In the Valley of the Giant


They are the monsters of the Midwest, our native kin, the most beautiful and terrifying beasts on Earth. More appear in the United States each year than anywhere else on the planet. Spring is their season, and their season is here.

Twister, Cyclone, Tornado, wonderful names all. These Herculean creatures, all wildly alive and in possession of their own unique personalities, are the spring symbols of our region. They are killers, yes, but harbor no malice, and the Midwest would be a less exciting world without them. They attack, but so do grizzlies, and they too are noble.

If I were governor of a state in Tornado Alley, I would petition to have depictions of these leviathans placed on all license plates. This is our prehistoric creature come to life; this is our Tyrannosaurus rex.

"Magnificent" doesn't begin to describe them. They are otherworldly; nothing on this planet compares. You can't find the actual image of an earthquake, the shape of a forest fire, the anthropomorphic sense of an avalanche. Tornados have a design, a beauty, a dance, a color, a sound.

When I was a child I wanted one of my own. I imagined keeping it fenced in the backyard, eclipsing all the garden-variety neighborhood pets. I pictured it protecting me from bullies on my walk to school and entertaining the other children at recess. My dreams edged closer to reality when, during a school field trip, I witnessed the creation of a miniature tornado at the downtown Science Museum. My parents, however, explained that only in a controlled and monitored environment could such a manmade twister be maintained.

At the age of 18 I stood before my very first full-grown tornado. It formed before my eyes, 100 yards in front of me, in rural Wisconsin. I knew instantly the sensations felt by Odysseus and his men when encountering their Cyclops. This was an image out of some storybook, seemingly impossible: young man versus giant. It swirled in place briefly, towering over me, before moving away into adjacent farm fields, allowing me to breathe and to watch it with fascination.

Thousands of Midwesterners have stories like this to tell, many of them more heartbreaking and more terrifying. I don't wish a tornado on anyone, but they are a prairie reality. Our country averages 1,200 a year, and most of them form in Tornado Alley, a stretch of land that runs from the Texas panhandle to the lower third of Minnesota. Live long enough in this region and you'll get close to one, though they say the odds of being killed are 10 million to one.

Maybe this is why in the last few decades chasing tornados has become so commonplace. There are countless more storm chasers in this country than there are grizzly-bear chasers or shark hunters.

It seems to have begun in 1972 when the University of Oklahoma began the "Tornado Intercept Project." That spawned the first legion of dedicated storm chasers, with Hoadley's Storm Track magazine formally recognizing the nation's tornado-hunting community in its 1977 inaugural issue.

I too have signed on to a storm chase, an exhilarating race across the plains with seasoned meteorology pros. Despite the fact that there remains a great deal to research and record in the field of tornado studies, no one in our van was onboard to learn. This was about raw experience and the allure of feeling fully alive.

I wasn't privy to the Big Bang, nor the formation of the planets, but I watched the forces of the universe create a staggeringly powerful beast in my midst, and it is humbling and awe-inspiring. Maybe witnessing Mount St. Helens's eruption could have been comparable, or watching the ground open near the San Andreas Fault, but I'm a lake-country boy, and this is our region's great creature king.

Weatherman Paul Douglas says big flood years almost always end up being busy tornado seasons as well, and thus we can expect to hear our share of sirens this spring. Maybe, like me, they'll remind you of your childhood when that haunting wail would cause our eyes to grow wide and our heads to spin in the direction of our worried parents. To the basement we'd scurry, pretending to be sorry such fright was upon us, when all the while we knew this was a night to savor, that every minute of it carried a potent, electric charge of delight. The monster was coming, and our parents would protect us, and in the morning we'd walk out into the cool spring sunshine and see what all had been gobbled up. 

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