June 21, 2003

Looking to the south-southwest. I thought that because clear skies were only a little bit to the west, that this storm wouldn't materialize.  However, five minutes later, there was intermittent rain and hail for about 15 minutes.

Just before it started raining and hailing, we observed this tornado to the north-northeast. It looked like it was near Wilton, but reports put it 9 miles south-southeast of Mercer - or about 20 miles away. It surprises me that it would be that far away.  Reports also say that the tornado was on the ground for about 15 minutes.  FYI, this photograph is obviously out-of-focus.

The afternoon of Saturday, June 21, 2003 , I decided to take a hike at my dad’s farm.

Prior to leaving – around mid-afternoon – I checked the radar and satellite view of the clouds and weather watches and saw that the threat of severe weather didn’t look imminent. I know that the Storm Prediction Center out of Norman , Oklahoma , had issued a possibility of hail, tornadoes and damaging wind for the High Plains for the day.

On the drive out, I kept a watchful eye on the clouds to the west; there was no convection whatsoever.

I got to my chosen hiking location and started a fun activity – looking for bright, multi-colored blister beetles that can be found on Milkvetch plans. I found a number of them and took photographs.

Then I looked directly west and saw that out of nowhere, the sky had turned blue – not from the lack of clouds, but because a shower or storm was developing near Center, ND. I soon noticed some other clouds getting darker with building convection, mainly to the southwest.

I continued the hike and looked at spiderwort plants that hadn’t flowered.

Then I decided to work to the top of a butte where I saw some beautiful purple flowers and checked on the growth of 10-petal blazingstar plants.

As I walked a little further west – about one-third of a mile from the vehicle, I noticed more convection building in clouds to the south-southwest and also to the west and northwest where there was rain. I saw occasional flashes of lightening and heard some thunder – but it was still a long ways away.

I got to the turn-around point – about one-half mile from the vehicle and took photos of a “hot-pink” pincushion cactus flower. I also spotted a prairie lily that would be spotting a beautiful orange flower in about one week.

At this point, I decided that I needed to get back to the vehicle. The storm didn’t look threatening, but I wanted to get back just in case.

As I worked back, a line of dark clouds formed from the southwest to the northeast and followed me. However, it didn’t look like a storm would materialize.

I got back in the vehicle and drove three-quarters of a mile to the south. I got out of the vehicle and took photographs of the storm looking directly west. Right past the dark clouds overhead, and just a little to the west, it was clear out and I thought, “this storm will be over in minutes at my location.”

A glance to the northwest showed that rain was developing and the storm could be strengthening to the north.

I drove another three-quarters of a mile to the top of a hill, turned the vehicle around and faced north. I noticed an area to the northeast of Wilton where there was a lot of dust near the ground.

My first thought was that there were gusty winds ahead of the storm. But then I quickly realized that it was a tornado and I grabbed my 180 mm lens and started taking photographs.

That’s about the same time it started to suddenly rain, with lots of big drops.

I watched the tornado for 2-to-3 minutes. Then it either dissipated or the rain obscured my vision.

Then the hail started. The only escape option was to drive to a cut in the road – and I placed the vehicle right up against it. It rained and hailed, continuing for about five minutes.

After the rain and hail stopped, I backed up the vehicle about 20 yards on a slick, wet, gumbo dirt road; I just about had to put it in four-wheel-drive.

I then started to drive towards the highway, and the rain and hail started up again, so I parked under a couple of trees for another 5-to-10 minutes.

Then it was all over. The storm was to the east.

The storm reaffirmed something that I realized. Storms can build quickly and suddenly, out of nowhere. I had watched storms develop all my life, and this one seemed like it was all talk and no action.

Had I know that this storm would develop right over me, I would have been somewhere else, like home.

Looking back, it was a thrill to see a tornado for the first time in my life. However, I’m glad that I got to see the beauty of the tornado from a safe distance – because who knows – where it developed wasn’t that far away, and it could have developed right over me. Yikes!


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