Sometimes on Long Bike Rides I Yell the Lyrics to “Angel from Montgomery” and Think About Butterflies
by Matthew Medendorp
On a long bike ride, I think about butterflies. About a year ago, my dad and I biked from Chicago to Brooklyn, Michigan. I took a lot of photos and wrote a lot of words about it all, and I thought I might write about John Prine too. But we didn’t listen to any music, and we didn’t talk about childhood road trips or soundtracks, and the trip was good but different than I expected, so I didn’t write about John Prine, and I didn’t write about the butterflies (though I tried to). Right now, in the midst of the pandemic that took John Prine, bike rides are deemed okay by CDC, as long as they are solo or six feet apart. I’ve been riding a few times a week, heading north into the San Francisco range, on a road that usually chokes with lifted pickups gasolining to the Grand Canyon and leaving a scant few inches between their passenger doors and my handlebars. Now the roads are quieter, if not totally empty. On this ride, I’m thinking about butterflies, and more specifically, dead butterflies. Light thoughts for light times. On the trip from Chicago to Michigan, I saw dozens of dead butterflies on the side of back roads and highways—always perfectly preserved in a crystalline death. Their wings undisturbed.
Some scientists estimate that highways are responsible for up to twenty-five million monarch butterfly deaths alone each year. These scientists mention cause of death to be collision (windshields and grills) or trampling (tires). They even outfitted tiny heart rate monitors onto caterpillars to measure the effects of bodily stress from highway noise. But none of the studies I’ve found have suggested why some butterfly corpses would be perfectly preserved on the side of the road. My theory, not scientifically based, is slipstreams. Whenever an 18-Wheeler or a lifted pickup or diesel consumer passes me with inches to spare, a miniature cyclone of g-force rattles my 200-pound frame perched on two precarious wheels. What would it feel like for a small monarch to be caught in that slipstream? I imagine, grotesquely, a tiny heart attack, a preserved and instantaneous death of overwhelming forces beyond their control, leaving crystalline corpses decorating the road’s shoulder.
Whenever I look for these dead butterflies, I see them. Every bike ride, in season, along a busy roadway, they’re there. Even with the much-reduced traffic of a shelter-at-home suggestion, the butterflies are there along the side of the road. Today they are not monarchs, but smaller wings of an indigo variety still caught in forces beyond their control. This virus that currently is on our doorsteps is no semi, is certainly not instantaneous, and we, unlike butterflies, follow more than an instinctive flight pattern as a decision-making compass. But it’s hard to miss the symbolism of the slipstream, and now that I know in my front of consciousness that even caterpillars have a heartbeat, I feel a tiny kind of sadness and comradery for the preserved landmarks of our decisions: dead butterfly sidelined by our own selfishness as they simply follow an instinctive migratory pattern.
On this bike trip, I turn off my phone, which has been playing just John Prine since he got sick and burning through data irresponsibly. Since John Prine died, I’ve been listening to John Prine or listening to silence. With my headphones off, I take lungfuls of 7,000-foot oxygen and tunelessly exhale the sound of a song he wrote at twenty-five, and let the wind take it away.
Matthew Medendorp is a poet and essayist with an MFA from Northern Arizona University. He lives in Brooklyn, Michigan— a town that confuses people who don’t read through the end of a sentence. You can read more of his work in Hobart, Essay Daily, and at mattmedendorp.com