Afterwards, Lori asked if I’d had fun, and I said, for the most part, and she asked what I’d liked best. I thought for a long moment and then took her in my arms and said, coming home.
Our codgernautical quest was supposed to be about companionship, about photography, about birds and birding, about floras and faunas not our own but montane, desert, prairie, sandhill, riverine. It was about the American West and the emigrant movement that opened this nation even as it signaled the beginning of the end for its native inhabitants. It was about exploration and adventure and getting away. It was all that and more, and less even, and carried its own weight of loss in things we left behind but never fully abandoned, fixed in each breath we took, each thought, each dream, a second shadow accompanying us to the West.
We launched with certain things understood as potentials, and the shadows they cast were long and grim: atmospheric conditions ideal for the formation of supercells and long-path tornadoes; our house under construction and Lori’s job demands more than anticipated, Jim’s wife awaiting biopsy results. It was, in retrospect, probably unwise to depart when we did. That I write this with the perfect clarity of hindsight is a given that must be understood. It is the underlying principle for all that follows, the glue that binds this tale.
(For mine is the godlike eye seeing the past in its entirety and poring over its structure, scrutinizing minutiae, actions, subtle nuances of inflection and intonation, striving to determine patterns and geometries pertaining to our ultimate fates, and in all ultimately failing. An inconsolable deity, encumbered by incomplete notes and recollections, prejudices, fears and fallacies, burdened with unanswerable questions and perhaps more content for it, with a latent yearning for simple slumber without dreams. A mere mortal after all.)
And so we went, our horizons before and behind indefinite from an excess of humidity, the sky above ponderous with rain, the fields below drenched and riven with gullies like raw bleeding wounds. A dam breached. Pastures submerged. Evidences of a changing climate and harbingers of more to come, and the western skies darkening with each passing mile.
Cows on the road were the first danger. I’ve driven that section of Highway 36 a hundred times or more and never encountered any form of wildlife save a family of raccoons late one night, and yet that solo free-ranging bovine was merely the first. More followed, leading me to wonder about the alleged mystical ability of mammals to forecast violent weather or natural catastrophes, normally manifested in an edgy restlessness, if you believe the tales. Jim said that several times he’d crossed snakes on that road and every time thereafter encountered heavy rain. Some sixth sense, perhaps, touched by atmospheric pressure, temperature spikes, even unknown qualities science can only surmise. And all the while the word “supercell” stuck in my brain like a bur, and I turned it this way and that as if to dissect it and in doing so lessen its menace.
It seems a distinctly Midwestern term. Residents from other parts of the country must think it something else entirely, a particularly efficient form of battery or maximum security prison housing the worst of the worst. To a Nebraskan, a Kansan, a resident of the prairie states, supercell is a bogeyman word, a nightmare with which to threaten unruly children, a curse, its every syllable and vowel dripping with evil. If any comfort can be drawn from the idea of a supercell, it’s that the devil unleashed is blind and unwitting, preying without favor or remonstrance on righteous and unrighteous alike.
It’s possible the cows were a warning. As we ate a quick sandwich at a park in Norton, we sniffed the air and felt in our bones its very instability. By the time we crossed into Nebraska the skies were black and the wind rising. Several lonely houses scarred with past storm damage went past, a storage shed reduced to twisted sheets of metal strewn across a soggy field, trees smashed flat or whipped to bare stalks. A large falcon winged by and we tracked it but could not agree on an identification, peregrine or prairie. Our attentions irrevocably diverted toward that which moved to intersect us.
Some thunderstorms can be avoided, some not. This one spread across the earth consuming everything in its path and rumbling cavernously spit fire and darkness. In my mind the word supercell gained ascendance like a supplication or invocation to a disaffected spirit. A midnight wall of water raced toward us. Jim cursed gripping the wheel white-knuckled and stared balefully out the windshield on a world gone amorphous and liquid. Jagged forks of lightning exploded in the sudden night as if some great machine were short-circuiting, and us trapped within, but faintly, ever so faintly, our eyes trained on a paler shade of gray to our left, a safe haven if we could reach it. Chod flipped the radio to a channel static with blips and beeps and advisories. Hail ricocheted off the hood like bullets.
“Should we pull over and wait it out?” Jim yelled.
Before we could answer a sign passed spectrally announcing Red Willow State Recreation Area. The announcer broke in warning of a tornado on the ground at the selfsame location. Its direction almost matched ours as did its rate of speed. Jim accelerated and tersely told us to watch his back but there was little visible in the rear view mirrors but a pluvial twilight laced with fire.
So we fled and the storm pursued, but roads follow cardinal points and storms do not and after a while we broke free, and with all thoughts of tenting abolished we at last joined the green ribbon of the great Platte River Road and turning followed it toward the West.
(To be continued)