Each autumn the visitors come drifting across Monterey Bay, delicate flecks of orange and black against the crisp blue sky, wafted along by the southerly air current and the typically erratic beat of their own wings. Residents of Pacific Grove, California, watch for them, marveling at the unerring instinct that brings millions of fragile monarch butterflies to winter at this small seacoast village year after year.
Arrival of the first velvet-winged visitors in early October stirs a bustle of activity as Pacific Grove school children prepare a regal welcome, the annual Butterfly Parade. Thousands of residents and visitors will line the curbs October 15 this year to watch colorfully costumed children march to the blare and oom-pah-pah of glittering school bands, celebrating the gloriously unusual gift that nature’s whimsical magic brings to this town.
Pacific Grove, dubbed “Butterfly Town U.S.A.” by its Chamber of Commerce, is a salty seawhisper of a town: rustic homes, cottages and sprawling resort motels nestled among sweet-scented Monterey pines, oaks, eucalyptus and wind-blown cypress at the thumbnail end of the Monterey Peninsula. Here the quiet waters of Monterey Bay nudge against the endless rolling swells of the blue Pacific some 125 miles south of San Francisco. No one knows when the monarchs first began their October to March sojourns here; coastal Indians spoke of them long before the first white settlers came.
An advance contingent of “scouts” flits into Pacific Grove a month before the main migration, searching out certain groves of trees, almost always the same ones favored by the previous year’s A visitors. Local folklore has it that monarchs will avoid a tree where butterflies were disturbed the year before. Natural scientists smile at this and theorize that monarchs a follow thermal air layers to there town, then locate favored resting trees by an ultra sensitive sense of smell that zeros in on residual odors left by the prior generation.
When the main army of monarchs invades this coastal town, trees and shrubs literally bloom in butterflies. Clustering thickly on branches and leaves, piling atop one another, resting monarchs respond to the touch of morning sun by spreading brilliant orange and A black inner wings, a breathtaking show of kaleidoscopic colors. On cool or rainy days the outer wings shut tight, assuming the brownish hues of dead leaves.
Pacific Grove officially protects its gentle visitors under a not so gentle town ordinance that imposes a $500 fine on anyone caught molesting them – an overt expresic sign of loving regard for the butterflies as well as a tacit recognition of their value in bringing tourist trade.
Not surprisingly, the monarch motif pops up frequently in downtown shops and businesses. Colorful cardboard monarchs spread their wings over window merchandise displays. Besides the expected picture postcards, slides and posters there are monarch-decorated drinking glasses, coasters, ash trays, place mats, pillows and other ephemera. Local buses label themselves “Mini-Monarch” or “Maxi-Monarch,” depending on size, sprouting enormous painted monarch wings along their gleaming white side panels. Oblivious of the various artistic and commercial renderings of their fair anatomies, monarchs flit and glide about town, pausing to sip nectar from flowering shrubs, blossoming window boxes and fall flower gardens.
One of the best known groves of “butterfly trees” in town is on the grounds of Milar Butterfly Grove Motel near the end of Lighthouse Avenue, the town’s main street. Ghostly wisps of gray-green Spanish moss beard high pine branches, providing choice gathering sites for monarchs. By November masses of monarchs cover the trees in living orange and black drapery. The gift shop in the motel office is a collector’s paradise of framed butterfly specimens.
Finally it is the day of the big Butterfly Parade. Cross streets blocked by wooden barricades are manned directing out-of-towners to nearby parking. Families stream from cars, little ones in tow, heading toward the smattering of early arrivals who have already staked out curbside claims.
Several blocks away all is tumult at Robert Down School where 1,200 costumed paraders are gathering. A frantic mother searches for her preschooler, finds him asking a band member if he can toot his tuba. Teachers line up stragglers in their places, glancing about anxiously for the missing ones. A car pulls up, dropping off a small girl who shrieks as the car door slams on her butterfly wing. The door opens, the wing is straightened and all is well again. A clarinet ripples up and down a scale.
High school band members, sharp in brand new scarlet uniforms and white hats, feign boredom, as if the parade is a bit young for them.
Down on the comer of Lighthouse and Fountain, spectators peer up the hill expectantly, front liners checking their cameras. It is a sparkling crisp blue-skied day, the kind parade planners pray for.
“Here they come!” a sharp eyed, white haired grandfather yells as he points up Fountain Avenue hill. The faraway muffled rum-te-dum of the bass drum and a few faint rah-tara-las from the trombones drift down on a wisp of breeze. Fathers hoist toddlers to their shoulders as the music grows louder.
“Why does the band keep stopping?” a visitor asks. “The preschoolers are right behind them,” a local explains. “The tots determine the pace of the whole shebang.” It doesn’t matter. The slow approach whets the appetite for greater enjoyment.
The junior high band in front executes its turn with casual aplomb, horns and buttons gleaming, tootling and drumming a smile onto the face of the crowd. “Randolph’s out of step again,” a mother whispers. The band passes grandly, followed by the youngest kids in the parade, wide eyed nursery schoolers who seem to think the whole thing is organized so they can stare at the spectators.
“There’s Suzy!” yells a small boy with a big voice. Looking more like the littlest angel than a butterfly, Suzy pops a finger into her mouth and turns her head,embarrassed.