It’s been two years since we’ve traveled. Two years since I’ve written a blog. The travel bug was biting hard. Our first big trip in COVID times would be in search of beings to whom I owe a debt. We were traveling to the wintering grounds of the Monarch Butterfly. This trip has been a long time coming.
When I was a kid my mother, an elementary school teacher, taught me metamorphosis using Monarch butterfly caterpillars. She’d pluck them from the common milkweed plants growing around our house in Northern Wisconsin and relocate them to a Miracle Whip jar. We fed them milkweed leaves and watched them grow. We witnessed them turning from a worm-like bug into a shiny, jade chrysalis. We were stunned as the chrysalis broke open and a big, orange butterfly emerged. How many times, when you were a kid, did you actually hear your brain click? Learning is fun, click…got it.
This scenario is repeated every year in classrooms throughout the U.S. I’m pretty sure this butterfly is responsible for getting thousands of kids hooked on science. I know Monarchs opened my mind to the infinite wonders of the natural world. What a gift from a small creature. But that was a long time ago and there is unfinished business.
My Mom and I didn’t ask an important question back then. Where do Monarchs go in the winter? Fortunately some inquisitive entomologists did, and they finally figured it out in the 1970’s. Pretty much every Monarch, east of the Rocky Mountains, migrates in the fall to a few hundred acres of land in the mountains in central Mexico. Thousands of miles journey…astonishing! They overwinter in the temperate fir tree forests, clinging there in vast numbers, just warm enough to survive until the following March. Then they start north. None of those butterflies will make it back to Wisconsin or any other northern state again.
It’s quite a story and my wife, Joanne, and I needed to see the wintering grounds and colonies of Monarchs ourselves. We signed up with a tour by the folks at Natural Habitat Adventures. That is not a thing we normally do. We tend to enjoy independent travel, fearing the regimentation of an “organized” tour. This time though we thought we’d let someone else worry about making travel arrangements. It turned out to be a good decision. Our tour guides were Monarch experts and our fellow travelers were travel nuts like us. Everyone was curious about the mysteries of the Monarchs and, thanks to the guides, we left with our questions answered.
As we climbed into the mountains on our bus ride from Mexico City I enjoyed the ride, remarking to Joanne about the similarities between the pretty, springtime, Mexican countryside and our home turf in Wisconsin. I also enjoyed the frequent stops along the way. I had picked up a dose of Montezuma’s Revenge, and the bus driver seemed to know when the terminus of my alimentary canal was about to experience apogee. I didn’t want to wimp out. I had come here to see butterflies, dammit!
Our basecamp would be the small town of Angangueo up in the high country northwest of Mexico City. It was cooler up there than in the city and the air was fresher than the polluted bowl of Mexico’s capitol. As soon as we got to Angangueo we hopped into small, open trucks for the ride up the mountain to the touristy parking place below the park. Butterflies are good for the local economy. It’s a win, win. The Monarchs and their habitat receive protection from development. The locals earn eco-tourist dollars for a variety of services including guiding, souvenirs, accommodations and restaurants.
From bus to trucks to horses. The elevation of El Rosario Butterfly Reserve is over 10,000 feet. We’re used to air with lots more oxygen molecules so Joanne and I welcomed the horseback ride from the parking lot to the sanctuary. Well, maybe “welcomed” is the wrong word. With my guts in an uproar, I held on to my horse tightly. I concentrated mightily during the jarring ride to the butterfly colonies, not wanting to befoul my gallant mount. I felt a kinship with other intrepid explorers of times past, many of whom I’m sure had picked up some wretched tropical malady, but atop their stately stallions, soldiered on pursuing paths of discovery.
You’re not going to get the experience of seeing fifty million butterflies occupying your field of vision reproduced in a photograph or a movie. It’s a 360 degree sound and light happening, but I’ll show you my images as the next best thing to being there. Imagine sunlight streaming in and out of the clouds striking the dark green Oyamel Fir trees. Some of the tree branches bend with the weight of orange butterflies. Zen out on the flutter of tiny wings beating in the thin, cool air, sounding like a distant waterfall. I hope my photographs help take you there.
Here is how the Monarch migration works. The butterflies we saw in Mexico flew there from the U.S and Canada, those parts east of the Rockies, arriving in early November. Many of them from northern extremes 3,000 miles away. They stay until mid-March. As the Mexican spring warms up they start to fly north. These bugs get as far north as our southern states. They lay eggs there and die. The eggs hatch into caterpillars who form chrysalises and turn into butterflies so they can resume the venture north. This cycle repeats so that we Wisconsinites see Monarch butterflies in mid-May. The ones we see are the third or fourth generation of those who spent the winter in Mexico. How these little animals have figured all that out provide material for countless profound metaphors. It is just magnificent. Of course, it is evolution.
Adult Monarchs hang around in the north throughout the summer but the last butterflies occupying northern territories start south again in September. These Monarchs are different, bigger and stronger than their summer parents. How Monarchs navigate the world and how super-Monarchs, the ones that fly south, get bigger are among the questions entomologists, amateur and professional, ponder.
I like that not all the mysteries of the Monarch butterflies are solved. I like that scientists work endless hours to figure things out and in doing so uncover more questions. It’s been a long journey for me from childhood milkweed fields with my mother, across time and space to old man-me plying the mountains of Mexico. I can still see times past with those Miracle Whip jars, nail holes in the lids for ventilation, stuffed with milkweed and a chrysalis hanging down.
We experience such loss as we grow old. My Mom isn’t around any more. There aren’t as many butterflies either. Climate change and habitat destruction from industrialized agriculture are threatening the migration. I’ll see Monarchs in a few months though. They’ll return here to the north drawn by some mysterious instinct. I’ll look at them a little differently now that I’ve visited them in their winter hide-out. They first inspired me a long time ago and now they’ve done it again, such a small animal with such amazing abilities. Its a great planet and I’m thankful for all the teachers who’ve expanded my universe… And I’ll be thankful to the Monarchs when I see them again…for the memories, for the adventure and for the love of learning.
The El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary is near Angangueo, Mexico, northwest of Mexico City.