Much like unicorns or the state of North Dakota, March tornadoes have always felt like one of those things that get discussed all the time without actually existing. Mythology, really. From 2017 – 2020, I hadn’t ever managed to see a Real Tornado before April 22. But on March 13, 2021, with a localized tornado outbreak, I was dang sure going to try to catch that unicorn.
Whether I’d have the energy for it was an open question. After Elizabeth and I drove all the way to Floydada the day before only to get turned around by a flooded road, we hadn’t gotten back until midnight. Exhausted and demoralized, I wasn’t sure I’d summon up the energy to get going on Saturday the 13th. Then I woke up at 7:00 and saw the 13Z outlook.
And I immediately texted Tyler to let him know I was ready.
Shortly thereafter, we added Sam to the roster, while I walked Scipio to get his energy out. Elizabeth had work the following day and figured she’d be too tired to get by if she chased, so she was out. I told Sam and Tyler to meet at my apartment around 10:00 then worked on regathering equipment.
By this point, Elizabeth had woken up and was in a distinctly churlish mood. Her mood did not improve as the time to leave drew closer, so finally I told her just to join us instead of moping around all day. And 10 minutes later, Scipio was strapped into the back of her car between Tyler and myself and we were bound for the panhandle.
Unlike the day before, when an emergency vet trip had left us hopelessly late, this time we were cruising with decent time to spare. The way we saw it, CI would occur in the western panhandle about the time we got into position, and we would make our play in the warm frontal zone in the southeastern panhandle. That of course left Palo Duro Canyon as a significant obstacle to our plans, but not everything can be helped.
Synoptically, the event was driven by a big old closed low at 500 mb to our west, with associated height falls leading to cyclogenesis across the western panhandle amid strong return flow. Instability was expected to be seasonably weak, but with a modest EML and strong to insane warm air advection there would be a strong enough parameter space for supercells. And if there were supercells, hodographs supported strong to intense tornadoes. So with all of that in mind, we followed the conga line west on I-40. When I asked everyone for their optimism levels, mine rated the lowest at 6/10, so the crowd was buying what the atmosphere was selling.
We made quick time to the Shamrock Taco Bell/Chevron, where Scipio managed to get mud all over my Tigers jersey and radar socks. Refusing to be daunted, I ate my peanut butter sandwich that I had packed and a quesalupa that Elizabeth had ordered me (mobile order! Quesaritos!), took Scipio around the incredibly crowded parking lot, and let him go potty in the grassy area behind the Taco Bell. As we were wandering, killing time, the sun started to come out, part of a trend across the southern Panhandle.
The differential heating boundary just looked juicy. It was right there. And we weren’t the only ones noticing. As we decided to reposition to Clarendon to be as close to the north rim of Palo Duro as possible, the SPC issued a Mesoscale Discussion.
Convection was initiating far to our west across the Texas/New Mexico border along the dryline. This made me a bit nervous, since we were still reasonably far southeast, but we were also heading directly toward the arrow, so that was a good sign. We headed south on Texas Farm-to-Market road 70, and pulled past a veritable cluster of chasers at the Allsups in Clarendon toward the south side of town. We finally found a spot just south of town on a hill flanked by the cemetery – a real scenic view for Scipio’s lunch. Cars went flying by as he lived dangerously on the shoulder. Visibility was improving, but only marginally. And then hilarity struck, as Peter and Grant, two undergraduates in Tyler and my OWL shift, “happened” to pull by us just in time to ask us what our plans were. And then they pulled off on the shoulder behind us.
Meanwhile, the event was actually starting to get underway across the western Panhandle. A few storms had matured into a cluster of supercells and were heading north-northeast in the area of Earth, Hart, and Olton. Other updrafts were beginning to mature on the eastern side of Lubbock near Idalou. From where we sat, on the northern edge of Palo Duro, we had a choice to make: wait for the updrafts near Idalou to mature and fly directly in our direction, or make an early gamble westward and hope the cluster of supercells turned right before they flew straight into Amarillo. The 2:00 Amarillo sounding showed a possibly juicy tornadic environment, but we didn’t want to gamble too much and leave the undoubted best parameter space along the differential heating boundary.
So we waited and we argued, and I tended to be the pessimist I always am. But as the cluster of cells approached I-27, they began to rotate, with a northern and a southern storm beginning to dominate out of the cluster. The northern storm of the cluster produced something bird-farty:
287 was a perfect intercept route, allowing us to get from one fast-moving supercell to the next one down the line. We decided to make the play on those storms as they approached the northern end of Palo Duro and interacted with the differential heating boundary. After shouting good-byes to Peter and Grant, who were still lurking behind us, Elizabeth turned around and we headed west-northwest toward Claude, ready to cautiously stairstep west and south from there.
Somewhere along the way, the game changed. Maybe we didn’t want the southern of the two supercells, but we should go for the northern one. Obviously this is not usually considered the smart play, but, well, the northern storm was beginning to look impressive near Happy.
And then it started to wedge.
So we got to Claude and decided to head west on FM 1151. A tornadic supercell was now bearing down on us on the west/north sides of Happy, where it would have to cross Palo Duro Canyon right at its upper reaches near the state park that Elizabeth and I had camped at literally one week ago. It was very surreal. We got west a few miles to County Road 5, then briefly backtracked a couple of miles to try and find a paved option south to FM 1258. Finding none, we pulled off on County Road 7 and stepped out of the car. Scipio jumped straight into mud, in fact.
For just a couple of minutes, we had a limited view of the full updraft of a Plains monster supercell, heavily tilted in the strongly sheared environment. We could even see the anvil way above us. Then lightning struck in an open field just a few miles away and we all piled back into the car.
The forward flank went ripping by us as each minute passed interminably. It just *felt* like a tornado would pop over the far-off horizon to our south any second. It was definitely there.
To our west, as the hail core churned, a giant inflow tail appeared. It must have extended 20+ miles in advance of the actual updraft.
Above that inflow tail was one of the gnarliest displays on in-cloud lightning I’d ever seen, with frequent bright flashes and cannon-like booms of thunder across the Plains. Finally, our moment had come – the forward flank had slid across the road, and we were free to slip into the inflow notch. Elizabeth cautiously drove westbound for a few miles, as the sky began to darken around us and rain began to fall. This supercell had been going for a while, but now it was really cranking, with an obvious significant to violent tornado just over the horizon. However, that put the differential heating boundary right over us, and the theme of the day would be for storms to become hopelessly rain-wrapped as storms hit the boundary. We kept our eyes peeled to the south-southwest, where a faint blotch obscured the horizon. It was hard to tell at first, but soon there would be no mistaking it. That was the right edge of the bear’s cage, and possibly the edge of the entire wedge.
I kept waiting for the shape of the wedge to emerge from the gloom, but it never did. Instead, we were subjected to bands of squally rain as we looked out the open right window of Elizabeth’s car, holding Scipio in his seat while straining to get a view. The tornado was clearly heading right toward our position. Elizabeth started to get antsy. I promised we’d move in 2 minutes. 3 minutes passed by, and still no view. Finally, Elizabeth took matters into her own hands and moved east a mile and a half, back to County Road 5. Sam directed her to point the car back to the southwest, and we returned to straining into the ever-rainier bear’s cage.
The bear’s cage passed over the road where we’d been minutes before, just a mile to our west. Despite our view, and the fact that we had entered a relatively rain-free pocket, the day had become dead silent outside the car. Birds were even chirping. No dull, distant roar betrayed the wedge that was passing just by us. I took some pictures as the bear’s cage passed by, and you can decide for yourself where the tornado is inside of it. Considering the official survey put its width at 1,000 yards, you can decide if the entire bear’s cage was the tornado. Given the way the collar of the cage carouseled around it, that would be far from shocking.
Meanwhile, it was time for us to hightail it back into Claude to beat the forward flank of the next supercell. Just as we got into town, with Elizabeth expertly navigating around idiot chasers, we started to take some small hail, but we managed to get out before the hail grew into something we couldn’t manage. We popped out back onto 287 just in time to see something that looked suspiciously like a cone well off to our south. It disappeared into the RFD before I could get a good glimpse at it, but here is my best effort.
The supercell continued to rapidly translate north-northeast, so we quickly dove down to Goodnight and then headed north on FM 294, basically paralleling the storm’s base to our west. We managed to gain some ground on it, just in time to watch a very lowered area essentially sink to the ground. Insta-wedge. This was to our left, so Tyler *should* have been taking pictures, but he was off in la-la-land and missed it I guess. The tornado quickly faded into the rain, and may as well have been a figment of our imaginations if Reed Timmer wasn’t there to see it.
By this point, we had tracked the storm all the way up to I-40, getting spooked into thinking we’d seen a flanking line spoot by a tree in the distance (yes). At I-40, we’d definitely gotten out of the juicier airmass, as the LCLs were quite literally at wind turbine height. There was no visibility. We’d have to go back south. Fortunately, new supercells had initiated and one of them had a decent meso back toward Clarendon. We took I-40 eastbound through persistent showers, then headed south once more onto FM-70 into Clarendon. The supercell was quite close. Poor Scipio was shaking, probably partially from needing to go to the bathroom so badly. We got into the east side of town and I tried to let him out so that he could go to the bathroom, even though we were in the inflow notch of yet another tornadic supercell. He refused to go, though, and eventually I had to get back in the car.
Incredibly, we had come almost exactly back to the cemetery from which we had started – except this time we were tucked closer to 287. The supercell began to cross the road, with a monstrous bear’s cage enveloping the western side of Clarendon. We didn’t see any power flashes, but from the look of it, there just felt like a tornado was just on the other side of the rain.
In fact, a tornado *was* just on the other side of the rain – an EF2 wedge that formed southwest of Clarendon, just missed the east side of the town, and then plowed up toward Howardwick. In fact, at the time of this picture there were likely two tornadoes, with one of them a satellite that did some light damage. The only road northbound from Clarendon which the wedge could be seen was FM-70, but with no visibility we decided it was likely a death trap. Instead, we decided to stairstep alongside the supercell on a farm-to-market road to Alanreed, and make a play along I-40. We got out in front of the chaser train and were making great time with the supercell off to our west once again… when the road suddenly became unpaved. Elizabeth screeched to a stop before we hit the dirt, and we debated what to do next. Sam was in favor of pushing onward, Elizabeth not so much. I watched a car enter the dirt and immediately begin shimmying on mud, and that made up my mind. We were turning it around.
By now, we’d been in nonstop high-energy chase mode for two hours. Cloud bases even south of the differential heating zone were not what anyone would call “high”, leading to just a gloomy overall day. It was after 0Z in March, meaning daylight would soon be rapidly fading. And Scipio had been openly shaking in his bucket for about the past hour. I wasn’t sure how much more he could handle of this. I figured if we got back to 287, we could start charting a course home. It had been a difficult day, with some tornado sightings but no good tornado pictures to bring home despite a veritable outbreak south and east of Amarillo.
Elizabeth asked, “Why are people looking to the southwest?” as we approached 287 and Clarendon one more time. I dismissed her concerns until I looked at radar, where sure enough, one more supercell was coming up right behind the other. We took a look off to the southwest, where one more RFD gust front was visible in the distance. Even though it felt like many of the other rain-wrapped tornadic storms we’d seen that afternoon, we stopped one more time for form’s sake. Tyler craned his neck off to the left, peering into the rain. It took me a minute to realize that we were actually looking at the RFD gust front where he was looking, which meant the circulation was off to the left. Which meant…
Sam turned to look straight down 287. “Cone! I see a cone!”
“Where? I don’t see it?”
But then Tyler saw it as well, even though Elizabeth and I couldn’t. On blind faith, I told Elizabeth to put it in drive and pursue into Clarendon. As we approached town, I saw it myself – a faint, murky fault directly over 287 in front of us. I rolled down the window, ignoring Elizabeth’s protestations that we were driving through puddles. Instead, she pushed right through the downtown district, with a greyish vault appearing against the darker rain all around. It was visually reminiscent of some of the videos I’ve seen of the Mangum tornado from 2019 emerging from the gloom, although this one was nowhere near as dramatic.
We splashed through puddles up to that road once again – FM 70 – and Elizabeth gunned it out of town. To this point I hadn’t been able to make out the distinct shape of the tornado itself, although I had little doubt it was there. Was the whole cone shape above the tornado? Even when we turned, I wasn’t initially sure:
And then we crested a small hill – and there it was. A small tornado, directly over the road in front of us. The time was 6:25. Pandemonium ensued in the car as a challenging day culminated with a surreal, fluky, easy intercept.
The next few minutes became a hectic blur. One second we were flying down FM 70, and I was craning for a view of the ground circulation. The next, I was handing Tyler the Canon to shoot at 200 mm out the window as a tornado approached the road right in front of us. Considering it was out of a moving window at a very ropey rope, he did a pretty damn good job.
It seems like one of those distant Plains twisters, doesn’t it? Especially given the fact that the 200 mm lens was on the camera. Then we got to the bend in the road (heading toward the taillights in the distance), and the ground circulation was literally crossing at the ridge.
Oh man. If this wasn’t a Southeast-style 300-LCL event, this shot would have been an all-time winner. As it was, I’m still so psyched that we got the look right down the road at the cascading rain.
In an unforced error, I took the 200 mm lens off of the camera as we approached. Unfortunately, the tornado had crossed the road by this point. And it was still shrinking, with the whole cloud deck shrinking into the vibrant green field that it was dying in. We were now as close as we could get, no more than 100 yards or so. Tyler jumped out of the car. I rolled down the window and shot with one hand while keeping Scipio from jumping out with the other. The twister completely shriveled away, leaving nothing but a single ground circulation still spinning on the ground with cascading rain bands alongside it for a solid 30 seconds. It was enchanting. Here’s that circulation and its rain band friends in all their glory.
And just like that, it was gone. The whole life of the tornado had lasted 180 seconds. 3 puny minutes, witnessed by no more than half a dozen vehicles on the road with us, and all of them by nothing other than sheer, dumb luck. I’ve had so many unlucky things happen to me while chasing – ill-timed storm cycles, circulations getting wrapped in rain, poor road network – again and again, over the years something has prevented me from getting The Shot. Tornadoes from a distance? Sure. Structure shots? Sure. But The Shot, right in front of me? No. And of course, with a dog in the middle of an anxiety attack, before Daylight Saving Time had even begun, on a day when no tornadoes were even visible and cloud bases were literally below the tops of wind turbines, and storms were moving upwards of 40 knots to boot, we literally stumbled into The Shot after I’d already openly called it a day, simply because we came upon the end of pavement on another road miles away at the perfect time. 180 seconds. 3 minutes of pure, unfiltered luck guided us to that tornado, but we also took advantage as well as anyone could hope.
Now it truly was time to call it a day. The poor dog had suffered enough inside the car over the past 36 hours, and daylight was rapidly dwindling while storm coverage increased. Despite a minor traffic jam of semis on I-40, Elizabeth got to Shamrock not long after dark, and Scipio finally got to go potty for the first time since that cemetery in Clarendon. I took over behind the wheel for the first time that day and took us back toward home, with a stop for Victory Braum’s in Elk City along the way. On a day when Tyler, Sam, Elizabeth and I were reacting to everything going on around us, we had bagged Scipio his first tornadoes. Nothing could kill that feeling, and nothing can top that memory.