Where have all the swallows gone?

For two days, I've cruised along Southern California's Pacific Coast Highway, cranking up the Grateful Dead, checking out the vintage Volkswagen buses in Laguna Beach, watching scantily clad women with outrageous tans and surfer dudes without a care in the world crowd the sidewalks of Newport Beach.

Just California dreamin'.

And looking for swallows.

So where are they?

So I'm heading toward San Juan Capistrano — because that's where the song says I should go. "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano." Ever heard it? Don't bother looking on the hip-hop, pop or adult contemporary charts, although the lyrics to Leon Rene's 64-year-old heartbreaker sound like most anything you might hear on country radio.

San Juan Capistrano, a serene hideaway surrounded by orange groves and rolling hills, rests quietly a couple of miles inland of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. It's different here. Much of coastal Southern California seems a parody of itself — sort of a laidback New Jersey, with a sunnier disposition instead of a chip on its shoulder. But there's nothing phony about San Juan Capistrano.

This is Southern California from another era.

The birthplace of Orange County, this community of 34,000 is divided by Camino Capistrano, part of the El Camino Real, the trail that more than two centuries ago linked the California missions.

Cross the railroad tracks, drive by the modest houses clustered beneath eucalyptus and pepper trees that peek around willows near Trabuco Creek and you can see the jewel of the missions.

"That's where the swallows are," says "Cowboy" Ron Turner, owner of Sentimental Journey-West, a western antique shop less than a block from old Mission San Juan Capistrano.

The swallows of San Juan Capistrano aren't the long-tailed barn swallows one might expect. These are birds of another feather — silver-crowned, silver-breasted, with short, stubby tails and stealth-bomberlike decals under their brownish wings.

According to legend, they take off from a small village in Argentina and arrive in San Juan Capistrano March 19 — always March 19, St. Joseph's Day, and always landing at the old mission.

This, natives say, is the "miracle" of the swallows.

The Mission of San Juan Capistrano, just up the street from the Swallows Inn, holds the key to finding the swallows and to understanding this historic city.

While America's Founding Fathers were signing the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776, Father Junipero Serro was on the other side of the continent, christening the large adobe mission in San Juan Capistrano. It was the seventh in a chain of eight California missions founded by Serra, who was determined to form a nation by the Pacific. In doing so, he brought together the European and indigenous Indian cultures that served as a foundation for California's culture of varied heritages.

He also planted the seeds for the great stone church within the mission. Five stories high and topped with seven stone domes, the 180-foot-long church was the largest stone structure west of the Mississippi. Dedicated in 1806, the church was the pride of the mission chain.

But only for six years.

An earthquake on Dec. 8, 1812, reduced the Great Stone Church to rubble, killing those inside the building and destroying the dreams and hopes of all who had shared in its structure. The ruins remained in the corner of a mission that was about to endure another drastic, unexpected change.

Somehow, the mission continued to prosper. According to records kept in 1911, the mission that year produced a half-million pounds of wheat, 202,000 pounds of corn and nearly that much barley. Cattle, sheep and horses also thrived there.

Then, in 1821, just nine years after the earthquake, California became part of Mexico. The missions were sold to private investors, who removed wood beams and tiles that were later used to build houses. Without care, the adobe walls eventually washed away in the rain.

Hope remained for Mission San Juan Capistrano when its owner, Don Juan Forster, opted to live in part of the mission and store trade goods in the Serra Chapel. But the north and west wings melted away, leaving only brick arches and ponderings of what might have been.

The swallows have been a village tradition since 1777, but it wasn't until slightly after the turn of the 20th century that folks involved with the mission's restoration began paying attention to them.

In 1915, a writer for the Overland Monthly wrote about these peculiar little birds that had come to the mission to nest. Later, in a book about Capistrano, author Pamela Hallan noted that the town's citizens talked about "rising at dawn to sit with Father O'Sullivan in front of the mission, awaiting return of the swallows on Saint Joseph's Day."

John O'Sullivan spent much of his life trying to restore the mission. We know that, in part, because several of the stories he wrote about the mission were published in 1930 — and one was about the swallows.

According to O'Sullivan: A priest in the mission saw one of the town's hotel keepers destroying swallows' nests because he couldn't stand all the noise the birds made. The priest was outraged. So he invited the swallows to the mission, to make their home.

They've been there ever since.

Far-fetched?

It was just the beginning.

Do the swallows really return every year on March 19? Some probably come to California sooner, but the natives prefer not to see them, and certainly not talk about them before mid-March. A little birdie told me that the swallows have been seen passing over Panama as early as Feb. 24. And some bypass California and travel as far north as Canada. But that's our little secret.

An editor from the Los Angeles Times began telephoning the mission every March, to confirm the swallows' return to Capistrano. In 1936, a radio station told the Times it wanted to broadcast live from the mission — to confirm the return of the swallows. Amid cheers from delighted tourists, the broadcaster announced that the birds had returned on March 19, St. Joseph's Day, that "the skies were blackened with swallows."

March 19 had become the most important day of the year.

Three years later, while waiting for his wife to bring him breakfast, songwriter Leon Rene heard the radio-station report. He kiddingly told his wife that he'd have to wait until the swallows returned to Capistrano before she'd serve him breakfast.

The rest was sweet music.

San Juan Capistrano is more than a destination for swallows, of course. The city boasts its Los Rios Historic district, one of California's oldest neighborhoods, with many of its homes built in the late 1800s. Other areas offer shops and other tourist traps that serve as a great escape from some of the Orange County craziness that is best taken in small, calculated doses.The swallows are usually around until October. Look hard enough and you'll see one here, another there. And if you grow frustrated, just drive a few miles away from town, to the Pacific Coast Highway.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.