The bed is hard.
I lay, one spongey, foam pillow stuffed behind my neck to prop my head, another low on my stomach to prop my computer. Does anybody use a desktop anymore?
This morning I find myself at the Red Lion Hotel outside Denver. Or perhaps I am at the Comfort Inn in Colby. I am certain this is not the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Oklahoma City; that, I know, was days ago. A quick glance out the window and the emblem of a big cat confirms my instinct.
I see the sky is blue. Again.
The plains have been dry for weeks. The burning red soil in Oklahoma is parched, the clay is cracking and the rifts are large. In Kansas, the corn fields are dusty. Hot winds blow from the south, but do not carry the moisture from the Gulf that normally bursts into storm; instead, they rip and kick and tear at the dust.
I continue gazing as a tractor ambles slowly in the field across the road. It occurs to me that my desperation for clouds on the horizon must not be unlike that of a farmer, helpless as his crops give in to the thirst. But no, we are not alike. While he waits for the rain to quench and to nurture, I wait for the deluge. I wait for the skies to open up, for lightening to crack, for hail to beat and for clouds to twist. In fact I do not wait; impatient, I wander the plains searching for the violence and for the beauty.
The first tornado that I ever saw was a silhouette on a dark Kansas night, betrayed by strobes of lightening flickering in the distance. While my chase partners scanned the storm to the south, a lingering flash drew my glance to the north, and there, unmistakeable, was the backlit cone. It was serendipity. I yelled "cone tornado!"
The twenty twisters I have seen since that awesome night near Goodland have been just as thrilling. Each tornado is a first. The one near Faith was a gentle monster; we tracked it for an hour as it churned harmlessly through the lush, green ranch land. The one at Canton was a study in form; we watched as the clouds first lowered and began to turn, then touched down, morphed and undulated before dying in a rope and a wisp. The Joplin tornado was gruesome; but for a gas pedal and one city block, it would have been my last.
The tractor rolls by, another pass, and brings me back. I should get moving. We meet at ten and I have yet to stuff my things in my little duffle. Today we will head north through Wyoming to the Black Hills of South Dakota. There will be no tornadoes today, it is far too dry for that. No, the storms will not be severe, but they will still be beautiful, they will still be captivating, and Spearfish is only three hundred miles away.