The air twitched with flies. Wild rabbits darted like phantoms from some hallucinogenic come-down; lizards crawled like insects out of the eyes of middle-school acid trips. Rocks and weeds tumbled down into a tight ravine; on the other side, trains rumbled past and the interstate roared like a wild thing. A weathered “No Trespassing” sign grew small behind me. I wasn’t concerned—this was bigger than trespassing. Down an abandoned road, amid the unkept overgrowth of a forgotten corner of Orange County, I was searching for what I’d come for—the swallows of San Juan Capistrano.
It started with the tattoo. I, like half of the tattooed population of the planet, have swallows. Not that I’m a sailor, bird enthusiast or have any particular affinity for traditional tattoos. But it means that every little old lady I meet asks me, “Have you been to San Juan Capistrano?” I found out that San Juan Capistrano was the town where swallows migrate back to every spring, after their trip down to Argentina. They arrive like clockwork every March 19, swooping around the old alcoves of the Mission there, building their bizarre nests and diving through the calm air and whispering history. I got tired of answering “no”—this year, I was going to the god-damn Mission and seeing some god-damn swallows.
I drove into the belly of the beast—Orange County. Motherland of every suburban California stereotype: sixteen lanes of chocked traffic, smog-smudged horizons, Del Taco and Starbucks, too-skinny arms and too-hard boobs. But somewhere amid all that was a kind of authenticity, a tradition, a natural phenomenon that hadn’t been strangled out by sprawl. I’d sat on the balcony of my cheap hotel in the Fez medina one dusk and watched the sky come alive with the swoop and screech of swallows: black, like shadows, fast, like phantoms, so that they almost seemed unreal. I wanted that rush again, that marvel and awe, in what seemed like a most unlikely place, this suburb of all suburbs.
The return of the swallows is San Juan Capistrano’s biggest event of the year. The Mission opens its doors to tons of visitors; I learned too late that the main event was the Swallows Day Parade on Saturday. But whatever. The main event for me were the birds themselves. I ditched my car about a mile from the Mission, hiked through the traffic and crowds of families and old ladies. I bought a couple $2 tacos, a pan dulce as big as my head, and entered the Mission.
Only the swallows weren’t there. Crowds milled around with their audio-tour headsets, their cameras and sun visors, through the neon flowers and crumbling edifices of the Mission, looking skyward at nothing but blue. “Ooh, there’s one,” an elderly man exclaimed. “No, dear,” his wife answered, “that’s a blackbird.”
What the hell? I sidled up to a ranger and asked, “So, um, where’s all the birds?”
“Well, we don’t really know. Some people think it’s climate change, but more likely it’s urbanization. The area was all rural when the Mission was built—lots of bugs and dirt for the birds. But now, you know—” she waved her hand at the hiss of traffic from beyond the Mission walls. “I’ve heard they’re mostly down by the creek.” She gave me directions to a creekbed just outside of town, where a small colony of swallows was rumored have nested, to be swooping through the skies. “Lots for them to eat out there,” the ranger told me with a smile.
I wandered around the Mission. It was beautiful in the way that Southern plantations are beautiful—peaceful and shady, but with something sinister inside the breezes and gardenia scents, a hint of haunting in the wild-blowing quietude, as though if you listened very closely, you could hear the echoes of crying, of cultural genocide and Christianization. I listened to my headset, watched the candles flicker in the chapel, observed the statue of missionary taming the savage, lion-cloth-wearing Native American.
“Are those swallows on your arms?” a woman wearing a swallow-studded t-shirt asked.
“They sure are.”
“Can I take a picture?”
I turned around and squeezed my elbows together, so that the birds on either sides of the arms were touching. The woman snapped her photo. “Those are the only ones I’ve seen today,” she told me wistfully.
I laughed. “Me too.”
Like everyone else, I kept looking up, searching the squinting blue sky for signs of the birds. Phantom swallow syndrome: kept thinking I saw the diving wings and forked tails of the elusive birds I’d come for. It seemed like a metaphor—like gentrification, like the more predatory forms of tourism, we’d descended en masse and through our seeking of something authentic and real, we’d driven out the very thing we sought. And I was, of course, one of them, in the way you never want to admit you’re really one of them (“I’m a traveler, not a tourist”)—with my digital camera, snapping photos at ghosts.
I’d find them, I decided. I got back into my desert-dust, dead-bug covered car and went creek-ward. I curved down a quiet road, spied the cleave in the green earth when the creek was, searched for somewhere to ditch my car that didn’t have an ominous “Tow Away” sign. I pulled up to a driveway and asked a little old man if he’d seen any swallows. He scratched his head, answered in a heavy accent, “No, but maybe down by the Church.”
The grounds of Rancho Capistrano weren’t very welcoming—sprinkled with “No Trespassing” and “No Parking” signs. I left my car between two parked big-rigs on the street outside and tromped in, down through shady grasses and soccer fields, alongside a 6-foot chainlink fence covered in forbidding signs. The grounds gave way to open space, wild grass and small, rustling animals. The natural creek was swallow-less, but as I approached the cement embankments, I saw the diving black figures I’d been searching for.
About a dozen swallows moved through the half-shadowed concrete, white bellies and black wings. I crouched down, snuck under the tall fence and crawled over big rocks to get closer to the birds’ strange dance. I tried to snap photos, but they were too fast, too elusive for my slow fingers and cranky old lens. I put down my camera and just watched, thinking of the balcony in Fez, the long journey of the small creatures, the city they’d shunned and where they’d ended up instead.