John Boston | 5 mph through a Kaleidoscope of Butterflies

Why do some thoughts insist on sticking when others won’t? For about three years, when I was in my 20s, I did not own a car. I had a big motorcycle. It was the perfect mode of transportation for me. Plenty of oomph and style. To cure an itch I couldn’t scratch, I’d drive 120 mph for a 40-minute session with the psychiatrist then 120 mph back. The nerve. The guy wanted to take my madness away. Motorcycles are much better therapy.

My black bike had a fairing — that’s a protective nosecone with a windshield. On long trips, it shielded me from wind, loose gravel, thrown beer cans and a white T-shirt stained with bug corpses.

The cruiser had two side carrying cases. Returning from the grocery store, you could fit beer, milk, ice cream, Super Sugar Crisp — all the nutritional essentials — into the saddlebags. I could bolt on a rugged third carry-all behind my seat. Then, a pad and sleeping bag was bungied onto the sissy bar. It was comfortable as a living room recliner.

That could do 140.

One cool April day, some 40 years ago, I headed solo, north on Highway 1. 

I was going — somewhere.

Miles evaporated. I’d driven too long and made camp in the dark. Western person I was, I thought I had correctly identified a meadow to bed down for the night. I started a campfire and had one of the best night’s sleep of my life. Every star twinkled a silent lullaby.

Next morning, my outdoorsman skills kicked in. I correctly identified that I had not picked a pristine meadow in which to bunk. I had slept like a baby in a foggy cow pasture.

I know this because come dawn, I’m surrounded by fog and cows.

Better than polar bears or scorpions.

I yawned and stretched, got up and shook off the cobwebs. 

Soon, miles and miles of road evaporated in one of the prettiest days. The rugged coastline had been pelted with a great series of storms earlier and the main highway was washed out. Hardly anyone was on the coast route. I knew I’d eventually have to detour, but I was young, unattached. No “Hi honey” calls to make, no clock to punch. I’m north of Big Sur. In tiny numbers, butterflies start floating by. Their numbers grew. And grew. And grew. I cut my speed to under 5 mph. Before there was that cursed helmet law, sunglasses and a bandana around my forehead, I drove through millions and millions of butterflies. All of us were polite. I drove slowly so as not to hurt any. They gently parted, like a great orange sea in surreal slow motion. 

You know what the technical term is for such a gathering?

It’s called a kaleidoscope. I can see why. They’re also called a swarm, but that has nowhere the poetry of kaleidoscope. Funny. Just last week, for the first time in my life — I wondered why a butterfly is named so. They’re not the color of butter. They don’t look like butter. They’re not flies.

The name is ancient, a thousand years or more. It comes from the Brimstone butterfly of Anglo-Saxon times, which had yellow wings. Some cultures call the serene bug “the milk thief.” I don’t think a billion of them could cart off more than a swallow. The title seems harsh.

The Greeks called them Psyche. The Russian name is more playful: Babochka, or, “little soul.” Other ancient cultures associated the gentle creatures as chauffeurs of the soul.

I absolutely love the Spanish word for the little travelers — mariposa.

It has a gentle lilt.

My hands used to have four distinct colors from driving a motorcycle so much. The backs were chocolate brown and that gradated down to creamy beige by the fingertips. Always wrapped around the rubber handlebar grips, the distant reaches of my fingers never caught the sun. I can still sense how heavy a big bike feels when you’re going so slow, how calm the low rpms feel. The smell of salt air, the breeze wafting up from the cliffs, an ocean that quietly pushed and pulled in its ancient and timeless dance.

Why did we both travel so far? For me, it was the constant escape from ghosts, humdrummia, deadlines, shoulds, shouldn’ts and the unbearable tedium of being the hexagonal piece of a community and family puzzle that had one round, strangling and tiny hole. The Monarchs had originated further south than Newhall, coming up a couple thousand miles from Mexico to vacation and get lucky. Another species, Painted Ladies, will fly as many as 9,000 miles round trip, all the way to the Arctic Circle and back. They journey in generations. An adult butterfly will be beautiful and live for just two weeks.

Funny.

We get to live long after we’re beautiful, long after we are young, ferocious and filled with wanderlust, long after a cross-country nowhere-to-go motorcycle trek is so impossibly compelling.

John Boston is a local writer.

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