From Caprock to Dirt Roads – An Accidental Storm Chase

— on September 15, 2014 by in travel

The ranger at the desk greeted me, asking if I was going to be camping. All pretty standard stuff. Her next statement surprised me. “You might want to reconsider. They are forecasting 70mph winds, baseball size hail and a chance of tornadoes.”  I hadn’t noticed anything threatening on the drive.

With the temperature climbing into the triple digits, it was just another normal late May day at Caprock Canyon State Park in north Texas. Sitting on the border between the high planes of the mid west and central Texas lies a broken land of red sand stone and mesquite scrub.

Afternoon thunderstorms aren’t surprising there, certainly not in late May. Still, the sky had been mostly clear when I entered, speckled with small but boiling clouds. I suspected that a little better-safe-than-sorry decision making was at play. I told her I was sleeping in my truck and that I would be careful and pay attention. Camp site booked, I headed back outside.

Austin Landscape Andrew Fritz - Caprock Canyon - Thunderstorms - 06

The Bison herd at Caprock Canyon State Park.

The Bison herd at Caprock Canyon State Park didn’t seem bothered by the weather.

It was hardly obvious to my eye how quickly conditions could change, even with the sun baking the air to fuel their growth. What a difference just 30 minutes inside the visitor center made. The small bubbling clouds that had dotted the sky when I arrived had coalesced and swelled to a sky shrouding monster thunderstorms to the south, east and north.

What a difference 30 minutes makes. Puffy clouds to doomsday clouds.

The thunderstorm I followed, to the south of the canyon.

A few days before, I had sat on the side of I-40 answering a worried phone call from my father as hail rattled off the hood of my truck and the rain fell so hard I couldn’t see to drive at even a crawl. He was calling to find out where I was and let me know that an EF5 tornado had just wiped out Moore, OK. I was just 20 miles east of there and sitting under the storm that had killed 24 people less than an hour before.

That experience aside, I decided I would stick it out. After all, the forecast was for clear skies that night and I was keen to do some night hikes and scout for a later astrophotography visit when the moon was new. The danger was during the afternoon and rather than sit in the park baking in the heat waiting for bad weather, I decided I would do a little storm chasing, and stay mobile. Nothing dangerous. I would just follow the storm from behind from a safe distance.

Just an hour later I was in Ralls looking at a small tornado. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit my heart thumbed pretty hard when I saw it. It passed quickly and without apparent damage to property or life in the area. Ten minutes later I ran into a crowd of real storm chasers sitting a few blocks away, their vehicles festooned with weather instruments and cameras. I even passed the Dominator from Storm Chasers. I was either in the right or wrong area depending on your point of view.

A small tornado is still a tornado.

A small tornado is still a tornado. The dingy background is a dust stormed kicked up by the passing thunderstorm.

After hours of driving along state highways, FM roads and dirt roads, the storm left me farther and farther behind.

After hours of driving along state highways, FM roads and dirt roads, the storm left me farther and farther behind.

I spent several more hours tailing the storms as the moved east, driving down little used dirt and gravel farm roads, loosing ground to the storm all the while. From my point of view things calmed from there as the storm out paced me. By 9 PM the sky was clear. The marching storms had moved on to the east and all that was left was a calm, if humid, night at Caprock Canyon.