I’ve now pedaled 2,000 miles through 6 states in Mexico and 2 states in the United States: Texas and Oklahoma.
In the planning stages of this trip, when I hunted down internet at scattered libraries and visitor centers in the Sierra Mountains, I found it almost silly that I would be trading the dramatic peaks of the Sierra for a bike tour on the plains. I grew up in Kansas but I found a home in the quiet of the mountains that seemed powerful enough to keep me there forever. Leaving, if even just for a year seems counterintuitive. Even planning another bike tour seemed a bit less than logical.
See, I have been biking since I was a kid. My first bike tour was a self-supported trip with an organization called Student Hostling Program. After saving up for my sleek Cannondale Road Warrior and the hefty trip price tag, I took off on a month-long bike tour from Massachusetts into Canada. It was on this trip that I learned that I could, and loved, traveling by bike. This trip was before facebook and email so I didn’t keep in touch with my traveling companions, but they remain woven into who I am and are responsible in some small way for every mile I have biked since.
And miles I have biked. My rough guess is that I have biked around 60,000 miles, and so unsurprisingly the newness of biking has worn away. I carry the lessons of 60,000 miles with me on this bike tour. I know to trust that I will find food, camping spots, and wonderful people that will support me and inspire me along my trip. I know that bad weather ends, and not knowing where you are headed is not the same as being unprepared. These miles have made me who I am, but while the horizons and the accents and the grocery stores change, the magic of being surprised has ebbed.
Or so I thought. Because, in preparing for this trip I thought of Texas and Oklahoma only as states with long roads and torrential winds. I’d come to this conclusion on several bike tours with stints in the southern plains states, all of which pitted me against the wind. On these rides, I remember watching tiny water towers on the horizons grow slowly as we battled towards them for our chance at rest and shelter. Sure these trips were made in that slushy transition of winter to spring. And sure I’ve probably built these memories up to be something more intense that they were, but these are the memories that sloshed around in my brain as I devised a route and the miles began to add up. Like trips before, I resolved to deal with these miles when they came, and not worry too much about drab miles and tumbling wind.
But this pass through Texas and Oklahoma has been anything but drab, and the winds have graced me mercifully, pushing me forward. Even the rainstorms that have charged through have been survivable, especially considering I had to survive the last one inside a wonderful house with a passionate and generous monarch advocate (so rough huh!). I am happy to report that the scenery, the wildlife, and roadside support has made this trip more enjoyable that I ever imagined it would be.
This trip, in the green of spring, rather than in the drab of winter, has kept me entertained and taking lots of photos. I’ve found plenty of places to jump off my bike and explore. And I’ve found life between all my monarch sightings.
Just three days into Texas I stopped one afternoon at a state park where millions of bats spend the summer. After struggling with the decision to wait for dark to see the bats or continue to my next presentations, I decided I couldn’t pass by such an opportunity. So at dusk, with my personal tour guide (you have to have a guide), we watched the sun set and darken the Devil’s Sinkhole. While the darkness crept into the cave the bats flew, like corkscrews, up and out. Trading darkness for bats, the cave was filled with night in the places where bats had waited out the day. It was here too, where I saw a great horned owl anticipating dinner and heard barking frogs that taunted me but which I could never find! I was happy I had stayed!
Like the monarchs, the bats at Devil’s Sinkhole are migratory. A long list of migrants arrive in Texas and breathe color into the United States. To be in Texas in the spring is like traveling south without having to pack a suitcase. The bats and butterflies and birds come to you. And for me, the show stopper is the scissor tail flycatchers. These migrants, which overwinter in southern Mexico and Central America migrate to the southern plains states to breed and spend the summer. Each time I see one, my head turns. I love watching them dip through the sky in a meal catching twist, their long tails like contrails writing an invisible poem in the sky.
As I’ve biked into this southern spring, I’ve also gotten to see the animals that didn’t migrate, emerge from their winter slumbers and stretch out on the warming land. In a few short days I went from seeing no snakes, aquatic turtles, box turtles, or frogs, to seeing many crossing the road, our paths crisscrossing. I celebrate every animal I can move off the road, and mourn every animal smashed by a careless car. Miles after moving box turtles, American toads, and gopher snakes off the road, I think about them. I wonder if they made it to wherever they were going. I wonder if they are safe. And whatever the answer, they travel with me, unaware, in my thoughts.
Beyond finding critters as I bike, my mission to raise awareness about the monarchs has added to my enjoyment of these Texan and Oklahoman miles. I feel like I have been adopted by a string of monarch stewards and advocates. Their care has made this trip more symbolic of the monarch migration than the route and distances I am covering. Every few days I meet folks taking care of the monarchs and they welcome me, like a hungry caterpillar. When I leave, I am always well fed, rested, and ready to continue on, just like the monarchs that they garden for.
This generosity started about 5 minutes after I crossed the Rio Grande and switched back to English, back to red, white, and blue, and back to trucks that seem unnecessarily big. Five minutes into the USA and I am met by David and presented with my own hotel room to rest and recover from the huge mile days preceding me. It is here in Del Rio, rested and showered (oh the glory), that I gave my first English presentation about my trip. I told the story at a community college and took mental notes of what stories seemed confusing or boring or big laughs (big laughs to me are charitable chuckles), and I began a process, that never ends, of tweaking my presentation.
Texas and Oklahoma have been my testing grounds for both the details of my presentation and the balancing act of biking, doing presentations, and the mammoth task of planning logistics on the road. I’ve had to create a system for scheduling, presenting, posting, networking, sharing, updating, teaching, communicating, relaxing, AND actually biking. It has gone just about how I imagined, and it is just as much work as I imagined. Luckily, my friends describe me as an all-or-nothing person, so I am happy to jump into this trip and think about little beyond the monarch butterfly and my bicycle. Equally lucky is having the support of folks along my route to make all this possible.
From Del Rio I headed northeast to Junction, TX, where I met Emily on her farm, though farm only begins to describe this oasis for both me and the monarchs. The Native American Seed farm grows native plants which are bought by people looking for ways to restore their land and share the planet with pollinators. The farm was a rainbow of colors when I arrived, and surely one of the few places in Texas where milkweed is grown like a row crop. Emily’s dad, Bill, has been raising natives and observing nature since he was a boy. He sees the world in all its connectedness. On a farm tour, he dropped down to the ground, to study a small purple plant emerging along the trail. If everyone could see these secrets that our planet cultivates, and celebrate them like Bill does, the world would be healthier. I cling to his words, lessons learned from watching the earth and thinking as the plants grow up around him. We see ten monarchs on our tour, and he welcomes them. He doesn’t even mind when the monarchs eat his milkweed. No pesticides, no herbicides, just natives given the space to survive and thrive. This is the face of conservation. This is the start of healing our earth.
I don’t want to leave the farm, but the butterflies continue and I don’t want to be left behind either. So I wish Emily, Bill and Jan farewell and head north to Dallas, a world so different from the farm, but connected by the miles I bike. This connection fascinates me. And when I arrive in Dallas, with bike lanes and skyscrapers, I look around and smile. Like the butterflies, I’ve traveled from here to there and seen a small sliver of the space in between. Can we really be disconnected when we are entirely connected?
In Dallas, I stay with a family in one of the buildings that pile together to create the city skyline. The view from the third floor, of what humans can do, is breathtaking. A different kind of wild. Thanks to the help of Stan and Liz, I get to take advantage of what cities have to offer: art, food, culture, and diversity. Aside from presenting to some incredibly curious high school students, I get to take a mental break from the monarch and explore the city.
I also get to attend the Mega March, a gathering of thousands of immigrants and their allies, that brings me to tears. After having met so many Mexicans in Mexico, that celebrate the opportunities of the USA and mourn the tragedies of separations and the fear of hate, I am proud to stand with them in the Dallas streets. When a women starts speaking in Spanish about her 28 years of work at a drycleaner's, showing the crowd her burns on her skin and her anguish in her voice, I listen. When she grows quiet I approach her and tell her in Spanish that I am glad she is here and that she deserves justice too. We both start crying a little and hug, and all the work I have put into learning even my stumbling accented Spanish is worth it.
Even at the march I feel the power of the monarch butterfly. Here folks from all over the world march together to remind us that we share our planet and political boundaries are just lines on maps. The monarchs know this too. The monarch doesn’t know about lines on maps. The monarch is not Mexican, or United Statesan, or Canadian. The monarch is North American and is depending on us, North Americans, to come together, work together, and protect our shared resources. Imagine if we thought more like a monarch?
Thinking like a monarch in Dallas, I knew I need to keep moving north! But I didn’t get too far. One day of riding, through the labyrinth of a sprawling city, I land in Denton, TX for my next school stop. My hosts, Linda and Mike, were out of town and so their daughter unlocked the house for me and I spent a few days with a house of my own! It nearly seems impossible, in 2017, for people to trust strangers enough to hand over keys, but it happens! I even got fed a delicious meal by their friends, at their house, before they came home! That is humanity, and I feel so lucky to fill my life with these kind of people.
And it didn’t end there. My last stop in Texas was at the Hagerman Wildlife Refuge near the OK border. Here I was invited to stay in a vacant trailer, and given the opportunity to explore the refuge, and present to the public. As much as I love resting at a house, the sanctuary of the refuge was a welcomed pause, and the folks at the refuge are a welcoming bunch. At night the frogs also welcome me to their refuge home. Among the grey tree frogs, leopard frogs, and cricket frogs I saw the power of protecting public land, not just for the monarch and the frogs, but for us to travel to a quiet space and be surrounded by nature.
My next house came at no less than the perfect time. I arrived at Sandy and Mike’s house in Tulsa, OK before the sky split open and Oklahoma was washed in two days of flash flood, thunderstorms. Sitting inside, while the wind and rain unleash their wrath, is a real treat! Of course, in Tulsa, there was not much sitting around. Sandy, a Monarch Watch conservation specialist, pulled out all the stops. She arranged for me to do a presentation at a school, an interview with the local paper, the opportunity to table at two Earth Day events, a meet and greet, a trip to the capitol to celebrate a state wide monarch proclamation, and of course a trip to get butterfly shaped chocolates. Sandy, and her friends, are the voice of the monarch. They plant milkweed in their yards (Sandy has had over 300 eggs laid in her garden- which includes over 20 species of milkweed- this spring); they rally churches, non-profits, schools, and neighbors to share their lawns with monarchs; and they are witnesses to the monarchs that pass through Tulsa. Sandy is a reminder of how many people are devoting energy to the monarch, and that the monarchs depend on allies in every corner.
From Sandy’s I pedaled six whole miles before stopping again, not with friends of family, but with family of friends. And while Amy, Mike, Drew, and Hannah are officially family, the minor confusion of describing the link led me to declare Hannah my sister. The family, about as welcoming and creative as you can get, grow milkweed at their house and have been supporting the monarchs as they migrate through. Like every stop, it is hard to leave, but the monarchs call the shots and remind me we’ve got many miles to go.
And miles I have gone. I pedaled about 1,900 miles in Texas and Oklahoma. I presented at 5 schools and a wildlife refuge. I spotted about 65 monarchs. And I’m happy with all those numbers, because this is a trip of balance. Between biking, presenting, blogging, facebooking, and herping (looking for reptiles and amphibians) I am busy! This buffet of activity leaves me excited to continue north and return in the fall. For now the monarchs and I continue north!