Missing Out on Moore

I haven't posted in this blog for several weeks. Behind my lack of motivation lies a depression over how this storm season has turned out for me, which reflects a broader sense of personal failure as a storm chaser. A melancholy lead-in such as this will probably lose some of you, and I understand. It's not exactly sunshine and a bowl of Cheerios. But others may identify with this post and perhaps even find it helpful, and in any case, it's my blog, and I'll write what I please. The May 20 Moore tornado exacerbated what has been a brooding issue for me since 2011. During that intensely active and historic year, I was sidelined from chasing due to family and financial constraints, and my final shot at a decent chase on June 20 in Nebraska failed by an hour due to a series of delays along the way. With last year's notable exceptions of the March 2 Henryville, Indiana, tornado, and April 24 in Kansas, the trend has continued. And given how this year's slow start finally exploded in the second half of May with storms that ranged from photogenic to disastrous, coming home empty-handed from my two brief excursions to the Great Plains during another historic year has been hard to take. This post, then, is a continuation of my processing a deadly storm season that has robbed the storm chasing community of some of its best and brightest, exacted a steep toll on the residents of Oklahoma City, afforded a flood of spectacular videos, and caused me to search my soul as a storm chaser and wonder whether I even qualify as one. The rest of what follows is a post I wrote earlier today in Stormtrack. It belongs in this blog too, even moreso than in the chaser forum. ------------------------------------ Missing the Moore tornado in particular touched something off in me. I've never felt more frustrated about missing an event I would never have wanted to witness. El Reno didn't have that same effect on me. I watched the whole scenario unfold on the radar and on KFOR live stream with horror, not with regret that I was missing out on anything, and my sense of it is that OKC got off very lightly. I'm probably better off for not having been there. It was too dangerous a storm. But missing Moore was a bitter pill to swallow, and I think a lot of the reason has to do with my limited ability to chase. I just can't afford to do it nearly as often or extensively as I'd like, so having to head back to Michigan empty-handed one day too soon after driving all those miles, knowing that the next day would be big in Oklahoma, was hard on me. I could have afforded the extra day and I badly wanted to stay, but one of the guys had to work the following morning, and there was no getting out of it. He had a responsibility to his employer and his family, and as the driver, I had a responsibility to him. Such responsibilities are honorable and will always come first with me. But that didn't make things any easier. Watching the debris ball roll across Moore on GR3 while I was driving east through Missouri created an ugly mix of feelings for me. My first thought was, Oh my God! When you see something like that, you just know something horrible is happening. My second thought was, I'm missing it. After driving all those miles and busting (got just a fleeting glimpse of a rope tornado, not anything to even talk about), that radar image seemed like a slap in the face. I felt angry, like I'd been robbed, betrayed. Which is crazy, of course, but feelings are feelings, no more and no less, and I'm just being honest here about mine at the time. My third thought, which is the one I've had to wrestle with since, was, Why? Why was I feeling so torn about missing something so terrible, an event that would have have broken my heart and caused me to lose sleep if I had been there? I don't think there's a simple answer; I think there are many components which add up. But the bottom line is, there's an obsessive aspect to chasing for me that can either make or ruin my day and even my week. I don't see that as healthy, and it didn't use to be that way. I use to take my limitations in stride, and busts were just busts: not personal failures, just part of paying my dues as a chaser. But chasing today is a whole different ballgame than it was when I first got started seventeen years ago. The mindset is more competitive, many more people are doing it and spending gobs of cash and time in the process, and overall I just can't keep pace with it. So I've had to--and still have to--do some soul-searching. Who I am as a person goes far deeper than chasing storms. And more important to me than being in the mainstream of chasing is having peace of mind, and that requires accepting my limitations, working within them to simply enjoy something I love to do without letting it own me. I find that much easier to say than it is to do, but for me it is a necessity. If I can afford to chase a setup, I will; if I can't, I'll wish those of you who can success--and safety. I hope it will be many, many more years before anything like another Moore or El Reno occurs.

Why I Chase Storms: A Storm Chaser’s Manifesto

I posted the following message on Facebook, but it really belongs here. It is one of what I think will be a number of very personal, reflective posts on storm chasing as I process the impact of a difficult, disappointing, terrible, and tragic season. ------------------------------ This storm season has left me feeling very torn. As I sift through its impact on me, I am grateful for my friends who are NOT chasers. People whose perspective on life is different from mine. My men's group, for instance, is a small circle of wonderful, godly brothers in Christ who have seen plenty of life. It felt cathartic to share with them last night about my passion for chasing storms, my sense of failure as a chaser, and the recent, tragic losses of Tim and Paul Samaras and Carl Young. In talking with the guys about chasing, I spoke frankly about a common misconception about storm chasers: that we are out there saving lives by what we do. That may sometimes be the case, but it is not the motivating force for me or any of the chasers I know. That image, fostered by the media, simply isn't what drives chasers. I chase, and most other chasers chase, primarily because we are enamored with the storms. There is nothing intrinsically heroic in what we do. Depending on where we're chasing, our presence in the field can be valuable as part--and only a part--of warning the public. A few chasers--a very few, including the late Tim Samaras--collect data for scientific research, some of which could conceivably help to improve an already excellent warning system. Occasionally, some chasers find themselves in a position to make a life-saving difference as first responders. And Storm Assist is providing a fabulous means for chasers to contribute their videos to a charitable cause whose proceeds go directly to aiding the victims of tornadoes and severe weather. All of these things are true and good. But they're different from the myths that have arisen around storm chasing. One of those myths is that chasers are sickos who enjoy watching homes and communities get trashed; the other is that we're more noble than we really are. Between these two extremes lies the reality of why storm chasers actually chase. And the truth is, no single reason fully describes every chaser. Chasers are individuals, and today as never before, that individual component interacts with the influence of technology and the media to create a complex and varied mix of motives. Yet I believe all chasers possess one common denominator: a love for, a passion for, the storms. Personally, storm chasing engages me on many levels--intellectual, emotional, spiritual, aesthetic, creative, and adventurous--in a way that nothing else does. When I can chase the way I want to, I feel alive; when I cannot, which is far too often, I feel intensely frustrated, moreso than I think is healthy. Lately, my limitations have left me feeling depressed. That is something I have to work through, talk to God about, and discuss with those close to me who know me well. But one thing is certain: I chase, as best I am able, because it is what I love to do, period. There is nothing else like storm chasing. I love the sky, the storms, their drama and beauty, their intensity, their mind-boggling motion, the awe they inspire, the landscapes they traverse, and the lessons they have to teach. I am a pupil of the atmosphere. Because I live in a part of the country where both tornadoes and experienced chasers are far fewer than in the Great Plains, I can perhaps play a more significant role locally in helping to warn the public than in Tornado Alley, where droves of chasers line the roads. Chasing for WOOD TV8 here in West Michigan creates that possibility for me. But I would chase regardless. It's what I do, just as playing the saxophone is what I do and just as golfing, or car racing, or writing, or painting, or fishing, or crocheting, or hiking, or hunting, or what have you, is what you do. We're all wired to do something, and we desire to do it excellently. There's nothing innately noble about it, and there doesn't need to be. Your pursuit may, in the right circumstances, put you in a position to contribute to the well-being of others. But it needs no justification in order to be worthwhile. That is how I view storm chasing, and I think many of my fellow chasers would agree. So please do not thank me for what it is I do, for the only thing I am doing is following my heart. In the same breath, please do not condemn me for it, for you may benefit from it someday--again, as just one facet of an excellent warning system in which I play only a part.

The Deaths of Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young

When last I wrote about this year's storm season, it was non-existent: a cold, cold April and early May with teaser setups shot to pieces by crashing cold fronts. Funny how fast things can change--or really, not so funny. No, not so funny at all. On May 20, non-existent turned into horrible when an EF-5 tornado ripped across the heart of Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 people. Then, as if that weren't bad enough, on May 31 a monstrous supercell with multiple rotations took a second swipe at the area, taking another 11 lives (at last count). I followed its progress on radar, and I don't recall ever seeing anything like it before: just one big, amoeba-like mass of churning vortices pulverizing an already storm-shattered city. KFOR chopter cameras showed a rain-wrapped tornado approaching a highway filled with several miles of gleaming headlights, all at a standstill--hundreds of panicky motorists trapped as a mass evacuation turned into a parking lot. It was unbelievable. And it was horrifying. I have written nothing about storm chasing for over a month. At first, it was because there was nothing to write about. Then came the Moore tornado, and after that I've had just the opposite problem. I have felt overwhelmed with conflicting emotions, and there is so much to say that I haven't known where to begin. Until now. Tonight, I can no longer keep silent. I must write. When news of the deaths of veteran storm chaser and tornado research luminary Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and his chase partner Carl Young began to filter in last night on Facebook, I took it with the usual grain of salt. These things have a way of proving false, and I take a dim view of sensationalist reports until the facts have been confirmed. In this case, sadly, they have been. Three bright stars in the storm chasing firmament have fallen from the sky. They were not the idiot yahoos everyone expected would one day become storm chasing's first direct tornado casualties. They were skilled chasers, as expert and knowledgeable as they come and known for their caution and respect for the storms. Whatever circumstances surrounded their deaths in the violent El Reno tornado, it is doubtful that they involved deliberately foolish risk-taking. That wasn't their style. I have never met Tim, Paul, or Carl, but many chasers have, and everyone knows of Tim's work. Simply put, he was one of the most respected names in the field of storm chasing, and from everything I have heard, one of the nicest. I have never heard anything but good words for all three of these guys. And now they are gone, torn from our midst far too soon. There is some consolation in knowing that these men died doing what they loved. Some. But it does not mitigate the grief felt by their families and friends. Even those such as I who did not know them feel a great sadness. My heart is heavy, and my prayers are with the loved ones of Tim and Paul Samaras and Carl Young. May you rest in peace, gentlemen. You have given the world much. Thank you.

A Crummy Storm Season and an Upcoming Video Tutorial on Circular Breathing

Well over a month has elapsed since my last post. I look at the date of that post, April 1, and think, Right. April Fool, everybody. It sure fooled me. My exuberant expectations for this storm season, particularly compared to last year's, have fallen so far short that they'd need to climb a step ladder just to be upside-down. Last year by this time, I'd at least gotten in two productive chases, one of them spectacular and the other decent. This year, nada. I didn't think it was possible to have a worse chase season than 2012, but 2013 is demonstrating just how a wrong a man can be. Now, I know what everyone says: you can't judge the latter part of a season by its early part. I believe that. The past has proved how dramatically things can change. Chase seasons that started out crappy suddenly shaped up and started cranking out some great setups. I hope that proves true with this one. As it stands, my traditional target date of May 22, nigh sacred to me for the great chases it has provided, has been consistently flatlining on the GFS. That long-range model has me gazing wistfully at its the far, far end, willing for a shadow of hope to show up at 384 hours and remain hopeful--a nice, robust trough that survives successive runs and moves through the timeline into the Plains, where--you'll say I'm dreaming--it actually overlays moisture and instability. There's actually such a shadow lurking in this morning's GFSM. I don't trust it, no sir-ree, not at all. Yet I hope it will show better integrity than its predecessors. Regardless, I'm crossing my fingers for late May and June. As for this blog, its inactivity is due a depressing lack of anything stormy to write about. Oh, yeah, there was the history-making April flood that put a number of Michigan communities underwater and came within inches of overflowing the floodwalls in downtown Grand Rapids. I heard of a golf course on the southwest side of town that was under four feet of water. That's not something you see every day around here. So I made a point of going out and snapping some photos in my own neck of the woods along the Thornapple and Coldwater rivers. The 84th Street dam on the Thornapple was like a giant firehose, the jewel-like Coldwater Park was underwater, and a couple miles further east, vast acres of wooded floodplain had opened up to exploration by canoe. It was something to see, but I didn't much feel like writing about it. Fortunately, when the weather refuses to cooperate, music keeps me occupied. Last Thursday, Big Band Nouveau debuted at The B.O.B. in downtown Grand Rapids. We played our butts off and enjoyed an enthusiastic reception. I see great prospects for this band. More immediately, I've been working on a video tutorial on circular breathing. In fact, I shot some video yesterday and uploaded it last night to YouTube, with every intention of posting it on Stormhorn.com today. But in reviewing it this morning, I realized that it wasn't up to snuff. So I deleted it from YouTube. I need to do another video session before I can post. In other words, everything you've just read is really a substitute for the post I had planned, featuring the video tutorial. That post is in the works, so consider this a heads-up, particularly if you're interested in learning circular breathing. That's all for now. A full day of editing a client's manuscript awaits me, and I've got to get to it. Sayonara.  

Jazz Improvisation: Some Assembly Required

Last Monday night, on my way home from a rehearsal with Big Band Nouveau, I got to thinking about how different jazz improvisers sound from each other. In our sax section alone, we have three solo voices, each of them distinct. Mike Doyle,  our lead tenor man and band leader, is an eclectic mix of influences, though I would say that his roots are in hard bop. Isaac Norris, our other tenor player, is working his way into increasing complexity, but he clearly comes out of the smooth jazz tradition. As for me, the lead alto guy, I'm steeped in bebop and hard bop tempered with some of the contemporary concepts of Michael Brecker. All three of us play the saxophone, but each of us plays it differently. And this is true throughout the world of jazz. Hand five seasoned trumpet players the same set of chord changes set to the same groove and backed by the same rhythm section, and each trumpeter will handle those changes in a personal way, using a vocabulary that includes many of the same ideas as the other players, but in an individualized manner; and also incorporating other ideas that are utterly unique to the musician. I used to think there was a "right" way to play jazz, a sort of standardized approach that separated the real deals from the neophytes and the outliers. I don't know where that notion came from. Probably my own black-and-white thinking as a young man, due partly to my need to define things in order to learn them and partly to my tremendous insecurity. Now I realize that jazz improvisation is like a vast arboretum filled with all kinds of trees and plants, with trails that wind across terraces and hillsides, through emerald woodlands, and over sun-gilded meadows. All kinds of beautiful living things grow there, and somewhere in that magnificent landscape is a plot of land you can call your own and grow what you choose to grow. You get the same gardening implements and essentials as everyone else: your instrument, the structural elements of music theory, the legacy of great jazz soloists to learn from, the water of practice, and the rich soil of your own ever-increasing experience. But what you grow with these things is up to you. You start out by learning how to play your instrument. You expand by exploring music theory and how other musicians have applied it to their art. And ultimately, you find your own voice. Your instrument is not your voice. Music theory is not your voice. Technique is not your voice. The styles of other players are not your voice. YOU are your voice. Your voice resides within you, and everything else is just the tools for discovering it, releasing it, and continuing to cultivate it. Jazz does not come pre-assembled. In fact, it is anything but prefab. The best you can say is that all the tools and materials are at your disposal. But the assembly is entirely up to you. Just know this: whatever you come up with--whatever work of art you create, whatever tree you grow in your part of the arboretum--will be exactly the right way for you to play jazz if you work at it with diligence and integrity. Remember, it takes time to grow a tree. Enjoy that tree, that living thing God has entrusted to you, in all its stages. There is no rush, no place to arrive at, only a life experience to invest yourself in. Work hard, but breathe easy--and enjoy yourself.

Tonight by the Tracks: The Foibles of Practicing the Saxophone When You’re Me

I've found a new place to practice my saxophone along my beloved railroad tracks. If you've followed the musical side of this blog for any length of time, you know that I do most of my practicing in my car, parked by a CSX line that threads the countryside from Grand Rapids to Lansing. Living in an apartment has forced me to find a suitable "studio" away from my living quarters, and since I've loved trains since I was a kid, the tracks are it. I don't mind this arrangement at all. I've been getting in my practice this way for years, even a couple decades, and I like it so well that even if I owned a house, I would probably still venture out to the tracks frequently. Anyway, these past couple of months I've begun parking in a little turn-in next to the tracks between Alto and Elmdale, which is like hanging out halfway between Huh? and Nowhere. I love this spot. Parking parallel to the tracks, I can see the distant signal lights both behind me in the mirror and in front of me through the windshield and can spot the headlamps of approaching trains from far off. It's great. Of course, the sight of a car parked off to the side with its lights out and the dim outline of a person sitting inside it looks a bit suspicious, and once in a while, the cops stop and check me out. I don't mind--they're doing exactly what they should be doing, and usually they're pretty nice about it. The guy who investigated me tonight was a good example. I was sitting there ripping through "Ornithology" with my Aebersold CD when a patrol car pulled up and melted both of my retinas with its spotlight. Okay, no sweat. I kept on playing, figuring that doing so would provide the quickest explanation for what I was about. I figured right. When the policeman walked up to my window, he was laughing. "What's the matter? Wife won't let you practice at home?" he said. I explained my living situation and how I had been parking by this stretch of tracks for many years. "Yeah, I think I've seen you out here before," he said. "You know, my father-in-law plays trombone, and my mother-in-law gave him crap for playing it last Thanksgiving." "Hey," I said, "someone understands!" I handed him my license and let him run his routine. Then we wished each other well, he took off, and I returned to my practicing. It was a clear January night with a new moon, not very cold, and through my side window I could see Orion the Hunter striding through a riot of stars in the southern sky. In my rearview mirror, a green signal light announced the approach of a train still miles down the line. Such are the perks of practicing by the railroad tracks. Why would I ever trade them for playing indoors?

Once There Was Night

You cannot find silence anymore, nor can you find the night. Once there was such a thing as quiet in the countryside, and midnight skies, dusted with silver chips, that stretched from horizon to horizon. But no more. Drive where you will, mile after mile, you cannot escape the taint of man-made light or the sounds of an obtrusive and increasingly uncivilized civilization. The world is noisy, and there is no respite from the noise, nor is the night any longer truly night. No more can you look up and gaze into infinity; the street lights, the farm lights, the headlights, and the glow of distant towns will not let you. We are so well-lit that we can no longer see. The reality of what we have lost came crashing in on me tonight as I drove out in search of a place to watch the Perseids meteor shower, which as I write is at its peak. I could not find a suitable location. I am not saying I couldn't find a place where I could see meteors. Several spots afforded me a decent view of the sky. What I could not find was a place where I felt truly by myself, a place where I could wrap myself in the mystery of a heavens not shrouded with light pollution and contemplate the beauty of the night in silence. On a gravel road that dropped south from 108th Street, I thought for a moment that I had found a good place to view the Perseids. Parking on the side next to the tall August corn, I got out of my car to watch for shooting stars. The only lights were single farm lights half a mile down the road in either direction. Overhead, the luminous ribbon of the Milky Way wove through a crowd of stars. This location would do. Then I heard it. Someone was blaring rock music down the road from me. But where? It sounded like it was coming from only a couple hundred feet away, but the source had to be a long way off. Ah, what did it matter? This was crazy. I had driven out into the farmlands in search of darkness and silence, but the noise had found me anyway. A short while later, I stood by my car at another spot near my town's athletic fields. I was pleasantly surprised at just how dark--relatively dark, that is--my new location was. A meteor trickled across the east. A dimmer one scratched the sky for half a second, now there, now gone. But what the heck ... where was that music coming from? Oh, for crying out loud. Once again I was parked at a place far from houses, and yet it sounded like a bloody band was standing out in the field nearby playing a concert. And now a jet came roaring in toward the airport ... and my ears opened up to the sounds of traffic on the nearby roads ... nuts. Forget it. I had seen a few meteors and that was enough. I hopped back in my car and headed home. Now here I am, finishing this post. My wall clock reads 1:17 a.m. A while ago, I could hear voices outside my apartment, but those are gone, and I am left with only the faint susurration of traffic on M-37 and the flesh-colored glow of the parking lot lights. I could do without them shining through my window. Besides ruining my lightning photos from the balcony when storms pass over, they steal the night. From a security standpoint, I understand the wisdom of having the lights, but I don't like them. I wish I could get the night back. Today, fewer people people know what I mean. But I haven't forgotten. Once there was night. There still is in some places. You have to drive far north to find it in Michigan, but it's there to be found. I just wish it was here.

Saying Good-Bye to July

Looks like I almost let July slip by without making a single post. Almost. I just haven't felt inspired to write in this blog lately. Weatherwise, what's to say? Right--the drought. Frankly, I haven't felt like writing about the drought. We all know how horrible it has been: day after day and week after week of relentless, rainless heat. No doubt that's newsworthy, but I'll let the news media tackle it. From my perspective, it discomforts me, it annoys me, it inconveniences me, and certainly it concerns me, as it should anyone living in the continental United States. To say it has been disastrous is putting it accurately. But while I suppose this drought is severe weather in its own way, it doesn't interest me the way that a thunderstorm does. Mostly, it's something I wish would go away, a sentiment shared by millions of Americans roasting in the Midwestern heat. Fortunately, it won't be here forever, and lately the pattern around the Great Lakes has seemed to be nudging slowly but progressively toward a stormier one. As I write, the radar screen for Michigan looks like this (click on image to enlarge it). I like that: a cold front dropping out of the northwest bringing a nice line of storms and a good dousing of much-needed rain. Shifting gears to music, there's not much to say on that topic either. Of course I've been staying on top of my instrument, but that's par for the course. My woodshedding on "Giant Steps" and "Confirmation" continues, along with "Ornithology," and I'm getting to where I'm starting to shred the bejeebers out of those tunes. But, mmm, yeah, okay, so what. Where do I go from here? The studio, I think. It's about time I finally recorded my efforts, put something down for ears besides mine to listen to. Otherwise, why am I bothering with all this practicing of tunes that no one is ever going to call for on a gig? Folks want "Satin Doll," not Coltrane changes. Still, somewhere out there I think there are people who will take an interest. So I need to get with my buddy Ed Englerth in his Blueside Down Studios and make some noise. 'Scuze me if I sound a bit cranky. At 56 years of age, I'm rapidly approaching full curmudgeonhood and I am getting in practice for it. The lack of heavy convection and lack of gigs combined is assisting the effort. But a shift in either aspect of that equation will restore my humor and give me something to write about. No, that's not right--there's always something to write about. What I need is something I feel like writing about. Maybe later tonight will do the trick, when that storm line which is presently 50 miles to my north moves in. Hmmm ... the cell that is just making landfall near Pentwater is packing straighline winds of nearly 70 knots. That'll create some interest for folks south of town. Now to close up shop and see what kind of action we get around here a few hours hence. If it's nothing more than a good dumping of rain, I'll be more than happy. But I'm betting it'll come with a spark and a growl.

Bow Echo at Elk Rapids, Michigan

Judging from the forecast soundings, it seemed that northern Michigan stood at least a chance of tornadoes yesterday evening. But the storms that first ignited in Wisconsin quickly congealed into a broken line as they crossed Lake Michigan, minimizing their tornadic potential and fulfilling the predictions of forecast models and the knowledgeable heads at the Storm Prediction Center. I made the trip north regardless of, from my standpoint as a storm chaser, the unpromising prognosis. I hadn't been upstate yet this year, I was itching for a bit of convective violence in any form, and the thought of simply watching a brooding shelf cloud blow in over the beautiful hills-and-water region around Traverse City appealed to me. Given ample low-level helicity between 200-300 m2/s2, I figured I stood at least a chance of getting  some rotation out of a tail-end cell or perhaps a hook-like protrusion. But I was willing to settle for less, which is what I expected and what I got. I headed north on US 131 as far as Kalkaska. Then, with storms to both my north and west, I decided I'd be better off heading west down SR 72 and meeting the southernmost cells moving in toward Traverse City. At Acme, I caught US 31 north, and from then on my goal was to find a good place to park and get some pics. That's easier said than done in a landscape filled with timber. Grand Traverse Bay was almost within spitting distance, and I could see glowering, lightning-laced clouds advancing to my northwest. But, blocked by trees, the clear view I envisioned of a shelf cloud bulldozing in over the bay kept eluding me. Finally I found myself in Elk Rapids. The town was right on the water; there had to be someplace to park with an open view. At a stop sign, I edged out prematurely, then tapped on the brakes as fellow chaser Nick Nolte turned off the main drag in front of me. Cool--Nick was here too. I figured I'd find a spot, then give him a call. As it turned out, Nick found me first a few minutes later in the parking lot of the local marina. "Hey, I just about ran into you at an intersection," I told him. "That was you?" he said. "Jerk!" Our location was probably as close to ideal as possible, given the lay of the land. The cell to our north blew past, but the radar indicated a bow echo making its way directly toward us. I'd never have guessed from the bland-looking sky to the west. But in a few minutes, storm features began to emerge from the nondescript grayness like an old Polaroid photograph developing. A shelf cloud was advancing across the bay, growing more distinct by the second. Nick hopped out of his car and tripoded his camera. I opted to go hand-held--not the best approach, but in this case a practical one. But my camera gave me grief; the shutter wouldn't operate, and by the time I remembered that I needed to turn off the auto-focus, the shelf cloud was overhead. Nuts. I snapped the five shots you see below, then got in my car as the rain and wind descended in earnest. The marina was right in the belly of the bow, and for a few minutes, I enjoyed a nice blast punctuated with lightning and commented on by thunder. Then the line moved off to the east. Nick and I decided to try and reposition in hopes of intercepting the southern end, but our attempt was futile. We ended the chase and grabbed dinner at a Big Boy restaurant in Kalkaska. This time of year, any storm is a good storm--not that I'll normally drive 175 miles just to see a bow echo, but I don't need a Great Plains tornado to make me happy. After multiplied days of remorselessly gorgeous weather, a boisterous round of lightning and thunder always gladdens my heart and gets a shout out of me. ADDENDUM: The tail-end cell, which had consistently displayed a hook-like appendage and shown an inclination to turn right, went on to produce an EF-1 tornado at a golf course near Roscommon, forty miles east-southeast of where Nick and I grabbed dinner in Kalkaska. The low-level helicity delivered after all. If the storms had been discrete, I suspect we'd have seen a few more tornado reports.

June 9, 2012, North Dakota Chase Bust: Buy My Elephant

You can't find a more quintessential border town than Pembina. It's the last US town on I-29 before you hit Canada two miles to the north; and just across from it, on the eastern side of the Red River of the North, lie Minnesota and Pembina's border-town twin, Saint Vincent. Tucked away in the northeast apex of North Dakota, Pembina is as far poleward as you're ever likely to chase storms in the continental United States unless you find yourself pursuing wedges around Angle Inlet, Minnesota. Last Saturday afternoon, Rob Forry and I gassed up at a filling station on the western edge of Pembina and contemplated the sky with fellow storm chasers Jim Parsons and Brian Spencer. The forecast models had been painting a frustrating picture, with a surface low moving northeast up into Manitoba and dragging southeast winds with it, leaving those of us without passports--which included me--with helicity-killing southwesterlies by the time storms started firing later in the day. However, the HRRR was offering a glimmer of hope, stalling the warm front across the northernmost counties and maintaining southeasterly winds slightly south of the border as late as 01z. So there we were in Pembina in the mid-afternoon, gazing at a patch of altocumulus. On the way up, we had passed through an outflow boundary from storms earlier that morning, and now a brisk northeasterly wind reminded us that we had left the warm sector behind us. The four of us grabbed lunch at a local restaurant, then parted ways. Most chasers were congregated well to our south near Devil's Lake, where previous forecast soundings had looked pretty compelling. Unquestionably, instability would be present. Helicity and capping were the question marks, and even as we backtracked southward and then west, I had a hunch that we would eventually wind up playing back to the north. In the tiny prairie town of Edmore--how do people earn a living in such remote places?--Rob and I found a shady place to park and wait for things to develop. We had passed back across the frontal boundary, and the temperature was warm, the winds were blowing from the southeast, and overhead, billowing towers kept thumping against the stout cap. We hung out in our new location for maybe half an hour with John and Brian, who had rejoined us, then took off. During that short time, the surface winds had veered to the south, so we headed back north on SR 1 to where the winds were once again blowing from the southeast and then parked. Ten or fifteen minutes passed. A dot materialized far down the road to our south and grew larger, expanding and dividing into two rapidly approaching vehicles. It was our friends Ben Holcomb and Adam Lucio, in company with a small group of other chasers I had never met. They pulled aside and we all stood around and yakked for a while. Ben was suffering from a nasty ear infection which had hit him the previous night, and while he had managed to score some antibiotics, he was still pretty miserable. But with a friend visiting him from Finland for the express purpose of chasing storms, he was sticking doggedly with the chase. Must come from having lived all those years in Michigan, where a chaser's character is shaped by supercell deprivation. We hung with Adam, Ben, and their crowd for a while, then continued north. The surface winds had once again veered, and surface obs showed them blowing from the south-southwest not very far south of us. It seemed to me that if we were going to have any chance at all of seeing a tornado--and admittedly, chances were slim to begin with--it would be along the northern tier of counties in the instability axis. At the town of Langdon, we headed west, and it wasn't long afterward that we witnessed a tower finally break through the cap directly overhead and blossom into a full-fledged storm. We tagged with it for a few minutes, but with just a couple miles between us and the border, we didn't have much room to play with, so we let it go for the chasers in Canada to try their luck with. Meanwhile, another storm was intensifying to our south, and we headed east to intercept it. From there on, storms began to multiply, but there's no point in going into detail. The cloud bases were higher than I had expected; the ambient surface winds, which had been brisk all day, seemed to sigh away into nothingness; and the storms were outflow-dominant and just garden-variety severe. Rob and I encountered a little half-inch hail, and at one point a nearby CG which I never saw struck behind me, producing a LOUD thunderclap that sounded like a rifle shot and scared the crap out of me. But it wasn't the severity of the storms that made this trip memorable. It was that minimalist landscape stretching its sameness in every direction out into infinity; and it was the dome of the sky, spreading its cerulean canvas from horizon to horizon over tiny communities scattered far apart across the prairie. There, a thousand miles from my Michigan hometown and over 100 miles farther north than the northernmost point of the Keweenaw Peninsula, that sky-canvas, daubed by the Great Painter with the texture and tincture of clouds and light, rendered the panoramic emptiness of North Dakota dramatic and beautiful. The drive back on the following day was predictably long and, for the most part, uneventful. These last two photos mark what was probably the highlight of the return trip (barring dinner at a truly fabulous sushi restaurant in Janesville, Wisconsin). Rob snapped them for me at a gas station somewhere in Wisconsin or maybe Minnesota, I forget where. But the place wouldn't be too hard to find again. It's probably the only gas station in America that has a sculpture of a life-size pink elephant wearing black glasses standing at the edge of the parking lot. Naturally, Rob and I both needed to pose in front of so imposing a creature, and it wasn't until I processed the pics afterward that I noticed the realtor's "For Sale" sign on the left. Really, though, it's my sign. Would you like to buy my elephant? I'll make you a great deal. It's a very nice elephant, well-behaved and in excellent health except for a slightly embarrassing digestive disorder for which I've found no remedy other than to ... well, you can see how I've handled it.