Monday, September 16, 2013

A Journey Interrupted: Monarch Butterflies on the High Plains

The following is a brief excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas. It takes place just south of Minot, N.D., September 2009.

A Monarch butterfly flitters out of nowhere, hits my windshield, and tumbles away to the pavement.
I wince.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson
One can avoid hitting a squirrel, rabbit or pheasant. But when a butterfly flies in front of a car, there’s nothing that can be done about it. They hit the windshield and fall on the road like dead leaves in autumn.
This isn’t the first time I had struck a Monarch since I left on the trip. There were others. The previous evening at a gas station in Minot, as the pump was filling up the tank, I took a sopping wet windshield cleaner and started to remove the layer of bug splotches covering the glass.
Making my way around the car, I noticed a perfectly preserved Monarch on the grill, just above the bumper. Its wings were fluttering and for a moment, I thought it was still alive, but it was just the wind. I gently removed it.
The Monarchs I have been inadvertently slaughtering are also traveling south. The orange and black-winged Lepidoptera was traveling even farther than me, though. It’s believed that the Monarchs of the Northern Plains are the only species of butterfly to migrate. The one that hit my windshield was heading south to winter in the warm central mountains of Mexico. Highway 83 runs 1,885 miles.
It seems almost impossible to me that something so delicate intended to fly 1,000 miles beyond the road’s terminus. The migration begins in Canada around August and continues until the first frosts. 
The butterfly I killed would have stopped along the way to fill its abdomen with sunflower nectar, and made its way south, gliding on the winds as often as it could to preserve its strength. Like the route, it would have passed over South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and finally Texas, where it would meet up with millions of other Monarchs.
They all funnel over the South Texas borderlands, making their way to fir forests, 10,000 feet above sea level on the tops of transvolcanic mountains, where they spend the winter. They mate, and finally die from exhaustion. Their offspring begin the journey north around the second week of March. They lay their eggs along the way in South Texas. Through the spring and summer, each generation flies a little farther north until the great-great-great grand-Lepidoptera emerge from their cocoons in the fields of High Plains. It’s these offspring, the ones I’m encountering now, that begin the nearly 3,000 mile journey to Mexico.
This is why I wince when I strike a Monarch in North Dakota in early September.
I will kill dozens of them during the next two weeks, and I will mourn each and every one of them.
The grasshoppers. Not so much. 

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at

Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.  

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