May 29, 1997 Chase

Greg and I left the Vista Sports Grill around 2:30pm headed for northwest Oklahoma, the spot highlighted on TWC with a red box. We took US270 all the way to Woodward, where we stopped at a little motel called the Red Country Inn. A few weeks earlier we'd stayed there, and their hospitality was awesome. They remembered us, and allowed us to sneak briefly into an empty room to watch TWC radar. A large HP supercell loomed  south of Dodge City, and was heading our direction. After getting our bearings, we thanked them and headed off to intercept the storm.

We left town on 270 to Fort Supply. From there we turned due north onto US183 towards Buffalo. By this time we could begin to see the storm, which was buried in a haze. The closer we got however, the better we could see. Despite this, we had another developing problem: we had no Kansas map, and it looked like that's where we needed to go. We stopped at a gas station in Buffalo, and asked to buy a Kansas map. The lady didn't have any for sale, but offered to make us a xerox copy of the portion we needed, from her own map she happened to have on hand. We thanked her, grabbed our xeroxed copy of southwest Kansas, and flew out the door.

We had only gotten a few miles north of town when we realized the storm was closer and moving faster than we'd thought; we would not need to go into Kansas. Instead, we turned around and headed back towards Buffalo. We ran into Val Castor and Rob Satkus, and because they were KWTV's number one chase team and we were the new guys, we assumed we must be doing something right. However, as we neared the intersection of US183/US64 north of town, they started left towards 64, but veered right back towards town at the last minute. Since we had already committed to going east, we stayed the course, despite wondering if we were screwing up.

We drove a few miles east until we had a clear view of the storm back to our northwest, then pulled over. Everything looked ragged, and after a few minutes, Val and Rob came pulling up. Rob walked over and chewed the fat with me a few minutes about the situation, and the events we'd witnessed the weekend before. We asked if they minded us tagging along, because we were new and wanted to try and learn. They were gracious and invited us to follow. After a few minutes, it became obvious this storm wasn't going to do much, so we all headed back south towards Fort Supply. At this point, we really didn't know how to proceed; we'd never been on a storm and then given up so early in the day. However it wouldn't be long before we realized the day was just beginning.

Following Val and Rob down US183 headed to Fort Supply, we were more or less just watching the back of their truck. A few miles north of town however, we glanced west and saw a large lowering to the west. Suddenly we went from following Val and Rob to just being behind them; from the very start, my control freak instinct took over and I was locked onto the lowering, with my own plan and strategy. We rolled into town, then jumped onto US270/412 headed west towards the storm and the town of May.

A large wall cloud loomed ahead, and continued to develop as we approached. Along the way, multiple CG strikes were hitting near the lowering, creating dazzling displays as we continued towards the town of May. In our inexperience, we didn't realize the storm was starting to cycle, and just continued to roll west towards May. We went through town (which wasn't much), and then stopped a mile west of town, as the wall cloud was now about to overtake us, along with a massive precip dump. We backtracked through town, and jumped south on OK46. As we drove south back into the clear air ahead of the storm, we realized we had no idea where Val and Rob were; we'd been so focused on getting to the storm we hadn't noticed they disappeared. We found a spot to pull over, and stopped to watch the storm.

The storm didn't seem to be as intense-looking as earlier, and as we sat watching, Val and Rob pulled up again. We talked for a few minutes, before continuing south on 46. Rob and Val passed us, and right behind them, out of nowhere, Mark Hill came flying by, flashing a huge smile and a wave. Mark was another KWTV chaser, and had always been cool to us from the day we met him. We latched on to his rear bumper as we continued south to Gage. From there we turned back northeast onto OK15 towards Fargo. As we went, we moved back into the core of the storm, getting quarter-sized hail as we came into town. We lost Mark on side streets in town, and made up our own route to get through the rest of the town and back onto open roads. We ended up on a paved road heading south, and could see the storm was now just east of us. It had been tornado-warned for a while, but there had been no reported tornado.

We kept south until we thought we had cleared the core far enough to make an east turn and try to get in front of it. However we were wrong in our estimation, as within a mile of turning east, we began to get blasted by rain and hail from the north, as the storm rolled over us. We backtracked west, jumped back on our south road, and continued on it until we came to OK51 west of Harmon. By this time we'd gotten further south of the storm, but it had gotten further east of us. We turned east onto OK51, with the storm looming off to our northeast. We raced east as the storm slowly moved southeast, on a collision course. As we drove, the core came into view, occasionally lit up by lightning. We moved by Harmon, and continued east on 51 as the storm moved ever closer.

A new tornado warning was issued for the storm, and we knew we had it nailed. We kept driving until the base slowly started to come into view through the rain. It wasn't long before we could start to see what looked like a lowering. Very quickly the lowering became a fully-developed tornado, which appeared through the thick, near-dark precip haze. We drove a bit further until we found a place to stop, pulling over next to another chaser who was already there. The tornado was difficult to see in the darkness, but we kept shooting. Eventually, lightning started to give us brief glances of it, as it continued just a few miles north of us. Finally, a huge lightning strike gave us our best view of the tornado, which was starting to weaken. We caught one last look at it before it disappeared in the wrapping rain and hail, and then started getting pounded by golf balls. We turned around and headed back west, as hail continued to hit us. Not long afterwards, we found Val and Rob again stopped alongside the highway. We pulled over, excited and proud, and told them about the tornado. They had been out of position in the core and had missed it, something, we would later learn, happened to almost every other chaser that night.

We were stuck in an MCS for most of the drive back home, but we didn't care; we had just scored the biggest event of our young careers, and were riding a high we hadn't experienced since our first tornado nearly a year before. After a rookie year filled with disappointments and failure, we bagged a tornado that most other chasers, including many veterans, had missed. The feeling of accomplishment, happiness, satisfaction, and maybe most of all - validation, was incredible. Coming back into Norman that night we heard, for the very first time on radio, Third Eye Blind's "Graduate", a song I've loved ever since, and one that always brings me back to this fateful night, when we turned a corner as chasers, developed new confidence, and rose to the next level.