The Storm Chaser
Scott B. Laughlin
New Castle, Texas, the sign reads. That’s only a third of the way to Pie Town, New Mexico, and I’ve been hours getting this far from Dallas. It’s here that the westbound track, US 380, takes a hard left. Then, on the right stands a small cafe called Hole in the Wall, the diner that has often served Barb and I giant hamburgers. The scent of hot food is tempting, but the smell of rain and pitchfork lightning demand my attention. Having brought no raingear with me, seeking cover makes better sense.
Just short of the turn is an abandoned service station, and attached to it is an overhang that once provided shelter to customers. There’s no clue as to what brand it might have been—Mobile, Chevron, or Sinclair. But, the attendants probably wore uniforms with ties, and peaked caps. The stamped ceiling suggests that a high degree of effort and pride went into building this place. It resembles the copper trim found in aging post office buildings, but there’s no copper here. This one is rusting.
I switch off the motor, and allow my CB-900C to rest on the side stand. A few feet away is a yellow engine block. The color tells me it is a Cummins diesel. The heads are missing, and the cylinders are rusting. Pushrod tubes are scattered about, and so are the rocker arm assemblies.
Swinging off the bike, I claim a seat on a wooden bench next to a pair of tattered Levis, and a thin, red jacket. No doubt the person owning this engine lost his shirt. I wonder if these are his trousers?
No rain yet. Conditions seem better then when I stopped. But rather than continue on my way, I cross the gravel side street to a small market. Inside, I buy drinking water and a few packages of Club Crackers. By the time the clerk has checked me out, the storm has arrived, bringing with it rain drops the size of marbles. I dash out the door, but I’m soaked by the time I reach my oasis. Shivering, I reclaim my place near the soiled clothing.
A half hour passes. A Dodge pickup towing a trailer and backhoe comes past Hole In the Wall. After making the sharp turn and heading east, the diesel engine clatters and the driver issues me a thumbs-up. I wave back, my mind focused on the lightning flashes and rolling thunder that shakes my bench.
After fifteen minutes the storm growls north, toward Oklahoma. The rain slows to a drizzle, then stops.
Eventually, I ride into Throckmorton, and roll up to the Allsup pumps. They don’t work. The sign reads Open 24 Hours, and the lights inside the store are on but the doors are locked. There’s not a soul in town. Nobody. Has the Rapture occurred and I missed it? Am I the Omega Man?
A huge rain drop spatters on my cheek, I mount up and cross the street to a service station that has become Throckmorton’s visitor’s center, and park beneath the tin roof reserved for the handicapped. With a picnic table at hand I move in. Before finishing my crackers and water, people are entering the parking lot and they begin staring past me, toward the west. Inside, a large black woman works behind the counter. Where was she ten minutes ago?
I turn and look west to see what is attracting everyone’s attention. A wall of clouds are rolling and while I watch it becomes black as night.
“What’s coming?” I asked.
“We don’t know,” a grizzled old man wearing a Sooners ball cap says. “I guess that tornado hopped over us?”
“Tornado? On the ground? Here?”
“Yeah, the take cover order was issued about the time you rode into town.”
The wind freshens and I turn in time to see a storm chaser vehicle speed through town, heading east, toward New Castle. Is he tracking the whether, or is he running from something that’s approaching?
It strikes with a vengeance. My corrugated roof is banging and clattering and threatens to leave. I try not to think of what will happen then. Leaks spring from every seam. Everything’s wet. The streets become rivers.
Prior to my departure, the Internet weather radar displayed fair skies from Dallas to Phoenix. So, where has this system come from? Is another one waiting for me beyond the horizon? Without a doubt, the weather guesser will be the last one to know.
Answering my gut instinct, I decide to become a storm chaser of another sort. I fall in behind this wall of clouds, and follow them back to Dallas.
“You’re back early. How was your trip?” mumbles Barb as I push the bedroom door open.
“Another day in paradise.”