I’ve been in Mexico for nearly two months now, but I’ve only been officially butterbiking for just a few weeks. I was waiting for the monarchs to leave their Oyamel sentinels and begin their annual migration north. And while I couldn’t wait to start biking – to put into motion hundreds of hours of planning, networking, and dreaming – I was happy waiting, making friends, and visiting the monarchs before we started migrating.
From local night rides to tortilla making lessons I was busy. After surviving a 48 hour bus ride from Kansas City to Morelia, Mexico I hobbled off the bus into the swirl of Mexico. It had been a few years since I had navigated the thrill of a Latin American city. The murmur of Spanish, the dancing of traffic, and the near-constant opportunity to circulate pesos for things sold in plastic bags. I had made it to Mexico, and was as close as I had ever been to the overwintering grounds of the monarchs.
The closeness of the monarchs was evident. Grand billboards persuading all to visit the monarch sanctuaries cast shadows on the hot pavement. The Monarca taxi company persuaded travelers to speed through the city. A monarch mural sang praise to the state of Michoacan, the winter refuge of the migrating monarchs.
I didn’t need a monarca taxi. I had my bike. I unloaded the pieces of my bike and fit them together, empowered by the self-reliance of such a simple tool. In a few minutes I fit together a machine that will carry me to Canada and four bags stuffed with everything I’ll need (and 15 pounds of electronics I don’t exactly need). Whether it is a trip across Mexico or from the bus station to the center of Morelia, biking gives me a courage and power to move into the unknown. I cycle into town.
Morelia is the tourist destination tourists don’t know about. It fills the valley with castle-like churches and plenty of old looking buildings that people could awe about. I enjoy walking the crowded streets full of people out and about. Here people leave their houses to visit with friends, spend time with their families, and buy food at every corner. I head directly to Baden-Powell Spanish Language School and then to the house of a family that has agreed to let me spend the week with them. I had decided to ease into the rhythm of this foreignness by staying with a family and un-retiring my Spanish.
Spanish and I have an interesting relationship. I have dug my heels in deep and refuse to give up, even as it ditches and dodges me. For visual learners like myself, that can barely hear the difference between a tuned piano and one left out in the rain for a year or so, languages taunt me. But excuses aside, I am learning and enjoy it. This trip, my third, is the first where I know enough Spanish to have a personality. Having graduated from “hello, I like oranges” to “monarchs don’t know when they cross the Mexican border because it is just a line on a map, and I think we need to think more like monarchs”… I can express myself and make friends. It is exciting to see the progress. And when people talk, and I don’t understand a thing, I laugh. A few more years I tell myself…
While I dust the cobwebs off my Spanish, I explore Morelia on foot and by bike (and visit the dentist). Every Sunday the main road is closed to cars. Bikes and kids and pets and people exchange car horns for laughter, and stop and go traffic for a bustle of tricycles cruising at top speeds. On Wednesdays a night ride showcases the city from a bike. Again, protected by a mass of friendly, safe, and respectful cyclists I meander the city. And I speak of the monarch.
For me this trip is about starting conversations. I stand out, with my weighted down bicycle, and people want to know my story. By cycling with the monarchs I can use that time to point out the decline of the migrating monarchs and the efforts we all must take to protect this incredible phenomenon. And of course here in Mexico, even with my bike stripped of panniers, I still stand out, and the questions come. People know that the monarchs are special here, but to know that a foreigner wants to bike 10,000 miles with them adds another point of pride. I hope a conversation with me leads to another conversation at the dinner table and we slowly pass on the ethos of monarch conservation with words and actions.
After re-learning the art of fruit buying, re-discovering chocolate-mint candies, remembering the process of buying cheese, singing my bean song to my Mexican family, attempting to translate jokes from my favorite comedian, re-learning how to navigate the traffic, and remembering to ask the bank for bills of smaller notes, and assorted other lessons. It is time to bike to the monarchs.
And like all great bike tours, I say yes to opportunity, and take a detour to Jaime’s house. Jaime is another cycle tourist from Mexico. He optimizes something I love about Mexico with his homemade panniers and do-it-yourself attitude. His gear reflects his desire to travel by bike, not a shopping spree at a gear store.
After a grand tour of his home town of Acambaro, I start to joke with him that he is simply pretending to know everyone in town. But all the waving and handshaking and joking is not pretend. I think he knows everyone. To buy bread 5 blocks away typically takes a half hour. There are lots of people to say hi to.
Next stop is Angangueo, the jumping off point for two of the sanctuaries: El Rosario and Sierra Chinqua. Jaime recruits another cyclist, Manuel, to join us for the 50 mile uphill slog to town. We leave early in the morning and break for nothing more than a 3,000 calorie lunch washed down by what seems like a gallon of orange/carrot juice (my favorite flavor).
Ask a Mexican and they will tell you it is cold. Ask me and I’ll tell you it is hot. I went from 31 degrees Fahrenheit to 31 degrees Celsius, and while I hope to calibrate myself to this weather, I think hot is hot. What is more challenging than the hills and the heat, for me, is the air quality. I learn that the haze that paints near hills blue and erases those further away is due in large part to the burning of corn in preparation for the next planting and the start of the rainy season. It is curious to me that the best choice is to burn the nutrients and give everyone asthma, but I have learned that I hardly ever get to make the rules. Luckily, as we climb, color creeps back into the scenery and the air turns sweet and clear.
We climb all day. When the sign to Angangueo declares two km left, I cheer. Six km of steep unforgiving road and one interview later we arrive at the center of town with little to no power left. We find a hotel run by a woman that wears an expression that everything she hears is extraordinary and I grow fond of talking with her as we sit in the front area waiting for more customers.
Angangueo’s center is small but grand, with a mighty church overflowing with people and their baby Jesus dolls and a few roadside opportunities to buy corn in many variations. And as Angangueo holds the church in its center, the surrounding hills, steep and green, hold the town.
In the morning, led by an entrepreneurial guide, Jaime, Manuel and I begin walking up the hills. The 12 km of road spirals upward, and we cut corners and breathe heavily on the footpaths and seemingly secret routes of locals, horses, and flood waters. I am happy to be exercising in clean air and using my own power to reach the monarch butterflies.
At El Rosario, the most popular and largest monarch colony, things are mostly calm thanks to the fact that it during the week. We buy our 50 peso tickets and are led by a quiet but welcoming guide to the heart of the sanctuary. Here rules are set and followed to insure that the impact of tourists is as minimal as possible. No talking, no touching, no flash photography, and a short 30 minute stay.
As someone that spends a great deal of time alone in nature, watched by birds and allowed to sing and dance and sit silently with the wild I knew this part of the adventure would be difficult for me. As someone that thrives off the thrill of discovery and wandering into beautiful views and mesmerizing nature, I had braced myself for this zoo-like performance. And while I would love to wander until the silence is broken by orange raindrops flapping in the sun, I understand that these rules are a necessity. That until our laws and customs can protect all of nature’s best shows and we can spread out the parade of tourists, I must be content to visit without the wild. So along with about 30 other spectators I turn my head up, and gaze at the grandeur of a forest made from butterflies.
We stand surrounded by the quiet trees and the monarchs that cling to them like books on shelves waiting to be read. Here monarchs land after thousands of improbable miles to wait out the winter. What the other visitors think I do not know. What I think is this: The world is full of truly unimaginable things that inspire me to walk into the wild AND fight with everything I have to save them from ourselves.
Every year less monarchs paint the trees and swirl the sky here in Mexico. It hurts to think about, but it is why I am biking. Because every year we pushed this migration, the only of its kind, towards extinction. But to extinction we have not arrived, and I am here to join the team of passionate, monarch supporters to give the monarch a future and give future generations the chance to stand in a forest glazed by a million monarchs patiently waiting for the sun. The stewards that came before me are, after all, the only reason I can stand here today and watch the monarchs slowly warm up as the sun breaches the Oyamel Fir canopy.
When we first arrive the sun is hidden and the cold fills the spaces between the trees. From afar the branches seem heavy with hives of some sort or another. A temple made by forests and worshipped by millions of butterflies with folded wings in prayer. What they pray for I can only guess; tailwinds, milkweed, or the peace that exists in quietness. Perhaps they pray for the warmth of a sun ray to let them float to the sky and blend orange with blue. This is what I wish for.
And my wish is realized as the shade is breached by the sun, which reaches through the branches and paints the clusters of solemn monarchs with warmth and color. And like and alarm clock the sun compels the monarchs to stretch an orange stretch. Then, the warming congregants take to the sky, and the hum of sunshine and living wings celebrate with dazzling confetti.
It is easy to see the monarchs as one living organism, a blur of orange and black that blends into the sky. I have to remind myself that each of these monarchs has traveled here on its own. Navigating multiple states and even countries, following mountains and the sun and instinct. I wonder where each monarch was born and whose backyards it has passed. I wonder which monarchs have caught the glance of school kids at recess, and which have been born under the watchful eye of budding scientists. I wonder which I’ll see on their journey north and whose great, great, grandkids I’ll meet when I return next November. I gaze to the sky speckled with these delicate, but determined insects and I am filled with reverence. So many monarchs, I need to sit down.
To sit in a flurry of monarchs is magical. They flap and glide and move with such ordered chaos. I sit and follow one with my eyes as it loops through the sky and loses my stare by ducking behind a tree and mingling with the colony. I then let my gaze fall to the ground where the butterflies’ shadows mirror the dance naked of color. The shadows are nearly my favorite part of visiting the monarchs.
My favorite part is listening to the sound of a million moving monarchs. In the states I have seen monarchs, but the wind has always carried the delicate sound of flapping far from my ears. Here, in the safety of the forest, the monarchs form an orchestra of sorts and the collective sound of millions of wings whisking up notes falls on my ears. It is gentler than a bird flying overhead and less organized. Nature’s lullaby.
I’ve been dreaming of seeing the monarchs for many years now. And while I can’t remember what I imagined it to be (funny how we forget our guesses) I am thoroughly impressed and satisfied. I feel like I have experienced the overwintering grounds of the monarchs and am ready to move north with them.
But before I head north with these inspiring creatures, I still had some waiting to do. And not just any waiting, the kind of waiting that would be impossible to forget. Waiting that led me to stay at a monarch education center in Zitacuaro. Waiting that led me to stay with a guide from El Rosario. And waiting that let me visit the monarchs with Canadians on my route. But for now I’ll leave it at this, I’ve made it to Mexico and been charmed by the monarchs.