Mountain Monograms

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Monogram MountainIf you’re from the west – you’re probably very familiar with Mountain Monograms.  What you may not know is that these lofty letters do not grace the tops of the peaks in the east.

For those of you who have not made it this far west yet, Mountain Monograms or Hillside Letters as they are sometimes called, are the first letter of the nearest town.

Ok, I get that… but why is it there?

Did it have to do with aircraft?  (then why don’t they need them in the east) Did it have to do with town pride? Maybe aliens?

With each passing letter I became more obsessed with finding the meaning behind all this.

I unearthed a couple of clues and would you believe the tradition was born as a college prank on the hills of Berkeley University?

What follows are excerpt from a 1988 Article in Landscape Magazine:

Giant capital letters adorn hillsides near many cities and towns in the American West. These letters, typically constructed of whitewashed or painted stones or of concrete, are cultural signatures. They serve as conspicuous symbols of community and institutional identity, and they represent an idea, perhaps traceable to a single point of origin, that diffused quickly and widely early in this century.

Both environment and culture have affected the distribution of those hillside monograms. An accessible and fairly steep slope, undeveloped and preferably treeless, is the first requisite. If it is public land, such as Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, park, or school property that is protected from urban encroachment, so much the better. Many western communities can meet these requirements admirably.

Hillside symbols have a surprisingly respectable history dating back some eighty years. To a remarkable extent the letters can be traced to a single decade, 1905-1915. They have almost always been built and maintained by college or high-school student groups. The earliest letter-building projects were devices for defusing increasingly violent inter-class rivalries, which college administrators and faculty found difficult to control. It apparently worked. Making a letter was often a gala community event, an organized “men’s workday” declared a formal school holiday, with picnic lunch and supper provided by campus women.

Once built, letters quickly became symbols of community and school, instant traditions shouting “Here we are!” Illuminating them before major sports contests or for homecomings began early. At such times, when tensions between rivals ran high, the letters were prime targets for raids so they were zealously defended through the night with bonfires and beer.

Their maintenance, including the annual whitewashing or painting, has often been an important ritual in campus life. In some areas the letters had a second function in earlier days as navigation aids to aircraft pilots, helping them identify look-alike desert towns. The letters are distinctive vernacular landmarks in the western states, rarely occurring elsewhere. In Canada only a single example has been identified to date, a C above Cache Creek, a community along the Trans-Canada Highway in British Columbia. In parts of Latin America, as in Mexico or the coastal deserts of Peru and northern Chile, insignias of military units and political parties commonly adorn conspicuous slopes. These sometimes include booster slogans such as “Viva el Peru” or “Arica Siempre.” But such symbols have a quite different origin and character from the letters of the American West.

The University of California’s “Big C” on the Berkeley hills is the granddaddy of them all. Only seventy feet high, the Berkeley letter has been dwarfed by many others over time, but it has persisted. It was built by the freshman and sophomore classes over two rainy days in the spring of 1905 and finished in time for official recognition at the annual Charter Day celebration. The traditional brawl between the two classes had degenerated into something close to guerrilla warfare, a kind of primal savagery known as “the rush” that was likened by one contemporary to Anglo-Saxon raids on the British coast. The intramural battles were receiving increasingly lurid press coverage, discrediting the university throughout the sate. Legislative appropriations and alumni giving were threatened. In a well-publicized truce, the classes of ’07 and ’08 agreed to end the rush and instead devote their energies to constructing a masonry C on the steep, grassy slope behind the campus. Maintaining the six-inch-thick slab of concrete, painted yellow, was a job assigned to succeeding freshman classes.

To see the entire article click here:

James J. Parsons. 1988. Hillside Letters in the Western Landscape. Landscape 30 (1): 15-23.

I love how enlightening being on the road with my family is.  The combination of curiosity and smart phones has broadened our horizons beyond our wildest expectations!

Kimberly Travaglino is the author of “How to Hit the Road”, a comprehensive step-by-step guide for making your family’s full time RV dreams a reality.  She also serves as the Editor of Fulltime Families Magazine, a company that supports risk takers, pioneers, and enlightened families blazing their own path across the country.