Humans nearly everywhere have created geoglyphs and rock art. That’s one thing. But what about “hillside letters” or “mountain monograms”—slopes marked with one (sometimes two or more) oversized capital letters, signifying a town or a school, usually made of whitewashed rock or concrete? This genre of landmarking is not much more than a century old and largely restricted to the U.S. West.
The phenomenon began in 1905, when students at the University of California in Berkeley and at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City respectively constructed a modest gold “C” and a larger lime-washed “U.” Quickly it became a regional fad, paralleling the national fashion for letterman jackets with varsity letters. Scores of schools, including state universities in Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Wyoming, duplicated the topographic deed over the next ten years. The University of Utah’s upstart rival, Brigham Young University, upped the ante with a block “Y” some 400 feet tall. Several gigantic “M”s were the handiwork (and brainwork) of engineering students at mining schools in Colorado, Montana, and New Mexico. High school and town letters soon outnumbered the collegiate ones. Many mountain monograms from the early twentieth century have fallen into disrepair, but hundreds persist—well over 500. California has the highest total; Montana has the most per capita (though that distinction belonged to Nevada before the recent population growth of Las Vegas). The two highest concentrations are in Southern California and along the I-15/US-89 corridor in Utah, aka the “Mormon Corridor.”
Why the U.S. West? The proliferation of monograms required three determinants—one environmental, two social:
• steep hillsides with minimal vegetation that adjoin or overlook municipalities
• a post-settlement mentality of land proprietorship
• an invented tradition of “class spirit” in education and student athletics
Inhabited places worldwide display one or two of these factors, but only the U.S. West contains hundreds of communities with all three.
In addition to being modern, the impulse to mark a mountain is decidedly non-indigenous. Alternatively, one might call it a “neo-native” impulse. To generalize, indigenous peoples found meanings in landforms and turned them into landmarks with stories. Colonizers and their descendants (the neo-natives) were more often interested in remaking landforms and literally branding them. Like animals marking their territories, westerners landmarked their hills. Despite quite often being poorly designed, poorly constructed, and irregularly maintained, hillside letters from the early twentieth century endure as community symbols.
(For further reading on these “cultural signatures,” see James J. Parsons, “Hillside Letters in the Western Landscape,” Landscape 30, no. 1 (1988): 15–23; and Evelyn Corning, Hillside Letters A to Z: A Guide to Hometown Landmarks (2007).)