For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of thunderstorms. I wish I could say I’ve been in a tragic tornado that tore a gash in my hometown, roof snatched from my house, downed limbs and trees littered in its wake like breadcrumb trails.
I have no real logical explanation besides how scary, and utterly uncontrollable storms are, especially severe ones. Nature doesn’t give a shit if we happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. This childhood fear has settled into me as an anxious, cautious awareness whenever I spy the stony wall of gunmetal storm clouds.
This past summer I took a road trip to Colorado with a couple of my best friends to see my hands down favorite band Umphrey’s McGee at the infamous Red Rocks Amphitheater. I drove half way across the country in one short weekend just to see Umphs light up the natural rock amphitheater and fill it with their jammy sound waves. It was totally worth it.
We travelled all the next day across the incredibly flat planes of the Midwest. Colorado to Nebraska to Iowa and onward. The cow pastures stretched on and on for miles, a wavering mirage in the 95 degree heat. When I stepped out of the car at a rest stop in Iowa, the air was so dense with moisture and heat I could practically feel the languid molecules press against my skin.
As the sun lowered in the sky, nearly half way through Iowa now, I saw a thick layer of charcoal clouds stacking up like an artist layering shades of black and gray on a sheet of paper. My eyes kept snapping back to the horizon, watching them morph. I turned to my friend Fedy; he was sitting in the passenger seat, fingers combing his brown hair into mountain peaks. “Check the radar on my phone. I don’t like those clouds.” The phone’s screen glowed in his glasses.
The building edge of the storm front loomed closer and closer as we raced down the freeway, clouds swooping above, impossibly high. The weakening sun refracted into an innocent creamsicle orange.
The already fading light dimmed eerily like electricity in a brownout. Heavy drops of water struck the windshield with a plunk, tapping tap tapping on my window to catch my attention. Rain ripped through the heavy clouds in a sheet of water. I could only see taillights blurred and shattered through the downpour, nothing else.
I totally panicked. My breath caught in my chest like trying to tug a piece of string out of a bush. Sharp, snagged, and unsuccessful.
The wall of rain slowly thinned; car tires cut through the waterlogged roads, spewing water to the side. I felt safer.
The sky was lighter, but then I saw a thick tower of sooty gray clouds ahead of me that shifted into a sickeningly blue color that smoldered and glowed. I’d never seen anything like it; clouds shouldn’t look like that.
Anxiety crashed into me like a cresting wave that sucks you, rips you out to sea, twirling in the tides with no breath.
“Liv. Liv!” Fedy’s voice yanked me from the depths. “Get off the highway at the next exit. Tornado warning in the next town.”
My face scrunched up, and the pressure of tears burned my eyes. I felt an unshakeable dread, the dread of my life being potentially tossed around in the chaotic air like a rag doll. I frantically got off the highway, pulling into a gas station parking lot and slammed my little car into park, trying to breathe.
We turned on the local weather radio to hear live updates on the storm’s progress. We were just barely northwest of the supercell that raged in the southeast.
Night had finally swallowed the daylight, but lightning bolts hurtled through the storm clouds, illuminating its path like a flashlight. The supercell felt so close that I wanted to reach my hand out and touch it. Push it away.
Voices of meteorologists crackled through the speakers. “This storm is slowly trudging through central Iowa. Be aware that tornado warnings are lasting unusually long, up to 45 minutes in some areas. These are powerful storms. Seek shelter in a stable structure until they have passed.”
Unusual. Long lasting. Different.