We slowed near the center of town and pulled off at an abandoned gas station. Soon, the other vehicles, with Steve Miller and Eric Nguyen, joined us. As Jeff and I ran our well-practiced drill of setting up the laptop and connecting to the Internet, several members of local law enforcement surrounded us. They were joined by firefighters and paramedics as we became the center of attention and weather information in this relaxed North Texas community.
"What website do yall use to pull up the radar?" asked one of the Texas Troopers. I told him about American Weather Concepts, my weather data site of choice, and quickly had a radar image to demonstrate the product. Steve leaned in the window as we contemplated our next move. There were big storms due east, but these were moving northeast as we spoke, and while Highway 82 was a east/west artery, I knew we could not catch these monsters as they bore down on Cooke, Grayson and Fannin counties.
There were also storms to the south of the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex, and these also moved northeast. One of the storms, south of Tarrant county, looked particularly well-organized on radar, and was moving more slowly than the others. This looked like a good interception bet, although it required a turn towards the urban jungle. Storm chasing in the city is an exercise in frustration, futility and danger. Red lights, stop signs and traffic jams are the chaser's worst enemies, and there were plenty of these obstacles to our south.
CHASING THE FRONT
We loaded up again and headed to the east. At the intersection of 82 and Interstate 35, that famous chaser highway and one with a very intense personal history for me, we turned south, heading towards Denton, and beyond that, Dallas-Ft. Worth. This was mine and Steves backyardSteve had moved from Gainesville just a few months earlier, and I spent almost 10 great years here in Denton, Texas, before making the journey out of state and off the planet to South Florida. I was confident in our ability to track and pursue here.
Jeff dissented, arguing that we should continue east on 82 towards Sherman, Texas, in pursuit of the storms in that direction. But I knew 82 also: as a teenager, I had traveled it countless times, in between Sherman and Bonham, Texas, where I attended high school. Bonham was the only town I lived in long enough to call hometown, and I knew this winding, surprising stretch of 82 could slow the most reckless speeder. It was a twisting, treacherous strip of asphalt, littered with cops and the elderly. No place to be behind the storms, I thought. This was the way, with the storm in front of us, with an interception point of our choosing.
Interstate 35 and I go way back. After leaving my birthplace of upstate New York at age 6 ( the best thing thats happened to me yet), my family settled in Austin, Texas so my mother could attend UT. We lived 2 miles from Interstate 35. Next was Temple, Texas and a home just a mile from the Big Road. From there to Tomah, WI, which is more than a few miles but not too far from the northernmost reaches of 35 and then back to Bonham, maybe 80 miles off the highway. To college and Baylor University, that blue-blooded Baptist brothel, where the road was visible from my dorm room and then Denton, Texas, where that same highway was the gateway to Dallas, and Deep Ellum. I spent the better part of my life on this road, and here it was again. Be good to me, I whispered to my old friend.
We drove into heavy rain.
A few miles down the road, the wail of alert tones sounded on the NOAA weather radio channel. We scrambled to strengthen the signal and turn down the volume of the other radios. Severe thunderstorm warnings for Grayson and then Fannin counties. Those were our first storms, the ones wed not pursued and now they were headed for the motherland: Bonham. I clenched my teeth and second-guessed myself. Could we have caught them? I didnt think so, but it didnt help that the storm south of Ft. Worth wasnt moving in our direction and indeed, didnt seem to be moving at all. Bad luck and Denton was now just a few miles away. We pulled over at the University Drive exit, where our anntenae and weather instruments were again the objects of curiosity.
"I didnt know people really did that," one lady said. "I thought it was just in the movies." We were embarrassed by the attention, and tried to give brief explanations of what we were doing. Steve and I talked about our next moves, or even calling it a night. Still, the storm in Tarrant county was alive and well. We still had daylight, and we were here to chase. We loaded up again and headed south.
Interstate 35 branches to the east and west at Denton, the eastern arm going through Dallas with its opposite paved through Cowtown: Ft. Worth. We took the western option and drove about 20 miles, seeing sharp, crisp towers going up to our southeast. We stopped again on the side of the road. With shutters clicking and video rolling, we watched an infant thunderstorm struggle for life in the warm and humid airmass. As quickly as it had risen, the energy drained from the new updraft, and our hopes for the day deflated with it. We debated where to eat, settling on Erics hometown to our south.
At the Outback Steak House, we swapped storm stories and enjoyed the fellowship, wondering what tomorrow would bring and where it would lead us. We agreed to stay somewhere near the Ft. Worth National Weather Service office, so we could get the latest information first thing in the morning, and punch another ticket on our list of neat things to do on a chase trip, namely to visit an NWS office, and shoot the convective shit with those in the know.
That night, we set up the laptop and pulled up some chairs as Steve walked us through a surface analysis and model interpretation, looking for clues about tomorrow. The cold front continued to move south, although it slowed now, and the focus of our query was on its speed and location at dawn. If it moved too quickly, there would be no catching it. We would be marooned in the cool, dry air on the northern side, as thunderstorms formed at the boundary. Even if we caught it, if the pace was too fast, we could not keep up.
"Ive chased fronts moving this fast before," Steve cautioned. "Its very difficult to do." Jeff and I sat and listened as Steve methodically broke down the atmosphere, stripping it away layer by layer, examining each part, and then re-assembling it for a judgement of the whole. There are so many angles of observation, and modern meteorology uses so many indices and other formulated forecasting tools, it is hard to remember that the blanket of gas around us is a single unit. Break it down until youre blue in the face, it is still one fluid flow. The amount of information became overwhelming, and offered no clear picture. We retired and fell asleep immediately.