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Following the Trail of the Monarch Butterflies: An Interview with Sara Dykman

Erin McKinstry
Sara Dykman with her bike at Cooper's Landing.

It’s a hot day at Cooper’s Landing.

The Missouri River stretches to the right. A bluegrass band and crickets hum in the background. And people are scattered about listening, drinking beer and fanning away the heat. I glance around for Sara Dykman, who’s just arrived from Jefferson City by bike and who’s heading toward Mexico. I don’t see her, but I do see her bicycle.

The bike is bright pink and loaded down with stuff. Suddenly, Sara appears with a Mr. Pibb in hand, catching me in the middle of snapping photos.

“My bike looks like a homeless person met a car wreck and it doesn't look pretty it looks like just a bunch of junk piled together that's slightly breaking so only the most interesting people are brave enough to talk to me,” Sara says when I ask her if she’s met any interesting people on her trip.

She’s right; the bike doesn’t exactly look pretty, but it does look sturdy. She’s fashioned two kitty litter buckets to use as semi-waterproof storage for her stuff. And little trinkets decorate the frame, including a bear wearing monarch butterfly wings.

Which makes sense because Sara is following the trail of the monarch butterflies. When I catch her, she’s at mile 7,472. She started in Mexico, where millions of monarchs congregate from November to March. Then she rode north, following their migration all the way to Canada. Now she’s following them back down south.

She’s calling her journey Butterbike.

“Along the way, I'm sharing the story of my trip as well as the story of the monarch butterfly to get people excited about the monarch, to kind of show the monarch in a different light and to encourage folks to plant butterfly gardens for the migrating monarchs,” Sara says.

Butterfly gardens are filled with native nectar plants for monarchs and milkweed for caterpillars. Over the last 20 years or so, scientists have noticed a dramatic decline in the population, and the gardens can help.

“Every time I see a mowed lawn, my heart kind of breaks a little,” Sara says. She says she’ll be riding along past ditches filled with milkweed and feasting caterpillars. “It'll be so exciting and they'll be like so much color and life,” she says.

But then, she’ll hit a stretch of road where the ditches have been mowed. “All those developing caterpillars, all those crystalloids, all that life, was just erased because they want to have a mowed lawn. And it’s really heartbreaking,” Sara says.

And although she can’t stop people from mowing their lawns, she can help raise awareness for the monarchs. She has a website that’s updated with her progress. And she’s stopping at schools and giving presentations along the way. “I hope that I kind of just put this human face to the migration.” she says. “And I'm kind of like a little cheerleader for all the people that are doing their part. And might not see the connection or the bigger picture.”

This is Sara’s fifth big adventure and her third that involves stopping in schools, including one where she rode to 49 states. She talks to the students about monarchs, but she also talks about taking the road less traveled.

“They're not all going to want to go on an epic adventure someday, but they're all going to want to do their own thing,” Sara says. “And I think, just seeing someone that's come up against people that told me it's not possible or that no one's ever done it before hopefully is just that seed that reminds them that they can do whatever they want.”

She says there’s a wide network of people taking care of the monarch. Still, if we’re not careful their epic migration could disappear.

“People see me and they're like, 'Wow! you came from Mexico! That's so crazy!' and then I'm like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, just back up,'" she says. “This little monarch that doesn't have a bag or a backpack or a phone or anything is making this trip, and I think we need to be equally excited about that.”

As for Sara, she won’t be stopping anytime soon. She says every time she gets a normal job, she starts to feel trapped and starts planning her next trip. “As you go on one trip, you meet someone that's doing something and you think 'Oh, that's a good idea,'” Sara says. “And you start looking at maps and the world is big and there's lots to do.” Still, she says, she’d like to live a “normal” life someday.

Well, maybe.

Music for this week's episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions (Tuck and Point, available under CC BY-NC 4.0).