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Cabins of the Smoky Mountains

Stork Storm over Santiago de Compostela

santiagoAirmail from Santiago de Compostela (Galicia, Spain)

An American backpacker travels the 500-mile Christian pilgrimage route of “El Camino de Santiago de Compostela” (St. James Way)—only to end up surviving an aggro divebombing storm of storks!

“Oh, look, the birds are so fonny!” said an olive-eyed senorita, a groovy Gallego art student with an auburn cloak from a nearby university.

I didn’t agree. After all, birds are descended from the dinosaurs, much older than we—and, if messed with, could be dangerous. What’s more, spread all over the cobblestones of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain (once defended by the Knights Hospitaliers) was a gooey sticky mess of guano. I was careful not to ruin my Rockports by stepping in any of it. It was if the divine hand of God had revised the holy city with Liquid Paper.

I had only just recently exited my refugio (pilgrim shelter) in order to sightsee when I had literally bumped into the art student (multisyllabic name: I forget), who after a thousand pardons inevitably asked me where I was from and offered to guide me around Europe’s third-most-popular Christian pilgrimage magnet (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), after St. Peter’s in the Vatican and Jerusalem.

“There, there, the birds are all landing on the church!” the art student swooned. Absolutely awestruck by arguably Europe’s most beautiful church, displaying a number of different architectural styles including Gothic and Baroque, I was stymied from checking out its interior, as the church was now mysteriously closed, as if it were a “public house” (with a Guinness sign) in a Moorish-ruled “Saracen” neighborhood.

But still, having just completed El Camino de Santiago de Compostela (St. James Way), a 500-mile journey (albeit by car, not foot), starting in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France and crossing the Pyrenees into “Celtic” Spain, I felt the hot flashes of spiritual satisfaction that flood in upon completion of any nigh-on-impossible quest, be it for “Fire” or Olympic gold, the “Marathon” or the Tour de France. In other words, I was exceedingly proud of myself, even though I had, of course, cheated.

So there I was finally standing upon the hallowed grounds of the legendary “St. James the Moor Slayer,” whose remains were purportedly
imported here and buried by brave crusaders from Jerusalem. But I felt a twinge of vertigo looking up into the clear cobalt blue, sensing the sky seemed too high up. Also, ominously circling came an Unidentified Flying Object hurtling towards me like a premonition at a supersonic speed—and plop!

I ducked.

Aha, a near miss!

There pooling like heretical alien blood on the ancient cobbles only about a foot away lay an icky phlegmy blob of birdshit, resembling a yolk-less fried egg stuck to a Pam-sprayed pan.

I looked up.

I looked down.

I looked up.

I looked down.

I let my bleary eyes scan the sorry sky until I imagined I spotted a prehistoric Lost World pterodactyl, its impressive wingspan gliding along the air currents like a dark cursor moving across a computer screen.

Amazed, I felt my equilibrium go, like an antique globe knocked off its axis when Atlas shrugged.

Soon both of us began to sort of bug out, for a fearsome flock of our not-so-little feathered fiends, straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, were coming home to roost. There were hundreds of them, large gangly chooks making merry on the rooftop of the church, resembling real-life gargoyles—a flyby warning perhaps of the nearness of hell. “STORKS!” I yelled.

I had never seen this rare breed before except as a curiosity on PBS specials and in old National Geographics. These are surely the most magical species ornithology has on offer: even my parents, to avoid mentioning the mechanics of the mating season (when I already had a purloined Playboy stashed under my mattress), rhapsodized like Bible Belt evangelicals, “Of course the storks deliver babies to us!” “INCOMING!” I intoned, whipping out my digital Elf and snapping storks left and right. But then an avaricious avian assassin, perhaps smelling Christian blood, came this close to landing on my head, as if I were some defenseless statue rather than a desperate man elbowing and Quixote cutlassing a phantom windmill.

The stork’s attacking talons extended like the landing gear of a TWA.

The aggro birds continued to divebomb all around us, landing on garbage cans in a feeding frenzy, collecting like a faithful flock upon the church, but they had no new airmail baby deliveries to make–even though the frisky art student did look a little “game.” How unlike those Norman Rockwell imitators’ prints of heavenly storks bearing angelic diapered cherubim in their beaks! These so-called dinosaurs were downright scary and came less as a miracle, and more like an omen.

The storks continued to land on the church like loony-toon Lucky Lindbergs and Amelia Earharts– uglier than gulls, prouder than peacocks, braver than flamingos, smarter than pigeons. These storks meant business. Big business. In a feverish delirium I plotted a defense strategy: I imagined strangling one and deep-frying it into the stork equivalent of KFC.

After having traveled so far along what was once a classical Roman appia, over a millennium old, called “The Milky Way,” I wondered if the prehistoric pagan gods–way in evidence in this “Celtic” misty green demesne where everyone looks Irish but speaks only Gallegos and Spanish in that order–were interfering with my faith. I held my scallop-shell charm necklace (the city symbol), which I’d purchased from a tacky souvenir shop, and called upon The Savior to deliver us safely from these winged hellspawned harpies.

“Don’t mess with dinner!” I warned. I imagined stork meat probably was more delicious than Popeye’s. I would eat my enemies! (Maybe their eggs or wings were available in some of the popular tapas bars?) Hey, it was almost Thanksgiving anyway!

Without warning, I was suddenly filled with apocalyptic existentialist angst. This was my cue to beat it and get the hell out of northern Spain before things got serious! Long after mankind is at last extinct–either from Ice Age or Global Warming, World War Three or Judgement Day–thousands of species of birds will have bred and spread as if it were they, not us, who lorded it over the damned earth.

Peradventure, if man were meant to fly he would have wings: but judging by Spanish Medieval and Renaissance art in the museos, maybe some of us, putti and putas (a useful Spanish term meaning both “angels” and “whores”), really once could fly. Still, we were defenseless down on the ground, worrying mostly about the economy and terrorism: after our untimely exit, these divinely savage birds will still be here to dine on our leftovers and pick our bones clean.

(After all, maybe there is still hope: what is cacophony “birdsong” in comparison to a choir holding Handel’s “Messiah”?)

I sensed some cataclysm.

I began wending my way back to the relative safety of my roving rental parked right outside my refugio, inviting the art student along for a “ride.”

Looking a little shaken, she said, “No, I can’t possibly, I don’t, I don’t know, but it was nice meeting you.” Her reticence was contagious.
And then without further ado, the stork storm fluttered awkwardly up into battle formation and continued their mindless migration to kingdom come, cleverly camouflaged by the cloudcover, and dissolving into the numinous atmosphere of infinity. . . .

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Comments

  1. Wow…I’m impressed you walked the whole trail. I just recently returned from Santiago de Compostela, and it was cold and rainy…I decided right then and there I would not be hiking the trail. Also, I love storks…love’em…but maybe not if I was surrounded. Great story.

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