Facebook Twitter



I learned about the return of the monarch butterflies to Pacific Grove when we vacationed in California more than 20 years ago at the invitation of Pauline Weggeland, whose family owned a small summer cottage there.

Monarchs from all over the continent migrate back each year to the same place - to the "butterfly trees" of Pacific Grove, a small resort community on the California coast between Carmel and Monterey.After traveling as much as 2,000 miles, the monarchs settle by the millions in a specific area of town, where they cluster in the tall pine trees in huge clumps. For a brief period of time, their flashing bodies block out the sun, the weight of their masses threatening to break the high limbs.

Mark and Sally were preschoolers the year we went to Pacific Grove. Dale was just a baby, barely a few weeks old. We had not been away from home for a while, and we looked forward to the trip as a real getaway.

It was late at night when we arrived at the cottage. We were so tired that it was all we could do to get the kids and luggage inside and settle for the night. It was so cozy though. I remember rattan furniture in the living room and the distinct damp and salty scent of sea air.

I will never forget the view that awaited us the next morning when we awoke. The front door opened onto a porch facing the road. Across the road, clusters of ice plants in full bloom sprawled out in either direction. A path wound in and out along the edge of rocky crags that dropped down to the beach, a mere 30 feet below.

From the porch we could watch and hear the surf as it came in. We could see cormorants nesting in the rocks and hear the barking of seals in the distance.

It was wonderful.

We brought chairs out on the porch and savored the sun-drenched air that first morning as the kids climbed about on the steps and railings. We crossed the narrow street and walked along the paths; we listened to the sea gulls cry and began noticing the seals as they poked their heads through the seaweed a hundred feet from shore.

The next few days were a much-welcomed and needed pause from the tight financial stress we had left at home. Veloy made a pot of beans and ham that we warmed up when we got hungry. I found and explored a used bookstore on Main Street. The kids drew in coloring books on the living room carpet. We still have a snapshot of Sally with crayons stuck between all of her toes.

At night we sat on the porch and listened to the waves crash against the rocks and crevices we had explored during the day. In the daylight hours we studied the rich foliage on all sides of us. To this day the sight of ice plant takes me back to Pacific Grove and Pauline Weggeland's wonderful summer cottage.

The moment I remember most of that idyllic week happened a few days after we had seen and learned about the butterfly trees.

It was late afternoon, overcast and dreary. A silvery mist slid in off the ocean, holding us at bay in the warm confines of the cottage. The kids were restless, so we decided to take a drive south along the Pacific Coast Highway toward Big Sur.

Several miles south of Carmel we came to an area where the highway wound through precarious cliffs high above the ocean. The fog was as thick as soup and the road unfamiliar. We had to inch along, using the guard rail to feel our way.

At one point, I pulled off the road to rest for a bit. We got out of the car and stood by the rail. Far below, through the fog, we could hear the ocean beating against the shore. I felt fragile and vulnerable, almost terrified to be in such a chilly and foreboding place with children who depended on me to take care of them.

As we started to leave, one of the kids noticed the delicate form of a monarch butterfly lying in the gravel next to the car. We knelt for the longest time, I remember, holding and studying the butterfly with its paper-thin black and orange wings, marveling that it would be here in this cold and lonely place only a few miles from its intended destination. We imagined the many miles it might have come, only to languish and fall by the side of the highway in the high cliffs above the ocean.

We kept the butterfly. It became a symbol of sorts of our trip.

I've thought a lot about that moment over the years. With time, it has taken on more and more meaning. I realize now that it was one of the profound moments of my life, the kind of moment when heaven and earth are in tight tension and you are caught in the space between, both bewildered and astounded, but not knowing quite why.