My husband, Jimmy, and I had been driving up California's Pacific Coast Highway, stopping for a few days in Pacific Grove, a historic town nestled into the Monterey Peninsula's rocky shoreline. We selected the town because of its proximity to Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the two "must see" tourist attractions in the area. It wasn't until we took a predinner walk around the town that we noticed the signs proclaiming that Pacific Grove is Butterfly Town, U.S.A., and announcing Butterfly Crossings and Butterfly Zones. Intrigued by the town's obsession with butterflies, I pulled our guidebook out of my backpack and flipped it open to Pacific Grove.
I learned that each October, thousands of monarch butterflies flew in from the north and east to winter in the perfect microclimate offered by the town's Monarch Grove Sanctuary. The closed canopy formed by the weave of Monterey pines and Australian eucalyptus trees created a cozy shelter for the monarchs, while underneath, nectar from flowering plants and morning moisture from the area's legendary fog provided sustenance.
The butterflies sounded amazing, but I didn't think we'd have enough time the next morning to squeeze in a stop at the sanctuary and a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row before heading off to San Francisco to meet one of Jimmy's cousins for an early dinner.
An enthusiastic endorsement by our bed-and-breakfast hostess during checkout convinced us that we'd regret skipping the sanctuary. "You've simply got to experience the butterflies in person," she said. "Some fly thousands of miles to spend the winter with us. It's without a doubt the best time of year to see them."
"OK," I said to Jimmy as he packed the car. "We'll drive over and quickly see the butterflies." After parking in the small lot, we power-walked down the unmarked path leading to the sanctuary, expecting to be bombarded by butterflies.
Best time of year or not, none greeted us.
"Do you see any butterflies yet?" I asked Jimmy as I squinted at the lower branches of the small pine tree in front of me.
"Nope," he replied, getting down on his knees to look through the blades of grass.
I reminded him that the guidebook said to look carefully at the branches because the butterflies fold their wings and cluster in bunches and can be mistaken for dead leaves.
"I'm scrutinizing these branches and I still don't see anything," said Jimmy. "Let's go. This is cutting into our time at the aquarium."
"Wait," I shouted from the far end of the sanctuary. "I've found a butterfly under the bush."
Jimmy ran over and touched it with a leaf. "It's dead," he said.
As we trudged toward the sanctuary gate, we groused to each other, "That was a waste of time."
I'm a persistent person, however, and decided to give it the old college try one more time. Near the wooden information kiosk, I twirled around, cupped my hands over my mouth and shouted, "Butterflies, show yourselves!"
Suddenly, a small, black shadow darted from above. Excited to see anything, I craned back my head hoping to catch a glimpse of at least a hummingbird. Within seconds, black silhouettes backlit by the sun swooped past me.
"Jimmy, look up!" I squealed.
Hundreds of butterflies swirled over our heads, drifting gracefully every which way. "They look like flying stained glass windows," Jimmy said while trying to snap a shot of an exquisite one resting on a nearby tree branch.
After he put down his camera, I shook my head and said, "Can you believe it took us 30 minutes to see what was here all along?"
We stood in amazement as the butterflies fluttered around us as if to announce, "We've been here. You just didn't know how to look for us."
How like me. So busy focusing on what I thought I should see that I missed what was actually all around me. My preconceived notions of what butterflies should look like, or how and where I should find them, made it impossible for me to see them. I never thought to look up or for a silhouette.
Yet, once I discovered how to open myself up to these new possibilities, I couldn't stop seeing butterflies – they filled the landscape.
Since my encounter with the butterflies, I've freed myself up to experience the beauty of every moment, receiving each gift that comes my way. On my daily strolls around my neighborhood and through the woods, I now look up, down, and around – not to seek out nature, but to let nature seek me.