On Friday night, December 10, Michelle and I were hosting two out-of-state hunters—my buddy Miles Fedinec from Colorado and gun writer Phil Massarro from New York—at our camp. There was no denying the weather was decidedly unusual for December. When Phil and Miles pulled into camp, the concrete porch of the lodge was sweating from the humidity, and our outdoor thermometer read 74 degrees. For hours, we enjoyed a late-season deer camp in balmy, spring-like weather. It was almost Christmas, but I was wearing shorts and Crocs—something Miles pointed out several times.
We drank a few beers on the porch, cooked steaks, and told stories. Around 8 p.m., Michelle beckoned Anse, our son, to bed, but the kid was in no hurry, especially not with a group of hunters sitting around talking about guns and fish and trapping. Normally, when we’re guiding a hunt like this, Michelle would take Anse back to our home after dinner. Our house is 30 miles north of the lodge, but with severe storms and tornado potential in the forecast that night, we all decided to sleep under the same roof. Anse stretched out on a cot next to mine and Michelle’s bed.
Given the weather, opening morning didn’t look good. But I was excited about the hunting prospects for the rest of the week. I’ve come to believe that the December muzzleloader season is one of the best times of year to kill a good buck in Kentucky, with the deer stuck somewhere between the rut and true late-season patterns. Miles has killed some good ones here at that time of year, and I had high hopes for the white oak ridge, where I’d planned to take Phil. The forecast later in the week was for cold and clear mornings, and I felt like our chances of killing a good buck or two were high.
It’s steady work cutting through the soft wood of the uprooted sweet gum. Limbs first, and then gradually larger pieces of the trunk that splatter the muddy ground under them. Michelle handles the off-bearing work next to me, moving the wood from about my feet and into a growing pile. But the chainsaw jars suddenly and shudders before going silent. There’s cloth bound up in the sprocket, and I see it’s the sleeve of a child’s winter coat. I pull it out. The arm of the coat is flecked with exposed cotton from the wounds of the chain’s teeth. Michelle takes the coat and lays it carefully on the cold pavement, next to the other one she pulled from the same tree. Both coats are of the same size and belonged, I suspect, to the same little boy, probably 3 years old.
Random, precise destruction describes the tornado’s path. Tomorrow, a couple blocks from here, we’ll see the corner of a house and the view to a dining room, where a family table and dish cabinet are still standing and a decorative Christmas towel remains on a knob. It’s as if a model-furniture display were placed there after the rest of the home was ripped away. A friend tells me that a half-mile from here, in his old house, the storm pulled the knobs off the stove and out the window, but left cups on the counter next to it unscathed.
But the remains of these two coats traveled together from somewhere, and they stopped in this tree. They probably came from across the street or from another part of town or maybe another town. (On Facebook, someone posted a photo recovered from our high-school gymnasium—way up in Indiana.) Where they sit now, in the city park, used to be a basketball court. Or was the gazebo here? With so many landmarks destroyed—iconic trees, road signs—it’s hard to make sense of what used to be where. What I can remember is a school dance at this place, one warm night more than 20 years ago.
Sitting in that warm, calm air at camp on Friday night, it was difficult to imagine bundling up in layers for the 20-degree morning that was forecast for Sunday. And so, we talked a lot about the weather, and I’ll forever regret teasing Michelle that night about overreacting to tornado warnings. We have warnings by the dozen here—including one as recently as the previous Monday—and she never ignores them. On so many late nights, she’s hustled Anse and me out of bed to take cover in a hallway or bathroom. I’ve always stood there, sleepy and annoyed, watching the radar on my phone and listening to it rain.
“Fair warning,” I told our guests, “she’ll probably barge in and wake your asses up about midnight tonight.”
“I can’t help it,” Michelle said. “They terrify me.” It was still calm outside when we went to bed.
The hill at the park, where Michelle and I are cleaning up debris, is one of the highest points in the city limits of Dawson Springs, Kentucky. When the leaves are gone, there’s a good half-mile view; you can see across Highway 62 and to Mike’s IGA, the school, and Casey’s gas station. It’s about a third of the width of the entire town. A month ago, I parked my truck on this hill, ate a sandwich, and recorded a podcast about deer hunting. The rut was just kicking then, with rifle season around the corner. The mood in a town full of hunters was positively electric.
Now—the second-to-last day of Kentucky’s late December muzzleloader season—it’s cold. The view from this hill is forever altered by unspeakable destruction. You can still see the IGA and the school, but between is a morbid mix of bright playground equipment, splintered lumber, metal roofing, and massive trees snapped off 20 feet high. Spray-painted on the ruins of the old spec building, built years ago to become a factory that was never occupied, is a massive message: DAWSON STRONG. Across the road, next to the Ideal Market gas station, is a tarp lean-to with a small Christmas tree inside. Outside, a man in a cowboy hat—the Cowboy Preacher—offers counsel to anyone who wants it.
Heavy rain was pounding the metal roof when Michelle elbowed me awake at about 11 p.m. She was looking at her phone—nothing surprising on a storm night. “Your phone’s blowing up,” she said, “and I’m seeing on Facebook that a tornado touched down in Mayfield. We’re under a warning, Will. Do you think you should wake the guys up?”
“No,” I said. “It’ll be fine.” I checked my phone, and there was a message from my mom, just outside Dawson Springs.
We heard Mayfield was hit real hard. How are you all doing?
I told her we were OK, and began to drift back to sleep. But minutes later, Michelle woke me again. “Dawson Springs was hit hard,” she said. “And it says to take cover immediately in the New Concord area.” Our lodge is in New Concord, Kentucky, on the Tennessee line, evidently in the path of another tornado. I checked my phone, and there was another message from my mom, this one more urgent in tone, and about Dawson Springs.
We heard DQ, Minit Mart, and Trover clinic are gone. Also Belmont and some of the other apartments. We’re fine, sitting on the porch for weather updates. Bad weather all around us now. We’re sleeping downstairs.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Should we wake Miles and Phil? Should we ask them to take shelter—because it’s raining outside? Were we panicking? Was I not taking it seriously enough?
My dad’s office used to be on the court square, downtown Dawson Springs. Several years ago, Michelle’s older brother, Mark, bought the building from my dad. It’s still standing, but damaged. Around the square, cases of bottled water are stacked like the most tremendous child’s fort ever. Volunteers hand out hot meals to anyone who wants it. There is no stoplight in this town; only a 4-way intersection right there at the square. On many of the standing structures, homes in particular, there are mysterious symbols in bright spray paint. X-Codes, I learn that they’re called. They became well known after Hurricane Katrina and are a way for first responders to quickly communicate what’s inside a home after a disaster. They identify the rescue team that left the code, and note the time and date that they left. They identify hazards like flooding or gas leaks. They identify the number of survivors rescued. They identify the number of bodies found.
I pulled on my pants and boots, grabbed a flashlight and my keys, and told Michelle to get Anse dressed and get into my truck parked inside the garage. God, I was glad they were there with me and not on the other side of the county. Then I banged on the door to the bunkroom, woke Miles and Phil, and told them to get dressed. As if on cue, the severe weather alert sounded on Miles’s phone. The sound of rain grew to a roar on the metal roof as it turned to hail.
I’ve never heard more noise in this little town than right now. Chainsaws, sirens, generators, the drone of heavy equipment. Voices of people trying to be calm. Michelle and I met here back in kindergarten, and we graduated from here, high school sweethearts then and now, in a class of 29. Dawson Springs Independent, a little school that’s the community anchor, was spared. Immediately, it became a hub of donated clothing, bottled water, canned food, and volunteers.
Michelle pulled a quilt over Anse in the backseat of my truck and draped herself on top of him. Miles, Phil, and I stood around the bed of the truck in the shop, listening to the thunder. The hail pounding the metal was so loud we couldn’t hear one another speak. Not that we were saying much. I started to suggest that we take shelter in the truck, but I don’t think any of us wanted to admit we were scared. Then there was a click and a muffled beep from the stove clock in the kitchen, before the lodge went black. We switched to flashlights, but the phone signals and WiFi that allowed us to watch the radar were gone.
The noise subsided within a few minutes, and I hustled onto the porch to crank the generator. The rain was blinding, but the wind had settled. I flipped the auxiliary power switch to the lodge, and we had power and Internet again. Anse had slept through most of it, and was annoyed by the commotion and the generator. He snuggled back into the sleeping bag on his cot.
Two days would pass before I could understand just how vulnerable we all were in that moment. At the time, I was just thankful Michelle and Anse were there with me, and that we had a generator that allowed us to stay connected and comfortable. In the hours that followed, before daybreak, there were hints that something truly terrible had happened.
Dawson Springs, a town of 2,800 give or take, was built along the Tradewater River in western Kentucky in the early 1800s. Officially, anyway. There’s abundant evidence showing that Native Americans settled, hunted, and traded in the area long before that. It’s always been a productive place for hunting and fishing. The Tradewater forms the southwestern boundary of Hopkins County, separating it from neighboring Caldwell County, and the Dawson city limit. Lake Beshear is just over the hill.
That little river is full of crappie, catfish, and some nice spotted bass that will nail a short-arm spinnerbait. One of my first writing gigs, back when I was 20 years old, was the outdoors column for the Dawson Springs Progress. I did a story about fishing the Tradewater, and my dad said that Bob Bullock—my buddy’s grandfather and a local taxidermist—had called his office to tell Dad to tell me to stop spilling the beans about his favorite fishing spot.
If your idea of Kentucky is a land of hills and hollers, then you might as well be picturing the countryside here. The sprawling oak and hickory forests are interspersed with small crop and hayfields, and some notable geological features. There are sheer limestone cliffs—we call them bluffs—and small caves scattered throughout the Tradewater Valley and around the shores of the lake. As kids, we used to hide out in those caves, building campfires, shooting birds with BB guns, and sneaking cigars from our dads. This is in the heart of western Kentucky’s big buck factory, and to a kid who was interested in nothing much besides hunting and fishing, it was a fantastic place to grow up. I killed my first squirrel, deer, and turkey right here. Michelle’s parents still live just south of town, and mine just north of it.
People aren’t used to national notoriety in towns like Mayfield and Dawson Springs, but that’s what happened in the days following December 10. The EF4 tornado that hit both towns late that night was so powerful as to have registered seismic activity. Its path was 165.7 miles long, according to the National Weather Service, with wind speeds of 190 mph. It was roughly a mile wide, and it destroyed an estimated 75 percent of the homes in Dawson Springs. Among them were the homes of several of my high school classmates, including my friend Kayla. We’d just had our 20-year reunion in her backyard over the summer.
After it passed through Mayfield, but before it hit Dawson, that same tornado missed my and Michelle’s home by 13 miles, crossing the north end of Kentucky Lake. The weather system spawned many other tornadoes that night, too—66 of them in all, according to the NWS—that affected people in Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The hail we heard on the roof was from an EF3 that crossed the south end of Kentucky Lake, 6 miles from our lodge. Altogether, an estimated 90 people were killed by the storms, 75 of them in Kentucky.
I saw a first responder post to a hunting group that I follow:
I’m in Mayfield now. There are bodies everywhere. This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.
Michelle’s mom responded to a text pretty quickly. They didn’t have power, but still had service and were OK. I texted my mom, but no answer. I tried calling her cell phone, then Dad’s, then their landline. Customer unavailable. The next few hours were a flurry of texts and Facebook messages from friends and relatives:
Dawson Springs destroyed. Impassable.
Have you heard from your parents?
The locals mostly just call the town “Dawson.” The “Springs” part of the name comes from the area’s numerous mineral springs, which were reported to have had healing properties and supported a vibrant resort economy in the early 1900s. Those resorts were long gone before my time, but some of the springs are still there, if you know where to look. I killed my first archery deer, a little 5-point buck, from a treestand overlooking one of them, when I was 15. It’s a puddle, slightly salty to taste, in a wash worn by decades—or centuries maybe—of deer trails and tracks. There’s the remnant of an old deer stand—just a single 2×4 stuck to a forked tree—20 yards from it. I’ve often wondered how many generations of hunters have waited there for game. I know there are abundant flint arrowheads in the hills around it.
That spring has always been there: There when populations of deer and turkeys disappeared. There when they came back. In the hottest summers, I’ve never seen it dry. And in December, it doesn’t freeze. Time will tell if the town itself can be as resilient—but the progress that’s been made in just a month suggests that it will. The disaster-relief response in towns like Dawson Springs and Mayfield has been overwhelming. There have been more people and more traffic in my home town in the past few weeks than at any point in my life.
We loaded the truck with everything I thought might come in handy—chainsaws, tools, an inverter generator, gas, cases of water. Miles and I left at daybreak, and made it to a state-police roadblock just outside of Dawson. Behind the officers, on the banks of the Tradewater River, I could see a line of massive trees—mangled and snapped. All of the debris, the bent limbs, the insulation, was pointing directly at my hometown, as if frozen there by a vicious river current come and gone.
I told the trooper that my parents lived on the other side of town, and were unaccounted for. “I’m from Dawson, and I can’t reach them,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” the officer said, “but it’s impassable right now.”
“Can I go around, through Pennyrile?”
“You can try. Good luck.”
As Miles and I turned around for the long detour, my phone rang. Matt Seymore, one of my best friends since childhood, and another of the 29 in my graduating class, had driven through the night to get here from his home in Mobile, Alabama. “I’m here with your parents,” he said. “They don’t have power, but they’re fine.”
I hadn’t seen Seymore since the previous turkey season, and for a little while, we all sat in my folks’ living room together, smiling at seeing one another, but solemn. To look at Mom and Dad’s yard, you could barely tell the wind blew. But after passing through Dawson, the tornado had crossed I-69 and missed their house by about 3 miles. All around, we’d been impossibly lucky.
On the banks of the Tradewater River, a bulldozer tends a massive fire, where tree debris is being burned. Much of the rubble from destroyed homes is piled alongside the roads, to be carried away loads at a time. When Michelle and I were through town the other day, it looked as though new building materials had been delivered for Trover Clinic—which, as my mom said in her text the night of December 10, was so badly damaged that it did not survive. The Minit Mart and Dairy Queen, contrary to initial rumors, both survived, but still with damage.
Ms. Becky’s Place, the restaurant that’s always been the downtown gathering place for old men to eat breakfast, reopened a few days ago. “Everyone was glad to be home,” owner Becky James, who used to cut my hair when I was a kid, told The Dawson Springs Progress. “Their wives were ready to send them down here, too.”
Ms. Becky’s feeds a lot of deer hunters every fall, too. It’ll be good to see them back.
Asking for Help
I spoke to a hunter from Dawson Springs the other day who’d set out his favorite muzzleloader—an Encore Pro-Hunter—along with his boots and gear to hunt that weekend. All of that, along with his home and most of everything else in it, was destroyed.
During deer camp, Phil Massaro and I talked at length about adventures abroad. I’ve hunted amazing places on multiple continents. But I’ve made a living writing mostly about the hunting and fishing right here at home. A writer always tackles an assignment with an audience in mind—and for me, that audience is usually comprised of the type of folks who taught me to shoot a bow and skin a squirrel, or the buddies who used to skip school with me to go turkey hunting.
These are the people who save hard-earned money to buy the hunting and fishing gear that supports our industry. Over and again, my friends and colleagues in the hunting and fishing industries have said to me, “Let us know if we can help.” And so, that’s what I’m doing here.
I’ve been working with contacts in Dawson Springs to help me identify individuals and families who hunted and fished—and also lost everything. Right now, loved ones, homes, vehicles, and livelihoods are the priority. But the fish will be biting again before long, and the turkeys gobbling, too. People will want to get outdoors, and today’s gear costs more than it ever has. Currently, I’m trying to help replace things like good camouflage clothing, boots, optics, archery equipment, muzzleloading equipment, tree stands, ground blinds, game calls, decoys, and more.
If you represent an outdoor-industry brand and want to help me with this effort, e-mail me at [email protected].