The men in my family have poor memories. My father used to go to the store for milk and would return with bread. My brother often forgets that he’s with his family and wanders away and gets lost. I struggle to remember what I ate for lunch yetserday. And while I’ve mostly resigned to a lifetime of forgetting if I showered or not, I still find the subject of memory fascinating. I even read a good book on it recently, Moonwalking with Einstein. Hence, when I heard that monarch butterflies migrate from the US and Canada to winter in Mexico over four generations — four! — my immediate thoughts were: How do they communicate directions? How do they remember where to go? Then I thought about how I haven’t had a good meat stick in a while. Then I thought about how disappointed I was with the last two seasons of Lost. Then I couldn’t remember what I was thinking about.
Reserva de Biosfera de la Mariposa Monarca was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2008. Fourteen butterfly colonies are located in or around the Reserva, accounting for more than half the monarch population in the US and Canada.
We camped at Sierra Chincua in Angangueo in the state Michoacán to see the butterflies. Just getting there is worth the trip. You ascend past the sparse desert filled with organ pipe and prickly pear cactuses and into the dense mountains filled with pinyon pine and oyamel fir trees. Copper-colored needles line the road, creating a, sort of, yellow-brick road to Oz effect. As soon as you exit your vehicle, the inclination to grab a sweater and breath into a paper sack reminds you of the 10,000 ft. elevation.
We arrived late in the afternoon, mostly because we took a wrong turn on a highway and had to wait forty kilometers — forty! — before we could flip around. Since it’s recommended to see the butterflies between 10am to noon, we just explored the park village the day we arrived. We also met a cool French family with young kids making the same trip south in an old Ford diesel truck and camper (they’d spent the last eleven months touring the US).
[Side story: Only one thing tainted our stay amongst the beautiful conifers and butterflies: the stray dogs. There are millions of stray dogs in Mexico — an estimated 1.2 million are in Mexico City alone. We’ve already met hundreds on this trip. And they’ve all been fairly cute and friendly. Except the strays of the Reserva. These pups are mean and organized. Until here, I’d never actually seen a dog (or anyone) enforce the territory they’d marked — if I were to enforce the territory I’ve marked on this trip, since we only have a small porta-potty in our van, I’d control the largest territory in North America. The strays mark every tire that enters the parking lot. They also have clearly defined boundaries. If another stray crosses their boarder, all h-e-double-hockey-stick breaks loose. We may have heard a couple murders the couple nights we stayed….]
The next morning, alongside the French family, we hiked the hilly three kilometers from the grassy parking lot where we camped (the authorities let you camp in the lot; there’s no real campground nearby), opting not to take a guide and subsequently getting lost several times. As you near the colonies, millions of monarch carcasses litter the trail (I imagine the monarch migration is a feast for the grosbeaks and orioles that can eat them; they’re poisonous to other birds). The carcasses are, for the living monarchs, like an X on the map to the colony location.
Then you see the colonies dangling from the firs. At first, you may not know what you’re looking at. From a distance — authorities don’t let you get too close — they reminded me of the ginormous termite nests I’d seen in the Amazon. Then, with the help of my ever-present bird binoculars, I saw that the nests were in fact the monarchs themselves. Thousands and thousands of monarchs stacked on top of each other.
Not much was happening when we first arrived. The colonies looked dirty and dead. No one was snapping pictures. Then, literally, the clouds began to part. Rays struck the colonies. Instantly, dirty and dead turned phosphorescent and effervescent. Tens of thousands of monarchs took flight. It’s dazzling to witness.
We watched the rays awake the butterflies for an hour or so. During that time, I kept questioning how four generations of monarchs are born and die in this annual migration, yet they still, remarkably, manage to find the same location year after year. How they remember the migratory path remains a mystery to science. And to me. They’re certainly not male Lingles. I can assure you that.