It is official. I have officially, officially, officially started biking north.
The start of most bike tours is usually pretty obvious. The start is the day you leave wherever you might be and start biking. My tour has a layer of grey. I left Kansas (by bus) in mid January and the day I arrived in Mexico I cycled away from the bus stop and have traveled by bike ever since, but the cycling has been slow and punctuated with long breaks.
So while I did start traveling by bike from the bus station in Morelia, Michoacan, this doesn’t feel like the start. After all, after about 2 miles of biking, I set up shop in Morelia and took a two week break to study Spanish, meet local cyclists, and settle back into Mexico. Not just that, but the monarchs were still miles away and their migration was still months away. Whatever the reason, arriving in Mexico was the start of my bike tour, but certainly not the official, official, official start.
My official start began two months later, with monarch stewards from Canada waving me goodbye and pushing me north. Barb and Darlene are passionate monarch trackers, stewards and educators. They are an important part of the reason that there are monarchs left. In Canada they help collect data, provide habitat, rear caterpillars, and educate their communities about the need to protect the monarch. It was an honor to meet such passionate folks at a mecca of sorts.
Here in a storm of monarchs, a handful of these butterflies have astonishingly made it from Barb and Darlene’s pollinator gardens to Mexico. Some of these monarchs flying through the blue sky might have even been born under their protective eye, or been born in Barb’s classroom under the protective eye of a classroom full of young, budding stewards and scientists. It’s surreal to think about and to wonder which, in this collective they are helping protect, is a direct result of their efforts.
The woman I spent the most time with, was Barb. She is a retired teacher that gave kids access to the world through a series of adventurous bears, including a bear that had traveled with her to see the monarchs in Mexico 12 years previous. That bear and the monarchs shaped how she taught and inspired kids. Thanks to Barb, hundreds of kids have witnessed the thrill of a metamorphosing monarch and been gifted access into the wonders of nature. As we talked about teaching and ideas it was clear that Barb is an ideas woman. I was inspired to listen to her ideas and process.
Besides shoptalk, Barb treated me to the high life in Mexico, pampering me just a bit so my body and mind would be fresh and rested for my start. We visited three of the four sanctuaries, including a new one for me, Piedra Herrada, which treats us to a road full of thirsty, descending monarchs. Each butterfly was like a drop of water flowing down the river, and when I walked in the same direction it felt like swimming and flying at the same time. It is dizzying to see monarchs below you and above you, their path purposeful and whimsical as they dodge you like steps to a dance.
We also managed to visit the woods themselves, wandering the forest surrounding the town of Macheros where we stayed. This was time not to search out monarchs, but to search out quiet spaces and a place to know the forest. Barb is home here, and to see her in her meadow reminds me how the monarchs connect all of North America and the three countries the monarchs call home.
Walking through the sanctuaries with Canadians, Mexicans, and United Statesans is nothing if not symbolic. Here we are, people from three countries, enjoying a natural phenomenon that knows no politics or lines on maps. For the monarch, each country is home and that is that. Mexico, USA, and Canada are home to the monarch. And Mexico, USA, and Canada are neighbors and friends, and only together can we give the monarch a future.
When I push off, waving goodbye to a handful of monarchs that had descended into town, and my new Canadian friends, I know it is time to start moving north. After all the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll be seeing Barb and Darlene again. I’ll be visiting both of them and their monarch stomping grounds when I arrive in Canada, nearly at the most northerly point of my trip. AND the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll get to reacquaint my traveling bear with her big brother and feast on homemade pizza and ice cream! Even pancakes and dessert shaped monarchs were discussed, but that seems too good to be true! I descend the steep mountain road away from the monarchs, but don’t exactly make it too far.
Thanks to my adventures with Barb I knew that actual roads existed that make it possible to actually bike with thousands of butterflies, and I had gotten it in my head that this was something I needed to do. I mean my trip is to ButterBIKE with the Butterflies.
Instead of biking back to Piedra Herrada, which would have been 100 miles further south and thus 100 miles in the wrong direction, I decided to test my luck by biking straight up the mountain outside of Zitacuaro. From the steep road that seemed to shoot out of the city like a firework, this entrance point leads to the sanctuary called Cerro Pelon. But unlike other dusky, tricky entrances, this one is nothing more than a few houses and lots of rocky roads to get lost on. I left the pavement and bike uphill until the dirt road swarmed with monarchs flying down the mountain. And while it was a bit less dramatic than the Piedra Herrada road, it was quiet, peaceful, and full of monarchs. I set up a photo shoot of sorts, and while I got a few decent photos biking with the butterflies, the best photo is in my mind of monarchs gliding by my wheels, all of us caught on the same path, like an eddy of wings and anticipation swirling together.
It is here, riding side by side with these monarchs, that I deliberately remind myself of what my trip means. Yes, I will be biking 10,000 miles over the next nine months trying to follow these monarchs, their babies, grandbabies, great grandbabies, and even their great great grandbabies. And while 10,000 miles on a bike is a lot, I still feel like the impressive part of the whole thing is that these monarchs will be traveling the same terrain. These monarchs that slide through the forest and race down the road have traveled thousands of miles, arriving here without not only a map but without having ever been here before.
This brings me to my official, official start in Zitacuaro. For three weeks I’d stationed myself in Zitacuaro and volunteered at a monarch education center named Papalotzin (meaning little butterfly in the indigenous language Nahuatl). Run by a quiet, thoughtful man named Moises (which I can spell but not seem to pronounce). Moises is an entrepreneur meets conservationist. He built the butterfly house, a cabin for guests, and a kitchen with enough style to feel like I am staying at a four star homestead. Sure, there was no electricity, but who needs electricity when you can watch birds in the morning and stars at night. Since it was a few kilometers outside of town I was gifted darkness, quiet, and a place to regenerate in a world where every conversation requires all my brain power. It was the perfect spot for me to stay for a few weeks.
During the work hours I helped water the plants, tend to the butterflies, and plant milkweed. I even got to help with a few education groups, leading kids around the center, and answering questions about my trip and the monarch migration. This was a great Spanish lesson and the perfect way to prepare for my start. It was hard to leave, but the monarchs call the shots, so after biking with the butterflies, I said goodbye to Papalotzin and headed UPHILL to my last and official, official, official start.
Biking from Zitacuaro to El Rosario is not impossible, but it is certainly not easy. In less than 20 miles you climb nearly 5,000 ft and the last mile feels the steepest and is cobblestones in bad repair thanks to the fact that El Rosario has the most monarchs and the most tourists. I had made the climb a few weeks earlier, but this time I knew exactly what I was in for. I had known not only that the climb was tough but that I was headed to a place it felt easy to call home.
When I travel people always ask me where home is, and rarely do they understand how weighted that question is. As I wander, the world is too big to have just one home. My short answer is Kansas because I believe the question they are actually asking is where was I born. But my long answer is Kansas AND the quiet roads of northern California, the red tinted peaks of Glacier, the perfectly colored waters of the Ozarks, the meadows of the Sierra, the cold nights in the desert, and even the pavement of Sacramento. I feel at home and lost nearly all the time, but I feel more at home and a bit less lost in quiet places. Near the monarch sanctuary called El Rosario, tucked away from tourists and protected by forest and fields and hardworking people that seem to laugh all the time, it feels easy to call El Rincon de San Juan home too. Even if I just stayed a week.
I head to this tiny corner (the town is literally called El Rincon de San Juan which translates the corner of San Juan) thanks to the magic of traveling and being at the right spot at the right time. When I first visited El Rosario I asked my guide, Brianda, if she thought the guides would be interested in me coming back and teaching a bit of English. She said yes, introduced me up the chain of command, and gave me her phone number. When I told her I would be returning she set up a space for me at her house and we were set.
I stayed with Brianda and her family for just over a week, and it was one of those weeks that I will never forget and will always be beyond grateful for. Brianda lives with her mom, dad, and two younger siblings in a quiet patch of land farmed. They have a horse, a cow, chickens, turkeys, and 7 sheep (one born while I was there). Her siblings are welcoming and show me their school work (they are all learning a bit of English) and help me with my videos. Her dad travels to Mexico City to build houses, because there are not many jobs in the area. Her mom runs the house and does needlework, and while she doesn’t consider herself an artist she is! She seemed to always be making tortillas and has the toughest hands ever. (Seriously she can handle extremely cold water in the mornings and a hot wood stove in the afternoons). And of course there is Brianda.
Brianda is 26 and works not just as a guide but also in her church. She is always busy and welcoming and laughing, and willing to answer my questions, deal with my accent, laugh at my “jokes”, and share what is hers with me. I get the impression that if she had been handed as much opportunity as I was handed when I was born, to save money and travel, that she would be in my shoes. And while we see the world in very different ways I feel like there is a part of the world that we can’t articulate but can nod understandingly about and be in complete agreement. Maybe one day my Spanish and her English will be good enough that we can explain the feeling. Whatever it is, her generosity is inspiring and allows me to go from a tourist confused about tipping to a co-guide teaching English and planting beans.
Teaching English is a skill and I learned a lot in just the short time I gave it a try. When I arrived I brought with me a lesson plan and a worksheet with key phases and words I figured were the most important for a guide at the monarch reserve. WELL… after about ten minutes of teaching the guides English, I threw that plan out the window. I realized that I needed to back way way way back.
I first started with how to study a language. Even if your language teacher in high school hid behind a podium and forced you to write the same words over and over and over and over (true story), it still gives you an idea of the direction you need to go and how you best learn. Thus I needed to first teach how to study, starting with explaining how English letters makes lots of different sounds so when they write 'my name is' they also need to write 'may nem is' to help them remember how to pronounce each word. I also focused my time on encouraging everyone to carry their words with them so they can refer to them when they forget and that they have to practice and make mistakes! I was hoping that they would see me practicing Spanish and making LOTS of mistakes to know making mistakes is how we learn.
Much of the time I was not sure if my work was paying off, but all the guides were so welcoming and friendly and thanking me for my help. I was sheepish, because I felt like I was learning so much, including more about the monarch and the culture of the guides.
Every sanctuary is run by a different committee and I am treading in dangerous waters to bring up the drama and seemingly unfairness of the entire situation. And since I can’t change how that is operated, I’ll walk around that. What I can say (and disclaimer, I am learning Spanish so this is all filtered through my not so perfect Spanish) is that at El Rosario the guides work 6 days a week from November to March. They are paid less than 100 pesos a day (less than 5 dollars a day) and rely on tips to earn enough not just enough for the season but for the other half of the year when the monarchs are migrating. They pay 3,000 pesos to work at El Rosario and most can only work every three years to give more folks an opportunity to work. It is tough work and they have to deal with just about every type of tourist, and they graciously allowed me to tag along and co-guide!
Being a guide at the sanctuaries will be a highlight of my trip. Not only did I get to talk with United Stateans and Canadians about the overwintering monarchs, I got picked up and carried with the comradery of the guides. As we crossed paths on the trail, we would exchange the “this is going to be a long trip” glances when our groups stopped ten feet away from the entrance out of breath or to take a photo and “the monarchs are flying - it is incredible” thumbs ups when we got closer to the colony. And I got to deal with the awkward and omnipresent dilemma of tipping.
When I was a guide, English speakers would come up to me and ask what an appropriate tip was. The guides tell me that about half of the tourists don’t tip, and I think a big part of this is that tourists just don’t know. It is like, I would tell them, when they come visit me in the United States and we go buy a mushroom and pineapple pizza. I will say “oh by the way we have to leave a tip” and the first question they would ask is “how much”. It doesn’t seem fair to anyone that we leave this custom up to a guessing. So… if you ever travel to see the monarchs in Mexico make sure that your guide earns at least 200 pesos (about ten bucks) per group, per trip. And leave more if you can, because this helps make the monarch conservation much more sustainable. Oh and if you are not sober (I saw this with two tourists from the USA ) and spend way too much time looking at the steps on the path, try and remember to tip more! But enough about money, because before my official, official, official start there is the matter of the BEANS.
Even though I had only biked 50 miles or so from my first official start with the Canadians, I was determined not to pass up the opportunity to help plant beans. As a self-described bean fanatic, it seemed like fate that Brianda’s family was planning their annual planting AND they needed one extra pair of hands. Really, procrastinating about my trip to plant beans with my new Mexican family was never a question. So instead of pedaling north I woke up with the family at 6am and walked to the fields to plant corns, fava beans, and the mighty dry bean.
Here is how it works. One person (Brianda’s dad was the expert and her brother was learning) drives the two horses. One horse is theirs and the other they borrow from a friend and will lend their horse when it is time for their friend to plant. After the horses plow a row, Brianda’s mom walks in the line placing three corn kernels in front of her and then stepping on them. She uses both hands and reminds me of a shorebird walking deliberately with a bob down the row. I follow her placing one fava bean in the foot print or one bean between the foot prints. I am much much much less elegant and much more frantic. Her sister follows pushing a bit of dirt with a trowel over the footprint covering the seeds. Her brother comes next putting a small handful of fertilizer on each group of covered seeds, and lastly all is covered up with a bit more dirt. The horses on their next lap stamp the seeds which to my city roots seems unhelpful, though they explain that it is.
We work for several hours. The horses have the hardest job, but all of us are tired. I do my best to keep up with the line and about every few minutes I accidentally throw down two beans instead of one or drop one that doesn’t land anywhere near a footprint. Each time I say “oops” and finally I ask if they understand what oops means. Of course they do and after this every time I say oops Brianda’s mom giggles. I assure them that if two beans grow in one spot or they find a bean in a random spot they will have to blame an animal or magic, because I never messed up! Everyone laughs. Then we return home, dusty, tired, and hungry. We feast on mole and tortillas made from corn they grew in just the same way a year previous. They ask me if I am tired and I reply that I am happy they don’t have more land.
The next day I said goodbye to the guides and biked away from El Rosario and the Oyamel Fir forests.. Now as I officially, officially, officially start I carry not just my tent and stove and clothes, but I carry these memories of planting beans, living at Papalotzin, meeting Canadian stewards, and the support of people all over the world that wish we well and help send me on my way.
I have officially, officially, officially started butterbiking with the butterflies!