The Monarch Ultra Pt. 3 – A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies
It turns out that this is a story of community. I thought it was going to be about butterflies, and wonder, and people who have passion for both. And it is. But the root of the root and the bud of the bud is this: it is all community.
It seems like kismet to me that when I set out to find what makes people chase a passion I found a community, because all my life I’ve chased community. Not a large group of friends but a real feeling of sharing joy. This blog is my way of belonging to a community of people who express passion, whether it’s for butterflies, the environment, or finding beauty in the world.
This week my posts are about the Indiana legs of the Monarch Ultra, and the community I found in the four days I spent chasing runners and the race team on highways and city streets, trails and towpaths. Along the journey people showed up in wings, carried homemade signs of encouragement, and applauded the runners every leg. Some drove in from Ohio and Illinois, others pulled over to see if we needed help, or answered their doors and welcomed us onto their properties.
I took their photos and tried to take quick notes to remember them by, these people whose passions I might never know, but who now belong to a community I am part of–a community that gathered around and lifted up other humans, because they could.
Thursday, September 26th. The adventure started early, at 5:19 a.m. A text jabbed itself into my dreamless sleep. One of the runners was at her start point and thought she was letting the race director know, but texted me accidentally. I was up instantly, the excitement like a child on Christmas morning.
A friend and I met in Woodburn, Indiana, where hundreds of monarchs had been roosting for nearly three weeks. It was a rarity, the length of time the butterflies set up camp in one spot. Most butterflies stay only a night—two if there’s bad weather—and that’s probably true here, hundreds coming and going with no idea how they were changing those of us bearing witness. (More on this roost and the unique sighting I had there in a future post).
We spent an hour in a meditative state of calm gratitude, whispering and pointing out a cluster here, a bumblebee asleep there. It would’ve been a perfectly lovely day with just this experience. But it was only the beginning. I drove home to tag the two monarchs who’d eclosed the day before so I could take them to be released at the beginning of the Fort Wayne leg of the Monarch Ultra.
A monarch is a chrysalis for only a short time, a week or two. It’s a beautiful sight, the chrysalis. One of nature’s better art pieces in a collection full of wonder. I raised six caterpillars in an outdoor enclosure this year, and after some extraordinary metamorphological magic the first two, Nancy and Greta, were ready to fly on this very day.
In the YMCA parking lot the Monarch Ultra RV stood out among the sensible cars of those who were inside, running on treadmills, oblivious to the adventure taking place just out the front door. I jumped out of the car and hugged Lizette and Rhonda, both bright eyed and ready to run.
Carlotta James was next. Her hypnotic blue eyes reeled me in from the instant I met her, and her excitement was so tangible I had to hug her twice.
Next I introduced myself to Rodney Fuentes, Guenther Schubert, and Clay Williams, shaking their hands while tamping down my instinct to blather on about how I’d been stalking them on social media. I couldn’t risk sending them fleeing on day one.
Our Hoosier hospitality extended to the weather which remained blue-skied and rain free, if a little too—okay, quite a bit too—hot. It was a windy morning, in a parking lot void of nectar plants, and I was beginning to think about finding a better launch area for Nancy and Greta when I saw a 24-foot beacon of hope, dubbed the Butterfly Sanctuary Trailer, parked catty-corner to the Monarch Ultra RV.
The Butterfly Sanctuary Trailer
Its owner, Craig Oveson, is a sunbeam of a man: his smile is 100-watt and his hugs are warm. He chatted easily with everyone about his adventures, including how he was leaving straight from the parking lot to give his trailer full monarchs a several hundred mile head start to Mexico. I wished Nancy and Greta well and set them in among the hundreds of butterflies eager to get the day started.
Rhonda and Lizette took off across the lot heading for Concordia Lutheran High School where students waited to cheer them on. The team loaded into the RV and set off to follow. Along the route I met Sara Roney Dalton, a self-described crazy monarch lady, who drove from Ohio to support the runners and attend the reception later that evening.
It has a hood!
By midday Rhonda and Lizette reached Eagle Marsh a crowd of about twenty of us were donning wings and applauding. Sara, decked out in a gorgeous wrap she made, tagged two of her butterflies and let Carlotta release them. One dutifully flew off in the general direction of elsewhere, while the other, arguably more savvy one, opted for some additional face time.
Face time. Get it?
Lizette and Rhonda wound their way out of Fort Wayne and at around 6pm finished strong on a little country road in Roanoke, Indiana. They were cheered in by the Monarch Ultra team and the next leg runners, Eileen and Joel Kimmett, who’d kindly brought Carlotta’s husband and adorable son down from Canada.
The reception at Cinema Center drew a great crowd to welcome the team and included a showing of the film Ay Mariposa, which was followed by a Q and A with the filmmaker, Krista Schlyer, and the Monarch Ultra team.
The team, Milo & Nixie Workman
It’s a beautiful movie about migration and perseverance, and will make you want to do some good in the world. Sometime around 9:30 the staff of Cinema Center shooed us out into a still warm night, where hugs tumbled with wishes of goodnight, sweet dreams, safe travels.
Friday, September 27th. “We are runners, but this event got us into the cause,” Joel Kimmett said. The sun had again heated the pavement and, aside from the brisk morning temperature chilling us at the Majenica Marsh welcome reception, the day’s weather felt more like early August.
Eileen & Joel ready to go
When I spoke with Eileen by phone weeks before the race she was raising monarch caterpillars with her kids at home in Canada. She fed the caterpillars on milkweed she got from Carlotta James, who had inspired her to start her own pollinator garden.
The Monarch Ultra appealed to her because it combined running and nature, two of her go-to resources for maintaining good mental health. She’s not the first of those I’ve interviewed to speak candidly about mental health issues, but the honesty and earnestness of her story moved me.
A year ago she got a diagnosis of Clinical Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The next day she stopped drinking. In fact, it was her one year anniversary of being sober the day before she ran the Monarch Ultra. She told me it was hard to put into words what she was feeling about the race. She was excited, and just a little nervous.
An ankle injury just a couple weeks earlier was still healing, but her training was going well and she’d have Joel with her on this journey. They’d given each other the gift of race registration for Valentine’s Day, an idea I tried to feel sentimental about but actually had me pondering whether it was grounds for divorce, if my husband gave that gift to me. The whole family does runs together, she said, ticking off names of races that sounded (if only slightly) fun: The July Jazz Run, the Tannenbaum 10K among them.
Eileen and Joel finished their leg, actually completing 55K (5K more than they needed) running the last few yards hand in hand toward a cheering crowd at Tish and Steve Beckley’s farmstead just south of Marion, Indiana.
The Beckleys & Petrie
The Beckleys showed true Midwestern manners when Clay knocked on their door to ask permission to park there. Though they both had visible physical limitations – she on oxygen and he exactly one month into recovering from brain surgery—they came out to greet Eileen and Joel with us. Their dog Petrie, looking a bit as if he’d run several ultras in his life, even came out to greet the runners. As we waited for Eileen and Joel, Tish, a retired fourth grade teacher, regaled us with stories of bringing in caterpillars for her students at Fairmount Elementary to grow and study.
The Kimmetts & Team
When we chatted a couple days after Eileen and Joel finished their leg of the Monarch Ultra Eileen told me they were overwhelmed by all the cornfields and soybean fields they’d seen everywhere. They noticed how sterile the land was – no insects or weeds- and guessed it was due to pesticide use. She thought it would be great to see sections of wildflowers to attract pollinators and have the crops grown without GMOs and pesticides.
“But that is an incredibly massive undertaking,” she added. “What can we do to help? We are just one family. We are doing something but doesn’t feel enough.”
Yet she seems undaunted, and inspired even, adding: “All those trying to help the monarchs and pollinators… The people we met along the way were wonderful… There is always hope!”
That evening as I relaxed after my hard day of observation and cheering, Carlotta called to say the RV had broken down in the middle of an intersection in Carmel, Indiana, near their stop for the night. They had the next day’s first runner, Andrea Olive, with them and she joined the efforts to move the RV to safety. While some of the team attended to that others were calling, texting, and posting to find help, all of them exhausted but knowing the race needed to get moving again in fewer than twelve hours.
Determination and good luck were in their favor, it turned out. As they were driving to the start point the next morning they found a mechanic just opened for the day with no wait. He determined the issue, advised a temporary fix, and got them on the road again*.
Meanwhile, Andrea Olive was clipping along Highway 37, the sun coming up behind her.
*Update: Clay reported that the RV is back up and running, a major fault with a small part having been repaired.
* Update to the update: We must never speak of the RV again, except to say that it would definitely NOT make a good migrating monarch.
At least the RV takes a good photo
Tomorrow: Runners Andrea Olive, Cynthia Thompson & Janet Best, and Matt Flaherty.
Plus: Exciting new footwear for one of the team! Stay riveted…