On Christmas day in Pacific Grove, I was standing under a canopy of monarch butterflies with my ex-boyfriend of years past.
At first, it had looked as though the cluster of eucalyptus trees was filtering out the afternoon sun. I realized, though, that the sky was literally aflutter with wings.
We stood underneath thousands and thousands of butterflies rippling directly overhead; some swept down just a foot above our heads. Flickering orange-black wings thickly clustered around the branches like bees around honeycomb.
My ex-boyfriend-once-removed and I weren’t meant to be here in a butterfly sanctuary, but sometimes, even when you’re trying to avoid Christmas, little miracles float your way.
By peculiar coincidence he had just ended a five-year relationship, and I had also recently experienced a break-up. Since the holidays can be unkind to the newly single, we old friends decided to hang out. Pacific Grove has a restful spirit perpetuated in its cheerfully low-key residents, idiosyncratic architecture and pine trees stretching to seaside beaches.
Besides, what better testimonial to the virtues of the town than its repeat butterfly visitors?
The butterflies hang out in the butterfly sanctuary on Ridge Road off Lighthouse Avenue
The first fluttering wings whispered by us just a few steps into this sanctuary, which is actually a city park. A walking path winds through towering eucalyptus trees and young fruit-bearing blossom trees donated by the Friends of the Monarchs. We neared the Ridge Road entrance, where a sign describes the monarch butterfly’s 2,500-mile trek from Canada to this microclimate of mild temperatures and moist early-morning fog.
We could have stood there for hours, looking at the 30,000 fragile creatures who had made this long journey. Many had probably neared their eight-month life span, and they wouldn’t be making a return trip north. It wouldn’t even be their offspring that would make the trek back, because their life-cycle would last only four to six weeks.
Even though one generation makes it south, it takes about four generations of butterflies to migrate to Canada. Of the insects that hung over us, it would be the great-great grandchildren that would return to this same sanctuary next year.
All this, of course, we didn’t know at the time. Nor did we know that these butterflies almost lost their winter home to bulldozers and condominiums, until a group of residents put the issue on the ballot in 1990 and raised the funds to make this a city park. What we did sense was their infallible instinct that led them to this same spot, and the same trees, for years and years.
We had arrived in Pacific Grove on Christmas Eve. The December weather was astounding, with enough wind to urge the waves to hurl spectacularly against the rocks, enough wispy clouds to heighten turquoise blue skies and enough sunlight to make the white sand shimmer.
We had passed American Tin Cannery Premium Outlets and the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Ocean View Boulevard, which mark the demarcation between Monterey and Pacific Grove. The two-lane boulevard hugs the shoreline, wrapping around Pacific Grove Marine Garden Park and Asilomar State Beach. Parallel to the road is a buttery smooth, 9-mile trail that extends to the town of Marina, so dramatic bay views can be enjoyed from a car, bicycle or on foot. On the other side of the boulevard are gorgeous buildings.
The window shopping on Lighthouse Avenue is an appealing activity. It’s not just what’s in the windows, but the buildings themselves, like the Victorian Corner Restaurant with the attached house done in Technicolor, Laurel Burch-like murals.
Nearby, the 110-year-old Victorian Bed & Breakfast Inn is a National Historic Landmark, and the beaux-arts style City Hall on Laurel and 16th streets was built by William Henry Weeks, known for designing the Carnegie libraries and schools in the state.
There is also Bookworks, an excellent bookstore and coffee house.
That evening, we pulled into a parking lot at Ocean View Boulevard and 17th Street. The hotels with the neon lights should have clued me in, but I found out later the area was called Lovers Point Beach but old platonic friends are welcome, too. So there we were in soothing Pacific Grove, under a bright Christmas eve moon, pondering the strange paths that brought us here, contemplating our individual futures.
It’s tempting to seek philosophy in a butterfly sanctuary, but who knows what instinct led two friends to spend Christmas in the company of monarch butterflies. The point was, we were there in a beautiful little town under an orange-black canopy of wings. We may never go back, but we made the journey.
If you go
Pacific Grove, south of Monterey, lies about 120 miles south and two to three hours from San Francisco. From U.S. 101, take Highway 156, which becomes Highway 1. There are a number of bed-and-breakfast inns, motels and lodges in the area. For details, call the Chamber of Commerce at 800-656-6650 or check www.pacificgrove.org.
The butterfly sanctuary is open every day sunrise to sunset. From the first week in October through mid-February, docents are available noon to 3 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to sunset weekends. For further information, call Friends of the Monarch at 831-373-7047 or 888-746-6627, browse www.pgmonarchs.org/fomh.html or write P.O. Box 51683, Pacific Grove, CA 93950. The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History at 165 Forest Ave. (831-648-3116), has exhibits on the migration as well as other ecological aspects of the area.