Christie Shary

Traveler's Tales - The Miracle of the Monarchs

The Miracle of the Monarchs

The mountains of Michoacan glisten in the early morning sunlight. The sky, a stark blue behind them, accentuates the colossal pines, which stand like sentinels along the roadside. Patchwork-quilt farming valleys spread below the peaks, descending to spring-fed creeks criss-crossing the landscape.

Departing from the main highway toward the Santuario De Las Mariposas Monarcha El Rosario, the largest Monarch butterfly sanctuary in the world, the road becomes furrowed, bumpy and wild, much like the untamed ruggedness of central Mexico's state of Michoacan, where it is located.

As the steep road zigzags up the mountainside, I feel my stomach flutter. We are going to visit 'old friends,' millions of Monarch butterflies from our homeland, America, and neighboring Canada, who have journeyed more than three thousand miles to winter in Mexico.

We soon enter the tiny village of El Rosario. Perched high in a mountain valley, dry cornstalks cloak its hillsides and tiny log homes encircled by low rock walls dot the countryside. Smoke from cooking fires curls from their chimneys. A barefoot boy leads a flock of sheep and goats up the steep hillside and farmers trail donkeys behind wooden plows. Their women, dressed in rainbow-colored skirts, are hunched over large flat washing stones at the creekside, babies swathed in serapes tied to their backs. It is like being transported into a 'forgotten era.'

As we ascend the mountainside, suddenly, like a messenger from the Gods, the first Monarch butterfly appears. Gliding like a ballerina from one wildflower to the next, its orange and black wings sparkle in the morning sunlight. Soon our butterfly friend-Lepidoptera, as it is known by its insect classification-is joined by several of its siblings. They float before our car and lead us to their winter refuge, high on the mountaintop at almost ten thousand feet.

After parking, we are bombarded by a swarm of sun-stained village children. "Yo soy guia, I can guide you," they yell in Spanish. They quickly surround our car, almost as thick as the butterflies, and we cannot decide which child to choose.

We hire a young boy named Juan Jose and begin our climb to the sanctuary. Make-shift stalls setting butterfly pins, plastic butterflies, and t-shirts crowded with Monarchs line the dirt path in haphazard fashion. They stand next to stalls selling woolen ponchos-shields from the cold air, blue corn tortillas, and drinks for the steep journey before us.

As we enter the sanctuary and pass through the small log visitor center, a feeling of reverence settles over us at the sight of thousands of butterflies warming themselves on the grass. It is as if someone has spread out a huge copper carpet of the most intricate design.

"Silencio-Silence," the sign reads, as if we are entering a large, mountain-top cathedral. "No fumar, por favor, no tocar-No smoking, please do not touch."

We become short of breath as we climb higher, but are still propelled onward by the event we are about to witness-millions of Monarchs who have journeyed so far to mate, lay eggs, then die, leaving their instinctual legacy to their offspring to complete the journey homeward in the spring just as they have done for thousands of years.

Juan Jose pauses and points to the pines on the hillside of a steep ravine. "Las mariposas," he whispers, leading us toward them. He points at the pine bows, each weighted down with clusters composed of hundreds of Monarchs, wings closed to protect themselves from the cold mountain air.

But as soon as the sun strikes the treetops a few minutes later, the magic really begins. Slowly, as if awakening from an endless winter's sleep, the creatures begin to stir, one by one. Many take to the air, gliding on the mid-morning breeze in search of sweet wildflower nectar.

Soon the once-blue sky turns orange and golden as more and more of the Monarchs take flight. They twirl like dancing gypsies in the sky, landing on one flower, then the next, and on our jackets and heads and hands. We are completely transfixed to our hillside lookout. Suddenly we hear a sound that we have never heard before-the flap of thousands and thousands of butterfly wings filling the air of this great outdoor concert hall.

"They carry the souls of the dead to heaven," Juan Jose whispers, as we stand in place, not moving, and totally mesmerized.

When the sun reached its zenith, we begin our descent, not ever wanting to leave the peace and harmony of the sanctuary, even though we know we have over a three-hour drive back to Mexico City, our temporary home.

So we reluctantly ascend to the base of the mountain. Here we are met with a carnival-like atmosphere, very different from the near silence of the mountain top. Restaurants with brightly-painted wooden tables sell cervezas, pop and Mexican delicacies from their outdoor, makeshift kitchens. "Pase usted, come in," a woman with long braids waves to us.

Several whiskered old men, guitars in tow, offer to serenade us tired and blistered butterfly observers as we watch an old woman who sits cross-legged on the dirt carding fresh wool, ultimately to be died and woven into one of the beautiful rainbow-colored ponchos covered with butterfly motifs hanging on the wooden wall behind her.

Rested, we decide to return to Mexico City by a different route-over the top of the mountain and through the tiny Colonial mining town of Angangueo. But something gets in our way-thousands of Monarchs sunning themselves on the dirt road. Sacred to the local indigenous people, we know better than to tread on the butterflies' path-not that we would anyway-so we decide that we must forfeit visiting Angangueo.

But then a solution comes to us. Perhaps we could hire some village children to lead us past the butterflies. So our two 'butterfly busters' as we fondly call them, walk before our crawling car, pleading with the Monarchs to move aside for a moment. And like a parting of the Red Sea, the creatures lift before our car, and settle on the flowers and bushes lining the road to allow for our passage.

After a very slow progression to the mountaintop pass, we thank our 'butterfly busters,' then steal one more look at the blaze of Monarchs in the distance, before waving "Adios." But of one thing we are certain. The memories of the Monarchs will be etched in our memories in glorious golds, coppers and blacks for many years to come.