DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Some adventures give you butterflies

Riding a horse up the side of a mountain isn’t easy. This was the ultimate leg on a multimodal trip to a mythical destination, though, so I leaned forward, marveling at how I got here.

Last September, a Sequim friend, Judith Pasco, connected me with Deborah Stephens, a Seattleite who now lives in Ajijic, Mexico. Stephens planned to take a small group of people to Macheros, in the state of Michoacán, in early March. This is the place of las mariposas monarcas, the monarch butterflies who migrate some 3,000 miles south across North America, into the evergreen forests of central Mexico.

To see these miraculous creatures, it would be necessary to ride the bus and the light rail to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, then a jet to Guadalajara, Mexico. Then Stephens and our group would join her unflappable driver, Miguel Lemus Martinez, for the long journey into the highlands. Stephens, who has traveled here many times, had arranged for us to stay at a bed and breakfast near the entrance to the Cerro Pelón butterfly sanctuary.

Joel Moreno was our host. He and his brothers and sisters grew up hiking the steep, slender trail up to where the monarchs fly. They’re guardians of this refuge.

So we ascended. Instead of walking up, we went on horseback because we were gaining altitude, so much altitude that had we gone on foot, some of us might have had to stop for lack of sufficient oxygen.

At one point, a few butterflies appeared. We’d ridden for nearly an hour, so I thought maybe this was it.

Then came a bend in the trail and an opening in our line of sight, up through a rock- and tree-lined canyon. In the air between the towering firs, a wave of monarchs, like a tickertape parade with orange wings, appeared. Pure blue sky behind them, the butterflies glided toward us. Hundreds rode the breeze; interwoven, hundreds more slowly fluttered their wings in the warm air.

A strange feeling came over me. Tears. Shamelessly, I sniffled. Let out a sob. As my eyes widened, another wave of monarchs filled the canyon. Then another. From one of the tallest trailside trees, a fountain-like burst of butterflies lifted off, all at once, into the sky.

Joel appeared beside me.

“It’s all right,” he said, patting my shoulder.

“I cry sometimes too. It’s good to cry.”

As the butterflies continued to waft above us, we dismounted and found seats on rocks. The bed and breakfast had packed lunches for us. I watched as my traveling companion Louisa Jenkins, nibbling her lentil salad, was surrounded by butterflies alighting on the nearby branches.

For the next while — any sense of time vanished — we gazed at what seemed like a couple of million monarchs, their translucent wings lighted by the sunshine.

To say I was fortunate to experience this doesn’t quite cover it. The trip is receding in chronological time, but not in my memory. This Earth Day week, my hope is that I continue to feel thankful for those moments on the mountain, and for any time communing with nature back home.

A walk into the forest, along the Salish Sea, or beside a river — a short, local trip is enough to bring back that sense of joy and gratitude. A breath of alpine or marine air, I believe, can also wash away the illusion of separation between humans and the rest of the world’s creatures.

Shakespeare, though he probably didn’t get to see the Mexican monarchs, summed it up well.

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” he wrote.


Jefferson County Senior Reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] news.com.

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