A few years ago, on a beautiful fall day, I was out on my bike, pedaling up a blessedly gentle slope after a hill-climb that had nearly conquered me.
It was mid-afternoon, and, passing a local high-school, I watched at the red crossing light as SUVs, new sedans, even a couple sports cars — most of them driven by students — came out of the school parking lot.
My mood darkened at the thought of spoiled kids, who would be better off — both for themselves and the planet — walking or running or cycling to and from school, as I had in my youth, uphill in both directions, often in a blizzard.
But my mood improved once I was past the school, into the neighboring state park, with Pied-Billed Grebes on the pond, Western Kingbirds in the tall grass, fearless Prairie Dogs, barking by the side of the path, and, just beyond them, a vale with a small creek and willow trees.
l pedaled up out of the vale, over the next hill, and coasted down to a small, green-roofed gazebo standing, anomalously, in the middle of a field. In front of it was a sign: World Youth Summit Site, 1993.
The sign reminded me that, in the last few weeks of my first residence in Colorado, Pope John Paul II had attracted to the park tens of thousands of kids to celebrate being young and hopeful and (presumably most of them) Catholic.
Under the gazebo roof, plaques explained that this bit of prairie had been carefully protected from crowd damage and had emerged from the experience even healthier than before. Whatever the reason — holy water? prayer? a Papal miracle? all of the above? — the boast was justified.
As I stood there, imbibing the beauty and sanctity of the spot, two runners — both girls — came down the hill path, then straight through the prairie grass up to the gazebo, kissed one of the pillars, turned, and, as they ran off back up the path, shouted Wish us luck in the race.
At first, I thought they were calling to me, but concluded they were probably asking the spirit of the late Pope to bless them. After all, that was surely what kissing the post was about, next best to kissing his ring.
After they had vanished over the crest of the hill, I headed back on the same path, and met scores of other kids, running down the hill, toward the gazebo, also presumably to give the pillar a kiss, though I didn’t check.
All their hardy exercising and good spirits raised mine, though I did give a thought to the possible health effects of too many lips on the same pillar, and hoped that their coach at least carried a bottle of disinfectant.
Once again, I passed the devil-may-care Prairie Dogs, and saw other birds — Killdeers skreeing, a Kingfisher on a limb over the pond, and a Kestrel surveying the grasshopper population.
Beyond the school, by now emptied, I passed sports fields where football players were beginning to trudge back to the locker room, girls were practicing softball, and, further on, little boys were kicking little footballs through little goal posts.
I was contented, left only with the minor puzzle of what the Kissing-Pillar signified.
About a year later, when I was interviewing college applicants, I got the answer. My interviewee was a young woman, from that very high school, and a long-distance runner. I asked her if she knew anything about the curious practice of gazebo-pillar-kissing.
Oh yes, she said, we always do it. It’s at the half-way mark of our training run, and it means ‘Thank God. We’re headed home.’