I've traveled across a good portion of the U. S. and always enjoy the scenes each area has to offer. Whether it's the mighty Columbia river along the Oregon and Washington border, historic St. Augustine in Florida, the back country of Yellowstone, or the sagebrush flat lands of Texas, the magnificence of each place is breathtaking in its own way.
Then there are the not so breathtaking places, where you have to look a little deeper. On the plains each spring I hit the road, and I'm never quite sure where it will take me each time I go out. When I chase storms, it's not just the storms that are the attraction for me. It's the small towns, the wildlife, anything really that is out of the ordinary. I thought I'd share a few photos here of the neat things I see on the road that don't quite make the highlight reels, but are special in their own way and unforgettable.
Looking back at the 2012 chase season, there were many places and images that I can think of that take be back to a specific place and time that I'll carry with me the rest of my life. One of those images is the one above, the one I named "Dreamy".
The day started with a low expectation of severe storms in the northern Texas panhandle and into the Oklahoma panhandle. Not wanting to drive 4 to 5 hours away, I chose to stay further south and hope for western Oklahoma near Arnett. I sat and waited in the heat in the early afternoon, watching the popcorn clouds develop but staying apart from each other like they were opposite sides of a magnet pushing each other away. A little later, storms had started developing in the eastern Texas panhandle, so I dropped south a bit and headed west towards the building towers. I arrived about an hour later to watch the developing storm begin to die off due to capping, and took a couple of photos that really didn't amount to much.
About the same time a robust thunderstorm had gone up to the north near the Oklahoma border. Again, not feeling like driving all that way I held off, hoping southern storms would let loose and provide some photo opportunities. I slowly drove north after a few cells that had developed near Canadian, Tx, but as soon as I arrived, they dissipated and I was left watching a couple of gray clouds. Still, to the north the cell that had become so robust had only grown stronger, moving to the east very slowly. I kept watching it, trying to hold off as best I could. I wasn't going to drive that far on this day, even though I had already driven two hours from my front door.
After waiting in Canadian for more development, only to see blue skies overhead I had to make a decision. Go north and chase a storm, or sit in the Texas panhandle and drive back home empty handed. I couldn't resist any longer, I had to go north. The cell had been sitting on the corner of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandle all afternoon it seemed. I only had an hour to get there, but it was getting later in the day so I had to move quick. I blasted north, driving on the lonely highways in the flat lands that were full of sagebrush and not a lot else. I drove over dirt roads to the north that linked parallel paved roads in Texas with those in the Oklahoma panhandle, hoping there was no dead end that would end my journey. The storm was in sight, and I was on it! But, guess what? In keeping with the theme of the day, it was too started dying off. I watched the massive thunderstorm evaporate into a single small extrusion of a cloud, as if it were trying everything in its power to stay alive.
Finally, after such a frustrating day I had decided to call it quits and head home. I had ended up four hours from home, with a long drive to the south awaiting me. I worked my way down the far western Oklahoma roads, watching radar and seeing development further south where I had begun my day. It was getting late and they held off as long as they could, leaving only a short window of light until darkness took over. I made it back to Arnett, and sure enough in the distance the cell was visible, only this time it was in full glory. I pulled over and set my tripod up along an old barbed wire fence and got my camera ready. About that time, a beautiful beam of sunlight shined upon the distant storm as if it were Heaven itself. I had captured one of the most beautiful shots I had ever taken, and was sweet redemption for a tough day of storms that didn't want me to chase them.
It's been five months now since an EF-5 tornado ripped through Moore, OK killing 24 and devastating the community for the second time in 14 years. I was on the scene as the tornado touched down, and this is the first time I've sat down to write about what I saw that day.
I had set out west of OKC on Sara Rd. expecting something to happen somewhere between Yukon and Duncan, a fairly wide corridor but felt I could maneuver to where ever I needed to be. At 12:30 pm I was staked out watching the skies on a warm and humid day that had the feel of severe weather and the expectation of tornadoes. As the afternoon progressed a severe storm had popped up to the south near Duncan, and my first reaction thinking I was too far north to get to it, and I would end up too far away to be on the storm. There was not a good route directly to the south, only high traffic routes that zig-zagged down full of stop lights and left turns. The storm was moving to the northeast though, and if there was a shot to catch it, it would be to the south near Norman. I decided to move south, and that took me east on I-40 and south on I-35. About the time I got to Norman, another cell had developed to the west, a rather large cell that was growing in intensity. I decided at this time I'd head west and try to stay on this cell while it was still west of hill and tree country. This took me west on Highway 9, and north of Newcastle. As I made my way into my position on Highway 37, the cell had started developing a hook on radar and visually a wall cloud had appeared just to my south.
The storm was moving to the northeast with the wall cloud rapidly rotating, and I felt it was just a matter of time before something produced. I headed back east on Highway 37 watching the wall cloud, but hanging back just a bit so I wasn't underneath it if and when something came down. I followed it for a short time when all of a sudden a small funnel appeared out of the base.
The tornado touched down 45 seconds after the photo above was taken. I was streaming video at the time and was shouting for anyone watching to notify anyone in the area at tornado was on the ground.
I kept rushing to the east and I came upon a group of highway patrol and other response vehicles. Unsure if they would let me pass or not, I pulled over. The tornado was growing very quickly, and had gone from a small rope to a stove pipe in less than a minute. It was 1 minute and two seconds between the time the photo above was taken to the time I took the photo below.
I told the patrolman next to me that I was a storm chaser and asked if he was okay with me moving past this point and following the storm. He said he was good with it and asked that I make sure to stay out of the way of the responders, which I had no problem with. It wasn't long after that though the tornado passed I-44 and moved into Moore. I followed as far as I could, but the traffic had built up on I-44 and was also backing up on Highway 37. Unable to follow any further, I tried to make my way back east, but the traffic had come to a halt and moving a mile took at least 10 minutes. Finally, I was able to make my way back to where the damage had taken place in Newcastle, pulled over and offered to help with anything that was needed. After another hour I decided to try to make it back home, taking an alternative route back towards Mustang, but ended up helping a group of people push a lady's car off the road and into a parking lot because it had overheated from sitting so long. Eventually I made it home, but I couldn't stop thinking about those who were in its path and the lives that had been lost.
As someone who has grown up in rural areas on the Great Plains I can attest to the emptiness and lack of obvious scenery of the rolling hills and flat lands of the central U.S., where nothing stops the wind except maybe a clump of trees here and there planted in the 30's during the Dust Bowl and lots of barbed wire. So, when the large wind mills came about 10 years ago, it was quite a sight to see the massive monoliths standing tall on the prairie catching its ever-present wind. Modern day had hit the plains, an idea was in place to generate clean energy, and it looked good doing it.
Over the years, the wind farms began cropping up here and there, usually in some rural area off the beaten path. A few were set up along major routes such as I-40, visible to all and sometimes became a reason to stop and take a neat photo for those from the east or west coast. This was quickly becoming the energy of the future, creating jobs and helping to do our part to fight against the growing problem of Global Warming.
As I was driving to the Wichita Wildlife Refuge in southwest Oklahoma a few weeks back, I noticed a wind farm had been put up on the north side of the mountains, basically on the opposite side of the northern border of the park. It got me to thinking about all the places I have been in the Great Plains and how they have changed over the years. No longer was there a clear sight to the mountains looking to the south, forever replaced by the hulking wind mills and spanning across the visible landscape. At night, the blinking red lights would resemble an alarm clock that had been reset at midnight blinking on and off incessantly, as if waiting for someone to change the time.
Other places maybe not as scenic to everyone began to see them as well. The small town of Putnam, OK along highway 183 lives almost in the shadow of them these days. Places in Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas that used to be home to untouched landscapes are now dotted with large numbers of wind mills, taking away a little more of the wildness that made such places unique and special. Over the years, at least to me, the wonders of man had become more of an eyesore and a reminder of the shrinking world we live in.
This article isn't to bash the idea of wind energy. It has a positive impact on energy, and is a clean alternative to coal and other "dirty" energies. It is an economic boon to the farmers and land owners on the plains, and it creates jobs in places where jobs previously couldn't be found. What I do get concerned about though is the amount of space it takes up and as it grows it will only require more land, more vistas gobbled up. There are other issues as well that have been expressed by others who are affected by them. I read an article the other day where meteorologists were concerned about the wind farms and how they affect storm visibility on radar. Another issue brought up elsewhere is the concern about the impact they are having on wildlife. Birds and bats are dying at an alarming rate, either being attracted to or just not able to navigate the large turbines.
As this form of energy grows, it will require more and more space. This space won't be taken up in urban areas, it will be in the sparsely populated areas where fewer people live. This is great for the masses, but slowly but surely takes out a little piece of America's wildness and what makes it great with it. My hope is that somewhere along the way we figure out how to make a smaller footprint upon the land and still achieve the energy production we need to realize to meet the world's needs. Others may not agree, or may not even care how much space is taken up. "There's nothing to look at anyways if they weren't there." I believe there are places in this world where a little less impression by man is a good thing, and without it you can see everything.
Monday brought about a good opportunity for some fall chasing and one of the last chances for storm photography of the year. I had originally planned to head to southern Colorado for a day to get some fall shots in the mountains, but when I had the choice to go after storms or landscapes, I chose storms.
I headed out at 7:30am with my plan to head up through Woodward, OK and up through Dodge City. There I would evaluate how the day was going to play out and make my next move from there. Along the way, I stopped by Big Basin, a prairie preserve between Englewood and Minneola, KS to get some wide open landscape shots sprinkled with colors.
Afterwards, I headed north on Highway 183 all the way up to Wakeeney, KS and headed west to Collyer where I met the storm.
The storms were linear and didn't pose much of a tornado threat. The line extended from northeast to southwest, and this allowed me to drop straight south and pretty much play the entire length of the storm. I ended the chase just north of Jetmore, KS by just sitting and listening to the thunder. Very relaxing!
I've decided to transfer my Funnel Junkie page to focus more on the photography aspect, and trying to get my business up to full speed. I believe this site better represents where I want to go and makes it easier for the user to navigate and find out what is happening a little better. I will be working hard to keep it up to date, bring the store up to speed and display my image where the full beauty can be enjoyed. Please take a look around and let me know what you think, and if you have any suggestions they would be greatly appreciated!
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