In Mexico I exchanged dollars for pesos, English for Spanish, miles for kilometers, and cell service for lots of questioning, pointing, and nodding. These changes were the architecture needed to reinvigorate my adventure, and find the adventure in the adventure once again. Between the processing, questioning, learning, and the fine line between understanding and being complete confused, there was no time to daydream the miles away.
I crossed the border at Cuidad Miguel Aleman without a wait; nothing but smiles and a sympathetic reintroduction to Spanish. My plan was to get as far south as I could the first day, so I took the smooth, quiet highway south. I felt beyond lucky, having guessed an ideal route, as I rode through the stubble of a seemingly ruthless shrub-land into the heart of Mexico.
Having cycled across the USA/Mexico border twice previously, I was well aware of the perceived dangers at the border thanks to the constant barrage of warnings. Warnings are not new to me, in fact folks often go one step beyond warning me, by looking into my eyes and telling me I am going to die. Biking on back roads in Bolivia, hiking across New Mexico, canoeing a reservoir in Montana... people look at me with a mixture of pity and awe as they inform me that I’m going to die. Their fears are worst case scenarios conceived by the unknown. So while I will listen to warnings that come from first-hand experience I ignore panicked paranoia. I take advice like, “take extra food because the road gets bumpy and will be slow going,” from someone that has actually been on the road. I don’t give creed to, “you are going to die” from someone that watches the news and thinks the worst will always happen.
All that being said, when the man in the truck stopped 20 miles south of the border to tell me that 15 men were waiting under a bridge with guns to kill me, I paused to mull this over. I took note that the man was not local, nor was he was coming from the direction of said bridge. I took note that nearly every driver coming from the bridge’s direction had been waving, smiling, and cheering me on. I asked him how he knew this, but I didn’t understand his answer. He then told me his hands were clean, turned around to return to where he was working, and left me weighing my options. I didn’t want to meet 15 bad guys with guns at a bridge, but I didn’t want to turn around because some guy was scared and suspicious.
I decided I needed a second opinion. I waved down a truck with a woman driver and older male passenger. I told them what the other driver had said and asked their opinion. They laughed and told me I would be fine. To double check their answer, I asked “so if I keep going, 15 bad guys with guns are NOT going to kill me?” They shook their heads no. Feeling better, I ended the conversation with a joke: “Thanks, take care, and if you see 15 men with guns under the bridge, could you tell them not to kill me!” They waved and I took a deep breath. I’d tell my parents about this in a decade…
After that, each bridge I crossed for the next ten miles or so got my heart racing. I biked faster and was alert. I pounded across each bridge as if there were 15 bad guys with guns lurking beneath them all. Twenty or so miles later the road had split and no one could have been able to guess my route, at which point I smiled. Was I ever going to cross a bridge like a normal person ever again (spoiler alert: the answer is yes)? By the time the sun was threatening to call it a day, I was on some crazy back road that no one would have ever expected to see a biking gringa. This unpredictability felt like a safety net, and I wiggled off the road, between the pointy shrubs and cow patties, finding the perfect camping spot. I slept peacefully!
Before I switch from guns to butterflies, I want to explain why I decided to include this story in my blog, and risk adding to the demagoguery that paints all of “them” as bad guys and Mexico as this dangerous hell hole. I first assumed I’d share this story only with my traveling friends, the folks that can put the scary warning into context; but then reality struck. At the same time I was scared of imaginary guns in Mexico, on the news REAL guns were creating REAL terror and REAL deaths. It seems to me that I should be less scared of bridges in Mexico and more scared of churches, schools, and concert venues in the United States. We must put our fears in context, be smart, be aware, be rational, and take steps to fight the REAL problems.
Okay, now I can switch from guns to butterflies, and not just monarch butterflies, but an entire kaleidoscopic of wings. Never before had I seen such a rainbow of butterflies, and aside from the sanctuaries, I’d never seen such a concentration, as I biked through northern Mexico. For days I pedaled through a cloud of sulphurs, yellow butterflies that flew like they are learning to swim through the air for the first time. Their yellow eyes matched their yellow wings, which held hints of orange, whispers of black, and accents of white. Their numbers were not dense like a mob, which rushes through and passes in a panic. Instead they were a calm, constant flow, spaced apart like stars moving across the sky; a synchronized pilgrimage of yellows.
It wasn’t the Sulphurs that stole the show the first few weeks in Mexico. It was the combination of such variety that held me captive. As they combed through the sky I tried to isolate each and give study to it. The green and black strips of long-winged butterflies were steady in the sky. The swallowtails with dull greens and browns were leaf-like, purposeful flyers. The large fritillaries with bright orange wings flat and militaristic, were efficient butterfly machines. The largest fritillaries flashed silver on the underside of their wings, and like mirrors, they reflected the eyes of the sun.
Some of my favorite butterflies in the throngs were black striped butterflies colored like the end of the day. I imagined every line on their wings were horizons holding setting suns, and I took to calling them either big-sunsets or little-sunsets, seeing as there were two distinct sizes. Another of my favorites was a large brown butterfly with wings dipped in orange paint and bisected by a white line where the painter’s tape must had been. These messy painter butterflies hummed in the shade. I liked that after hours of biking and observing, I could note not just their colors, or the beat of their wings, but their preference for a shady refuge.
Because of such variety in the winged fauna, including many big, orange butterflies, I was suspicious of monarch sightings and needed to be close in order to be confident. I needed to be close enough to see the clumsy, baggy gait of a flapping monarch, or the folded wing keel of a coasting monarch. I needed to be close enough to see the yellowish orange shine though the veins of black, and confirm the absence of the burgundy hints and darker black fringe of the closely related queen butterfly. Seeing one or two monarchs a day kept me motivated and I always cheered on those fellow stragglers. I felt like we were runners at the end of a marathon, slow but steady towards the finish line, not the fastest, and okay with that.
Cheering monarchs on is something we can all do, but when you see a monarch don’t just wish it luck on its journey, try and imagine its story. Imagine how it survived attacks by flies, wasps, beetles, ants, OE, pesticides, herbicides, cars, trucks, semis, habitat loss, and global warming; AND after all that could navigate through farms, towns, cities, and the thousands of miles in between. We must be taught to cheer animals on, to grasp that the feats they perform are astounding acts of science and evolution. We must be taught to open our eyes and see. So cheer and cheer loudly, so people can overhear and learn how to see and cheer too.
As I cheered on the straggling monarchs, people cheered me on! In Mexico this was as true as ever. At the tail end of my second day in Mexico, I stopped at a tiny store to see if I could fill up my water bottles with drinking water. Upon hearing my accent the kids ran to collect more witnesses. In the confusion, I was led through the store and greeted by several women packing corn husks with masa, the tedious prep work for tamales. After some chatting they treated me to a small feast. This led to an invitation to stay for the night, a lesson in tamale making, and of course conversation.
Much of the conversation was light and happy. The youngest daughter bounced around like a bunny and later a kangaroo. The older kids helped me find butterflies sleeping in the potted plants and a toad showering under the drip of a pipe. But at times the conversation was heavy. So much stress is caused by the imaginary line we call the US/Mexico border. So much heartache from having to split families and make impossible choices. All I could do was listen, hold their stories in my heart, and cast my votes with their lives in mind.
My next homestay, if you will, was in Cuidad Victoria. I aimed for the city’s center where hotels are always nestled between shops selling tortillas, bread, cell phones, popsicles, fruit, and meals made from every combination of tortillas. I’d been anticipating a hotel, and a rest day for some time. I was in serious need of both. A hotel to shower, as I hadn’t showered since Texas, and a rest day to clean my clothes.
Mexico offers a wide range of hotel experiences, and prices can be as low as $10 per night if you are willing to ignore things like hair in the shower drain and chewed gum on the headstand. I ignored both in Victoria, BUT there was wifi, a window to the outside, and nice workers, so I was happy. They encouraged me to store my bike in my room, which meant blocking the only passage way to the bathroom, so I had to somersault over the bed each time I wanted to cross the room. All part of the adventure!
On my rest day I took in the organized chaos of town, and discovered that a monarch steward/biologist/outdoors enthusiast lived in Victoria. Since the mountains didn’t offer lots of route options, I biked to Ivan’s house to get some local advice on the best options for seeing monarchs and enjoying the road. Not only was I treated to intel on what would become one of my favorite roads of the trip, but I was also treated to a lesson on monarchs in northern Mexico, good company, and an invitation to stay another day in Victoria. Of course I said yes!
Ivan works for the government studying the monarchs and encouraging tourism in his state of Tamaulipas. He showed me videos of monarchs passing through the state, and I saw the potential for the monarch to bring people to places beyond the sanctuaries. In the fall, in Tamaolipas, you can come and see fields of flowers brimming with migrating monarchs stockpiling fat for the winter. It wasn’t until my visit with Ivan that I realized that the oyamel fir forest, where the monarchs spend the winter, is not the only hotspot for monarch conservation in Mexico. For this reason, the government is instigating programs to help farmers leave fields of flowers for the winged migrants and of course all the other butterflies.
Ivan also works with a tourist outfit, taking folks canyoneering and hiking. He showed me photos of trips taken through milky green waters, the obvious and beautiful result of limestone filtration. When I remarked on the color and mentioned limestone, he not only confirmed with the Spanish translation (which I immediately forgot), but he confirmed my guess that he sees Mexico differently than most. It seems to me that he sees nature with an appreciation that few possess. In a world where most can’t see the snakes, frogs, butterflies, limestone, and long steep hills for their beauty, it is always comforting to meet someone who does.
Thanks to Ivan’s intel, I ended up leaving Cuidad Victoria and climbing a long hill out of the smog, noise, trash, lights, traffic, and development of the city. Along the climb, I traveled with the many colors of the many butterflies, and together we watched distant mountains grow over the horizon and the valley shrink away. It was a challenging climb, but the views were the distractions needed not to dwell on the effort.
Besides views and butterflies, the climb was interrupted by a delicious meal, prepared for me even though the store was closed. While I ate I became friends with a few folks from town, and when I left I had an extra meal of cookies and bananas on my bike and a deal to return someday rather than pay that day. This break in the climb was followed by a break at the top of the hill, where I spotted the bluest lizard, possibly the bluest animal I have ever seen in my life. In a car, or bus, or plane, I would never have met those friends or discovered such a striking creature.
My next home-stay was in Tula, Tam. It sits in high, dry desert and is the only place in Mexico that all three of my trips have traversed. The second pass, which was my spring migration in March, was when I met Elda, Carlos, and their two kids. They are cyclists, and had stopped to learn about my trip. By the end of the encounter we had exchanged numbers and made plans to do something when I came through in the fall. And then the fall came, and I found myself biking to their house. This was when the adventure really began.
I’d planned to say two nights at their house, but between all the eating, parades, bike rides, playing, and more eating, I ended up staying 4 nights with the family. In that time, I came to know not just the four of them, but much of their extended family and friends which either lived nearby or came and went with ease. Their house was always full of people; a family/friend reunion that extended through all the days.
For the days I was there, I met much of the family, celebrated a birthday, shared a room with family and friends who had arrived by motorcycle, met many of the students that attend their computer engineering technical school, and cycled with their biking club. The bike ride was extra memorable, being that it was their club’s 2nd year anniversary ride, and we had a wonderful spread of ages and abilities. It was so fun to see so many people rallying behind the bicycle, creating a cyclist identity, and cultivating a community which can teach, learn, and support cyclists. I was inspired. This was how ideas spread, movements grow, change is born, and people learn just what is possible.
For the days I was there I also ate, and ate a lot. I was fed feast after feast, with no time to be hungry! On the weekends, Elda and Carlos serve gorditas (think a thick corn tortilla filled with amazingness) and menudo (think chewy cow stomach… I think!) in the patio of their house. I “helped”, and when business lulled I took the opportunity to learn from the experts. It was not super hard to make gorditas (if you are not picky about roundness), but what I really learned is that my hands are sensitive and weak. It seems like every woman in rural Mexico can comfortably touch scalding hot pans, piping hot tortillas, and freezing cold water. When I tried I bumbled, hooted, and in a panic nearly threw the tortillas anywhere besides my hands.
At Elda and Carlos’ I also got to practice my Spanish. A house full of kids is always a great place to practice. Kids rarely mind that your accent is strange and you don’t understand what is going on. I’ll never forget when Diego, the cutest little boy ever, ran up to me and said “Voy a hacerte cosquillas.” I asked “what are cosquillas?” and he put his hands up, wiggled them, and began to tickle me. That is how I learned cosquillas are tickles. That same day I learned, during an extended game of volleyball/hackysack that when counting how many times we could hit the ball the kids all counted “unA, dos, tres.” I have no idea why it was una and not uno, but I went with it. Learning another language just to learning to follow the rules of the people that speak it.
Eventually I had to leave. I mean, I wanted to finish my trip, and I was just days away. Those days, I knew would be brutal, because of the huge climbs, narrow roads, and complicated directions. First though, I was gifted two easy days. From Tula I descended back to sea level and the lush green that carpeted the eastern side of the Sierra Madre. For two days I managed a fast pace on relatively flat ground, biking past every process of sugar cane production. I passed fields, once green forests at the foothills of the mountains, now green leaf, sweet grass being cut, organized, and tucked into lumbering trucks. I waved to men with machetes balancing huge, naked, sugar cane stocks in lines like grave stones in a cemetery. And I watched the mountains, faded from the burning of sugar cane fields, grow up around me and invite me into their steep mountain ridges.
My next homestay wouldn’t occur until I had nearly crossed up and over those mountains which hid busy highways, thick with impatient traffic that seemed to struggle as much as I did up the climbs. All day I biked and tried to ignore the constant pang of dread and stress that accompanies biking on such scary roads. At night, instead of a house or camping spot, I had to get creative. This was mostly because the road was cut out of the hillside and leaving the road for any reason, especially to find a flat spot for a tent, proved difficult to impossible. Thus, one night I slept in a soccer field at the edge of a small town, and the other was at something I could only describe as a bunkhouse for farmers.
I slept amazingly the night of the soccer field, despite an annoying dog, in large part because the night previous, at the “bunkhouse”, it had not been very restful. I had gone to a tourist office to ask about finding a place to stay after running out of daylight while searching for flat spots. The man at the office walked me to the bunkhouse. I had assumed he was taking me to a field where I could put my tent, but was pleasantly surprised to find a building with showers, bathrooms, kitchen, and two rooms full of bunk beds. It seemed perfect, UNTIL the woman with the two week old baby showed up. If you are a parent, then you can roll your eyes at my complaining, but either way, it was a long night!
The night after the soccer fields, I stopped for my daily restaurant rest stop. Unlike all my other trips, I had settled into a routine of buying a lunch or early dinner at a restaurant once a day. Each meal cost less than three dollars and they often left me so full I wouldn’t need to eat anything other than a banana or mandarin until the next day. As I finished up my meal, I was at the edge of pain from eating too much, and instead of jumping on my bike I stalled by starting a conversation about the road ahead. Soon several groups had joined the conversation, including Chole, who told me I had to stay at her house. It was late enough, and I said yes.
Turns out Chole was this strong, feisty, super nice 89 year old woman. I would have guessed her to be 65, but what do I know? She had a house on each side of the road, and I got the one on the down-slope, which overlooked a valley of steep green ornamented with the houses of a small town. Her house was a room with two beds facing a huge window, through which my favorite night-time view of the trip was framed. Even the bathroom, had a great view. I couldn’t believe my good luck!
In the morning I showered at Chole’s. Most people living in the country side in Mexico don’t have showers per se. Rather, they heat water on the stove, mix it with cooler water in a bucket, and use a bowl to throw water over themselves. I quite like this way of showering, and it certainly uses less water. Since I hadn’t used the whole bucket of water at Chole's, she double-checked that I had washed EVERYwhere, which was a hilarious pantomime and very grandmotherly of her.
It is a good thing that I showered sufficiently at Chole’s, because it wouldn’t be until I got to the sanctuaries in Michoacan, that I’d be welcomed into another home. I still had a long way to go! This long distance was covered mostly by plodding along seemingly endless climbs, and then spending a much shorter portion of the day on twisting, invigorating downhills. On the downhills, I would descend 45 mph, with nothing but a sorry guard rail and a foot of pavement between me and a several thousand foot drop. Seeing the edge but not the bottom always refocused my attention on the road and the curves and the traffic ahead. There was no room to be scared, only room to absorb the thrill of speed and wind and a bit of recklessness that always leaves me feeling strong and like an animal.
The last few days, before arriving at the sanctuaries, are a bit of a blur to me. I listened to an audio-book and tried my best to ignore the traffic, the pollution from said traffic, the noise of said traffic, and the constant stares. I was ready for the trip to be over, and the last few hundred miles were a hoop I didn’t really want to jump. I think what happened is that I had used up my patience for the exhaust-filled air, the endless trail of trash, the honking (friendly or not), the drivers that didn’t slow down, and the noise of traffic passing too close for comfort. All those things had been part of the package that earlier in my trip was worth the adventure, but with just a few days left, I was done with it.
So it was nothing but exciting to begin one of the final climbs to the sanctuaries. The traffic ebbed, the road rose above the smog, the hills were reclaimed by forest, and peace began to climb with me. I climbed for an hour or so, passing by the junction that I’d detoured nine and a half months earlier. I didn’t stop, run, or jump around to celebrate, instead I couldn’t tear the smile from my face as I remembered arriving here 10,150ish miles earlier to inspect my map and turn the wrong way. How far I had come. How close I was to being done.
I arrived at the top of a hill and descended the familiar road to the tourist town and monarch jumping-off point of Angangeo. The road was steep and made of dozens of hairpin turns. Having nearly finished I was careless or carefree depending on how you see things, either way I was fast. In Angangeo I had a meal, thinking about the last uphill of the trip and trying not to think about how hard the climb would be. Eventually I had eaten all I could and there was nothing left to do, but climb the hill. There was nothing left to do but finish.
The last uphill, on a road made from cement and flatish rocks, was as steep as any road I had ever biked up. I had saved the hardest few miles of the trip for last! With all my strength I dragged myself up the hill, biking at about 2 mph. When it was too much I jumped off my bike and walked, cutting my pace in half. Slow and steady, I arrived somewhere near the halfway point, when I saw a monarch. It crossed the road purposefully, though unhurried. I stopped to catch my breath and soak it all in. This had to be a monarch from the sanctuaries coming down the mountain to greet me. I had arrived.
An hour or so later, I finished the climb and stood standing in the parking area of El Rosario. People turned their heads to see me, and wondered about my bike. I dismounted and started walking up the hill to the ticket booth. That was when I saw the first familiar face. A guide from the year previous smiled as it dawned on him who I was. He exclaimed that I had returned. I smiled back. I had arrived.
The guide shook my hand and told me my friend Brianda was waiting up the hill. I shoved my bike upwards, nearly running as more and more familiar faces smiled at me, and people came to shake my hand. I met Brianda at the top of the stairs and gave her a big hug, then I was being offered drinks and treats of all kinds. All the days I’ve been on trips could add up to years, but I’ve only finished a long trip five times. It is always the same, all the times I’d imagined finishing echoing back at me, and a new question of “what next.” I pushed all of it aside, instead focusing on the sweet, coldness of a gifted soda, the smiles of my friends, their questions which I could barely answer, and the nearly meditative state of not worrying about anything other than sitting. I had arrived.
Then there was the short climb to the monarch colonies. I made the trip with two guides that I had just met. By the time we climbed the hill, we had become friends, and they helped me celebrate my arrival at the mass of monarchs which huddled at the finish line. Unlike all the other times I had climbed the hill, this time I was alone with the monarchs and the guides. We stood in silence. There was so much to say and at the same time nothing to say at all. We listened to the wings of millions of monarchs that had made similar journeys to mine. I wondered if I could see any from my trip. Was the caterpillar I saw in Indiana here? Was the adult I saw in Texas here? Was the great great grandkid of the first monarch I’d see on the road here? What I knew for sure is that I saw monarchs that were here only because of our hard work. I saw the monarchs that survived to tell their tale to the trees here in Mexico because of the gardens we planted and the words we spoke on their behalf. I saw all our hard work dancing, like a period at the end of an impossible sentence. And I saw all the work we have left to do. I gave a silent thanks.
I had arrived.