Planning my route, long before I started biking and learning about the monarchs, was a game of guessing. I knew I couldn’t go everywhere, I knew unpredictable weather would win over careful planning, and I knew I needed variety to pull off another USA bike tour. So, I did some research, made some lists, and did some guessing.
My research was based in large part on Journey North’s citizen science monarch sighting data and the advice of people that knew more than me. I gathered that monarchs, given a choice, would stick to the Midwest, but that prevailing western winds would blow them east most summers to varying degrees. More than a few people suggested that I cut out my eastern section and devote my time to where there are the concentrations of monarchs. Of course, I wanted the most opportunities to see monarchs as possible, but there were a few spots I wanted to explore along way. So my route became a balance between seeing monarchs and crafting a feasible bike tour. So my 10,000 mile route traversing the monarchs range was born from a combination of science, a list of places I wanted to see; and included a several thousand mile loop through the eastern United States.
This eastern loop was indeed a loop. After crossing from Ontario to New York at Cornwall, I cycled 1,300 miles before crossing from New York back to Ontario at Niagara Falls. Cornwall and Niagara Falls are only 300 miles apart. Did you catch that?! I could have cut off 1,000 miles by simply going south once I got towards Canada. But, those 1,000 miles allowed more adventure to unfold. Sure, there are certainly parts of this loop that I wish I could have cut off, but in general, the detour was worth the effort. I saw monarchs nearly every day, met dedicated monarch stewards, and checked off my list of reasons to head east.
The first reason to bike east was to vary the topography. I love mountain roads twisted by terrain, alleviating boredom and disrupting the wind. I love biking up a steady grade, beads of sweat and hypnotic breathing setting the cadence as I move slowly but steadily. Climbing a long hill, I settle into a trance and watch the roadside plants stand tall, like cheering spectators. When stray leaves and stems lean into the road, I give them high fives. We are both creatures on the planet. And when I descend, the wind howling at no-one but me, I howl back, letting anyone that listens hear me celebrating flight. Beyond hills, biking through the mountains also means more peace and quiet, more views, more wild lands, and more wildlife. As I headed east the roads rose and fell, signaling my departure from the prairie, and a gateway to variety in the riding.
The hills grew as I went east, and by Vermont I had found the climbs I was looking for. Vermont’s hills were steep and unrelenting, slowing down my progress but speeding up time. Street signs, with names like East Hill Rd, West Hill Rd, and Eden Mountain Rd betrayed what was to come. The steep, well graded, dirt roads, let me feel biking not just in my legs but in my arms and back. I needed all my muscles to climb. At the top, I could rest, as the roads stalled on meadow ridges before descending into the next layer of green. On some descents I stretched out and enjoyed moving effortlessly, hoping no last minute potholes would buck me and my bike. On other descents I tucked into my bike and gained speed for a head start up the next climb.
I came to Vermont not only to find these scenic hills, but to visit a friend from college who had returned to her home state to farm. Jess, a hardworking pioneer spirit, laughs with ease and is the supportive, nonjudgmental kind of friend we should all be lucky enough to have. We met in college at an organization dedicated to giving students the opportunity to organize, develop, teach, learn, and support projects to live lightly on our planet. For me the most influential part of that experience was meeting people pushing boundaries and supporting the less conventional side of us all. We all put a lot of stock in running from normal, questioning everything, and not waiting for someone else to solve a problem. These lessons have shaped me more than any class I took, and I still feel like they are my backbone many years later. Nine years later in fact. Before arriving at Jess’ house, I did the math. I hadn’t seen her since I graduated college, nine years earlier.
The years seemed less distant as Jess and I talked. Yes, both of us did things our more idyllic selves would have cringed at, but it seemed like we were still on our same, less traveled paths. Jess’ path had led her to many farms, where she grew food and the skills needed for her own farm. She lived in a small, picture-worthy cabin with her hilarious boyfriend, another farmer in the business of selling seeds. Thanks to a recently attended wedding they had lots of leftovers and lots of s’more fixings, so at night we built iconic Vermont campfires and ate like kings at a wedding. During the day, the farmers farmed, while I received a paid farming lesson, caught up on internetting, and wandered the farm edged by milkweed. Make no mistake, milkweed and farms can co-exist, and my visit with Jess proved it!
Before I stayed with Jess, I stayed at another farm in Vermont. While Jess’ farm had milkweed along the edges, The Farm Between, a fruit farm, felt almost like a farm of milkweed. John and Nancy welcomed me in, showed me my room in their big farmhouse, and gave me a tour of their land. Instead of stripping the land bare, the fruit that they grew for syrups, ciders, snow cones, and good old fashioned eating shared the farm with wild nature.
This wild nature was given space to do its job between the fruit trees and berry bushes. The wildflowers brought in pollinators, protected the soil from sun and moisture loss, provided habitat for wildlife, returned nutrients to the soil, fed their horses, and gave balance to the farm, like wild always does. It was refreshing to see them put their trust in nature, and not outsource ecosystem functions to fertilizers and pesticides. And while their syrups and snow cones and currants were delicious, what stole the show was the overflowing milkweed.
Never had I seen more milkweed in one place than at The Farm Between. The milkweed painted the fields purple and the air sweet. The young apple trees stood steadily on tiptoes, stretching above the purple crowd, supported rather than claustrophobic. The land buzzed with bees and beetles and butterflies, giving testimony, in the language of insect wings, to the nurtured land. I walked slowly finding each milkweed was an island of habitat teaming with creatures. So much diversity can thrive, if we only give them space to live.
So it was in Vermont, that I saw how farming doesn’t need to fight the earth, but settle and grow within its green arms. I saw examples of this not just at John and Nancy's, and Jess’, but along all the roads that connected the small towns and small farms. Biking through this kind of farm country was a dramatic shift from the monoculture corn deserts of the Midwest. It threw me back in time, and I could imagine an America of the past where family farms hadn’t met the demise of big ag, big money, and big pollution. I could also imagine an America of the future, where we supported these small farms, the ecosystems that they are nestled in, and the farmers that trade hard work for a sustainable living.
Another reason I had for heading east was to see the ocean, so from Vermont I descended out of the storms and fog of the White Mountains and to the end of the road, where both traffic and my progress east were halted by the Atlantic. An ocean fence. For me oceans have always felt like fences, guarding a world I can’t enter. For this reason, I’m not what you’d call an ocean person. I can always appreciate a visit to feel the power and confidence of the salty vastness, but I notice on a beach walking often feels like pacing, an attempt to find a gate or bridge to escape through.
Arriving, in July to a sandy beach in Maine, gave me a welcoming way to jump the figurative fence and trespass into the salty world. I leaned my bike on a bench straddling runaway sand and encroaching pavement. After accepting the congratulatory smiles of people assuming I was at the symbolic end of a coast to coast adventure, I then walked confidently, despite my quick dry underwear and ridiculous tan lines, to the water. I continued out, bobbing with the waves until my feet hit the ground only in the troughs of the rolling water and my bike shined on shore small. I dove into the refreshing cold, opening my eyes to look at the underwater blur of watery foreignness. For a moment the ocean was not a fence. For a moment I was given wings to fly through a sky of a different blue. It was a similar feeling to climbing a mountain to know the sky, or canoeing a river to know the current. Testing the edges I find bridges to new worlds.
As I swam the sun slow-motion dove into the land, signaling the last hours of light. I reluctantly dried off and biked away, weaving through oblivious tourists lost in their vacations. The setting sun, the ocean breeze, and the smooth shoulder combined forces giving me a shot of power that sent me flying down the road. I passed cars in traffic jams while I soaked up the freshness of speed and the emerging night’s secrets. I love biking at dusk. It is when I feel the most alive.
While biking along the coast was fresh, camping was another story. Houses fighting for views left those of us landless without a view and with no place to rest out of view. In view with no view, a camping conundrum. Instead of pockets of nature escaping development, I had to look for developed places, like churches and schools not used at night, to camp in. Converting unused space into my home each night is a satisfaction that keeps me bike touring.
Having checked off several of my must-dos, I continued south. The next item on the to-do list was to visit Rhode Island and Connecticut, the last two states I had yet to travel to. In order to arrive at the tiny states, stubbornly east, I traveled the coast, stopping in North Berwick, ME for a picnic with students at their butterfly garden, and in Ipswich, MA to stay with the Monarch Gardener. Both visits highlighted the work being done to protect the migration, and how creative adults can give kids windows into so many inspiring worlds. In both places I was lucky to meet future adventurers and scientists seeing the details of the planet and already breaking though the neglect and rising to the challenges the world is facing. When I finally crossed into RI, I celebrated with a roadside photo shoot, and in CT a family of owls I camped with cooed congratulations. I have now been to every state, but I still have much to explore. That is the glory of a diverse country.
And while I normally seek out a diversity of habitats and wildlife, the next box to check on my loop was to visit New York city; to visit a city that is a testament to cultural diversity. In New York city, every type of person on every type of mission weaves a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, ideas, art, and attitudes. This swirl of culture, something of a cliché, was the very thing thay drew me to the city. So many worlds piled together, so many creative people inventing new ways of seeing, and of course…so many options for delicious food! I ate Ethiopian, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Italian food ($1 slices of amazing pizza). I bought fruit in Chinatown and bread at a grocery store catering to the Caribbean neighborhood where I stayed. I saw people of many colors on bikes, and heard many languages I couldn’t understand. I wandered the streets and watched people going about their lives.
Wandering was my main activity while I stayed in NYC. In many ways wandering the city felt like I was wandering through a dozen different countries. I wandered by foot, bike, and even subway, finding myself on mini adventures. Entering the subway one time, I had to buy THREE fares for just one trip because I kept messing up the ticket taker. Another time, walking home, I was a bit on autopilot as someone held the door for me, and we shared an elevator ride up. I made it to the 22nd floor before realizing I was in the neighboring apartment complex…aka the wrong building. And mostly I wandered by bike, cruising the streets with no purpose, exploring the bike routes, and paths, and the functioning chaos of too many people making up their own rules. It was exciting to be part of the commotion, but also frustrating. I could begin to feel the noise, lights, trash, and crowds disturb by mind and make me feel trapped and alone. I wonder if a city could feel like home to me if I put in more effort, or perhaps I simply lack a city gene.
Whatever it is, I still tried to take advantage of the city. I went to a taping of Samantha Bee’s show, saw some stand up comedy, listened to live music in a park (is it still a park if there is no green and just concrete?), visited the Met, walked through Central Park, braved Times Square, gave my condolences at the Twin Towers memorial, waved to the Statue of Liberty, and crossed every available bridge by bike. The bridges, with skyscraper views, were probably my favorite part. Each bridge had its own mood, with the Brooklyn Bridge being the most congested with tourists (like me) taking photos and (not like me) oblivious to the bike vs pedestrian lanes. Cyclists were not very patient with the tourists, and if I had to cross the river daily I knew I would have to avoid the Brooklyn Bridge. Still, as a tourist, it was my favorite. The cars hummed below, easy to ignore, with a web of cables above and a steel lattice below creating a tangle through which to view the city, day or night.
I stayed in New York city for several day, grateful for the hospitality of Erica and Obe, who let me copy their keys and take over their living room. I had met Erica, and her friend Lihn, at the sanctuaries in Mexico. Along with another monarch fan, Barb, the four of us had traveled to a site where the monarchs streamed down the road and turned the highway into a river of orange. We all agreed it was one of our favorite spots, and it was cool to meet back up in a uniquely different world: a Vietnamese restaurant in NYC. After lunch we splurged on soft serve ice cream stuffed into an ice cream cone the shape of a fish, which I was grateful was not ice cream stuffed into a real fish. Then we finished off the afternoon with a visit to a place for foot messages. It was one of those random moments where you stop to ask yourself how you ended up there, a phenomenon I love, and I think has been a bit lacking on this trip because of all the planning my presentations merit.
New York city wasn’t just people and buildings. Before crossing the river into New Jersey, I biked to Battery Park at the southern end of Manhattan and was amazed to find a monarch nectaring in a flowerbed. Monarchs are determined creatures that need little to thrive. If we provide nectar plants and milkweed they will do their thing. Even in the chaos of a city, where space is so limited. I decided that if New York city can find space for monarchs then there are no excuses. If New York city can be a sanctuary for a wild animal, then imagine what towns with breathing room could do!
As I made plans to leave New York city, I mentally prepared for traffic and suburbs. I assumed that the traffic around New York would be like the traffic around Boston: stubborn, speeding cars, on narrow, winding roads. The traffic around the suburban blight of Boston had been a low point, including some terrorizing miles passing the famous Walden Pond. I was ashamed to see Thoreau's respite and inspiration now a polluted pond and glorified parking lot. As cars sped by I couldn’t decide if it was scarier that cars saw me and did nothing to give me some life-saving respect OR if cars didn’t see me and thus barely shared the road. Either way, I psyched myself up to charge into some serious traffic.
But the nerves were unneeded. In fact, I was surprised how quickly I left the city behind. One minute I was disembarking from the ferry into New Jersey, watching the skyline unfold as I traveled along the river front, and the next minute (okay like 40 miles later) I was camped in the woods disrupting a calling owl and upsetting a grazing deer. It was even more mellow than my experience entering the city from the east.
I had entered NYC via Long Island. I had gotten lucky and through contacts of contacts I was able to stay one night at a lemur biologist’s house, and another night with a journalist and professor. The latter were Don and Allison, along with their visiting daughter, several cats, and a literal yard of butterfly habitat. Don knew a lot about monarchs, so rather than scratching the surface of the monarch world, we were able to discuss ideas and theories beyond what I had been able to really discuss before. I felt bad about distracting them from their work but was also grateful for the information and different ways of thinking. They were my first hosts in New York, and my good luck continued all through the state.
In fact, between the hospitality and scenic biking, New York was probably my favorite eastern state to bike in. The riding was inspiring, with an always shifting road framed by rainbows of flowers. Monarchs and a colorful assortment of other insects kept my attention on the uphills and the downhills and rushed me through a mosaic of forests, farms, and wild fields of color. I found myself stopping too much, trying to capture with my camera the lazy roads winding through picturesque rustic country and the secret treasures hiding in the frame of flowers along the roads. Unlike driving, where it is tough to stop and explore, on a bike I can jump off my bike and investigate. One of my favorite findings in New York was my first hummingbird hawk moth, which stopped me in my tracks. The moth flew like a hummingbird, flying into and out of flowers with blurry wings and a lobster-like tail. I’ll carry these wildlife sightings with me long after my trip is over. I will also never forget the hospitality that was in full force as I crossed New York.
My next invitation, after leaving New York city, came from a cyclist and retired principal. Clifford lived in a small town that I reached after pedaling 70 miles. Sometimes people invite me to stay with them when I have only managed to cover 20 or 30 miles, but getting an invitation at the end of a big-mile day is nothing short of perfect. And Clifford was a great host. He fed me two meals worth of food, and we swapped stories as we relaxed. His supportive and encouraging words to me were testament to his days as a principal, when he undoubtedly used the same encouragement to lift kids up and give them the support to thrive.
My next stop was with Don and Bruce; potters, teachers, and monarch fans. They shared their home with three dogs, a tortoise, a turtle, two metamorphosing frogs, and dozens of monarch caterpillars. In the garage, now an art studio, they created art from clay. They had a short, 30 ft commute to work each morning, but of course, before Bruce could get to work creating plates and bowls and ornaments he had to feed all his critters. I joked that they were living the dream lives of 10 year old boys! Of course this was a compliment coming from me, someone that spends her entire day biking, eating, and catching bugs. I ended up staying for two full days, and was really grateful for the authentic conversation, change of pace, and inspiring setting. I have visited so many houses over the last ten years. Sometimes I feel like a doctor saying “I have seen it all” as people fuse over their houses when I first arrive. And it is true, I have seen every type of house imaginable. Your house would not surprise me. But at Don and Bruce’s, I saw my future home. With a loft, and art, a quiet setting, temporary animal enclosures (to watch a metamorphosis perhaps), and space to make art. I stayed an extra day because I felt at home.
Don and Bruce were not the only family I stayed with for an extra day. In fact, biking through New York I was able to slow down my pace a bit. The reason for this was because I had scheduled presentations in southern Ontario over a month earlier, so I had to guess an arrival date while leaving a buffer for unexpected delays. Since the delays were short, I had plenty of wiggle room to accept invitations and enjoy some down days.
My last layover day in New York was just before the Canadian border, in the suburbs of Boston. I met Heather by chance, when I pulled into the parking lot of a church at sunset. I was running out of options of places to camp and was getting desperate. I had already checked out two other churches and a school with no luck. Rolling up to the church, I knew it wasn’t going to work either because there were too many people around to be both discreet and out of the way. Since I couldn’t camp out of sight I played my last card. I asked.
I asked and they said no. Something about insurance. I was a bit huffy and spit out a cheap shot about churches forgetting what they stand for. That is when a women in a car told me to wait. She had some questions, but I was impatient. I was losing the last of the day’s light, and once dark the job of finding camping would only get harder. But she didn't just have questions, she had an invitation.
Heather, her husband, and her four kids, lived across the street from the church. They showed me their yard, and then invited me in for food and a shower. I felt sheepish, because I had been a tad rude, but Heather’s cheerful and encouraging attitude quickly erased my defensiveness. As we talked I felt more at home, and as we got to know each other we learned that there was a connection forged by the magical side of monarchs. They had accepted me, a stranger, into their lives, at a critical time for their family, and regardless of our religious differences we both felt the power of the monarch bringing us together.
The next morning they invited me to visit their land co-op. Just outside of town, it's a bit of a cross between a summer camp and land share. I wasn’t rushed for time so I said yes, and I am glad I did! Here is why (among other reasons): the co-op had a pond lined with flowering plants (including milkweed) and un-trusting frogs. The frogs dove into the cool water dotted with tadpoles, and the kids played in the water while chasing the amphibians. Later, while a heron tip-toed the shore, the four kids and I wrangled a canoe into the water and took off across the pond. In the stern, I enjoyed steering the canoe, feeling the magic of moving a paddle through the water and watching the boat turn predictably. When we spotted a bullfrog on a log floating a few feet from shore we aimed for it. The boat crept up to the log and one of the kids in the front of the boat reached forward slowly. I whispered a warning not to lean too much and land us all in the water, but mostly we were silent. I had no expectations and thus was as excited as the rest of them, when he caught the frog! It couldn’t have gone more smoothly. We were all giddy (except the frog I guess). We were all caught in the moment, learning about the world by being characters in its story. It was a highlight for sure!
After the “frog hunting” we celebrated with wraps and cookies (which the kids and I got by using our powers of telekinesis on Heather while she shopped in the grocery store). While we ate a band of neighborhood families descended on their house for an impromptu presentation about monarchs and my bike ride. By the time every kid had tried out my sleeping pad, camp chair, and tent I was exhausted and decided Niagara Falls could wait one more day.
Niagara Falls was the last thing on my list, justifying my eastern loop. I had built the falls up to be surrounded by houses and malls and broken views through hotel skyscrapers. And while there was development the falls still felt wild. I enjoyed riding along the river, going downstream on a paralleling road. As I approached the falls I could only hear the rumble and see the mist of shocked water rising up before falling down. I took my time, not rushing to see the falls, but instead watching the water fall over the edge into white water heard but not seen. A herd of terns bombed the calmer waters while I watched the disappearing water, until the current enticed me downstream (just to be clear I'm on pavement not in the water!).
At the falls I joined the crowd, all of us being drowned out by the roar of water. I found an open spot to watch the water which seemed to change colors as it looked over the edge and saw what was to come. It was the color of Ozark rivers, a turquoise that I’ve never been able to mix with paints. A color I would call perfect. The turquoise color didn’t reach the calmer river below, but instead was disrupted by a cloud of white mist broken only by the flapping wings of passing cormorants and gulls. So many secrets lay shrouded in rumbling water. I listened and watched and imagined the swirl of current and boulders winning and losing in a slow motion battle attracting the crowds.
Niagara Falls, New York city, and the places in between have been places I have wanted to see. I wanted to have a personal picture to draw on as these iconic places continue to shape our culture. I feel like I have been biking this eastern loop for many months, but it was only 5 weeks ago that I crossed out of Canada and started heading east through New York. And yesterday, fighting the wind through a tunnel of maturing corn, I was reminded that I have left the mountains of the east and re-entered the gently rolling expanses of North America’s center. My eastern loop was full of adventure and I think I guessed right when I added the detour, but it is also nice to be heading back to the heart of the migration. And just in time too, because now that my eastern loop is complete, the monarchs and I are beginning to turn our sights south to Mexico.