Monarca mobile

The Monarca Mobile, retired from the Canadian postal service, served on the Magdalen Islands before landing on the front lawn of a cultivator in the village of Saint-Liboire, in the Montérégie region of south western Québec.

A first road test proves more or less conclusive (“It didn’t do that yesterday,” said the former owner of the truck). Patrick Beaulieu still buys the vehicle at a good price (1400$ CAN). And so begins the time of the metamorphoses.

Mechanical adjustements

The work begins with the replacement of the carburettor and the gas tank (400$ CAN).

Affixed at an angle by a neglectful mechanic, the tank contains enough gas for only two hours on the road, and has a tendency to spill out its contents. The pilots of the Monarca Mobile perfect, all along the road, a filling technique that stills eludes the most skilful gas station attendants of North America.

Postmen ride alone. The mechanical upgrade is completed by the addition of a Swedish passenger seat (100$ CAN), destined for the co-pilot and on board poet, Daniel Canty, salvaged from a derelict Saab.

Electrical technician David Beaulieu (no family ties) equips the truck with a sound system, whose centrepiece is a removable loudspeaker that can be affixed to the roof.

Patrick Beaulieu and woodworker Carl Simard (his roommate), cover the inside back compartment of the truck with elegant wood panelling, painted grey, fastenings for the Whisperers and a display case for a miniature screen, thereby completing the transformation of the former postal truck in a mobile art gallery.

Patrick Beaulieu then speeds (relatively speaking) towards an artist’s residency in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli.

The hanging garden

In Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Patrick Beaulieu pursues the metamorphosis of the vehicle into a “waystation” for monarch butterflies.

He plants a hanging garden on the roof of the truck: milkweed flowers are ready to welcome, on the underside of their leaves, the golden cocoons of the monarchs.

Estela López Solís (Beaulieu’s betrothed and Mexican accomplice of the project), repaints the truck in black and white. It had been covered, since its retirement from the postal service, with a coat of deep red.

Near the side doors, she inscribes, in a script borrowed from the salesmen of Michoacán, the names of the two “transfrontier agents” who would pilot the truck.

The white sheeting of the truck welcomes its first projection on September 15, 2008, in the loading bay of Centre Est-Nord-Est. The faces of border jumping Mexican workers intermingle with the twirling of butterfly wings in the truck’s back compartment. In the front cabin, Daniel Canty collects, on an antiquated portable Underwood typewriter, emails to add to a growing “cloud” of Vector monarca correspondents. This performance would be repeated in the United States of America and in Mexico, on public places in Nashville, Querétaro and Morelia.

Baptism of the truck

Mexican trucks, so that their soul may travel safely along the roads, are given nicknames that are hand painted on their bodies. Carried away by verbal fervour, rudimentary Spanish and certain exotic alcohols, Patrick Beaulieu and Daniel Canty first give the Monarca Mobile the name “Mariposa Mobile”. One shouts out ¡Mariposón!, in Mexican slang, to harass homosexuals. Free trade or not, the fact that two gentlemen travel in tandem in a truck going by that name could have had unsavoury consequences in regions of a less than open disposition.

Patrick Beaulieu’s Mexican fiancée confirms our error with a laugh. Despite all efforts at rectification, “Monarca Mobile” still contains an error. “Mobile”, which is both French and English, is not pronounced mobilé — móvil is the right word. This bastardized spelling and pronunciation perhaps are more fruitful to the letter of this border crossing project.

Road hazards

Let us note, in defence of the mechanics that conducted its repairs, that the truck, all along the thirty-four days of the Vector monarca, would suffer only two mechanical failures and run out of gas once.

A tad south of Nashville, on the 11th day of the journey, Thanksgiving Sunday, the truck’s flashers refuse to function. A taciturn yet merciful mechanic repairs them with a tube of epoxy glue.

On the 12th day, the Monarca Mobile runs out of gas in the wilds of Alalabama. That state’s multitude of orangey butterflies turns out, upon closer inspection, to be impostors (they are in fact southern fritillaries).

On the 25th day of the journey, a few kilometres north of Querétaro, the engine stutters and the truck is paralyzed. A mobile mechanical squad comes to the rescue. The archaic carburettor filter has died out. A replacement would have to be hunted down through the city before taking to the road again.

The truck must rest about every two hours, so as to let the engine cool off and verify the level of the oil. The Monarca Mobile has difficulty bearing highway velocities. A run of about twenty minutes at maximum speed causes major overheating.

We could add to the short catalogue of defects the spectacular overheating, on the 13th day of the journey, of the motor on the suspended highway, devoid of a run-off ramp, that links Biloxi to the city of New Orleans. Smoke completely fills up the truck’s cabin when the co-pilots finally reach, with unquestionable relief, the first of the gas stations of Lousiana.

A mobile monument

The Monarca Mobile belongs to the era of the discovery of the monarch’s migratory destination, when Canadian Fred Urquhart (1912-2002) confirmed experimentally that the butterflies indeed travelled from northern latitudes to the mountains of Michoacán, in Mexico.

Most of the monarchs that reach Michoacán never come back to their point of departure. The Monarca Mobile, permanently parked near Morelia’s Manuel Martínez Solórzano Museum of Natural History, has now become a public sculpture. It harbours a permanent exhibition on the journey of the Vector monarca, in humble testimony to a monumental odyssey.