Yellowstone: A Fall From Grace–An Interview with Bill Wetterman

Bill Wetterman, author of Yellowstone: A Fall From Grace.

Bill Wetterman, author of Yellowstone: A Fall From Grace.

The first time I read one of Bill Wetterman’s books I asked myself, “What kind of novel is this?” Bill writes faith based novels—a genre that usually has little appeal for me—but he packs them full of action that pulls readers so deeply into the narratives that they can’t escape. And there are Bill’s characters: a porn star (The Fifth Step), spies and a world dictator (The Peacock Trilogy),a prostitute (Busted). Naturally I was excited when I heard about his new novel, Yellowstone: A Fall From Grace. And now that I’ve read it, I have a few questions for Bill Wetterman.

YellowstoneKindle (1)Q. Bill, most people think of Yellowstone as a beautiful national park filled with natural wonders, but in Yellowstone: A Fall From Grace, you made it the central feature in an apocalypse. How did you come up with that idea?

A. I read an article about Buffalo leaving the park a few years ago and the event sparked my imagination. The North American Continent’s instability along the west coast, the real threat of another earthquake in the New Madrid fault affecting the Mississippi River from Memphis to the Gulf, and now Yellowstone, a concern I’d never considered sparked one main thought: America isn’t prepared for the aftermath of any of them. It became a novel.

Q.The events you describe after the first eruption are extremely detailed. Where the ash will fall. The degree to which areas of the U.S. will be affected. The “nuclear winter” that will change the climate of the earth. How much research did you do to plot the paths of destruction?

 A. Great question, John. Unlike paranormal, fantasy, sci-fi, and other genres, I take today’s headlines and push them into the near future—never use a date for events. I think about my audience. I don’t want a review like this: “The military stopped using armament like that after the Korean War. This guy didn’t do his homework. It’s worse with scientists. If I don’t know what the last three eruptions did, how can I write about the next explosion? I’ve included two research maps. Articles have been written about possible ejecta coverage if Yellowstone blows in January, April, July, and October, including the position of the Jetstream at those times of year to predict where the ash will fall and how deep. This is key to the novel for believability.

Q.One of the things I noticed right away was how you switched from first person when the scene was in your protagonist’s (Mary’s) point of view to third person in scenes where she wasn’t present. That’s a pretty experimental writing method. Why did you choose that technique?

A. I’ve done this before in Busted. First person plays to the depth of internal emotion better than third person. I want the reader to grow close to a person who’s hard to bond with. I’m going to marginalize or kill off most of the others anyway, so third person works for them. Transitions between the two are intentional. Mary’s character growth and change in values to meet a chaotic world demands I write her in first person. I would not have tried this on my first novel.

 

Concept photo for Mary, in Yellowstone: A Fall from Grace

Concept photo for Mary, in Yellowstone: A Fall from Grace

Q.Strong female protagonists play an important role in all your novels—The Fifth Step, Busted, The Peacock Trilogy. Do you choose those protagonists before you start writing or do they choose themselves?

 A. Since I research and create my world, the tension, and the character profiles before I put fingers to computer keys, yes. Everything is preplanned. Women readers project themselves into the female characters, and women make up the vast majority of readers. From a personal viewpoint, I write sexy, intelligent women skillfully. My males are manipulated by women, as is true in real life. Besides, I can project my fantasies into my novels much easier this way.

 Q.Your protagonist, Mary, is a member of the Creek tribe. Why did you choose to make her Native American?

 A. Several reasons. BK, Mary’s husband, selects her partly because she’s an Indian. There is a long range strategy to have a minority spokesperson, if a new government is formed. With Oklahoma as the setting, avoiding the Indian culture would be criminal. Mary Kenton must change her viewpoint on everything she knew about the world. An American Indian, a Christian, and a person with a servant’s heart, her character arc drives the novel. Besides, at the time I created the outline, the Creeks were attempting to build a casino three blocks from my house. I didn’t want to upset them.

 

Q.Yellowstone is a faith-based apocalyptic thriller, custom made for a couple of miraculous events. You didn’t use a single one, and still managed to keep faith central to the plot. Did you plan it that way from the beginning?

A. Yes. Plus, there is no Hollywood hero who rescues the world. No offense to your readers, America and the rest of the world have strayed so far from God that He will not toss us a lifeboat. Regardless of the catastrophe, survival won’t be pretty. Why should believing Christians be treated differently than the Apostles. Every apostle, except John, was either beheaded, skinned alive, or murdered for their faith. Yet they attained eternal salvation.

Q.You aren’t very kind to your characters in Yellowstone. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll tell you that some of my favorites were killed off after I’d grown quite fond of them. It definitely works. Can you tell us why you do it?

 A. Realism, John. In this new world, it’s useless to count on anything being the same when you awake up. Counting on others works as long as they are breathing. Survival depends on your decision making alone. Pillow-soft Americans awake up! The people lost supported Mary. I kicked the prop away to watch her crumble and rise stronger than before.

 Q.I remember you telling me you’d never write another trilogy, but Yellowstone ends in a way that probably leaves your readers wondering what happens next. That’s actually a perfect way to end an apocalyptic thriller, but will Mary and the other survivors be featured in another book?

A. Unfair question. Well, maybe fair, but it’s revealing the flaws in my character. The door is open depending on the response to the novel and what the theme of sequel—not trilogy—would be. I wrote Yellowstone as a standalone novel.

Q.Yellowstone features a number of characters who know a lot about military strategy and survivalist techniques. Is that all research, or do you draw on experiences from your past.

 A. I used to think survivalists tilted far right of center. And yes, I know many from personal contact. But I’ve changed my mind as the decades pass. I firmly believe disaster is coming—multiple disasters rolling one after another. I’m personally prepared for a month without resources. But I’m 73 and dependent on medications for my existence, preparing for a longer struggle isn’t practical, because I’d run out of medical resources.

Military tactics and weaponry had to be researched through my beta readers and internet research. Of course, no one has fought under the conditions I’ve created. I looked up every weapon, the range and impact, and the effectiveness. But in the end, the desperation of people fighting street-by-street with meat cleavers in their hands says it all.

 

Q.Your novels, including Yellowstone, are centered around faith but include plenty of sex and violence. You must get a wide range of feedback from your readers.

A. To say my writing is dark and edgy is honest. The real world is worse. My writing includes immorality, sexuality, greed, lust, murder, and betrayal. I’ve had interesting reactions from Christians and non-Christians alike. Here are examples.

“I won’t be reviewing your novel, Room 1515. When I got to Chapter 4, your characters got naked in a pool! Uh!” (I wonder if the same person went to see Harry Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks.)

“What’s with your cover? I mean it’s GREAT! But I didn’t expect the sexy thing from you.”

The real world is worse than fiction. But humans tend to avoid reality. My novels carry a theme of repentance in each. No matter how far a person falls, God can raise them up and eventually does. I’m tired of the media portraying Christians as scheming shysters or holier-than-thou fanatics. I’m tired or Christians saying things like, “I’m just relying on God.”

The rubber meets the road of faith by going through the fire and coming out stronger on the other side. God wins. So do we. Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”

Thanks for the opportunity to discuss my writing. I hope your readers learn something from what I’ve said. My style is my style. It works for me. I’ll leave you with one thought. Just because ‘the literary gurus’ make a rule, doesn’t mean the right author can’t break it. Just saying.

“Fallen Angels”

“Fallen Angels” was published in Ember: a journal of luminous things vol. 1 issue 1 on May 31, 2015

“Fallen Angels” opening paragraphs

 “It’s a bad luck sky.” Lizbeth’s mom pointed a finger at the first shooting star of the evening. She made the sign of the cross—Catholic style, even though she was a Baptist.

“Stars cast out of heaven like fallen angles. Bad times are on the way.” Mom said the same thing every August when the meteor shower came. Sometimes she was right, like when the Germans invaded Poland. Sometimes she was wrong, like when the family cow gave birth to twin claves. Sometimes she was half-way-wrong, like when the neighbor boy, Tommy Hotabee, came back from the war last fall—crippled but still alive.

Lizbeth helped her dad carry wooden lawn chairs from their front porch into the yard. She lined them in a row like the seats in the Orpheum Theater in Idabel, four pine chairs painted white so they stood out like ghosts. One for mom, one for dad, one for Lizzy, and one for Tommy, who looked like he’d fall over if he didn’t sit down pretty soon.

You can buy Ember: a journal of luminous things here.

And on Amazon soon.

The First 200 Words

 

Some other John Biggs?I Do Not Like Green Eggs And Ham

I approach reading a new novel—or piece of short fiction—the way a five year old adds a new food to his dietary repertoire.

“Just a paragraph or two. You never know whether you’ll like it unless you try.” Well that may be true, but the five year old and I have tried to expand our frontiers before and have been sorely disappointed. The truth is, we probably won’t like green eggs and ham and will wind up with indigestion and a bad case of “incompletion guilt”. We started something we didn’t finish and, “there are millions of fiction-starved Chinese who’d love to read those paragraphs.”

So I start reading. I ease into new stories the way agents and editors do. Slowly carefully, looking for a reason to quit before I’ve invested too much time and energy. The over-read professionals typically ask for fifty pages and a synopsis, but they probably decide whether they are going to like a piece of work by the time they’ve read the first 200 words.

One thing I know for sure. You can’t hook a reader with a synopsis. When seventy thousand words are boiled down to a single page they really don’t make a lot of sense. If you can pull a semblance of a plot out of a massive reduction like that, you certainly can’t maintain things like character arcs, and themes, and subplots, and minor characters. And figurative language be damned.

So what you have left to hook the reader is that first 200 words, the beginning of your story. It doesn’t matter how fantastic the narrative gets on the third page or at the midpoint. Readers will be disgusted by the time they get there—and they probably won’t get there at all.

Do’s, Don’ts & Cautions

 In the first few paragraphs of a story the writer has to convince readers to keep on turning pages so they can find out what happens next. The easiest way to do this is to introduce a likable character or two, someone any sensible person would like to spend some time with. Even in stories that are mostly plot driven need characters the readers care about, which brings me to a piece of advice I think is given too infrequently. Don’t start writing too soon.

The most spontaneous, outline free writer has to have at least a general idea of how the story is going to go. That may change so much as to be unrecognizable by the time it is finished but a narrative idea is critical. Characters are going to have to carry the action of that narrative so the writer should get to know his character’s well before the writing actually starts. Here are five basic things the writer should know about every character: 1. What do they want, 2. What do they need, 3. What do they love, 4. What do they hate, 5. What are they afraid of. It wouldn’t hurt to know what they eat for breakfast either, or how they take their coffee, and a few embarrassing moments that made them what they are today.

In addition to making the reader love (or at least like) your protagonist in the first 200 words, you need to stimulate curiosity, create a compelling problem, and hide a few Easter eggs if possible (hints at things that are likely to turn up later in the story so the reader will be searching for them).

The good news is you don’t have to have your hook when you finally do get around to writing. You can start writing a story at any point in the narrative and figure out the best place to start later on. Writers who use outlines will have a much easier time isolating the best start point. I don’t personally work from an outline, but I construct one after the first draft is “finished” so I can look at the structure and see how it needs to be changed.

There are two general ideas about the best starting place for a story. Ab ovo (from the egg) and In res media (in the middle of things). Many writers start off ab ovo and switch to in res media by the time they are finished. Don’t fixate on a start point early on.

Here are a couple more don’ts: 1. don’t dump information, 2. don’t mislead the reader. Data dumping is probably the most common problem among writers. You’ve got all this information about your plot, and your characters and it’s literally burning a hole in your keyboard. Try to satisfy that urge by hiding a few Easter eggs. Notice I said a few.

Misleading the reader is a less common problem, but some writers try to make a story seem more interesting by disguising romances and cozy mysteries thrillers. Don’t starting off with a major disaster (earthquake, airplane crash, terrorist attack) that has no real connection to the theme or plot. Especially don’t start of with a dream. Nothing makes readers angrier than being lured into a plot that didn’t actually happen.

There are plenty of opening techniques are perfectly acceptable but must be used with caution. Writers are fond of similes. This figurative language technique can be used effectively when it relates to the event it’s being being used to illustrate, but similes use a lot of space and are ineffective unless the reader knows something about the circumstances and emotions—which they usually don’t in the first 200 words.

Bad simile: He had kind eyes and a little tremor that shook his head back and forth like an aspen leaf in the wind.

Better simile: He had kind eyes and a little tremor that shook his head back and forth as if he were trying to refuse.

For God’s sake avoid the temptation to make your writing beautiful. Good narrative writing is clear. It is not poetry. Shakespeare pulled it off. You aren’t him.

Here is an actual line from a story submitted to a contest (courtesy of K.D. Wentworth) that describes an object we have all seen every day. I took me a good 60 seconds to figure out what the writer was talking about: “ . . . the orb that makes the day the day.”

I like to use quotes in the first 200 words because they can take you right into a character’s mind and right into the action of the scene and with no description. Quotations can establish a moodand provide a lot of information. However—there is always one of those isn’t there—the reader is barely into the story and doesn’t know anything about the speaker yet. The quotes have to be short and convey some insight into the character of the speaker.

Prologues are often discouraged by agents and editors. I love them, but they have to be used with extreme caution. A prologue automatically sticks the writer with two openings. That’s not so bad, because every chapter has an opening of sorts. But prologues usually happen at an earlier time than the main narrative, and the protagonist of the prologue is usually not the protagonist of the main story. Writers frequently start off with a prologue and by the end of the story, they decide to put all that information in through back story techniques, like flashbacks, conversations, and hints.

I Can Hook That Reader in ________ Words

 In recent years it has become popular to hook the reader with a blockbuster sentence. Stun them quickly and then go in for the kill.

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“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.” ~Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner. 21 words

 “They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.” ~Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked. 12 words

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”~Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. 26 words

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Compelling sentences like these work well in the hands of a skilled writer, but if there is even a hint of confusion or a minor misuse of words the effect is lost. If an author uses this type of opening, the readers will expect to be “thrilled” again every page or so.

An alternative is to ease the reader into the story, usually after the main conflict is well underway. Information is dribbled in at an easy pace and there is plenty of time to hide Easter eggs and build curiosity.

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While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I’d been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out: and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom. By day I sat on the foot of the bed straining to puzzle out the Dutch –language news on television (which was hopeless, since I knew not a word of Dutch) and when I gave up, I sat by the window staring out at the canal with my camel’s-hair coat thrown over my clothes—for I’d left New York in a hurry and the things I’d brought weren’t warm enough, even indoors.”~Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. 148 words

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And there is my own personal favorite, which I refer to as the quicksand approach. This method usually brings the reader into the story closer to the initiating incident, although it can work just as well with the in media res approach. The reader steps right into the scene with no especially compelling sentence, and no gradual introduction into the action. A quotation works particularly well in this technique.

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“Double stick orange today.” The H-Unit guard puts down his red and white insulated cooler and shakes hands with the Reverend Richard Harjo. “Strawberry tomorrow. Grape the day after.”

Richard knows the routine. Death row inmates get popsicles when the air conditioning can’t keep pace with summer. June, July, and August. Sometimes the first week in September.

“Name’s Anton Leemaster.” The guard points to his nametag. “Just transferred in from visitation.”~John T. Biggs, Popsicle Styx. 71 words

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What Information are you trying to provide?

 No matter what kind of opening you choose you need to show the readers what kind of story you are inviting to join. If possible, you want to let them know the time, the place, the mood, the theme, the protagonist and one other character—no more than two. Information overload is a sure way to convince the readers they don’t like green eggs and ham, and they probably won’t be interested in trying anything else you might have cooked up. Here’s a good example of a bad opening. How many errors can you find?

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Bill Baker lifted the pistol and pointed it at Cathy. He pulled the hammer back and watched the reaction of Cathy’s brother John and her best friend Julie.

“Think about what you’re doing,” John said. His hands trembled like an aspen leaf in the wind.

A high pitched noise filled the room, like the sound of a mosquito magnified a thousand times. Bill recognized the sound. He opened his eyes and reached for his alarm clock. It was all a dream.

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Exceptions to Standard Rules of Writing

 Some very creative and successful authors do things with openings they wouldn’t do in any other part of their narratives. They will sometimes start off with a paragraph which has the omniscient point of view typical of old time storytelling. This pov often involves extensive telling—but never data dumping. They spend as few words as possible pulling the reader into the story the way a mother pulls a child into a fairy tale and then they slide seamlessly into a different pov (usually third person limited) and the storyteller fades away.

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“Folks say he was born the same year the state was, 1907, but you won’t find a public record to prove that or deny it. Some say he was first cousin to Tom Joad and second-cousin-once removed to Pretty Boy Floyd’s family in Salisaw—except the Joads weren’t real Okies, they were a made up clan, and it’s certain the Floyds never claimed him. You’ll even hear it claimed from time to time that he was kin to our most famous favorite son, Will Rogers, but that’s just a tall tale. To be honest, the Oklahoma son Harlan Singer favored most was the one from Okemah, but we disowned that Okemah boy on account of he was a communist they say, and anyhow, Singer had vanished in the hills by the time Woody Guthrie began to make a reputation.”~Rilla Askew, Harpsong. 139 words

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Bookends

 There is a lot more to writing a story than hooking the reader, which is why I delay the actually writing the narrative until I have a good understanding of the characters and at least a preliminary idea of where the plot is going to go. The final product seldom resembles bears more than a faint resemblance to the original idea. Often I’ve changed my mind about the protagonist. Usually the plot has taken some twists and turns I didn’t expect. The characters always surprise me.

Eventually every story comes to an end whether we want it to or not. All those characters who occupied so much of our time go back home to live their lives while we aren’t watching.

Endings are difficult, but they can be made substantially easier if we remember they should be at least obliquely related to the beginning. The classic play, The Odd Couple is a perfect example. The first scene and the last are men gathered around a poker table. Even though their major conflict has been worked out, we know the characters are going on with their lives after the curtain closes.

Some authors hide an Easter egg in the opening paragraphs that is found in the closing scene. They give the reader a clue so it will be clear when the story is over. It gives reader a feeling of completion. The beginning and end don’t have to be identical. A similar environment, or a similar object or a similar mood can give the desired closure effect. A solid plot supported by two bookends.

 

 

 

 

 

“Unfinished Business” in PURE FANTASY AND SCI-FI vol. 3

“Unfinished Business” was published in Pure Fantasy and Sci-Fi on March 27, 2015

“Unfinished Business” opening paragraphs

Sinti’s mother always knew when someone was on the way to the cabin. “Spirit telegraph,” she said, but Sinti thought it was the buzzards. The footpath to the Maytubby cabin started under the roosting tree and those big ugly birds weren’t the least bit sociable. When a car pulled to the side of Nanih Waiya Road the carrion birds flushed into the sky like quail. They flew above the roosting tree in interlocking circles that looked like figure eights and Idabel Maytubby would tell her daughter, “Someone’s coming.” She was almost always right.

It was a ten-minute walk from the road to the cabin if visitors followed the footpaths. The trail was clear enough for people who knew what they were looking for. The locals did. They were Choctaw; it was in their blood.

The route to the healing woman’s cabin had been common knowledge among the tribe since Idabel Maytubby moved there twenty years ago with her newborn fatherless daughter, Sinti. Visitors had been coming longer than Sinti could remember. One or two at a time. Mostly women.

You can buy Pure Fantasy and Sci-Fi vol. 3 here.

 

“Sassafras” reprinted in PURE FANTASY AND SCI-FI vol. 3

“Sassafras” was first published in the trade paperback and ebook, Shadow Masters, Imajin Books, May, 2013. It was subsequently published I Pure Fantasy and Sci-Fi vol. 3 on March 27, 2015.

“Sassafras” opening paragraphs:

Smell is the simplest sense. Awareness enters through the nose without an invitation, an unwelcome guest with a master key. An injured brain needs only a few molecules to remember everything there is to know about disinfectant, urine and adhesive tape.

Sound comes next: distant conversations, wheels with bad bearings, compressed air hissing at regular intervals. Fifteen times a minute, but who’s counting.

Then vision. Two of everything—separate images that won’t come together without a struggle. The first thing is acoustic tile on a ceiling a thousand miles away. Then a pair of faces merging into one. A man I recognize but don’t remember. A lover? A brother? Something else entirely?

You can find Shadow Masters on Imajin Books website, here.

or on Amazon, here.    

 You can buy Pure Fantasy and Sci-Fi vol. 3 here.

 

 

Butterflies and Bandits

Michoacan, Mexico. The countryside.

Michoacan, Mexico. The countryside.

Things have gotten pretty bad in Michoacan (one of the 31 states of Mexico) in recent years. The murder rate has skyrocketed. Politicians are being assassinated in record numbers. Crimes against women are among the highest in the world. The Universities are under siege with students battling against municipalities and against non-students who are clamoring to get in.

A vigilante group who call themselves THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR, organized to fight the ZETA criminal cartel. After a decades long bloody battle, the KNIGHTS TEMPLAR have

Police cars stationed around a park in Morelia, Michoacan.

Police cars stationed around a park in Morelia, Michoacan.

taken over most of the ZETAs criminal activities and have opened trade with organized crime syndicates all over the world. Now a new vigilante movement has taken hold and there is open warfare between them and the KNIGHTS TEMPLAR and remnants of the ZETAS. Soldiers in the new vigilante movement include members of Latino gangs from the U.S., who have either been deported or who have voluntarily left United States jurisdiction to avoid prosecution.

The Mexican government has sent in federal troupes because the municipalities are corrupt and the police can’t be trusted. The U.S. State Department has issued travel warnings advising citizens to avoid all but essential travel in Michoacan. U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling by land in The Mexican state except on federal toll road 15D during daylight hours.

Monarch Sanctuary

Monarch Sanctuary

So my wife Margaret said to me, “Lets visit the Monarch butterfly sanctuary in Michoacan while we’re in Mexico,” and I said, “Sure, why not.” Ignorance is bliss.

Who wouldn’t want to see the Monarchs? There are undeniable mystical overtones to the Monarch migration, perfect for a writer who dabbles in Magic Realism. Up to a billion of these delicate creatures leave their home in eastern Canada and fly 2,500 miles to the mountains of central Mexico. They arrive when locals are celebrating the Day of the Dead (October 31 to November 2).

Monarchs clustered in pines

Monarchs clustered in pines

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the holiday, it is a remnant of an Aztec festival that was celebrated at the beginning of summer. The Catholic Church tried to eradicate it but was only able to shorten it and move it to a time that coincided with a vaguely similar All Saints Day festival. On the day of the dead, the spirits of the ancestors visit the living. The living throw a party for the occasion with feasts and costumes (mostly skeletons) and parades. The locals in the mountains of Michoacan say the butterflies are the ancestral spirits. The timing is right, and it does seem like quite a coincidence.

There’s more. The typical Monarch life cycle lasts 4 to 5 weeks, starting as an egg, going through the larva period, morphing into a pupa until it reaches the adult stage when it reproduces and then dies. But when summer is over in Canada and temperatures drop drastically, a special generation is born. This new group will fly all the way to Michoacan where they can hibernate, feed, mate, and then travel back home. This different kind of Monarch is known as the Methuselah generation. These migratory Monarchs live as long as eight months. This age old miracle is observable, measurable, and totally without explanation—practically the definition of Magic Realism.

Monarchs drinking from pools of water.

Monarchs drinking from pools of water.

We hired a driver—I’m so glad we did—who took us to the Butterfly reserve. We climbed the mountain and witnessed millions of Monarchs clustered in the pine trees so thick they bent the branches. When they swarmed, we could hear the sound of thousands of wings moving the air. It was a spectacle I will never forget.

Follow this link to see and hear Monarchs taking flight IMG_0344

I never thought once about the dangers—or knew about them truth be told—until we were on the highway to Morelia, the second part of our trip. The toll booth (yes, they have those in Mexico too) just before we got into the capitol city of Michoacan had been taken over by about 20 young men our driver called “the boys”.

Monarchs seem to prefer white flowers.

Monarchs seem to prefer white flowers.

They were students, he told us, or they would be students if times were better. Until things moderate, they hijack toll booths and demand money before they let cars pass. The going rate was 100 Pesos (about 7 U.S. dollars). There were several Michoacan police cars on the other side of the booth. They didn’t intervene.

“Sometimes the boys get aggressive,” our driver said. “Sometimes they block traffic for hours. This time we were lucky.”

For better or for worse, that’s what it’s like in Michoacan these days. Luck is an inexpensive inconvenience that could have been worse. There are butterflies and there are bandits. Unforgettable, but I don’t think I’ll make that trip again.