Scientists don’t know much about the path of the monarchs from the overwintering sanctuaries in Mexico up into Texas. They know that the monarchs tend to begin flying north in mid-March before the spring rains, and they think that the monarchs follow a route along the Sierra Madre mountains. But unlike the United States and Canada, which has time-stamped data on monarch sightings from citizen scientists, there is not a lot of data from Mexico to construct a route. This meant it was up to me to guess a route through Mexico. My 1,000 mile route in Mexico took me down loose gravel roads and new, smooth-as-butter pavement; through humid forests, baking deserts, and tiny towns. And while my route did take me by a few migrating monarchs, after 1,000 miles in Mexico I am left with more questions about the migration than when I started.
When I started, back at the sanctuaries, it seemed like an easy enough task to create a route that followed the Sierra Madre. I poured over maps and quickly figured out that while monarchs might be able to follow the Sierra Madre, roads couldn’t. The roads were at the mercy of the mountains. And, unlike the monarchs that can skim the spine of the range and flutter from point to point, I was at the mercy of the roads. This meant that the roads couldn’t and didn’t neatly trace the range. Instead they zigzagged through valleys, climbed up and over passes, retreated from obstruction, and added lots of miles and lots of climbing to my migration. Luckily, I anticipated this and I left before the majority of the monarchs. I guessed that I would need a head start and right I was.
Just like planning my route, deciding just how much of a head start I needed was a guessing game too. My departure date was part guess, part luck, part convenience, and part clues. While I couldn’t know the exact day the monarchs would be leaving, I could feel the shift of the sanctuary. I could feel the energy of the guides anticipating the end of work, and the tourists rushing to arrive. I could see the locals ceremoniously planting their crops in anticipation of the spring rains, and I could see a change in the monarchs. Each day, with the warming weather, the monarchs would fly down from the forest to drink. As March crept forward the thirsty wanderers ventured further out, bringing orange down the mountain like a wave. These changes made me antsy and I poured over maps, making a plan.
So much of traveling is studying a map. Tracing different futures and imagining the hills, the traffic, the views, the swimming holes, the camping opportunities, and all the sign-less turns that would soon make navigation an adventure. Even though I have been steered by maps for thousands of miles I still am amazed every time a bend in the road or the dot of a town is realized in real life. It feels magical to project our world onto paper and trust that paper to lead the way.
Of course, my map let me down on the first turn of my trip. I had packed my bags, said goodbye to my friends, and was hooting and hollering as the potential of the trip unfolded. When I turned onto a road, new to me, I felt a current of freedom and excitement. The unknown. At the FIRST junction I stopped. Both roads I had to choose from were nicely paved and unsigned, and my map told me to take the first left. I wasn’t exactly confident as I turned left, but downhill I went, looking for a right turn 7km north. Well, that right never came and I soon found myself asking directions and recalibrating my route. Luckily I was well fed and could laugh at the whole situation. Lost on day one, following an insect with more navigating power than me and all my tools.
Back on route I put my head down and pedaled. I was leaving about 10 days later than I had planned, and because the monarchs have a schedule that means I have one too. I needed to push big mile days to get back on schedule and earn a bit of confidence about all my guesstimated arrival times. Not just that, but the road was less than inspiring and full of traffic. I forced myself to think only of the next mile, and not get overwhelmed by the 9,900 miles I still had to go.
After surviving three days of less than pleasant riding the road quieted and climbed out of the desert and into green. I hardly noticed I was climbing as the pillars of rocks, layers of mountains, a soundtrack of birds, and that powerful feeling of being alone on a road with a purpose distracted me. When I reached the pass coated in a jungle-like forest, eight hours later, I was no longer distracted by the views and I was ready for the climb to be over. Nine hours of climbing up to arrive at an hour long downhill. Oh the glory. For an hour I leaned into the curves of the incredible decent, alive and aware of nothing more than the road rushing by at 45 mph. Biking downhill is my ticket to flying, and while I fly, I don’t think about how going straight down means a quick arrival to the bottom of another long uphill.
Turns out this hill didn’t lead to another nine hour climb. Instead it led to my first confident monarch sighting. A monarch lazily swooping through a small town plaza, unaware of my trip, but sending me into a frenzy of pointing, blabbering, and jumping up and down. I take some notes and breathe a sigh of relief. This migration is real, I am on it, and everything is going according to plan.
Between the sanctuaries and Texas I only saw a handful of monarchs. Many of the people living on my route knew the monarch and would comment that the monarchs only pass through in the fall. This could mean that either the north-bound and south-bound monarchs have different routes, or that they are less noticeable on the northwards trip. While the south-bound monarchs are clustered and purposeful, the north-bound monarchs are less rushed and less grouped together, making less of a spectacle for folks to notice. Another potential factor is that south-bound monarchs arrive in greater numbers. All summer females have been laying 500 eggs on milkweeds and even if only 1% survive, after several generations this would increase the population and the gain could make their presence more obvious. Whatever the reason, I was always happy to see a monarch and bragged about it for miles and sometimes days later.
The downhill that led to my first monarch didn’t end up leading me to another intense climb, instead it led to quiet roads that climbed and fell through forests, farmlands, small towns, and thirsty stretches of lonely deserts.
Flanking the Sierra Madre to the west are seemingly endless deserts. Here anthropomorphic cactuses seem less like plants and more like crazed fans cheering on the heat, the wind and the occasional butterfly (including a few monarchs). I suppose they cheer me on as well. In these deserts, pressed with heat, I develop an unhealthy craving for coke (coke to me means all soda/pop/fizzy drink/addictive sugar water). I would trudge through 100 degree heat linking tiny towns and the even tinier stores. I refused to buy coke in plastic, but habitually I would trade 9 pesos (50 cents) for a liter of ice cold coke in a returnable glass bottle along with a satisfyingly cold excuse to sit in the shade, consult my map, and take in the scene.
One of my favorite things about biking in Mexico is that if there is a house there is an opportunity to take a break, buy a coke and a tasty treat. Stores are everywhere. Anyone that wants to sell something can. Mexico is a land of small businesses and entrepreneurs. And just because it isn’t for sale doesn’t mean you can’t buy it. Sometimes I would stop in a small store and smell beans cooking in the family’s kitchen. I’d make some comment about how I love beans and then ask if they would sell me some. People always said yes without batting an eye. And buying food in the middle of nowhere doesn’t mean crazy high prices. The mark up is hardly evident, and a pot of beans from the personal kitchen is always so cheap (0-5 pesos or 0-25 cents) that commerce in small town Mexico feels less like a way to make money and more like a service to make sure everyone has what they need.
These stores and the people that ran them certainly took care of me. People were constantly filling up my waters from their purified water jugs and offering me snacks. One man, on a motorcycle headed to town to sell ice cream, stopped to give me two scoops of cold, free, delicious ice cream. In Nuevo Leon, the owner of a small shop offered to cook me some tacos. While I was eating bean and egg tacos she offered to let me stay in one of her spare rooms. Tired, I was thrilled to say yes. Well fed and showered, I was asleep, guarded by her son’s baseball trophies, by 7pm.
Another time, just a few miles before I’d planned on stopping, a truck stopped and the driver invited me to dinner with his daughters and grandbabies. He assured me I would only need to backtrack 300 meters (I triple checked this), and so I said yes. That was how I found myself eating baked potatoes and bean soup with the family. The next morning I was sporting clean clothes and ready for more miles.
Even on a trip as scheduled as this one, I am still able to grab opportunities when I find them and partake in the magic of traveling. For me, nothing is more incredible than pausing to look around and ask yourself how you got there. How did I end up in a room full of trophies, or watching the Disney Channel with a grandpa, or teaching a little kid how to oil his chain, or laughing at miscommunications over bread and milk with new friends? As the memories of miles and climbs fade, these connections stay strong and do more to keep me moving than cold coke, rest and big meals. And the key to finding these moments is to say yes.
Saying yes is a skill. It takes the confidence to read someone and make decisions about trust and safety. It takes surrendering to chaos and letting plans dissolve. It takes welcoming the randomness of the world and being open to what it offers. And it takes faith, trusting that the world is full of wonderful people, ready to share their lives with you, and that you have the skills to deal with where it leads you. These skills come from putting yourself in these random situations and being rewarded with memories and stories.
Another skill a traveler learns is that the intersection with time is as important as the intersection with place. My trip will never be repeatable. Even if a thousand cyclists pedal the exact same route, their experiences will always sway far from my path. For me this is what makes travel and adventure timeless. Humans will never run out of places to explore, because every path is changing with the force of people and weather and even our hunger levels.
In 2013, my friend, Nia, and I were cycling through Mexico, at the tail end of a trip we had started a year earlier in Bolivia. As I was biking this March, I cycled the exact same route for several days. I passed the road where we saw the dung beetle, where I made up my song about beans, where a hospital kicked us out (not nearly as cool of a story as it sounds). But this time the same roads led me to different stories, different animals, and different views. Even the hills felt different. Some hills I remembered as huge slogs, but since my legs were fresh from a night of sleep at a closer campspot, I barely noticed them and instead struggled up hills I hadn’t registered the trip before. I found different camp spots, different food stops, and met different people. I definitely don’t remember seeing a plastic-eating cow the previous trip.
But besides all the differences I liked tracing my past. Going back, remembering where you were mentally at the same place you are physically is powerful. I examine my younger shadow and reflect on how far I’ve come to get to the same place. Before I couldn’t have predicted finishing a 3,500 mile canoe trip, working in the Sierra, arguing so passionately in Spanish, or returning to the same spot to follow butterflies. I like the magic of folding time and seeing a bigger picture and how things tend to work themselves out. This lets me jump forward, wondering what I will pass through to one day end up back here again. Perhaps not on a bike or even in person, but to wander here in my mind from dreams for now.
As much as I enjoyed the reflection that came from a few days on a familiar route, I am motivated by the unknown. When I turned left, leaving the past, I was given that jolt of energy that comes from stepping into the unknown. I love not knowing where I’ll sleep or what I’ll be eating for dinner. I love not knowing what the next bend holds, and being surprised by a beautiful village, a family of horses, or a sweep of wild painting the earth.
My new route led me through some seriously rocky and questionably small roads. Mexico is one of my favorite countries to bike tour in because you can still find adventurous roads and iconic villages, but you can also find pavement as smooth as butter and highways with incredible shoulders. It is a country that keeps you from getting bored. And just when choosing the slow pace of a rocky road seems like stupidity, a paved road option lets you make miles and feel fast. I kept to the smallish roads until the last week in Mexico where I was spit out of the mountains and chased by my schedule to Texas.
The last week in Mexico was on a main highway that luckily had a great shoulder. The shoulder, I should note, in Mexico is more of a passing lane of sorts. Both lanes drive in the shoulder and leave the divider line flanked with space to pass. This was disconcerting, but not once did a driver pass me disrespectfully, and like my entire time in Mexico, not once did I feel nervous or scared. My experience in Mexico, was that drivers expect the unexpected and cars don’t assume the road is theirs and no one else’s.
The highway gave me the opportunity to go fast for the first time on the trip. The first bit of my trip, on mountainous and rough roads with a bike heavier than ever before, slowed me down to a literal crawl. There were days when I averaged 8mph and I was getting worried. I was worried that I would have to bike 10 hours a day just to stay on pace with the monarchs. But the highway, even with mild headwinds, let me speed up. Still going slow, but an acceptable 10 or 11 mph average, was a mental victory and let me enjoy the scenery that turned greener with each mile, and by the time I was 100 miles from the border I was pedaling through a swath of wildflowers and swarms of white butterflies.
When I arrived at the border, crossing into Texas, I was sad to say goodbye to Mexico, but happy to be moving forward. Mexico will be there for me and the monarchs when we return in October and head back to the sanctuaries to rest for another winter. There are roads I’ll avoid, but there are many roads that I’d like to backtrack on and revisit. And of course there is that 8 hour uphill I’d like to go down.