CENTRAL COAST — With our only child in college now, it’s almost like my husband and I are dating again. We met and married relatively late in life, and spent our child-free time wisely, taking trips around the state. We lived in southern California then, and concentrated our weekends toward the south, between the desert and the sea.
We enjoyed driving together, long periods during which conversation flowed easily and, in those days, our backs never hurt. We loved listening to music, and commenting on the scenery. Dave wooed me with his knowledge of the landscape and Latin, two things I still love, along with the husband, himself.
Now, one of the many advantages of having our Freshman at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, is the chance after all these years to really explore the Central Coast of California. We’ve been heading out there for about a year, from the time she became interested to the time she accepted admission, and parents’ weekend, too. We’d stay briefly at a hotel or motel in Morrow Bay, and also at our friends’ Airbnb in Arroyo Grande.
After several trips, though, it seemed as though all I was getting to “know” was the SLO Target and their Vons, so many trips did we make to accommodate the needs of the daughter. We would rush into town, do what was needed, and then find ourselves rushing back from the ocean to the foothills, having barely spied a wave. This wouldn’t do.
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Among the activities we’re pursuing in our re-dating period (I ahbor empty-nest, I’m still busy feathering) is a ballroom dance class taught by Justina Rose at the Oakhurst Community Center on Mondays. Dave and I met on the dance floor one New Year’s Eve about 25 years ago, but we’ve never taken a lesson, so when the opportunity presented itself, we decided to go for it and learn some proper rumba.
So there we were in San Luis Obispo last month, celebrating our lovely Clara’s 19th birthday. We drove into town Saturday, spent some time shopping, took her out to dinner and back to our friend’s apartment, known as Clancy’s Cottage.
The next day, we went to breakfast, touched base at Target, dropped the student back at her own apartment on campus, returned to our friends’ place where I napped the night away and my husband enjoyed their further hospitality. Did I mention they are delightful people who come equipped with a small brewery, also make wine, have a puppy, two sons, two llamas, and a ukulele? A good time was had by all, and the next morning was a Monday, so we slept in a little, took a walk, and then needed to get back to the foothills for our dance class.
Ah! There we were again, about to say goodbye to the coast without ever having said a good hello. It was a beautiful day, a shining example of what the world has to offer at the top of what would be a long week. I talked Dave into taking me back to the beach, where we slipped into a perfect parking space (what I call Movie Star Parking because in the movies, you may notice, no one ever has to circle around for parking), and across the street was something I dream of: good Mexican food.
Sitting inside the little restaurant with authentic and delicious offerings, I spied a heart carved into a telephone pole, and took it as a sign to follow my heart. My heart, it turned out, wanted to see the Monarch butterflies wintering nearby. My husband agreed, though it meant missing dance, and after lunch — away we went to the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove.
Now the story begins! See a short video on YouTube
We stepped onto the barky decomposed granite of the state park, greeted immediately by poppies of the most gorgeous yellow, nearly beyond comprehension. Following the path into the preserve, we encountered a docent whose talk had just started. We listened long enough to know we wanted to keep walking, though his talk was outstanding and we would have learned much, had we chosen to stay.
Instead, we followed our feet further into the eucalyptus grove, where we began to notice the butterflies. They are so delicate, yet apparently strong enough to withstand the elements and fly hundreds or even thousands of miles. They flit and flutter about high overhead, and we oohed and aahed as we watched them dancing in flight.
That’s when I realized the clumps of what first appeared to dead leaves hanging from the tree branches (coming from the land of tree mortality, my expectations for life are relatively low) were, in fact, the butterflies themselves. Mind = blown.
Many of you have, no doubt, seen the butterflies in Pismo or elsewhere. I have heard about it for years, and longed to see them myself. The news is full of dire warnings about the dearth of the species currently, how the butterflies are fewer than ever before, and I will link to more about that later in this missive. In the meantime, back in the grove, we were overwhelmed and enchanted with their beauty, grace, and just so pleased at being able to see these thousands of creatures in their natural, if protected, habitat. Because I had never seen any there or anywhere, it was difficult to perceive any absence, only magnificent presence.
Perhaps now is when I should mention, I have always thought of butterflies as the spirits of people who have left this earthly realm — our loved ones who come back, ever so briefly, to say hello. My mother died when I was very young, followed five years later by my father, so butterflies have been a comfort to me for decades. Vividly I recall being with my husband on one of our early, pre-marital sojourns into a forest in the Eastern Sierra. He was fly fishing, and I was reading. Looking down, I was enchanted by a pair of butterflies who stopped to drink from a small puddle. They must have been thirsty, having come perhaps a log way: they really drank a lot.
Over the years, I have planted butterfly gardens in our yards, failed to pluck the so-called weeds they loved, used shells from the sea, overturned and filled with water, to provide a place for them to drink here in the foothills. Little butterfly bars.
As we stared up at the trees in Pismo and tried to get our bearings to see what could be seen, we were approached by a docent who answered our questions, which consisted mostly of the excited utterance: WOW!
We looked through one of the telescopes they have poised for visitors’ use, and the kind docent (there is no other kind of docent but kind) said I could take a picture of the butterflies, through the telescope, with my smart phone. These devices are called cell phones or smart phones, but privately I refer to them as magic boxes because — come on! What can’t you do with these things? But this was new. I fumbled with my lens, marrying it to the eye piece of the telescope, and while the shot I got might not be what you’d call perfect — I called it perfect.
We walked around holding hands, reveling in the day and the people, the butterflies, the smell of ocean and eucalyptus, and the palpable joy of those around us.
Neither Dave nor I can resist a bridge, so we followed the path from the grove across to the adjacent campground. It was swamped with recent rain! I can only imagine what it looks like today… swamped again, for sure.
The ocean called us and we answered, braving caution tape and muck to see its glory. We weren’t disappointed. The sinuously carved trees and finely crushed white sand served as a needed balm for our souls. Pretty sure that’s a cliche, which is a big no-no for writers, but there’s a reason phrases become popular and I can’t think of a better way to say it.
We messed around on the beach, took photos, marveled at the proximity of the campground to the monarch grove, and vowed to return for camping, old backs and aches be damned. They’ll need to open the campground first.
We stopped by the trailer-kiosk and picked up the butterfly book, after learning from another docent how some of the butterflies are tagged by volunteers. One of the many bits of information the taggers gleaned from the experiment (besides who knew you could even tag a butterfly?) was that they tend to visit other groves while they over-winter. So basically, they’re like us — they head to the coast, stay for a while, visit some friends, and return to their favorite trees to pass the evening safely and in comfort.
Among the many fascinating details the docents explained was this one thing I can’t seem to get out of my head. Some of the Monarchs travel much farther than others. As it turns out, those wanderers live longer.
I can’t wait to go back.