Saturday, February 23, 2013
We've never been able to get Elizabeth onto a horse, not even when the creatures only plod in circles like pit ponies in a Nova Scotia coal mine. So when we started planning our trip to visit the monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan, it wasn't good news when we read that the recommended way to reach them was on horseback.
Ordinarily Elizabeth is a smiling dispenser of pixie dust. But in the face of anything she sees as an existential threat, such as confiscation of her iPad or a pony ride, she manages all at once to be an irresistible force and an immovable object.
Nevertheless we decided to pull up our socks and give it a try. For a week in advance of the trip, we talked up horses and their many reassuring qualities. They are trustworthy, we said, as well as loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.
Maybe we laid it on a little too thick. But it seemed to work. When we described to her how she would sit in front of me on the saddle, she didn't object. I hummed bits of "On the Trail" to give her an idea of the easygoing pace we'd be setting. We interpreted silence as acceptance.
But when we completed the arduous road trip to lofty Sierra Chincua, the last mile almost too much for our little Honda Fit, and approached the stables with our guide, Adolfo, it looked like we might be in for trouble.
"I don't like horses," Elizabeth said flatly.
What to do? Pam and I looked at each other and shared a moment of despair. Then we wordlessly agreed the only way to deal with it was to pretend we hadn't heard anything. I handed Elizabeth to Adolfo, swung myself awkwardly into the saddle, reached back down for my little partner and held my breath.
Maybe she was just so ready to escape the arms of a stranger that she was willing to overlook the inconvenient fact that her familiar and beloved granddad was sitting on a horse. But whatever the reason, she came up without another murmur. Adolfo donated his sweater to make her seat behind the wide vaquero saddle horn more comfortable, and off we went.
After a few minutes she asked me, "Do you like our horse?" I said I did.
"I like our horse too," she replied.
The rest of the day was like a dream. It took the better part of an hour to get close to the small area of steeply sloping forest where the monarchs clustered, and then we had to clamber along a treacherous footpath to reach a spot where we could really see what we came to see.
They filled the chilly mountain air in thousands. Millions more massed together for warmth in enormous clusters suspended from the branches of the tall firs that surrounded us. Adolfo told us as much about them as he could without overtaxing my limited Spanish, using dead specimens picked up from the ground to illustrate the anatomical points.
It was like nothing any of us had ever experienced. We were awed and dazzled. Elizabeth clearly sensed she was witnessing one of nature's most amazing performances. She gazed silently around her, more reverent even than her horse.
The ride back to the stables seemed shorter, partly because our guide chose a shortcut that seemed steeper and chancier than the one we'd taken in. Now and then our mounts slipped or stumbled. I've been on quite a few trail rides, but this one made me nervous.
Not Elizabeth though. She fell asleep.