My time chasing the Monarch Ultra team sped by but left me changed. Or, rather, changing. In the hour-long stretches of waiting for runners I observed how the team of four navigates, learning their high and low tides. During the hectic periods when they needed to get set up at safe stopping areas and plan for the next runners they talked more about the big picture of this race: the effort to build awareness and compassion for monarchs and natural space.
Then there were times we sat under a tree, stayed up past midnight, or drove for miles and I felt the tide rolling out, giving them space to pick through their thoughts as if picking up seashells. In these moments the details of their lives came out, lifting into three-dimensional illustrations of passion and wonder. In this last blog on the Monarch Ultra race and team I hope you get a sense of how grateful I am to have shared some time with all of these good humans.
Guenther Schubert, the trip chef, grew up in a small town in southern Germany, among forests and meadows. His voice is soft, his demeanor quiet, forcing me to find stillness and listen. He’s the enlightenment to my sturm and drang.
A retired culinary professor from George Brown College in Ontario, he continues to educate people through his environmental work in the community. For ten years he’s organized cleanups that bring school buses of children out to help clean the roadsides and parks, where they discover, directed by his gentle guidance, they are the owners of the earth. He tells them this is their nature to take care of, to advocate for, and to enjoy.
His lifelong advocacy for the planet seems to have been the pull that brought Carlotta into his orbit. She and film director, Rodney Fuentes, presented the Monarch Ultra project at his Rotary Club meeting, and though he and his wife were planning a trip to Europe this fall, the project appealed to him so much that he suggested to the team they might need a chef.
Fast forward several dozen meals and Guenther has developed a rhythm to his on-the-road food prep. He hums while he makes scrambled eggs and it occurred to me that I was watching another version of passion in action. The meals he makes for the Monarch Ultra team are simple but elegant. Lunches of portobello mushrooms and goat cheese, pumpkin and cabbage, with thick slices of dark, wheat bread. Another meal was red cabbage slaw with julienned pears, toasted pumpkin seeds, currents, cranberries, shredded carrot, dressed with lemon and oil. You can tell when a meal is prepared with love. It’s a language of happiness, filling the team with joy.
One evening in Texas we returned from an event around 10p.m. and Guenther made a beeline to the kitchen to create a large, lovely platter of snacks which he laid out for the always- noshy team. When I observed that a late night feast prepared with such consideration seems very nurturing he said simply, “I’m a caterer.”
He talked about the parties he’s catered and others he’s hosted at his home for friends and I couldn’t tell a difference in his tone of voice. He truly appears to love what he does, and he’s definitely adored by this team of traveling warriors. He’s also a renaissance man: when he’s not cheering runners as they arrive, he’s a driver, plumber, and other-maintenance-as-regularly-required guy. It’s obvious through their ease with each other that this group has become family, and Guenther its steadying force.
Guenther’s usually first with the high five.
Rodney with a new friend
Rodney Fuentes and I spent several hours traveling together, and I had the pleasure of listening to his stories become more animated as we fell into a cadence of camaraderie. The trip’s documentary filmmaker, he’s not only charged with filming footage of the runners and supporters, but he also takes care to capture the beauty of his surroundings.
In Indiana I watched as he set up shots of the morning mist on Majenica Marsh, the honey-gold swath of a bean field in Marion, and the expanse of native flowers at Eagle Marsh. Once in a while I’d see him standing at his tripod, ready to catch a runner come into view. These small moments of stillness when he gazed at Indiana’s landscape made me smile. Busy as his mind must be with the responsibility of recording this adventure, it was nice to see him absorbing the Indiana landscape.
He told me he doesn’t run much anymore, saying fatherhood caught up to him. But in the days I shared with the team he spent a lot of time chasing runners with his camera. He’s a body in motion, it turns out. Paddling, cycling, and climbing his way through his world. He is also a world-class birder, leading tours of photographers and birdwatchers on adventures in Canada and Panama.
He, too, appears to have turned his passion into a career, which is why we were able to spend several hours wandering through the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, each of us taking separate trails, finding different wonders.
The (art) wall at the National Butterfly Center
When asked about his reasons for joining the Monarch Ultra team he told me that he didn’t see the trip as one about monarchs or running. “It’s about communities, our place on earth, what we do in our own back yards to help. And a better world for my children.”
He says there’s a fine line in conservation as to how much humans should intervene. “In nature sometimes we go too far. We tend to think we know better than nature does.”
Rodney believes everything’s a learning experience. He’s driven by curiosity, to see how a thing works or what’s on the other side. He said we have to have curiosity to even start thinking about how to make things better.
Rodney says he’s known for his passions. “The outdoors, music and birds. It’s present in my brain all the time.”
Yep, he’s a musician, too. When he’s not out on trails or water, or filming or guiding a tour, he plays in a band called the X Pollinators. In the video I watched he plays three separate instruments.
After seeing his music video and watching some of the films he’s made I was even more in awe of these four who’ve pressed the hold button on such a large chunk of their personal lives to trek across three countries on behalf of this earth, our home.Each of them tells a variation of a love story between humans and nature. A love that sustains them across the long miles in a story far from over.
On his website Rodney has a film he made called Joy. It is exactly that.
Clay Williams and I are more opposite than alike, his analytical drive is the engine of the race, and he has many binders of maps and daily logs he notates. Meanwhile my artistic inner guide spends ten minutes trying to take a picture of a spider doing nothing. When I asked him if this adventure was about a passion for him, he thoughtfully replied that he wasn’t sure he knew what passion is.
Studying the next route
My free association brain puzzled over this. How does one not know what passion is? I called a friend and described how Clay meticulously created maps for this race, kept logs on each runner, and kept an eye on plans for the next stop, the next overnight, every next move. He organized and participates in races to fund services for those with mental health issues. How could all of this not be passion?
My friend didn’t hesitate to reply. “Maybe it is passion, just in a different language.”
I said as much to Clay and he agreed. We share a commitment to caring for nature which he exhibits through creating races and bringing people into that community. He also advocates for folks with mental health issues, to make sure they know they’re not alone.
He said he likes the idea of looking back in five years and saying he was part of this—this one international relay, this environmental protection project that happened across three countries. To be able to say, “That one time I did this, and it was amazing.”
Presenting in Pharr, Texas
The first time I interviewed Clay I asked him what he imagines the best result of this project will be. His answer was individual citizen action.
“To be voices in elections, in purchasing day to day, and even one person can plant milkweed. And lucky would be to be able to talk to legislative members to make real, local change.”
Now it seems that the Monarch Ultra team’s work is paying off. Earlier this month Carlotta and Rodney, along with other concerned citizens, presented to the San Antonio City Council in support of the proposed Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. The Council then voted to adopt the plan. Carlotta received an email from Mayor Ron Nirenberg who said the presentation had a big impact,and that in turn has motivated Carlotta to search out additional opportunities to speak at more council meetings to be a voice for the environment.
“Doing this now gives us the foresight and confidence to reach further in two years”, she said. “Media, school presentations, city or county meetings—policy change at the local level is crucial. The fire has just started.”
Carlotta James is a kindred spirit of mine. She’s comfortable, enthusiastic, adventurous, and will have a lively debate with me about the best way to pee outside if you’re female. She’s a mom, like me, and on the day we met I took a picture of her seeing her son for the first time in a week. The blissful expressions they both had gave me joy. She wakes up happy, hugs with abandon, and dwells in the same house of wonder and love as I do.
Throughout our conversations Carlotta’s reverence for nature was always present. She grew up in Central America and the jungles of Honduras were a second home for her. As an adult she co-founded an eco-landscaping enterprise focused on rewilding urban areas to support pollinators.
This adventure is certainly a passion project for her, but over the course of time I recognized that she is embracing her character. The call to nature is inscribed on her soul, and this is an instinctive response, a natural urge to protect what she loves. She has a vision of a cross-continent Monarch Trail on which people can run, walk, bike, ski and horseback ride along the migration route from Canada to Mexico. When she describes it her voice itself is an act of faith.
Reviewing her race path
Grounded in the sacredness of the earth and how humans connect with nature, Carlotta feels especially blessed to have had Dorothy Taylor, an Elder in the Anishinaabe First Nations, participate at the opening ceremony for the Monarch Ultra. The Anishinaabeg are a group of indigenous people throughout Canada and the United States whose values are deeply entrenched in nature and the protection of the earth. Dorothy said a prayer for the team, smudged them, and sang a song about the butterflies, all of which set the tone for the trip, Carlotta told me. Protection for the protectors.
One translation of Anishinaabe (Anishinaabeg) refers to the good humans, meaning those who are on the right road or path given to them by the Creator Gitche Manitou, or Great Spirit. The Monarch Ultra team, Carlotta, Clay, Rodney, and Guenther, welcomed me into their RV and their lives on this adventure. They shared this experience with hundreds of kids and adults, every day, with kindness and truth and love. On the path, on the road, up the mountain. Good humans, indeed.
Clay, Guenther, Carlotta, Holly, and Rodney
Here are some other examples of how this incredible team’s journey across three countries is connecting communities and nature: