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In June of 1993, I was fresh out of high school and in the midst of my annual summer 'vacation' to my grandparents' place in Dunbar, West Virginia. During one of those days, my grandfather took me to the Merrill Photo store at Riverwalk Plaza in South Charleston, West Virginia to pick out my high school graduation gift. We walked out with a new Pentax K1000 SLR camera, along with it a 50mm lens and a flash unit. I spent that summer (and the months following) burning through endless rolls of film, experimenting with every subject possible and producing mostly piles of meaningless prints.
A few years earlier, my copy of Dr. Martin A. Uman's book "All About Lightning" had introduced me to the idea and concept of lightning photography. At sunset on July 21, 1993, now back at home at my parents' place in Washington, Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh area), the western sky grew dark with the anvils of approaching storms. I grabbed my camera and jumped in my family's 1985 Chevrolet Caprice station wagon - beginning my first storm chase.
I drove around downtown Washington to look for a suitable place to set up, finally deciding to venture out of the city limits as the storms drew nearer. I drove east of Washington on Route 136 to a hilltop on Floral Hill Drive overlooking the Windsor Highlands subdivision, and set up the camera and tripod on the passenger seat (looking to the north) as the storm rolled through. The storm was spectacular - in fact, it was in the top 5th percentile in terms of lightning visibility/freqency and lack of rain/wind at my location. That's something I now know to be rather rare in the pursuit of storm photos. I captured a dozen or so lightning images, including four that would be 'keepers' even by my standards today. This was the best of the set:
The expedition log for this event is here.
The camera gift, and that night, started everything: what you see on this site, the first trips to the Great Plains, the move westward to St. Louis.
I have been trying to think up something profound to say to mark this milestone, but nothing much comes to mind. Truth be told, this date is actually having a little of the same effect on me as turning 30 did. It's a somewhat sad reminder of how much life has passed by and how much has changed. It might just be nostalgia talking, but I tend to be fonder of memories from my first decade of observing than those from the last ten. Don't get me wrong, I am thankful for everything I've been able to do. I've seen more in my past 5 years of observing than in the first 15, and have witnessed events that I could never have imagined I'd get the privelege to see. But there is something I miss about the simplicity of those earlier years - the newness of each experience and each road traveled, the sense of anticipation in picking up a developed roll of film from the lab, and the knowledge I was doing something truly unique in the world.
Today, weather expeditioning has gone mainstream. Cameras are 'instant' HD and digital, and I've long since learned that what I do really isn't that significant or unique in the grand scheme of things. I chase mostly alone these days, with many old friends either losing interest in observing or unable to make the long trips like they used to. I also feel like everything that can be seen, captured and done has likely been seen, captured and done. The old communities of observing (StormTrack, WX-CHASE and the Lightning List) where I'd made all of my friends and enjoyed feeling like a part of something, have faded into obsolescence. All that's left is the cliquish Facebook, where interaction takes place only in closed circles - many of which I'm not welcome in.
Don't get me wrong, I get great joy from weather expeditioning, and it's something I'll always love. I can't imagine a life where I'm ever not doing it. But as I move on from passing the 20 year mark on Sunday, I'll keep searching for what it was that made the early years so memorable. What a great thing it would be to have a May 18 and May 28, 2013 with the friends and fond memories of May 27-29, 2001.
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