In the winter of 2010 I traveled south with my friend Joe to spend 3 months vagabonding in Mexico and Central America. We traveled day to day, with no car, no reservations, no itinerary. Except for going to see the Monarchs, we decided what we would do, where we would go, on the day before or at the spur of the moment.
Seeing the migrating Monarch Butterflies had been on my “bucket list” for my entire adult life.
So, one of our first stops, after spending an interesting New Year’s Eve in the the town square of Mexico City, was the small town in Mexico called Auguangeo, located west of Mexico City. This town’s claim to fame is its proximity to the migrating monarch butterflies that over winter here from North America. 100-250 MILLION monarchs spend the winter here!
In the morning we made our way up the mountain, riding in an old pickup truck with a couple we met the day before–Ray and Abbey from NY State–through the winding cobblestone roads that were only wide enough for one vehicle. The road ended in a parking lot where open tents were set up filled with women cooking tacos and selling trinkets. After a quick taco, we headed up the paved section and then onto the dirt trail leading to the preserve.
I admit feeling a bit skeptical, wondering if we were really walking towards 200 million butterflies.
The forest was quiet, with a mix of trees and lovely red and purple flowers beside the trail in many places. There were no other visitors there yet so it was only the four of us, plus our guide. In Mexico it seems impossible to take a walk in the woods without an escort. Eventually we started seeing orange and black wings on the ground, and then our guide stopped us and said we were nearly there. He asked us to be quiet, to not whistle and to walk carefully. Thankfully Ray spoke Spanish and happily translated for us, making things so much easier. I looked ahead and at first, saw only a few butterflies fluttering high above in the sunlight.
The branches on many of the trees appeared brown and dead-looking but upon closer investigation, I realized they were all COVERED with butterflies!
Every branch and tree trunk was coated with the closed wings of Monarch butterflies, all of them too cold to move. They hung still and silent from the green branches, like ornaments on the Christmas tree.There were some branches way up high that had sunlight on them and those butterflies were waking up and beginning to flutter, filling the brilliant blue sky with dancing orange and black shapes. For only a few minutes, our guide allowed us to walk a bit farther up the trail, in one place able to stand right beside the still butterflies. There were so many! I tried to photograph them, to capture the reverence I felt at being surrounded by them but it was challenging to portray, impossible to show the sheer numbers of branches and trees covered in orange and black.
Later as more sunlight filtered through the trees, more butterflies woke up and took to the skies, like flying flowers.
More small groups arrived, some with loud voices that I wanted to hush. Surrounded by the Monarchs felt like being in a cathedral and I longed for the silence that goes hand in hand with such a place. I so wanted to speak in Spanish to the other people, to share the wonder I felt and make it a learning opportunity. But the language barrier prevented meaningful communication.Ray, Abbey, Joe and I stayed for a long time, taking pictures and quietly talking and looking around at the millions of butterflies. Soon after we arrived our guide tied up a rope, closing us off from the area where most of the butterflies were. This was disappointing as it made photography of a sunlit branch at close range impossible.
But as I stood in the forest today, surrounded by branches wallpapered with butterflies and the gentle fluttering of orange and black-winged wonders, I was in awe, absolutely rapt. I had anticipated this day, this moment for so long.
And it was every bit as magical as I imagined.
There were several chunks of time when all the voices ceased and only the wingbeats of hundreds of monarchs could be heard–a kind of quiet music that made my heart sing and erased my past and my future, locking me in the NOW.
The butterflies danced in the sunlight, making a sound like when the autumn breeze whispers through the gold leaves of aspens, sending them twirling to the ground like confetti. I suspect many miss this quiet music that makes my soul feel like it could fly.
How many years I have wanted to see this! Every fall as I notice the migrating monarchs, I think about their difficult journeys, knowing they have many obstacles to overcome before they will reach their destination. And now, I am here, seeing them! How interesting it would be to know if any of these among the branches are ones from New York or North Carolina, if any are those that I saw flutter by on a glorious fall day and silently whispered good luck to. Were any of those here among the clusters?
What an amazing world we live in!
How incredible that this small, fragile animal finds its way to a place its never been before and will never be again. And how fortunate I feel to have been able to witness it…
“The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a bit of star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow that I have clutched.”
–Henry David Thoreau