Crossing Uneven Ground

The Long Journey of the Monarchs and Me

Monarch butterflies on fir tree branches.

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.

Monarch on flowers.
I’ll never forget the experience of learning about butterflies with my mother when I was a kid. This is a photo of two of the 80 I raised in 2020.

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.

Joanne getting dismounting from her horse.
Joanne gets some help dismounting. It’s a long dusty trail up the mountain. Covid precautions are observed to keep travelers and natives safe.

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. 

Millions of butterflies in fir trees in Mexico.
We first spotted Oyamel Fir trees burgeoning with millions of Monarchs. Disappointedly, we couldn’t get closer. I would have to rely on my 100 – 400mm Canon lens to capture the details.
A swarm of Monarch butterflies.
A closer look and the spectacle starts to become apparent.
Branches bending with the weight of butterflies.
Tree boughs bend under the weight of millions of butterflies.
A butterfly cluster.
Butterflies get active when the sun comes out.
A river of butterflies in the air.
The air fills with butterflies looking for a shady place to hang out. Sometimes they fly to cool themselves because they need to conserve their body fat. They don’t eat in Mexico and rely on stored fat to get north.
Monarchs drinking at a spring.
We watched butterflies from El Rosario Reserve fly down to drink from tiny mountain springs near the town of Angangueo.

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.

The milky way galaxy above a field of milkweed plants.
We’ve got lots of milkweed in Northern Wisconsin and round about the summer solstice the Monarchs are here in good numbers. Females lay between 400-1000 eggs, each one on a separate milkweed plant. Less than 5% reach adulthood. Predators get the rest.
Close up image of a caterpillar eating milkweed.
Our Mexican neighbors have the privilege of observing winter Monarch colonies but don’t see this. Caterpillars, feeding machines, hoover up mass quantities of common milkweed.
A Monarch chrysalis.
In our neck of the woods it takes about 10 days for caterpillars to transform into butterflies in their chrysalis.
An adult butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.
In dramatic fashion they emerge. This is a completely different beast from what went in…they transform at the molecular level.
Monarch drying wings.
An elegant creature finds its way into the world. It takes several hours for their wings to dry before they can take off.

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.

Fernando with a butterfly
Our Nat Hab guide, Fernando, releases a Monarch butterfly he rescued from the cold forest floor. Monarchs can’t fly until the temperature tops 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Court and Joanne.
Court, our Nat Hab expert on Monarchs and photography pro, gives Joanne some pointers about setting up her Lumix camera.
Dead butterflies.
About ten percent of Monarchs die in Mexico from predation. In bad years, millions can die from storms.
Blurred wings of a butterfly in flight
When the sun hits a spot they start to fly. A long exposure reveals beauty in motion.
Monarchs on fir trees.
Warming their wings before take off.
A monarch flying next to a swarm.
One separates from the colony. In mid-March they’ll all fly north.
Densely packed Monarchs
Densely packed Monarchs ornament the trees.

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.

A solitary Monarch butterfly on a tree trunk.
For Janice.

34 thoughts on “The Long Journey of the Monarchs and Me

  1. Steve Korinek

    Tom and Joanne,

    Your writing was poetic and the photos cathartic considering what’s happening elsewhere in the world. Thanks for reminding all of us about the cycle of nature and our witness to it. Albeit it, only partially understood. Lovely.

  2. Jerry Styberg

    Hi Tom –

    Your recounting of your trip to the El Rosario Monarch sanctuary brought back the treasured memories we have of our incredible trip there nine years ago. Your beautifully captured images show the immensity of the gathering of these amazing creatures. Love your stories from your youth about how your Mom introduced you to this wonder of nature. Thanks for sharing and can’t wait to share a cup ‘o joe and hear more stories.

    Jerry & Patricia

  3. Craig Butler

    I second what Steve said. Your trip and the photos are a great experience. This would be a great resource for young minds.

    1. Tom Post author

      Thanks Craig. I’ve gotten a great response from this blog so maybe I’ll keep on annoying people with more. See you soon!

  4. Mary Pat Vigil

    What a loving way to begin your story; you and your Mom. Beautiful trip and photos!

  5. Katie Maloney

    Lovely, Tom, both the photos and your personal story! As Steve K. noted, this provides a good counterpoint to the terrible tragedy in Ukraine.
    We need this right now! I’m planting milk weed as soon as it’s warm enough.

    1. Tom Post author

      Let me know if you need a source for milkweed….or caterpillars. And thanks for reading my story. See you soon!

  6. Larry Laufer

    Tom and Joanne,

    Shortly before you left on your trip I ran into Joanne at the Mequon library gathering more books on butterflies, so I knew you were about to emback on this trip. It looks like the journey was all that you expected except for the bout of Montezuma’s revenge. It’s hard to say what I enjoyed more, your narrative of the trip or the photos, so I guess I’ll say both. Glad you had another adenture and thanks for sharing.

    1. Tom Post author

      Thanks for the comment Larry. For us and probably lots of the world its time to get out traveling again. I hope you get some travel plans lined up soon!

  7. Larry Laufer

    Tom and Joanne,

    Shortly before you left on this trip I ran into Joanne at the Mequon library as she was gathering more books on butterflies, so I knew you both were about to embark on this journey. Looks like your trip of scientific curiosity was all you expected except for Montezuma’s revenge. Hard to say what I enjoyed more, your narrative recounting or the photos. I guess I’ll say both! Glad you enjoyed another adventure.

  8. Linda

    Wonder if you crossed paths with Marcus. He was there also. As always, your pictures are beautiful and your writing is eloquent

    1. Tom Post author

      Thanks for the comment Linda. I’m glad to hear Marcus is still traveling the Earth! We loved our trip to see the Monarchs.

  9. Muneo Nagaoka

    Thanks for your story with beautiful photos. I learned a lot about the Monarch butterflies.
    I just remembered that I read the articles of National Geographic Magazine when I was a student.

    1. Tom Post author

      Hi Muneo,
      Good to hear from you my friend. I hope things are well with you and your family. We hope to return to Japan some day when COVID dies down. Thanks for your comment!

  10. Andrea Razzano Shatek

    Uncle Tom,
    Amazing photos and great story. I will need to show the kids. They watched a migration special on National Geographic about Monarchs (and a Wild Kratts episode too). I need to find some milkweed this year so we can try to raise some monarchs of our own!

    1. Tom Post author

      You and Adam are such good parents. I really think it is about taking an interest in the world and demonstrating that to your kids. That kindles sparks. The thing is you never know which spark will take flame. I have to say, though, I’ve talked to a lot of folks who have had a similar experience to mine….learning about the Monarchs and it was a lesson that helped propel them their way to more learning.

  11. Kris Roepsch

    Read your wonderful story at 4 am enjoying a gorgeous moon and traveling vicariously with you and Joanne. So glad you are both still out there recording and documenting the wonders of our world. You do such a great job of bringing the world to us. Thank you.

    1. Tom Post author

      This was a great trip. We’ve been wanting to see the Monarch colonies for years and thought this was just the right time. Hope you and Ed are well and will be traveling soon too!

  12. Sydney Greenblatt

    Wow, what a treat to open your email on the Monarchs. It made my day!! Not only are the photos inspirational, the story of your adventure with your Mom is heartwarming. Oh that we could all learn to appreciate, these special moments and creatures that are our planet. If we were all mindful for these gifts of nature, we could all turn to loving-kindness and away from hate, anger and divisiveness. Thank you for enriching my life! Sydney 🙂

  13. Brien Farley

    Tom – Most people go to Mexico and come back with nothing but a hangover, sun burn and a lot of cheap crap. You went there and came back with this utter work of art! Beautifully written, beautifully shot and beautifully dedicated! Thank you for sharing your experience in such a thorough and inspiring way. I don’t think any of us will ever look at our little Monarch friends the same again after this.

  14. Carol Starr

    Loved your story! Your photos are amazing. So hard to wrap my head around trees literally dripping with monarch’s but your photos show how that really is the case. Thank you for sharing!

  15. Tami Quinlan

    We so enjoy your travel blogs. Gorgeous photos. Engaging writing. We always learn things. Looking forward to the next adventure.

  16. Mary Wehrle Schnell

    Barb shared your blog with me and I’m so happy she did. What glorious photography and narrative. Ironically I had just finished a book of fiction about a woman’s journey to Angangueo to honor her grandmother, titled The Butterfly’s Daughter by Mary Alice Monroe.
    Please add me to your email notification when you publish again.

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