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Starting Point

A struggle on the way to wonder


My husband, Jim, and I hadn’t seen Laura in months. We ran into her on a little side street in Queretaro, Mexico, and began to share our travels and recent experiences. We asked Laura what was her favorite place in Mexico. The Monarch Mariposa (butterfly) Sanctuary in Michoacán was at the top of her list. The butterflies are there from mid-November until March as part of their migratory pattern from Canada and the northern United States. She described the encounter with such passion that we decided to leave the next morning with two friends to see this natural spectacle.

Our friend, Elizabeth, gave us instructions on how to get there. “It’s about four hours by bus,” she said, “but with Jim driving, we would probably be there in two hours.” We happily departed at 8:30 the following morning.

The first lesson we learned is not to follow directions from someone who does not drive. Other lessons: Don’t expect any signs telling you where key roads are located. Don’t expect the map you bought to be correct. Don’t expect any signs advertising this big tourist attraction. Expect detours and roadblocks in several towns, with no alternate route instructions. And always take along someone who speaks better Spanish than you do.

We arrived at the long-sought butterfly sanctuary eight hours later. The sanctuary closes at 6 p.m. It is a 45-minute uphill walk into the sanctuary at an altitude of 10,400 feet. What they failed to tell us was that coming back would also be uphill. I always thought that what goes up must come down. I swear that nature played a cruel trick on us. I hardly remember hiking downhill at all.

In the sanctuary, we saw several trees covered in butterflies. It looked like big clumps of brown stuff hanging on the branches. Maybe Laura was hallucinating or had a fever when she was here. I was not having the same passionate experience she described in the street the day before. Maybe I was hallucinating myself from lack of food and water. On the road, we had not stopped to eat.

Night was falling, and we were sweaty, dusty, tired and hungry. We headed into the nearby town of Angangueo to find lodging and food. We found one room left if we didn’t mind all four of us sharing. Hunger was a priority now, so we trekked off and found a little restaurant in the square. All they had left were six hamburgers. “We’ll take them.” Still hungry, we moved on to the only other restaurant in town. They had two chicken breasts left and could make tostadas if we wanted. “Yes, we want.” Once back in our meager room, how the night passed depends on whom you ask, but let’s just say that some people heard every little noise in the room and other people made every little noise.

The next morning, we were ready to give those butterflies another chance to show their stuff. The air was cool and crisp, and the sun was shining. As soon as we arrived, we knew this would be a different experience from the day before. Monarchs were on the move, and as we walked closer, their numbers increased. An estimated 20 million monarchs gather in this beautiful forest during the winter months. They covered the ground like an amber blanket. They flew on streams of air through the forest and shimmered in the sun like golden coins from a heavenly shower. Fir and pine tree limbs drooped with colonies of monarchs as though laden with the weight of some bountiful fruit. The gentle feel of movement all around us, their resting kiss on our hands and face was a delightful experience. What a privilege to be so close to these beautiful creatures!

We made it back to Queretaro as if on the wings of a butterfly -- in only three hours. Laura’s passion for the “Mariposas of Michoacan” is now part of our experience too, and worth passing on to friends we meet in the street.

The butterfly is a traditional symbol of resurrection. In its cycle of life it goes from egg to caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly. Easter can be that elusive butterfly. We hear others talk of the spiritual joy it brings. Many times we put off the journey. We are too busy.

Other times we decide to go for it. How hard could it be? We don’t think about the obstacles we will encounter along the way. We have false starts, we are led astray and we rely on information from people who are not qualified and do not know the road. We want it to be easy; we just want to be there and experience it.

This Lenten season as I journey toward the resurrection, I remember my trip to the butterflies in Michoacan. There are times I have lost my way. I have been tempted to settle for something less because I get tired of the struggle, but I persist and renew myself with prayer and rest in the spirit. Finally, when Easter is at hand, I can speak from my own experience of the beauty and wonder of being part of the resurrection. And, that passion is worth passing on to friends.

Jeri Moat and her husband, Jim, have been missioners in Mexico for the past three and a half years. Jeri is a chiropractor and Jim is a deacon from the Austin, Texas, diocese. Their e-mail address is jimmoat@yahoo.com

National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 2001