Now, I lived in some part of Tornado Alley for approximately thirty years. I technically still do, but Austin is a major metropolitan area surrounded by hills, with a big body of water running through it -- so I no longer think about tornadoes three times a week from March to June.
A few years ago, I took my best friend Merideth to Kansas for a camping event at the end of May. She had never been to Kansas, or really anywhere in the Midwest, and certainly not during spring storm season. There was some rain and a little storming, but mostly a low-key weekend, weather-wise. Monday, we packed everything back into the Subaru and headed home.
The trouble started just north of the Kansas-Oklahoma border on I-35. Large black thunderclouds built up to our right and began bearing down. I put on speed. No chance of outrunning a storm, but I spent three years driving that stretch of road at least once a month, and there's precious little out there. I hoped to be a little closer in to Oklahoma City before the worst of it broke. No such luck.
About fifteen minutes later, the storm hit with a force that nearly threw us off the road. I dropped speed and put my full attention to the wheel and the lanes in front of me, until the rolling waves of rain reduced visibility too badly to continue. We looked for an overpass for shelter, but the only one we passed was already full, two minivans and a couple of sedans huddled together under it. So I fought the wind over to the right shoulder next to a likely-looking section of ditch. Merideth suggested we turn on the radio to see if we could get a sense of the size of the storm.
What greeted us was fear. A large tornado was on the ground south of Blackwell and moving to the south along I-35. Blackwell is about 15 miles south of the border with Kansas. So were we. There aren't a lot of signs for the town, and I'd been focused on the road itself. We were either just north of Blackwell, in which case we needed to stay put for the all-clear, or south of it, in which case we needed to try to find some shelter.
We talked it over, and I explained about not knowing if we were safe or in the direct path of a tornado. Merideth, to her credit, took the news with remarkable calm and equanimity. She asked what she needed to be doing, if there was any way to find out which it was. No, I told her, without a mile marker or any other sort of sign, we couldn't even call a friend to look us up on the map.
The whole time, I was watching. For a green sky, for a black sky. For the wind to stop, or for it to rise to a scream. Listening for the sound of a train, scanning the horizon for a funnel cloud. We watched the wall cloud rise and move across the sky. No one drove by. The radio told us of more tornadoes in our area. We'd ended up in the middle of a supercell.
"Hey, Mer?" I said, keeping my voice as light as possible. "I need you to do something for me. Get your phone..."
"My phone's out of juice, remember?"
"That's OK. Get it, and your keys, and your credit card, and, um, your ID. I need you to put them all in that little purse you got yesterday, and, uh, tie the straps through your belt loops. Attach it really tightly. You'll...need that if we have to run."
Merideth, trusting and oblivious to what I was asking her to do, complied quickly. I checked to make sure that my own ID was securely affixed to my body as well. We reached into the back and got out our pillows. I explained to Mer that if I yelled, "RUN!" she was to, without looking back or waiting for anything, get to the ditch at the side of the road, and get as much of her body under the ditch-water as possible, with the pillow over her head.
She asked me, "And that will keep us safe from the tornado?"
"Yes," I lied. We were alone, in the middle of the Oklahoma plain, with no more protection than an eight-year-old Subaru Legacy and a three-foot ditch. I was not sanguine about our odds. It started to hail. We chatted about the festival as I kept an eye on the horizon.
Eventually the hail stopped and the rain let up a little bit, and we decided to risk the road again. The Blackwell tornado had dissipated, so either we were north of it, or it hadn't reached us. A few miles later, we passed a sign for the town, glad we'd decided to stay put and watch the sky rather than getting back on the road.
Even so, the radio was still giving us warnings. Tonkawa, Ponca City, Lamont, Billings. Take shelter, take cover, get underground, a funnel is in your area. We kept driving, as fast as safely possible, looking for any sort of shelter and watching the sky. The few cars we could see kept pace with us. I noticed the start of a rotation off to our left.
"Mer? Can you watch that section of sky for me, right over there, while I focus on the road?"
"Sure!" A few minutes passed. "Hey, Badger?"
"What am I watching it for?"
"Oh. Yeah, sorry. If it goes green, goes black, or starts to drop, tell me right away."
"OK!" To this day, I remain amazed at how calmly cheerful she was.
By this point, I was pushing the Legacy close to 70, then up to 80 as the rain slowly dropped off. Ahead of us, I saw moving water across both lanes of the highway. We hit it and splashed through it too fast to register whether or not we hydroplaned, and then we were on the other side. To our right, the ditch was full of water, lapping at the edges of the highway. The median was flooded as well.
We were headed for another section of moving water, this one much faster and wider. I know all about driving into running water and the reasons you don't do it. I had about two seconds to think, "Water rising behind, water rising beside, nowhere to run but forward," before we hit it. I felt the front wheels leave the pavement, and was still new enough to the All-Wheel Drive that I was confused when the car continued to respond. The front wheels caught just before the rear ones came up, and we kept moving.
We were headed towards a cluster of police lights. I started to slow down to a more legal speed. The lights were drawing attention to a State Trooper, standing near the side of the road where water threatened to flood again, waving drivers on faster. We complied; I held the wheel tightly and kept it at 80 for the next several miles.
About half an hour north of Oklahoma City, we finally passed out of the storm. We pulled off in a Braum's parking lot so I could shake for a little while, and have a small nervous breakdown and some ice cream, then passed the rest of the trip pleasantly and uneventfully.
The next day, we told this story to Merideth's roommates. When she got to the part where I had her tie her purse to her, they all blinked and said, "Oh. Oh, wow, it was that bad?"
Mer looked at them, and at me, somewhat blankly. "Um," I said. "Yeah. I may not have been completely forthcoming about that. I thought that if there was a tornado, it might be good to make it easier to identify our bodies."
She blinked. She opened her mouth. She closed it. She opened and closed it a few more times. She blinked again.
"I am not going back to Kansas! The sky tried to KILL ME!"