Santa Cruz musician Alex Wand rode his bike for 50 days in 2018, following the monarch migration path from Los Angeles to Texas, and down to Mexico. His destination: Sierra Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary and then the nearby El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Preserve, where the butterflies overwinter.
The December day he arrived had been a particularly tough ride, with lots of hills and elevation gain. When he pulled in to the first sanctuary, a guide walked him to the spot where thousands of monarchs were residing for the winter and politely asked Wand to be silent. There was no need to tell him—all he’d wanted to do for the past 50 days was stand still and take it all in.
“All their wings flapping at once,” Wand recalls, “like this soft noise. There weren’t many people there. It was absolute silence. It was such a great listening experience. Just to think about all these insects I encountered on the road, kind of coexisting together. It felt like a cool way to interpret that.”
The entire experience of traveling with the monarchs for nearly two months inspired Wand’s latest album Carretera, which was released last month. It’s a collage of meditative instrumentals, abstract spoken word, and spliced-together field recordings taken from the trip.
He hopes that the surreal listening experience manages to show how otherworldly his journey was. It just so happens that migrating butterflies travel at the same speed as a touring bicyclist, roughly 50-100 miles a day. He saw many butterflies as he traveled, even occasionally heading down the road with hundreds of them.
He wanted to be more than just a tourist, though. He would pull over and plant milkweed—which caterpillars need to grow—and wildflowers.
“That was a really important way of thinking about the trip for me. This is a trip for the monarchs, so I could help them,” Wand says.
The idea came to Wand in 2017 while living in Los Angeles. He read a book by UCSC Professor Emeritus Donna J. Haraway called Staying With The Trouble, a collection of stories that considered different ways that humans can help the natural world. The final story, “The Camille Stories: Children of Compost,” spoke to him. It imagines a world where each human newborn is paired with a threatened creature; Camille’s is a monarch butterfly. She lives her life along its migratory path. The story shows their beautiful, interdependent lives.
“My idea with this trip was to do my own version of that story,” Wand says.
During the trip, Wand had no idea if anything would come of it, but he shot videos and took audio recordings. Then in January 2019, he stayed at the Guapamacátaro Center for Art and Ecology in Michoacán and processed the experience. He assembled the videos as a narrative documentary, which he called Camino De Las Monarcas. He also put together Carretera as a bit more of an abstract interpretation of the journey.
“It is a sonic representation of the trip,” Wand says. “I felt freer to embody the experience of migration in a way through musical elements of repetition. Repeating the text, looping the musical fragments in a way that really makes it feel the sense of migration. Experiencing each day is this activity that you did yesterday, and you will do tomorrow.”
The experience was purposefully designed to be different than simply driving down and visiting the sanctuary. How he got there was key to the empathy he felt when he did.
“The monarch is vulnerable to natural predators, but also human-caused monocrop agriculture,” Wand says. “You think, ‘Wow, if this is challenging for me, imagine being a monarch that doesn’t have a gas station to fill up water in. You appreciate the vulnerability.”
Last week, Wand headed out on his second trip. This time he follows monarchs from Spokane, Washington, to the overwintering site of Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve in Santa Cruz. It’ll be a month-long journey, which he’ll be documenting on monarchwaystationsoundmap.com.