March 15, 2022
Second grade, at Carrollton Elementary, was a special year in my educational and developmental journey. It was the early 1960s, and since Carrollton is a suburb of Dallas, Texas, the threat of Cuban missiles had us spending a lot of time under our desks with our hands covering our heads. Despite the drills, that year, we learned cursive writing, how to spell C-A-R-R-O-L-L-T-O-N (a super long word for 2nd graders), and I discovered how to draw a daffodil which made me confident that I was destined for artistic greatness.
Mrs. McBee was my teacher, and she was gorgeous. Right up there with Barbie, in my eyes. She was a strong advocate of reading and she read to us every day after lunchtime. I remember blubbering like a baby when Charlotte died (sorry for the spoiler) when she read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. It was a magical time.
Mrs. McBee always let us select a book from her mini class library after we had completed our work.
One book fascinated me. I remember the details to this day. It was an “easy reader” about the flight of the monarch butterflies. I read it a gazillion times (that’s over 20, in 2nd grade speak). I loved it, but I wasn’t sure if it was fact or fiction. Talking pigs and spiders were fresh because of Mr. White’s book.
I was skeptical that these colorful flittering creatures could travel from way up north in Canada all the way to a specific mountain in Mexico every year. No way! As I mentioned, adults back then were telling us to hide under desks and that cursive writing was super important. In fact, I’m not so sure that this wild, migratory event of nature was ever completely plausible for me until, week before last, when, for John’s birthday, we visited the magical Mexican mountain where the monarchs congregate each year.
For at least 100 years scientists and nature lovers have studied and tracked the 3000-mile migratory path of the monarchs. In the fall, millions of monarchs leave their breeding grounds in Canada and the northeastern U.S. to “winter” in the warmer climates of Mexico. However, unlike other animals (like birds and wildebeest) that embark upon epic migrations, the individual monarchs that start the trip will never return home. This is not dependent on if they, like John and me, get lost, or decide that they like Mexico better, but rather their life cycles.
The life expectancy of monarchs varies according to when they come into this world. Those that have summer birthdays live about 2 to 6 weeks. Those that are born in fall and winter can live 8-9 months. Big difference, huh? You may think the ones born later in the year have a much better deal, but think about it. These are ultra-marathon fliers, the ones that make the migratory journey, and face many more risks than their more sedentary brothers. Consider how many wing flaps it takes to go 3000 miles. Whew!
You may want to know how these marvelous creatures know exactly where to go each year. I sure did. It turns out that the tall tree canopy of a mountain named Cerro Pelόn (“Bald Hill”) in Michoacan, Mexico, is a perfect high-altitude place for the monarchs to hibernate. If your family frequents the same perfect vacation spot every year, you understand the butterflies’ attachment to this place. Millions of them roost annually from November to March, returning to the same trees that earlier generations occupied a few years earlier. Incredible!
Cerro Pelόn is one of four mountain-top areas that has been designated as a monarch butterfly sanctuary by the government of Mexico. According to area experts, it is considered the most pristine because there are fewer tourists that are willing to attempt the challenge of the steep ascent to the top.
Remember, since second grade, I’ve wanted to see the monarchs. Also, remember, every year John has a birthday that happens to be during the peak time that the monarchs are vacationing in Mexico. AND…Cerro Pelόn is a 3.5 hour bus trip from Morelia, where we currently reside. It was a no-brainer.
Happy Butterfly Birthday Honey! Let’s go have an adventure.
I booked two nights for us to stay at a delightful inn called JM Butterfly Bed & Breakfast, which is located in Macheros, population approximately 400. JM Butterfly, like their name suggests, is all about ecotourism and protecting the monarchs. The are located at the base of Cerro Pelόn and offer tours that take guests up the mountain to the butterflies. When I made the reservation, I let Will, one of their main butterfly dudes know that we were coming to celebrate John’s big day. I didn’t mention my 2nd grade odyssey aspirations, but he knew we were excited.
Our plan was to travel to Macheros on February 22nd, celebrate with the butterflies for John’s birthday on the 23rd, and then return home to Morelia on the 24th. The closest bus depot to Macheros is in Zitácuaro, so on the 22nd, we bussed to Zitacuaro, and then caught a taxi to JM Butterfly.
We fell in love with this cozy inn. We met Will and Joel and they told us they would be leading our trek up the mountain the next day. Joel’s family owns the bed & breakfast property as well as the adjacent restaurant. Everything was perfect.
We visited the inn’s bartender and took our adult beverages up to a deck above our room where we watched the sun set on the “butterfly” mountain that we would explore the next day. Maybe my margarita was really strong, but I think I heard a host of tiny flittering voices singing a warm-up version of “Happy Birthday,” off in the distance. They knew we were coming.
Neither John nor I are horse whisperers. It’s not that we dislike anything equine, but we just haven’t had much saddle experience. Early the next morning, Joel and Will drove us to the mouth of a mountain trail where a group of horses with their handlers were waiting. These local horsemen depend upon what they earn from the butterfly tours, so they were anxious to help.
I thought that they would ask us how much riding experience we each had, how much we weighed, etc. but that didn’t seem to matter.
There were six of us in our group. Two children, each accompanied by a dad, and John, and me. One of the handlers brought his horse close to our group as Will asked us who wanted to get on first. The horse looked docile and big enough to hold me, so I hopped on. The handler immediately started leading the horse with me on its back up the trail. I thought they’d let me do a practice lap, introduce me to my assigned animal, or at least wait to see if the poor creature could handle such a wimp, but no. It appeared that the handler was going to lead the horse down the trail, up the mountain, all the way to the butterflies. This was a good thing, but I never really got a chance to know my animal. I’d be going up the mountain on a horse with no name…sigh!
John, on his horse, with his handler caught up quickly. The trail was wide at some parts and then nail-biting narrow at others. On the steep hills, I held my breath and wanted to close my eyes, but there were quite a few low-hanging tree branches and I figured it wouldn’t be prudent. Besides, I was on butterfly patrol, and I didn’t want to miss a thing.
It took us about 1.5 hours to get to the area where we were to dismount and hike to the mountain cliff that, Will said, was the perfect perch to view the colony. About halfway through the ride we started to see a few butterflies. I knew we were close.
Hiking to the side of the mountain took another 45 minutes and was a challenge for me, but with Will’s strong arm and sturdy stepping we got to a group of rocks on the side of the cliff…and then…and then…
We had watched videos, heard first-hand accounts and studied photos of the monarchs, but nothing compares to actually getting up close and personal with a gazillion butterflies. They were fluttering down the narrow canyons, stampeding up the cliffs, and lighting on trees so that the branches were sagging. Just when we thought there couldn’t possibly be any more butterflies on the planet, the sun would shine brighter between the clouds and a new herd would plow through.
I had always thought that butterflies, being so dainty, were soundless. But, there was no Muhammed Ali “floating” to these butterflies. When everyone got quiet, you could hear them. I guess when millions of the exquisite fliers start flapping at the same time, a bit of audio magic occurs. I think they were singing “Happy Birthday” to my sweetheart.
I teared up. It was over the top magnificent.
I moved over to where John was snapping photo after photo, and whispered, “Did you get what you wished for this birthday?”
“Oh, yes,” he nodded, “best birthday ever!”
We had a picnic lunch and spent about 3 hours communing with our royal new friends. The ride down the mountain was more challenging than the ascent, and a few places were so steep that I felt like it would have been easier if I had carried the horse rather than the other way around. But we made it.
It took a few days for our butts to get back to normal, if there is such a thing. We didn’t care. It was so worth it.
John and I have never sat down and made an official “bucket list” of things we’d like to do as a couple. We have found that our spontaneous experiences are usually more memorable than our planned ones. This one was different.
John had warned me NOT to make a big deal about his birthday. That night, when Joel’s family brought him a piece of flan cake with a lit candle and sang to him in Spanish, it wasn’t me that told them. They just knew. (with a little help from Will)
When the butterflies came to greet us as we sat in awe of their beauty, I hadn’t wired ahead to them that we were coming. They just knew that it was a special day and showered us in sweet birthday butterfly kisses.
And, that night, as the sun resplendently set on our butterfly mountain, it just knew that, even though it had set many, many times, for many, many years, that this time was special because a woman’s 2nd grade dream of experiencing the flight of the monarch butterflies had finally become a reality.
Unfortunately, the number of monarchs making the trek to Mexico is diminishing each year. This is primarily due to agro-industrial chemicals, illegal tree poaching and climate change. But there are several things you can do to help rebuild this fragile population.
The loss of any species is a travesty. Even though the decline of the monarch butterflies is not something that makes headlines, it is very real. I don’t think any of us want a world where our children or grandchildren have no chance to experience the beauty of a monarch. I had to wait many decades to have my fascination satisfied. Will you join John and me in our commitment to reverse the decline of the monarch and ensure they have a future?
One of John’s videos of our birthday greeters: