Wings And a Prayer

Hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies spend the winter in central Mexico.
By Leigh Ann Henion
Sunday, March 30, 2008

THE MAN SITTING NEXT TO ME ON THIS FLIGHT IS HAVING A SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE. Actually, he's remembering a spiritual experience, but the wild, alert expression on his face is evocative of someone giving religious testimony. His memory has been sparked by my confession that I am headed to the Mexican state of Michoacan to see millions of monarch butterflies congregate in its mountains. He says: "I saw the butterflies migrating once. I was out skeet shooting, and all of a sudden there they were. It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. They looked like a cloud. There were so many they cast a shadow on the land. My buddies and I put our guns down to watch them pass."

As if shaken from a dream, he then looks at me and says, "I bet they were headed down to where you're going." I'm quite sure they were.

Nearly the entire monarch population of eastern Canada and the United States migrates to Mexico's Transverse Neovolcanic Belt to wait out winter. Their needs are so specific that almost all of the approximately 250 million monarchs that make the pilgrimage each year can be found in a small, mountainous swath of land in Michoacan and, to a lesser extent, the state of Mexico.

After touching down at the marble-floored airport in Morelia, Michoacan, it's a 30-minute drive to the Hotel de la Soledad. I have been traveling for 12 hours, but I am still restless. I leave the 250-year-old hotel and take a short walk around the city, passing an assortment of sidewalk cafes and upscale bars. As I near Morelia's grand baroque cathedral, I run into Paul Justice, my fleece-clad tour guide. He's taking a walk to kill time before going back to the airport to pick up the last of our tour group. "It's going to be a good group," he says. "It always is."

Paul and his wife, Warna, founded Rocamar Tours in 2001, after Paul's early retirement from the Canadian building industry. This second career allows them to share their love of nature with fellow travel enthusiasts. Paul and Warna spend half the year in Canada and the other half in Mexico tracking the migratory patterns of butterflies, hawks and turtles. In this way, their lives reflect the natural cycle of the wildlife they follow.

Paul believes that people who gravitate toward migratory tourism are often seeking some sort of life transition or spiritual awakening. But sometimes the experience touches even the most resistant tourist. On this corner in Morelia, where cast-iron street lamps on the sides of cantera stone buildings cast a warm glow, Paul tells me about a burly, gruff construction worker who came on a tour a few years ago with his wife. Remembering the man, Paul crosses his arms and laughs. "He told me: 'I'm just here for my wife. I'm not into insects.'"

When the man's group went to one of the sanctuaries, Paul noticed the man walk off by himself. When Paul approached him to make sure he wasn't suffering from altitude sickness, Paul realized the traveler had tears in his eyes. Paul remembers, "When he noticed I'd seen him, he told me, 'Don't you dare tell anyone about this.'"

Paul also recalls a woman who went on a Rocamar tour to find proof that a higher power was looking out for her. The day she visited one of the sanctuaries, a cascade of butterflies moved from the trees and covered her entire body.

"There were hundreds. They were all over her," Paul says. "I couldn't believe it. I'd never seen anything like it. The woman was overwhelmed, but she had her sign."

Paul checks his watch, mindful that he still has tourists to transport. As I turn to head back to the hotel, an illuminated window display catches my eye. It features a sheet of artisan glass depicting four monarchs rising to meet an elementary image of the sun.

JUDY AND DONALD MATTHEWS ARE IN MEXICO celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, accompanied by their son, Dan, a second-grade teacher with a penchant for Hawaiian shirts. Judy and Donald almost didn't make it to Michoacan to see the monarchs this season. Dan explains that his father is coping with an early stage of Alzheimer's disease, and that his mother needs an aluminum walking cane because of her developing Parkinson's disease. "It was looking like we couldn't come on this tour until next year, but it was important that we come now," Dan says. "This might be their last chance."

Judy and Donald are hobby naturalists from Ballston Lake, N.Y. They've spent the last 15 years working as volunteers for Monarch Watch, an educational outreach program of the University of Kansas that focuses on tracking monarchs and conserving their habitat. They have a garden they cultivate with plants that other people might try to eradicate from their manicured lawns and are especially careful to nurture their milkweed, which the monarchs depend on. This is where the monarchs lay their eggs, and the Matthewses are thrilled to think that some of the butterflies in Mexico could have started their journey on the underside of a leaf in their garden.

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