts from South America — he had been in Peru and Brazil a few weeks back.  “So is your entire wardrobe from South America?” I asked him. 

“[The next time I go traveling, someone will ask me if my wardrobe’s from North America,]” he told me, as he bought yet another t-shirt at a Dollar General store in Clayton, NM.

Next entry: Checkmate.

Previous entry: Into The Southwest

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Comments for “A Game Of Chess”

  • GREETINGS FROM CHICAGO!  I’m here hanging out and visiting friends after the tornado tour, catching up on Blog duties…

    This entry is a long one—it’s almost a two-fer—and I hope it suffices for the WHMMR…

    NEXT UP:  “Poetry In Motion” or “Checkmate”

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  01:49 AM

  • Excellent entry, man!  That really had me excited.  Even though there wasn’t a real tornado it still sounded like a great day.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  02:59 PM

  • IAIN:  Thanks!  Pass the word around!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  03:59 PM

  • wowsers…now if it wasn’t for the skull powers granted by skeletor, it would have just been another day back at the ranch…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  09:35 PM

  • What great timing!  I was sitting here reading this entry about lightening, rain, dark clouds when from a open window behind me there suddently was a flash of lightening and a crack of thunder and the wind blew in and all my papers were on the floor.  Boy did I jump as I was intensely concentrating on reading!  What great timing!  It just added more drama to another great read!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  11:20 PM

  • wow!  I really can’t wait to see this on video!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  11:48 PM

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This blog post is one of nine travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Twisted," which chronicled a tornado chasing tour of the American midwest in the late spring of 2007.

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Previous entry:
Into The Southwest


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