Weather or whether?: Fleeing the tornado

Nov 2, 18 • 5enses, FeatureNo Comments

Illustration by Dale O’Dell. This was not the actual tornado. O’Dell: “I was too freaked out to shoot a photo and I was busy bugging out. The cop said, ‘You’ve got a fast car: Follow me.’ Never heard that from a cop before! I complied.”

By Dale O’Dell

I’d been photographing electricity-generating windmills in Oregon, Washington, and Montana and was on my way to North Dakota. Things were not going well.

After spending the night in Glasgow, Mont., it was about a 110-mile drive to the North Dakota state line. It would be an easy drive on the nearly arrow-straight State Highway 2. Commercial-free jazz played on the XM satellite radio and the cruise control was set at the speed limit of 70 mph. The weather had been bad for the past few days. Storms chased me across northern Washington and late May snows in central Oregon called for a mid-trip course correction, so I was in Montana sooner than I’d planned. As I drove, I scanned the skies. Although it was partly sunny on the high flat plains of eastern Montana, I could see a thunderstorm off to the north and two more in the southeastern distance. So far it was dry, but I wondered if I’d be driving into heavy weather. As a guy who watches The Weather Channel and as a child lived in Kansas for a while, I know what tornado skies look like; the distant skies were angry.

As fate would have it, it wasn’t long before I drove right into a major storm. I don’t know if the road took me to the storm or the storm came to the road, but conditions got bad quickly. The windshield wipers went from intermittent to full blast. My speed dropped from 70 mph to barely 30. The rains came hard, then the hail. With the hail, I started to worry about the car — the windshield, especially. Luckily the hailstones were small and sporadic. Mine was the only car on a long, lonely road, and I really wanted to get out of that storm. I can deal with heavy rain, but I’d prefer not to drive in a hailstorm. I searched the horizon for a tree, for someplace I could park and hide until the storm passed. Yeah, right — have you ever tried to find a tree on a prairie? There aren’t any. There was nothing at all, just a vast plain and a few low hills that I assumed were still there behind the rain and ever-darkening skies.

Somewhere near Poplar, or maybe it was Culbertson, I saw a tree on the side of the road. It was a sad and pathetic little tree, but it would have to do. It promised a little protection from the hail. I headed for the tree and parked under it across the highway from an abandoned building. The hail eventually stopped and the rain had lightened, somewhat. I scanned the fancy high-tech XM satellite radio for a weather report, but the nearest station was in Minnesota. No useful information. If I just knew which way the storm was moving … .

As I sat in the car wondering, should I stay or go, another car came driving up slowly from the east. It was a cop car, or more specifically, a cop SUV: one of those tricked-out heavy-duty go-anywhere kind of rural cop vehicles. I rolled down my window and flagged down the cop. He stopped next to me in the middle of the highway. There was nobody else around for miles.

“Hey,” I called out to the cop over the booming thunder, “Do you have a weather report on that cop computer in your car?”

“Sure do,” he answered. “And there’s a super cell sitting right over this area!”

“Does it indicate wind direction?” I asked, “Which way is the storm moving?”

“East,” he answered.

“East! Maybe I can get out from underneath it by outrunning it?”

“Good idea,” answered the cop as he pointed west, from straight down the highway where I’d just come. “But first we’ve got to outrun that!”

I looked down the highway in the direction he was pointing and saw a funnel cloud dropping from the already low clouds.

“Holy crap!”

“Follow me,” yelled the cop, “You’ve got a fast car, so keep up!”

With that, he whipped a U-turn, turned on his flashing red and blue lights, and put the hammer down. The next thing I knew, we were hauling at 100-plus mph. I was on his bumper like a Nascar driver and checking the rear view mirror for that tornado.

Four or five miles down the road, the tornado had dissipated and the rains slacked. The cop braked and motioned me to the side of the road. We pulled off. I stopped next to the cop and rolled down my passenger window.

The cop leaned out his window and said, “Tornado fell apart and didn’t form; we’re clear. If you continue east you’ll be out in front of the storm. If you can go southward, the weather’s even clearer.”

“Thanks so much!” I replied, truly grateful. Just before I drove off the cop added one more thing:

“And no more speeding without an escort!” He smiled.

“No problem.”

I continued toward the state line. By the time I got to Williston, North Dakota, it was mostly sunny. Feeling optimistic after outrunning the tornado, I ignored the cop’s advice and turned northward. That turned out to be a big mistake, but for a whole other reason. …

*****

See more of Dale O’Dell’s photography and digital art at DalePhoto.Com.

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