I have long held a secret wish to go out to the heartland of the country and chase storms with my camera. I have always enjoyed photos of the dramatic cloud formations associated with a major storm. I’m not too keen on tornado chasing but I do love huge anvil clouds and dramatic skies filled with energy. I may need to rethink this whole thing after a recent experience.
Dianne and I were driving on I-90 headed west with the discussion being dominated by the birth of our 5th grandchild, Rowan Alan, and all the good times we had while staying with our son and his family while waiting for the birth. It was windy and the sky looked mildly threatening but not so much that it seemed anything other than a rainstorm or squall. As we crested the top of the Continental Divide east of Butte, Montana we drove into what will always remain a memorable storm event. Here’s the scene. We are on an interstate highway and there is a semi ahead of me about 100 yards. There were a few cars behind us but distant and not worth any concern. The first thing I saw as we crested the divide was what looked to be water vapor rising from the road ahead. It proved to be hail bouncing and not vapor. We drove into the storm at 70 miles per hour and were instantly being beaten by heavy hail and rain. The noise was deafening. I slowed to about 30 and took the left lane while hoping that the semi would stay right. I could no longer see the cars behind me. I could hardly see anything as we crept down the grade. I wanted to speed up to get out of the storm cell but knew that speed was not a good thing so we crept along. About 30 seconds after it began we started to emerge from the intense downpour and we could see that there were cars stopped on the edge of the road on the other side of the highway. A single motorcycle sat among a small group of cars but the rider had eithe been pounded into oblivion or had been given refuge in one of the cars. The semi was still moving ahead of us and as we passed it we both started talking about the noise and the situation we had just experienced. We shouted mute warnings to a couple of motorcycle riders that were headed east and into the storm. Their rain gear would not be enough protection and I can’t imagine what the sound would be like inside a helmet as the hail pounded down. I’ve never experienced anything like it even though we have been through other hail storms in a car and on a bicycle. It was intense. While I can only imagine what it would be like I think it might be similar to being stuck inside a snare drum while the drummer bashed away at a very fast cadence. Both of us were having a bit of trouble hearing and I think if we had been in the cell for another 30 seconds we’d both have lasting hearing damage.
As we cleared the cell we regained speed and headed toward Deer Lodge. We were now very alert to neighboring storm cells that were beside and ahead of us. We kept a close eye on one cell that was west of us and moving in our direction. The race was on. I really did not want to chance another downburst. The storm cell did not catch us and as we drove away from it I asked Dianne to hand me the Fuji camera that was sitting behind our center console. She uncapped the lens and I held the camera to the window and shot 3 frames as we sped by at 75 mph. I don’t envy the people in these houses if they were home to witness the power of the storm to their west.
The next morning we heard from two friends who had been listening to the news and heard about a major storm that flooded part of Idaho near where we were when we hit the storm cell. It is likely that the Idaho event was part of the same storm system we experienced. I came away from the event with a different and much heightened sense of the power of nature. Now I just need to adjust my desire to chase storms for photos of dramatic clouds. Let’s be careful out there!