No dawn but a paling only and in that gloom a faint hiss, almost metallic, of sleet and snow falling through pines. The first week of June and spring barely here in the foothills of the Rockies. Here our number grew by one, Linda hopping a ride to Abilene. We found room for her belongings solely through equal measures of creativity and imagination plus some forceful shoving. Waiting outside for her to say goodbye to Dwight, Jim turned to us and growled, you guys have to clean up your language.
Does she know what she’s getting into? I asked.
I’m serious, you have to behave yourselves.
It seemed a dubious proposal but through decades of marriage a man acquires passable amounts of resiliency and training. It helped that Jim took the wheel and Linda the navigator seat, leaving me and Chod the back to doze. My camera bag was a comforting lump at the back of my head, and in my lap a journal, though what I really wanted was a book to get lost in, weary as I was of my own rantings, rambles and observations.
The road corkscrewed down the Big Thompson Canyon beside a whitewater river, sleet turning to drizzle and then to a driving rain obliterating any chance for speed. We topped off the tank and our snack supply in Loveland, traffic heavy and kicking up spray but slowing for no man nor anything else but the sheer density of it finally dragging it down to a crawl until we crossed the demarcation of I-25 and so departed a city I no longer recognized and sailed free onto the vast unpeopled spaces of the Great Plains.
Fields were sodden and torn, roadside ditches brimming. Cumulations of hail stood a foot deep behind buildings in the few somnolent towns staking claim to the shortgrass prairie, their streets carpeted with shredded leaves and twigs and the sky menacing more, and before us a lone jagged fork of lightning like a signal of hell to come. It was a somber and moody landscape hungover from a long night of nature’s inconceivable wrath, now breathlessly hunkered down in anticipation of the next wave. At a Dairy Queen the manager, looking haggard, answered our query with a simple but eloquent, Rough night.
Near Wray the sun broke out in sudden shafts of light and heat. Any congratulatory impulse was quickly dampened by southern skies coagulating into seething masses laced with fire. We slivered the bottom corner of Nebraska where dismantled silos spread like Christmas tinsel across plowed fields and splintered trees implored with naked branches the unrepentant heavens. Our entry into Kansas was heralded by dire warnings on the FM dial and a horizon eclipsed in stygian darkness. Gone was any desire to tour the Arikaree Breaks. We studied that monster cell, charted its progression and knew that once again we were running before the storm.
I just love the Midwest, I said.
We met the first storm spotters outside St. Francis. Thereafter their presence became ubiquitous: state troopers, small-town cops, EMTs, volunteer firefighters and a farmer or two, some with binoculars, others with two-way radios, all watching the approaching darkness. The radio cackled and hissed, punctuated by nagging beeps of fresh alerts. Tornadoes on the ground, heavy rains, hail, straight-line winds, the entire malevolent gamut in mother nature’s arsenal being brought to bear on western Kansas and moving at a rapid clip to intersect our path. Heedless of the increased number of law enforcement officers patrolling the roads, Jim kicked up the speed and Chod watching from the back seat said nothing.
It was a race we won, though surreally, the storm suddenly veering off outside of Norton, where we pulled in for the night, in its wake a calm stillness belying what was going on elsewhere. Jim’s friends, Larry and Terry, welcomed us to their home and made us comfortable, and as the others toured the grounds I studied the unfolding drama on the television. Severe thunderstorms were hammering the entire state, with one particularly nasty cell looming to the southwest of Blue Rapids. Seeing my worry, Terry handed me the phone and said, call home.
Lori answered and said, it’s black to the west, and I said is everything okay, and she said yes. The sound of sirens erupted in the distance, faint and tinny over the receiver, and the weather radio blared in the background. She said, I have to go, and the line went dead.
I blew out a long breath and went back to watching the Weather Channel. On the screen colorful shapes morphed and contorted, conjoining, splitting, slinking across the screen like bacteria studied through a microscope, seemingly endless loops of the same patterns only subtly different, and each bearing a signature decipherable only to the trained eye. The pretty blonde meteorologist pointed to a radar image overlying a map of Kansas, one long painted nail tracing the contours of a red amoeba-like shape. It had just crossed into Marshall County and nudged against the outskirts of our town. Hook echo, she said. Rotation. Tornado.
After that my mind went blank, and I got up and walked outside to be alone and to think dark thoughts.
If one were to have a crisis I can think of no better place to have it than at Larry and Terry’s house. For the next hour and a half I became a sort of de facto orphan with the others doing their best to calm me. The television provided no news other than the storm’s trajectory, leaving me with an imagination focused obsessively on the destructive. We sat down to a lavish feast, conversed, did the things people do in normal circumstances and yet there was nothing normal about it. A terrible emptiness threatened to swallow me whole.
When at last Lori answered the phone the relief was staggering. A funnel cloud had sent her and the rabbit to the basement, but as far as she knew there was no damage to the town. She asked, when will you be home?
Soon, I promised. But as we crawled into our sleeping bags that night we had no way of knowing there was one more crisis on our horizon.
(To be continued)