The Belly of the Beast

I drove home yesterday through the worst weather I have ever experienced. I left my office in Harriman, TN just a few minutes after 5pm, hoping to get ahead of the gathering gloom of storm clouds. Five minutes later, the sky split open and chaos spilled out.

The traffic on I-40 East slowed to 40 then 30 then 20 miles per hour as walls of rain fell with punishing force. 5pm in June is supposed to be daylight but the sky was a formless, abysmal gray. Driving along the corridor of the interstate, visibility narrowed into a long, gray flannel sleeve. The wind pressed in from both sides. Leaves flew from the trees in a spew of black, jagged bird-like shadows, circling my car from all directions. And then I noticed the wind was pressing the trees in from both sides of the interstate, reaching in with gnarled, nasty arms grasping blindly for whatever hapless traveler they could snarl.

Slowing to 25 miles per hour, I tried to comprehend the physics of the moment, to have wind pressing in toward you from all directions. And then, I realized I was traveling inside a swirl of leaves, branches and water.

The drive was careful and tedious. My hands clutched the steering wheel, fingers gripped to keep my car level on the road. The wind pushed me to the left then to the right. Puddles leapt up like fountains. Lighting ripped the air.

And yet, everything was quiet. I expected a torrent of sound, the brash locomotive wheeze of a train engine, the gale force banshee screech that is sometimes the last sound on earth. I heard none of it. I can’t swear it wasn’t happening. I may have been so totally focused on the road that my brain didn’t process the sound of it all.

I drove on in this slow, careful way for about 10 miles and then, exiting the interstate, found myself quite suddenly outside from the belly of the beast.

I made my way home carefully, still hindered by heavy rain and standing water. Even at slow speed, my tires left the road several times.

When I got into town, my city was littered with broken, twisted tree trunks, fallen branches, dangling power lines. Power was out in areas all across town.

It was quite simply the most intense, fascinating weather experience I have ever had.

My mom called earlier this evening to let me know that the weather service had officially registered a class F-0 tornado in the area I was driving yesterday.

Turns out, I drove straight through a mild tornado without realizing. This writing doesn’t capture how utterly strange and fascinating the entire experience was. I’m glad I didn’t realize I was driving through a tornado because on the stretch of road I was driving there is no good place to hide.

Now that it is over and, to an extent while it was happening, my reaction was split between a vague disquiet and complete fascination. I drove through the belly of the beast. I am grateful the beast was small and relatively tame. No one got hurt and I got to experience something I never thought I would get to see.

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