Dragging my seventy-five-year-old mother to the mountains of Mexico may not have been my brightest idea.
This nagging thought metamorphosed into a stomach cramp as we approached the El Rosario entrance to the Reserve. Just because I was obsessed with monarch butterfly migration didn’t mean everyone else had to be.
The ejido’s gatekeeper allowed us to proceed to the upper parking lot. “La vieja cojea,” our guide had said to him, gesturing to my mother and using the verb that generally describes her condition – dropped foot, which forces her to limp. We were greeted by a mural-smothered concrete arch and a bevy of women hawking butterfly tchotchkes. My mother stumbled out of the back seat. “Whew, I’m having trouble breathing,” she said. The parking lot sits at about 9500 feet. The oyamel trees in which the butterflies congregate sit up above 10,000.
I had wanted to visit Michoacán’s Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca since I’d moved to Santa Cruz, CA – another spot on the planet blessed with the privilege of hosting overwintering lepidopteral hoards. After living there for a couple of years, I developed a practice I called “butterfly church,” which involved attempting to arrive at the eucalyptus grove when the insects were just waking up. Every night they come together to form dense clusters, clinging to one another and hanging from tree branches during the cold and wet hours. When the temperature rises to fifty-five degrees, they come alive, one by one leaving their clumps and taking to flight. I was captivated by their diurnal cycles, and, in the process of researching their unusual migratory patterns, I learned that the Santa Cruz butterfly scene paled in comparison to the insects’ main North American overwintering site – the Michoacán reserve. I was determined to experience it.
Without giving the conditions much thought, I hastily fired off an email to my mother, saying something to the effect of, “I’m going to see the butterfly reserve in central Mexico. A billion monarchs in one place. Nearby colonial city with lots of famous churches and world-class food. Wanna go?” My mother is, as one of my friends once said, “game.” Over the years, I have taken her to obscure villages in Colombia, remote artisan workshops in the Peruvian highlands, and dusty, overcrowded Guatemalan markets. I knew what her answer would be.
It wasn’t until I got to our hotel in Morelia – the large city nearest to the reserve – that I realized the questionable wisdom of my offer. The awkwardly-worded brochure on the dresser reminded me that people who live at sea level struggle with the lack of oxygen in the mountains. It also reminded me that even the most accessible of the reserve’s three entrance points requires a three-hour drive from Morelia, followed by a steep and dusty climb into the forest. It can be very hot, very cold, or very rainy, and there is no guarantee that the butterflies will be awake and active on any given day. In its poorly-translated cheeriness, the pamphlet said the trip was “for the adventure-liking traveler that which is feeling good health.” Despite my mother’s determined attitude, her condition often impeded her from walking up stairs and ramps at home. I slumped onto the king-sized bed in the room she had paid for and rubbed at the wrinkles burrowing into my forehead. Then I spent a few hours finding a guide who was willing to work an extra-long day with an uncertain outcome. “I’ve gotten eighty-year-olds up there,” one said. “Ningun problema. We’ll just take our time.”
During our drive, we passed through acres of dry grasslands, lines of nopal cactus, tidy rows of peach orchards, and small, square fields of blue agave. “Those look like the ones we saw in Oaxaca,” my mother said, pursing her lips as she remembered the taste of mezcal. We traversed this agricultural area’s main industrial hub, the gritty village of Maravatio – a name that, since it sounded to me like “maravilla” (miracle), I hoped was a good omen, because after we had driven through that bustling thoroughfare of tire shops, beer drive-thrus, and used clothing stores, we began to climb into the pine forests that characterize the alpine sector of the state of Michoacán. When we stopped for cold drinks and a stretch break, my mother was dragging her leg.
Along the route, there’s plenty of buildup to the main event – from monarch murals on school buildings to butterfly icons on road signs. We climbed through the shade to the village of Aporo, with its classic Mexican zócalo, or square central plaza, then further to Ocampo, a town with an inordinate number of topes – speed bumps. “Like we could drive fast if we wanted to?” I said. The curvy, pothole-ridden roads conceal children, dogs, and cattle at every turn. “I’m glad we’re not driving ourselves,” my mother replied. The same thought had crossed my mind. A handful of switchbacks and a few hundred more feet of elevation later, we arrived at Ejido El Rosario, the part of Ocampo that collectively owns the right to run reserve tours and manages the parking lot we’d found ourselves in.
The Reserve is huge – it covers 140,000 acres in two states. Since up to one billion monarch butterflies overwinter there, they typically congregate in a few different spots. El Rosario is most accessible one, as well as the one with the densest and most reliable concentration of the insects. There are also three other “sanctuaries,” as they are called, open to the public between November and March, when the monarchs arrive from all over the North America (except California – those butterflies overwinter on the coast). At the beginning of their migration, they gather in groups of about twenty million to travel through Texas and northern Mexico en masse, covering about fifty miles per day.
Not all monarch butterflies migrate. In fact, only one out of every five generations does so. Most individuals from most generations live for only three or four weeks. They hatch from eggs into caterpillars, metamorphose into butterflies, then lay their own eggs on a milkweed plant and die. All of this takes place in places like North Dakota and New Jersey and Saskatchewan, and this cycle occurs two or three more times before late summer. The insects that are born in August have a completely different life trajectory, however; they’re the ones who make the epic southward journey. They live for eight or nine months, alternately flying and resting as they cover thousands of miles to get to their overwintering grounds. There, they spend some time exploring the Mexican pine forest, but more of their days are spent in a metabolic torpor that allows them to be the “Methusalahs” they are often called.
Just beyond the reserve entrance, at the top of set of stairs, about ten young men and their horses stood, waiting for paying passengers. “We’ll be taking these,” our guide said to us, before launching into rapid-fire negotiations. A skinny guy with a pencil-thin moustache pointed to my mother and then to the wooden box they used to help visitors mount their docile steeds. My mother grabbed my arm. “You’re going to have to help me with this. I’ve never been on a horse before.” Right. I should have asked about that. It took three of us manipulating my mother’s leg and rear end to get her up and into the saddle. As the horse started walking, her face went rigid. I’d finally pushed it too far, obviously. I took a deep breath and talked about locking knees, pressing down in the stirrups, and softening the torso.
Once I had a chance to look around, I realized that the narrow-needled pines we’d started in had given way to oyamel – the fir endemic to central Mexico in which the monarchs choose to roost. Beneath the canopy were numerous penstemon-like flowers that bloom in January, serving as reliable sources of nectar for the butterflies. Small springs punctuated the forest, providing both human and non-human residents of Ocampo with year-round water.
After a steep, dusty ascent, we got to a field and dismounted. “Here’s where we start walking,” the guide said. “Andamos con despacio; no te preocupes,” he added, noticing the concern on my face. He reiterated what he’d told me on the phone – that anyone can get there “con paciencia.” It was one in the afternoon. There were no butterflies to be seen. My mother looked exhausted.
About fifteen minutes into the walk, I saw a butterfly fluttering over a puddle. As I pulled out my camera, our guide flashed me a scornful expression. My mother looked grateful for the pause, and she bent over to put her hands on her knees and breathe. Group after group of hikers passed us as we plodded up the hill. But, when suddenly we turned a corner and there were about ten butterflies around us – and thirty or forty of them five minutes later – the expression on my mother’s face softened, her tightened mouth and set jaw giving way to a smile. I stopped taking pictures when I realized that we were only on the very outskirts of the butterflies’ main area, even though I was seeing more insects at once than I had ever seen in my life.
Despite the increase in heat, the increase in altitude, and the increase in the frequency of our breaks, the even more rapidly increasing density of dancing, darting monarchs pulled us up the trail. We paused to observe at least a hundred butterflies hovering their wings just above a sunny puddle, drinking. “Come on, the main event is up ahead,” the guide eventually said.
And a spectacle it was. As we stepped into the “santuario,” I sensed that I was swimming in a sea of butterflies. They were above me, below me, and around me in all directions. I was being dive-bombed left and right, and the flying insects so thickly occupied the airspace that I worried my moving hand might hit one. The forest was more orange than green, more butterfly than tree, more frenzy than stillness. I have never felt so surrounded by life.
It was impossible to know where to rest my attention. One moment, I would be looking at a bush on the side of the trail, focusing on three or four fearless individual insects at close range. A moment later, I would look up towards the electric blue sky and see hundreds of silhouettes fluttering frenetically. Then I would turn my gaze deeper into the forest, towards the point where they condensed into collective units of thousands – clouds of orange and brown. A closer inspection of those clouds revealed clumps, clusters, capullos (cocoons) – so many that it became impossible to find a branch without one, and so tightly packed in that the sky was obscured. The sound of their flapping wings drowned out conversation and thought.
It sounds so stereotypical – and yet, the only word I can use to describe what I felt in the grove is “awe.” Awe of the butterflies’ sheer quantity, yes, but also of their grace, their ease of movement, and the simple fact that they were all there, all in the same place, all at once – a dazzling manifestation of biological creativity.
I scanned the group of people silently gathered in the grove until I spotted her. For the first time, I saw my mother as a young girl, experiencing unadulterated wonder. Her head was tilted far back, her mouth agape. Her eyes glittered like the scales of the monarch’s wings in the sun as she shifted her focus from branch to branch and tree to tree.
“Amazing,” she said. “They are amazing.”
She walked effortlessly from one end of the grove to another, without once looking at the ground.
BIO: Bridget A. Lyons is a writer, editor, and explorer and former wilderness guide trying to savor her trips around the sun while attempting to make some sense of what we’re all doing here. A graduate of Harvard University, she is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University where she also teaches composition. Her essays have been published by Atticus Review, 1888 Center, Elephant Journal, and in the in the Sowing Creek Press anthology “Nature’s Healing Spirit.” She blogs about travel and exploration at www.exploraspective.wordpress.com.