The other day, I drove into a cloud. I’m not talking about a little fog or some high elevation mist, and I’m not talking about this mystical place where we all store our photos and music—what is that, anyway? I mean, I drove into the kind of cloud that strikes fear into the hearts of men, that rattles airplanes in descent, that carries rain and wind and unknown weather drama.
I was driving Emily back to school at the end of her winter break, and we were on I-77 North headed toward Cleveland. Our next move was to turn onto 480 West, and as we approached the ramp, I noted that the large cloud to the left looked like a mountain. Have you seen those? If you live in flat land as we do, the sight of a large cloud that is low enough to the ground that you can see the top edge of it, but maybe not the bottom edge, puts you in mind of a mountain range.
Emily remarked that she wished we lived near an actual mountain range so that we could actually be driving near the Rockies and not near clouds that allow us to pretend we're near the Rockies.
But as we got closer and exited the interstate, this nice cloud began to look more like a tidal wave, a murderous one. We both saw it at the same time, and we both reacted as if we were about to be washed over and swept out into the deep blue sea. I kept my eyes on the curving road, however, and proceeded.
Once on 480 West, it was clear we would be driving directly into this big wave, and after a few minutes, we could finally see the bottom edge, which had been obscured before to make it look as if it went all the way to the ground. And then we were beneath this cloud, this weird atmospheric tidal wave. Everything turned very dark, and the wind kicked up so that I had to hold onto the wheel with both hands. There was a little rain but not much, and it felt as if we were driving through a tunnel. "It's suddenly nighttime," Emily said.
There was daylight on the other side, so this wasn’t a horrifying experience. We knew we’d come out from under and be just fine, but how odd this was, a massive cloud that looks like a mountain and then looks like a tsunami just about to break. Turns out these clouds have a name—arcus clouds, this one being the shelf cloud variety. They appear at the beginning of a thunderstorm and happen all over the world.
When I was a kid, all the neighbor kids used to lay in the grass on warm sunny days and admire the clouds up above. We’d pick shapes out of them and follow those shapes as they morphed into others. An elephant would become a horse as the trunk split off into a candy cane, or a boat would become a car as wheels would extend. We can turn almost anything we see into something it isn’t. My theory is there are only so many shapes our minds can collect—we learn them and then apply them to all things. Coffee creamer swirls, for instance, become puppies, and toast patterns become the Virgin Mary. And clouds—if they don't look like the fluffy and friendly shapes we learned as children—become nature’s instrument of death when they aren’t mountain ranges sent to break up the monotony of the Midwest.
Here’s a video showing something very similar to what we saw—listen to the kids in the background. As the guy is talking about tidal waves, they're talking about mountains. "It looks like we're in Norway."