MONTEREY, CALIF. -- The desolate and dusty hillside rising up from the Laguna Seca motor raceway was hardly a site one would choose for a papal mass. But with no arena or sports stadium available in the area, they had to make do.

They built a platform for the altar, the choirs and the mass celebrants on the apron of the pit in the center of the track. The people found places on the hard and barren hillside, from where they could look down on the proceedings.

In the end, the desolate locale, devoid of Hollywood-style glitter and showmanship to which the pope had been exposed for two previous days, witnessed one of the most moving events of his entire tour.

Even the jarring clash of the signs -- a massive banner reading "WE LOVE YOU HOLY FATHER" next to the ubiquitous "THIS BUD'S FOR YOU" -- seemed, in its very incongruity, so quintessentially American.

The people began arriving at the raceway as early as 1 a.m. Thursday, carrying food and drink for the long hours of waiting, and blankets and comforters to ward off the 50-degree chill.

There were sun-bronzed farm workers who had been given the day off from the lettuce fields in nearby Salinas valley. There were housewives from San Francisco, teen-agers and grandparents, families with children of all ages.

Jean and Ralph Lysyk, wearing matching shirts in Vatican yellow, had driven halfway up the California coast the day before from their home in Orange County to claim their spot on the hillside by 4:30 a.m.

"We couldn't get tickets for the masses in Los Angeles, so we came up here," said Jean Lysyk.

By the time the sun broke through about 9:30 a.m., vast acres of the hillsides were paved with people.

From the distance, it looked like a Cecil B. De Mille biblical epic in contemporary dress, like a modern rendering of Jesus preaching to the multitudes.

While they waited, some in the vast crowd stretched out on the lawn chairs or cots they had brought with them, or on the bare earth, catching up on their sleep. What was unusual about the crowd was a pervading sense of order and decorum -- and expectation. Even the children, who had every reason to fuss from boredom and the lack of sleep, were subdued, waiting.

A few minutes after 10 o'clock, the pope arrived in his helicopter and got into the boxy popemobile for the slow drive around the raceway. People stood up and craned their necks to get the best view. There was no pushing or shoving; people at the perimeter fence moved aside to let the children squeeze through the forest of legs to the front where they could see.

People applauded and cheered and waved banners, but there were no whistles, nothing raucous to break the solemn mood.

Bernadine Grentz, who had left home at 3:30 p.m. the previous day to get to Laguna Seco, stood beaming as the pope passed within 50 feet of her. With field glasses in one hand and her Instamatic camera in the other, she was a little rueful, though. "I was so excited looking at him through the glasses I forgot to take a picture," she explained.

Nick Verduzo of Fresno and his family, who had arrived for the mass about 3:30 a.m., waved banners that proclaimed, "Totus Tuus" -- totally yours. Verduzo, who is retired, was overwhelmed at first by a reporter's question about what he would say to the pope if he had a chance. But after a few moments' thought, he replied, "I would ask him to bless me and bless the whole world."

The mass began like any other, only this time it was the voice of Pope John Paul II that rang out over the sere California hills with the familiar invocation -- "In the name of the Father and of the Son . . . . "

As the pope paused for a long moment of silent prayer, a deep silence pervaded the crowds on the hillside. No coughing, no child crying, not even a bird could be heard, as 50,000 people focused their attention on the distant figure in white whom they had come to see and hear -- and be blessed by.

After the mass, Edith Lenz explained what the pope's visit meant to her. Balancing Christopher, the youngest of her brood of five on her hip, she said, "I'm so thankful that he has come here to see us, to teach us what is right."

No, she said, she doesn't agree with everything the church teaches, "but then my kids don't listen to everything I tell them.

"I really see him as the Christ figure and I admire him so for traveling all over the world and trying to teach people . . . I admire him for standing up for what is right."

Not everybody at Laguna Seca was Catholic. Army Pvt. John Whitefleet, 20, in civilian clothes and wearing a white nylon jacket stenciled "Papal Volunteer," had volunteered to help out "because I wanted to."

"I volunteered," he said, "even though I'm not Catholic, because I think he has the power to bring out the spiritual in people."

At Laguna Seca raceway, it would be hard not to agree.