A wild butterfly chase

A monarch butterfly migration holds an enduring lesson.

Orange confetti on the parkway? I must be seeing things, I thought.

It was early autumn as I was heading toward Cape May, the southernmost tip of New Jersey. The morning sun scattered sparkles on the road as I drove along. There was a crispness in the warming air. And then, entering the final stretch of my three-hour drive, I gaped out the windshield. It looked as if someone had spilled bright orange tissue flakes into the air. At first there were just a few bits floating here and there, but the orange cloud was getting thicker as I progressed. Finally I was close enough to see the pieces of "confetti" clearly: They were butterflies – hundreds of monarch butterflies.

Entering Cape May, I was accompanied by even more monarchs. Apparently we were all headed in the same direction, but whereas the final destination of my autumn trip was this pretty seaside town, it was only a way station for the dainty little insects. They were bound for Mexico.

Wherever I went during the next two days – strolling through the streets of quaint shops and historic homes, roaming the sandy beaches, biking on the boardwalk – I was surrounded by butterflies.

They seemed undisturbed by the presence of people along their paths. Every now and then I felt a soft, ephemeral wing brushing my face. Once, a butterfly landed on my hair, where it remained for a magical second or two before flitting off again.

Many of the fragile fliers paused to rest and refuel in a milkweed meadow near the dunes. While they perched on pink flowers, I could get a close-up look at the lacy black design on orange background of their gossamer wings and the bright white dots on onyx bodies. Then off they flew again into a flawless blue sky.

On my return trip home, the air seemed empty as I drove north toward oncoming winter.

"You must go to see the migrating monarchs!" I told my friends. "They are unbelievable." But the days moved on, and so did the butterflies.

The next autumn – and the next – I again urged various friends and family to go to Cape May. But everyone had busy schedules, and it wasn't until three years later that Judy and I managed to go. We set aside a date in early October, almost to the day of my original visit.

Once again, the sun shone and the sky was a brilliant blue as we headed southward. "Just wait," I kept saying. "Keep your eyes open. When we get to the final five-mile stretch, you'll start to see them."

We looked, we gazed, we watched. But not a butterfly was in sight, anywhere.

"They're probably already at Cape May by now," I said confidently. "Maybe the tail winds were especially good yesterday."

Entering the quiet shore town we could smell sea air. But there were no butterflies.

"Maybe they're along the beach," Judy offered. We went there. No butterflies.

"I bet they're in the milkweed meadow," I said, with a little less confidence. But they weren't there either.

All day we searched for the monarchs: over crashing waves, along the dunes, in the bushes. Finally we spotted an orange flash – one, single, solitary butterfly floating overhead.

The sun was sinking, and it was time to go home. As we began turning onto the exit road, a park ranger was passing by.

"What happened to all the monarchs?" Judy asked him.

"There were thousands of them three days ago," he told us with a big smile. "They're pretty much gone now. I think the official count was somewhere near 16,000."

"Did you know when they were going to come through?" I persisted.

"You can never predict the exact days," he said. "They come when they come."

"I just can't believe it!" I kept saying on the drive home, feeling guilty for having dragged Judy on this wild goose – um, wild butterfly – chase.

"It's OK," Judy said, kindly. "I've seen monarchs before."

We both had, many times over the years: two or three in a meadow, or five or six flying along the Hudson River near our homes. I was always inspired by the seemingly fragile, delicate creatures undaunted by the many miles they had to travel. Perhaps we, too, are sturdier and more capable than we think we are.

But the enduring lesson of that disappointing day was of a different type. Wild creatures do not come and go at our command, at our convenience.

We have, I think, become too accustomed to control, to having expectations met. Today's technology enables us to know and do things we never could before. Often, our wishes are machines' commands. Yet we cannot tell butterflies when to fly or autumn when to come.

And so, I still regale friends and family with tales of awesome orange clouds of the monarchs I met on my first trip to Cape May.

"Go down there sometime," I tell them. "You never know what you might be fortunate enough to find."

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