OKMULGEE, Okla. -- Lazy, cottony clouds dappled the sky. The temperature had a summery sizzle, hinting of hammocks or swimming pools. "Oh, it's another disgustingly beautiful day," Sue Lang said with a sigh outside a restaurant in a town whose name she couldn't pronounce. The good weather was bad news for Lang and 11 others who had converged on the Plains to see storms - big ones.
"I want to see a storm so strong it will put you on your knees and make you call it 'Daddy,' " said Graeme Macdonald, who needed 22 hours to reach the heartland of America from his home in Auckland, New Zealand.
Lang, Macdonald and the others had paid more than $2,000 each to Silver Lining Tours of Oklahoma City for what amounts to a meteorological lottery: the chance to see a tornado.
Their quest would last 10 days and cover more than 4,500 miles in two vans, one of which had a slipping transmission and a fender smashed by an ill-fated deer.
"You just basically go out and hope for the best," said David Gold, who runs Silver Lining Tours during the storm season and works on a doctorate in meteorology at Texas A&M University the rest of the year.
"One giant tornado can make your tour. It can change your life."
Film spawns an industry
Storm chasing used to be something that only a relatively few people did, said Gene Moore, a stock trader and former meteorologist from San Antonio who worked as a forecaster on the Silver Lining tours.
"The movie changed all that," he said.
That movie, the 1996 blockbuster "Twister," depicted storm chasers striving to unlock the secrets of a tornado's power. Tapping into the public's fascination with tornadoes, the movie grossed nearly $500 million worldwide - good enough to earn a place among the top 20 grossers of all time.
In the years since then, a half-dozen companies have sprouted to feed the public's appetite for witnessing severe weather. Countless storm chasers are now willing to take people along on chases - for a fee.
In the three years Silver Lining has been in business, at least half of its tour groups have seen tornadoes.
Macdonald and the rest of this group would get what they came for - but only after days of boredom and disappointment and more than enough miles to drive coast to coast.
'It looks like Texas'
A storm system that produced four tornadoes in one day was great for Silver Lining's first tour group of the storm season but tough luck for the second.
"The atmosphere's just exhausted right now," Moore said, studying weather data online on the tour's first morning.
Still, there is enough heat, moisture and instability in a Great Plains spring to generate the chance of storms somewhere in the Midwest almost every day, Gold said.
Besides, the tour group didn't come to Tornado Alley to twiddle its thumbs in hotel rooms. So Gold and Moore searched for targets each morning.
Then, like a quarterback calling a play in the huddle, Gold would gather the group around him, explain where they were going and why.
"It looks like Texas," he said the first morning.
The journey took the group southwest over the Red River, to Wichita Falls, Abilene and Lubbock.
Optimism ran high.
"I've got confidence, I've got faith, I've got junk food," Macdonald said during a pit stop in Wichita Falls. "What else do I need?"
Hearing people openly hoping to see tornadoes would not sit well with some of the locals, convenience store clerk Sherman Brown said.
"There's some of 'em who'd probably think they was crazy," Brown said. "A lot of people still remember the tornado of '79," which killed 45 people and injured another 1,740 in Texas.Patricia DeSantis, a grandmother from Roanoke, Va., understands why people might look askance at folks whose mood can be made foul by fair weather. She couldn't bring herself to tell her family what she was doing on her trip.
"We are just an odd lot of people," she chuckled.
Blue skies, blue moods
The tour's first few days were bright and sunny, giving the group plenty of time to get acquainted, nibble on snacks and take catnaps.
Martin Ferris, a quality control inspector for a hospital in England, talked to whomever would listen about such things as how towns in his homeland got their names and how the postal system works there.
"You've got to talk about something," shrugged Dan Long, a civil engineer from Yuma, Ariz.
Cheers erupted when the first raindrops of the tour fell on the third day near Sallisaw, Okla.
"We can go home now," joked Mark Hutchinson, a retail manager from London.
The sound of rolling thunder made Lang smile for the first time on the trip. The rapidly developing storm drew the caravan into the Ouachita Mountain s of western Arkansas.
Snaking up highways and navigating sharp curves, the caravan passed evidence of the storm's fury. Leaves and small tree limbs carpeted the highway after being shredded by hail the size of golf balls. Front yards looked like they had been converted into driving ranges, and clumps of ice sat in ditches.
Trapped in the maze of mountain roads, the group never caught up to the storm. The chase was abandoned as night fell.
The next day's weather patterns pulled the caravan through the Ozarks into Missouri and Kansas, but an evening chase proved futile when a pair of storms collapsed.
While the tour group was able to snap several pictures of a storm developi ng at nightfall in southeast Kansas, there were no pyrotechnics on the prairie.
"Do you have any storms here?" Cliff Carter, a retired engineer from Wimbledon, England, asked wearily in Wichita the next morning.
That afternoon, a promising storm fell apart in northern Oklahoma.
"It's amazing how tired you can be by the end of the day," said Eric Vinger, a laid-back real estate agent from Scottsdale, Ariz., who described a storm-chasing tour as "summer camp on wheels."
Hopes soar when the forecasters spot a potential storm worth chasing, he said. But if the storms don't develop, there's a letdown.
"After that happens a couple of times, it really takes a lot out of you," Vinger said.
Frustration began to surface in Cherokee, Okla., where the storm-watchers stopped to stretch their legs and grab a snack under a powder blue sky.
"For $230 a day," Macdonald said ruefully, "I've gotten two rain showers and this Neapolitan ice cream sandwich."
Hope rose with the sun on Thursday. Monitoring the changing conditions with cell phones and laptop computers, the caravan raced toward southwest Oklahoma. Everything pointed to an outbreak near Altus - but nothing happened.
The caravan pushed into the Texas Panhandle, hoping to intercept a line of thunderstorms that showed tornado potential. The storms weakened before the tour could get there, however, so the weary troupe headed back toward Oklahoma City.
The storms caught up with the caravan at Shamrock, Texas, where it had stopped for food and refueling. As the group prepared to reboard the vans, a lightning bolt struck a transformer, pitching much of the small town into darkness.
"This is so cool!" shouted group member Rachel Humphrey, drawing a glare from a resident standing nearby.
With the tour past its halfway point, there was a growing sense among the group that the thunderstorm they were experiencing in Shamrock might just be as good as it would get. Ferris turned philosophic as he watched the storm in the minutes before the transformer was hit.
"At least," he said softly, "it's an American rain."
Soon, he would see much more than that.
When Gold and Moore mapped out Friday's forecast, tornadoes seemed almost inevitable in Kansas. As the caravan neared Arkansas City, however, Gold shifted gears.
Conditions in Kansas had stabilized, he announced over the two-way radio linking the vans. Southwest Oklahoma, on the other hand, was exploding.
"We're going to turn around and head back to Altus," Gold said as the group cheered.
The caravan reached Altus by mid-afternoon. So many thunderstorms were firing up, it became a guessing game. With towering clouds erupting into the upper atmosphere with crisp, cauliflower tops, they were textbook t-storms.
"Eeny meeny miney mo, which one will the tornado go?" forecaster Roger Hill asked.
The group watched storms turn menacing on each side of Oklahoma Highway 30 north of Hollis not far from the Texas state line. One even formed a wall cloud - the formation from which tornadoes drop. But there was no rotation, so the chasers turned their attention back to the northeast.
There, a thunderstorm larger than any in the area was already dumping heavy rain and hail the size of golf balls.
It was more than 50 miles away, so there was no time to lose. As the caravan neared the area, a tornado was reported on the ground next to Oklahoma Highway 152 near Eakly.
The radio warned motorists to seek shelter immediat ely. The caravan charged onward, then turned south.
"Dust bowl just east of us on the field," Gold snapped.
Then, after a pause, he added a single word.
Noticeable at first only because of its debris cloud, the tornado was churning east through farm fields.
The vans continued south, then turned east, parallel to the storm. Finally, atop a hill, the caravan pulled over. The tour group piled out, dragging cameras and minicams along. The tornado had turned orange with Oklahoma dirt by then, standing out sharply against the cobalt sky. About two miles away, it was not close enough for the group to hear the trademark roar. The air was heavy and still.
"Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" Humphrey shouted.
"Awesome!" Dave Andrzejewski of South Bend, Ind., said, almost to himself. "Awesome."
Vinger didn't know whether to take photographs or video, and spent much of his time just staring at the tornado in awe.
Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the tornado lifted _ its tail bobbing once as it rose as if to take a quick bow.
Studying the rest of the storm, Moore noticed flashes in a wall of rain off to the east. Those were power lines being torn down by another tornado, he said.
"There's one in there," he said, pointing. "You just can't see it."
But most of the group had its eyes elsewhere. A wall cloud had formed nearly in front of them, and a funnel began taking shape.
Once, twice it dipped down, only to be cut off by strong winds flowing out from the thunderstorm in front of it. Then, almost bashfully, it retreated to the clouds never to be seen again.
"We don't get many of these in England, do we?" Carter asked Ferris.
"Thankfully," Ferris replied.
With an orange sunset setting the sky ablaze and the gusting winds whining in the power lines, Gold studied the storm.
"It's over," he finally said.
Then, as if to tease him, a wall cloud formed to the west, standing out sharply against the setting sun.
"If a tornado forms over there," Gold joked, "I'm going to run toward it screaming, 'Marry me! Marry me!' "
But the wall cloud vanished, and the breathless tour group climbed aboard the vans for what became a storm-lashed ride back to Oklahoma City.
Over the course of seven days, they had traveled more than 3,400 miles for the opportunity to spend perhaps 15 minutes watching tornadoes.
No one seemed to mind at all.
"It was worth the wait," DeSantis said softly. "It was worth the wait."