I’m writing this at 30,000 feet, on a tiny plane in bumpy skies. I’m flying home to Boston from Kansas, where I’ve just been stormchasing. Yes, I really do chase tornadoes: For the last three days, my boyfriend and I cross-stitched Kansas and Oklahoma, driving 500+ miles a day. We ate Subway and corn nuts, the chaser’s diet of whatever’s available. On May 10, we watched a storm near Enid, Oklahoma grow from a cottonball cumulus puff into a county-sized beast, speed away from us, and pelt the countryside with hail; by the time we caught it again, the highway was covered with melting white baseballs and several poor souls were huddled in the I-35 breakdown lane with their windshields smashed out. Our conversations consisted of Can’t you pass this guy? and, Did you see that debris cloud? I did. Tornado. Call 911!
In Twister, stormchaser Helen Hunt stumbles into a barn full of swinging scythes and pitchforks and exclaims, “Who ARE these people?” In this season of severe weather, including the outbreak I was just chasing that claimed four lives in Oklahoma City, you might ask the same of stormchasers—including me. Why do I do this? Why don’t I stay home, in my lovely apartment with my lovely dog, where it’s safe? Is the chasing research for THE STORMCHASERS? Well, kinda. The book demands the research, but the research also precedes the book. I write about what I love, and I’ve loved storms since I was a little girl. The storm bug bit me when I was four, when I saw a tornado at night in my grandmother’s southern Minnesota hometown. While everyone else slept, I hid under the couch and watched a black rope twister cross my grandma’s picture window, left to right. This experience—which I transposed into the novel—was terrifying but also, to a girl obsessed with The Wizard of Oz, terribly exciting.
There are a lot of reasons I chase: to learn, to help provide tornado warnings. To know I can do it, to pit myself against the elements and get away with it. To travel and see the parts of our country you can get to only by driving, all that lonesome unpopulated magnificence. The storms themselves — they’re phenomenal sky sculptures. And I really do like corn nuts. Still, primarily, I think it’s this: This morning, sitting in an IHOP in Lawrence, Kansas, I was juggling my laptop, my iPhone, and my menu. My flight home was delayed. The flyover weather was bad. My book trailer wasn’t done, I had 87 new emails, a review of ‘CHASERS had come in that gave away the plot. I found myself wanting to stay in Kansas to chase one more day. To hurtle along rural roads passing farm trucks and connecting the dots between tiny towns. To watch a sky-swallowing storm grow nearer, spit out lightning, lower toward the ground. To get out of the car, hear the roaring wind and — oddly — the birds that always sing around supercells, and calculate where the tornado is going to land, what town we’re near so I can call it in, how to be safe. In a world so often complicated and bedeviled by maddening details, chasing is clarity. For a while, nothing else matters. Except looking up at the sky with fear and wonder, as a little girl once did in her grandma’s house in Minnesota, watching the picture window where the storm was flying by.