Leaving Canada, I aimed south, southwest, and pedaled a relatively direct path to Kentucky, heading south prematurely, weeks ahead of the flood of migrating monarchs. Because I was ahead of the flock, and because I still had one last northbound push through Missouri, I began to refer to this head start as my pre-migration migration.
Some monarchs also have a pre-migration migration. To understand this movement south by reproductive monarchs, imagine it is early August and you (now a monarch) are a recently eclosed adult. It is too early for you to be a migrant, so you will mate, lay eggs, and those eggs will metamorphose in 30-35 days and then fly to Mexico (congrats). If you lay your eggs at the same latitude you were born at, then your kids will become migrating adults in mid September, a time of seasonal and potentially deadly freezes in the north. So instead of laying your eggs in the most northern parts of the range, and risking killing frosts, you move south to lay your eggs. A head start, away from the cold and closer to Mexico.
This pre-migration migration is not the only thing the monarchs and I had in common on the first leg of my southbound route. Traveling through the core of the country we both welcomed the colorful roadside prairies, suffered from habitat loss, relied on generous hospitality, and felt the urgency of the coming winter. All these commonalities made up the bulk of my Canada to Kentucky pre-migration.
From north to south, the monarchs and I sought out roads without painted lines or traffic but instead a border of roadside ditches alive with the songs of insects, the colors of flowers, and the itchiness of constantly wading into it all. Biking through this lattice of life kept the miles from dragging on. As did the dapple-lit forests and small family farms I wove alongside. These were the good miles, where the monarchs and I could enjoy the thrill of traveling towards unknown horizons. These were the miles where I could wave at families sorting through rows of pumpkins and peppers, and smile at kids on strange bikes who, I assume, thought mine was strange too.
Best of all, these were the miles where monarch moms looked to raise their kids, where hungry monarchs looked to gain strength, and where I, the butterbiker, could lose track of time, kneeling in the itchy grasses, finding colorful, living secrets. A buffet of life. In these miles, I could find large monarch caterpillars, sitting boldly on their leafy banquets, feasting while waving their antenna-like conductors to a symphony of plants and wind. I could find cream-colored eggs and rice-sized young instars hidden on the freshest leaves of browning milkweed. I could find orb spiders centered in their hammocks, skippers skipping from flower to flower, milkweed beetles slurping seed pods, and the surprise of creatures with names I didn’t know. Sometimes I would stop several times a mile to investigate and gain eyes to see the world beyond the blur of inattentiveness.
Then I would hit a mowed stretch, and everything I knew living in the ditches would spread across my consciousness smashed, erased, evicted. I could imagine the caterpillars ripped to shreds, the chrysalides crushed, and the eggs destroyed. I could see the hopes of a creature nurtured on Indiana or Ohio soil flying to Mexico, fail. Butterfly or not, I felt the loss of habitat, the loss of home, and the loss of orange wings migrating across continents.
The silence of these miles was always the most painful. The silence of the non-human, unable to rally, protest, flee, demand, ask, call, write, or vote. The winged, the segmented, the many-legged, the exo-skeletoned disappearing without a fight, a silent cry most of us don’t hear as we look the other way. As I bike I don’t look away. I look into the destruction and reflect on our selfishness.
Inspecting the stubble but unable to find what they look for, the adult monarchs forge on. I wonder what they make of the barren land, and try to harness the power they have to keep moving forward. They always seem confident that they will find what they are looking for. An assumption, a hope, that there still exists pockets of land people have spared.
I am lucky enough to find some of these pockets of hope. In Ohio, between corn and soybean, I stay with Kylee and Romie. Kylee, an author, raises, rears, rescues, teaches about, and protects the monarchs. From her book about monarchs to her nightly walks to collect roadside caterpillars from pending mowers, she is a voice for the monarchs. Speaking for monarchs can often feel like you are speaking into a void, but she has had some victories. The owner of a nearby field held off mowing after he learned about the monarchs, and her young neighbors now explore for caterpillars, thrilled to be part of the migration. Turns out the void might actually be listening.
Kylee wasn’t the only person I met on my pre-migration walking the talk. A few days earlier I met the folks that organized a presentation in Fort Wayne, IN. They were a team of action, making conservation fun as it should be. After the presentation I stayed with Louise, a college professor leading the way, with a new environmental studies textbook focusing on helping students connect the dots between their environment and their lives. I agree wholeheartedly with this approach, anything to link our actions to consequences. After all, the declining monarch populations are a symptom of a disease we are all exposed to. The monarchs and frogs and coral reefs are on the front lines today, but tomorrow? Connecting the dots, educating ourselves and seeing Earth’s systems as our lifelines, and our fellow species as indicators of health is our best defense. Talking with folks like Louise is my best defense too.
The generous hospitality continued in Centerville, IN and Evansville, IN, a smallville and a bit-biggerville respectively. In Centerville, after my presentation, I headed south through protective forests and then climbed up a long, steep gravel driveway just in time to watch a pink glow wash away the blues of the day. At the top of the hill I spotted an old farmhouse that look not just old, but wise, and full of stories. I was greeted at the house by goats, chickens, a few weary dogs, and Dana who welcomed me in. While Dana and her husband cooked real food, their granddaughter fed me plastic ice cream and toy cheeseburgers. I wasn’t super hungry, but found myself eating as much (of the non-toys) as anyone, unable to resist the mac and cheese and potato salad.
In Evansville, a few days later, I had an entirely different set up. Gena had arranged not only a public presentation, several school presentations, and a presentation with her adventure scouts, but she had also set up housing for me at the local university. For several days I had my own house and refrigerator, a luxury that allowed me to go to the store and stock up on things like ice cream and cantaloupe, food I just can’t carry on a bicycle. To supplement this strange diet folks like Val treated me to Greek food, Susan and her ball of yarn smiles hooked me up with farmers' market veggies, and Gena provided me with homemade mini muffins.
Now while the monarchs don’t eat mini muffins or Greek food, they too rely on my new friends for food too. The same folks that feed me, are the folks planting gardens in their yards to feed the monarchs. So while Dana was feeding me mac and cheese, and Louise was feeding me pizza, and Kylee was feeding me catfish, all three had gardens in their yards full of inviting flowers and occasional milkweeds. This generous hospitality links butterflies and butterbikers more than our route, preference for prairie and struggles with habitat loss. I like that the monarchs and I can both find these people in our own ways. I like that we both arrive hungry and tired, and once rested and full, we leave ready for more.
And more the monarchs and I had! During my pre-migration Mexico felt impossibly far way, and the demanding distance led to a sense of urgency. I had left Canada just as the monarchs were beginning to group together and send all the monarch folks into a frenzy. While many thought tagging premature, just the idea that tagging, reserved for the migrating monarchs, was enough to make me worry. I imagined the monarchs all passing me before I hit Missouri and spending thousands of miles hearing people tell me I just missed them, and that I better catch up.
I can’t say if the monarchs felt the same urgency I felt, though I imagine they sense something. Perhaps for them it’s a mere craving, a hankering, a pull. For me it was all alarm bells and sirens, which started as soon as I started to receive email and facebook updates telling me that tagging efforts were heating up and I needed to pedal fast. I felt like I was slowing while the miles were growing. Mexico seemed to be getting further away and the pressure to get south grew.
And then, all of sudden, I started finding eggs again. Each egg, needing 30-35 day to develop into an adult, meant I had time, and like that, I gained breathing room, 35 days of breathing room. 35 days of gaining ground because (not to brag) I am faster than a caterpillar! I explained the reason for this new wave of eggs and tiny caterpillars with the pre-migration migration. Having reached southern Indiana, I had also reached the destination of those pre-migrating adult monarchs, who laid their eggs in my path and gave me precious time to pedal. So even if the race was on, it wasn’t a sprint yet.
Instead of racing I continued at my one and only pace, slow and steady, enjoying the scenic miles and generous hospitality, lamenting on the mowed ditches and habitat loss, and feeling like a monarch butterfly. But for all the experiences that link butterflies and butterbikers, many exceptions exist. Night riding thick with amphibians, a critical mass of junior butterbikers, terrifying bridge crossings, and a broken bike drew the line, making my trip unique enough to be its own migrating thing! These differences are as memorable as the similarities.
At the top of the list was the critical mass of junior butterbikers, which I found myself a part of in the middle of, after a series of presentations in Evansville, IN. The junior butterbikers were adventure scouts, boys and girls of varying ages, who rallied for an evening presentation and bike ride to a monarch garden. After the chaos of sorting kids and bikes, and arranging all for a photo, we headed down the path. Before starting, I said something ridiculous like “alert bikers to bumps with hand signals.” Then, watching kids careen nearly out of control down the path, I laughed. My advice might as well have been to rebuild their bottom brackets it was so advanced, and I should have gone with something like “go slow on the downhills”.
Regardless of my bad advice we all survived the mile or so adventure to the garden. Sure I’d had to stop for a few downed kids, and twist loose handlebars back into acceptable positions; but we all had made the journey and all earned the confidence for future trips. Talking to a few of the older kids filled me with pride. They were so excited to be on an adventure, and I saw that same craving for exploring, challenging your muscles, and searching for freedom that lured me to bike travel when I was their age. I could see their minds calculating the potential and possibilities of future trips. I could see that they had found windows into a new world.
And biking is such a great way to enter new worlds, like worlds full of amphibians on the move. Night rides with frogs, toads, and salamanders are another thing a butterbiker gets to experience but which butterflies don’t. The disparity is because butterflies don’t fly at night, but butterbikers can! Taking advantage of this privilege one night in Indiana, I turned on my lights and biked through the darkness of a warm, humid night. I was feeling strong as the 100 mile mark of the day grew closer, and I was enjoying the way my lights swam through the moisture rising off the pavement. Focused on the dark, I sped down the hills, accepting the invitation from darkness to join the nocturnal wilds. When the first salamander shape caught my eye, I focused only on finding more.
I’ve spent a dozen years training my eyes to register the lumps and shadows of hiding, camouflaged, and reluctant amphibians. I have a search image in my head that sends signals to my body before I even process them. I can tell leaves and springs and broken tires from hunched frogs and oblivious toads. In the world of science it is the skill I have, but it is the skill that can break my heart. Because while I can tell contorted plastic bottles from frogs, I can’t usually tell dying toads from the still alive, and thus my encounters often end sadly.
I’ve found thousands of dead amphibians and reptiles on the roads. Unless I’m flying by at 40 mph I will usually stop and move them off the road as an act of dignity and respect. When I’m forced to put toads leaking guts or crying blood out of their misery, I wish I could spread the pain I feel to each oblivious driver. Since I can’t, I let each death touch me, absorbing the stillness so that the deaths don’t go unnoticed or forgotten. One day we will look back in shock at our relationship with other living things.
Perhaps I’m extra sensitive about all the road kill, because all day I suffer the stress of reckless cars driving by recklessly. This is always the most pronounced on bridges, which tend to squeeze roads into traffic jams without wiggle room. On these such bridges I focus on nothing more than staying alive. Later I reflect with jealousy on how monarchs don’t need bridges!
On my pre-migration I crossed two bridges, both taking first and second place as most terrifying bridge crossings of the trip. Both spanned the Ohio River, and both left my lungs burning, legs aching, and heart beating fast with adrenalin and concern.
The first place winner of the two bridges was outside of Evansville. The bridge, under construction, loomed as I approached. Herds of cars crossing south were funneled into one narrow lane which was closed in with cement barricades and a retaining wall tipping into the expanse between road and water. After asking a cop for advice, I found a gap and moved as fast as I could. I pedaled with every ounce of strength I could muster, attempting to keep up with the traffic going relatively slow through the narrow passageway of the road. When I found a break in the cement wall, I ducked in and let traffic pass by.
Catching my breath I waited for another gap. The second gap took me to the crest in the bridge, looking over my shoulder I saw a huge semi coming forward. Rationally I knew, as I biked in the center of the lane, that the semi could see me and would not run me over, but I still looked back with fear. The gap grew smaller. I pedaled faster. I cursed every road authority with the audacity to leave safety up to me. I cursed the constructions works who yelled “hey that’s illegal” but gave no clues as to what I was to do. Did they want me to swim? And in fact, it wasn’t illegal, though perhaps offering cyclists no safe options should be. Mostly though I wasn’t thinking, just racing ahead. The gap grew smaller, but I had nowhere to go. And then I did. The bridge ended and the road uncurled, spewing a shoulder which I veered into with panicky reverence. Pulling over I let my heart slow down. Miles later I noted that my lungs still burned and the next day my legs were sore.
The last thing faced on my pre-migration that the monarchs would never and will never have to deal with was a broken bike. My bike went from ridable to not so much just south of Detroit’s city center. At the time, I was still fuming about transportation equity, when one of my bungee cords, not properly tied down after the impromptu repacking to get across the border, got wrapped in my rear wheel. As the bungee twisted, pulled, snapped, and bent reluctant parts, I slammed on my breaks. Then I pulled over to inspect the damage.
My chain had been twisted until the links had popped apart. The cassette (the gears on the wheel) was warped and no longer spun. The rear spokes were chewed and threatened to snap. I assessed my options and was amazed to see that every other factor was in my favor. It was a weekday, during business hours, in a city, and I had a phone. I took off the chain, so that when I spun the pedals they couldn’t engage the faulty cassette, and then took off down the road. Instead of pedaling, I balanced one foot on a pedal and the other I used to kick off the ground like a skateboard.
In the 5 miles, from breakdown to bike shop, I perfected the art of bike-skating. Quiet roads with kerbs made for the best conditions, since, next to the kerb, my pumping foot could reach the slightly higher ground and spare my other leg from having to squat down. This cut down on the burn, but still, by the time I made it to the bike shop I had discovered muscles in my thighs, back, and neck I didn’t know I had…
I lucked out on the bike shop, finding a guy that assessed the damage, came to the same conclusions, and sold me a new wheel. During this time a reporter called to ask me questions, and I had to preface the interview with “I am happy to talk to you but you should know that I just had the most miserable experience crossing the border and then my bike broke down, so my answers might not be all hugs, smiles, and sunshine.” I don’t know how famous people cope.
By the end of the day I had put enough miles behind me that both dramas were no longer toxic and I was able to relax in the shadows of a lonely church. Not one car that zoomed by knew, hidden from view, that there was a cyclist reveling in the stillness of night and recovering from a bad day. I wonder if monarchs land for the night in the shelter of leafy branches and let out sighs of relief to signal the end of a bad day. I assumed bad days to monarchs are usually finalities, and that perhaps recovery was something afforded only to butterbikers. Still, finding shelter and becoming invisible every night, that, we have in common.
By Kentucky my pre-migration was wrapping up and unlike the monarchs I wouldn’t pass the baton, but would instead keep moving. I’d keep watching for monarchs, learning from our overlapping route, and cheering on the next generation. I am not a butterfly, but I get it. I can see their world, celebrate their victories, feel their challenges, and continue being their voice. And they will continue to lift me up, cheer me on, and thank me with the flashes of a colorful wing and inspiring swirls in the roadside prairies we both continue to stumble through.