School-Sponsored Mountain Graffiti
It’s time to take the Y off of Y Mountain. The Block U should go too, and all the other school-sponsored graffiti that litters mountains across Utah and the Western United States.
My home state of Utah may be the school-sponsored mountain graffiti capitol of the world, but like many vices, we imported this from California. Berkeley started it.
Hillside letters, or mountain monograms, as some people call them, are a cultural artifact left over from a time when vandalism of natural wonders was something of a national pastime. In 1905, the University of California Berkeley branded a local hill with the letter C as a sort of student unity project. Somehow, taking out their frustrations on that innocent hill created a camaraderie that would last forever, or at least, until they all graduated shortly thereafter—definitely worth the sacrifice of local wildlife habitat. Not to be outdone, a few weeks later the University of Utah attacked a pristine mountain nearby with a giant letter U. It was like an episode of Sesame Street gone bad. And over 100 years ago now in 1906, Brigham Young University became the third school to ruin a local mountain with their own autograph.
According to lore, this act had nothing to do with their jealousy of the U and everything to do with resolving a conflict between juniors and seniors, both of which wanted to write their own graduating class years on the mountain. “Let’s all get along and kill trees together,” said their administrators. Although this project had nothing to do with the U, of course, they decided to outdo University of Utah students by inscribing all three of their initials on the mountain. They started in the middle, so as to center the abomination properly, but it was a lot of work and they were getting tired and the middle initial always has been the favorite Mormon initial anyway, so they quit after finishing the Y.
To be visible all the way down in the valley, letters have to be big. Really big. That itty bitty Y you can glance up at to feel school spirit while the Cougars play football is bigger than the football field itself. That is a lot of forest destroyed to make a letter you could see better if you just typed it into your own cellphone.
Maybe the mountain scarring wouldn’t be so bad if it had stopped at the universities, but high schools started littering the local mountain ranges too. The Utah high school population is rapidly growing, requiring constant construction of new schools with equally proud students that want to vandalize their own bits of the mountainsides with their own school initials.
Social conservatives who couldn’t care less about the environment (most of the Utah population) should still be concerned about how these these mountain letters are proliferating as the Utah student population grows. It is only a matter of time before the alphabet soup we are building across our mountain ranges inadvertently spells out four-letter words. Imagine the Salt Lake City postcard someday when the University of Utah’s U is flanked by letters posted by, for example, schools called Franklin High School to the north and Cottonwood High School and Kennicott High School to the south.
I get it. Seeing your school initial on a mountain fills you with school spirit, akin to wearing your letter jacket. But unlike your jacket, which wraps around your own body alone, a mountain shades an entire valley full of people who have no affiliation with your school, many of whom would find more joy in the natural beauty of the mountainside, unobscured by some letter that stands for some high school they have never heard of.
I’ll admit that as a teen growing up in Utah, I was just as enchanted with school-sponsored mountain graffiti as anyone else. My own high school, Bingham, boasted a letter B on a local mountainside.
Well, actually, it wasn’t that local. The B was created back when Bingham boundaries encompassed most of the sparsely populated Southwestern quadrant of the Salt Lake valley in 1927. Years before I attended Bingham, the high school moved to a new location miles away and the B wasn’t even visible from the new school building.
That is one big problem with mountains; they aren’t very mobile.
The Salt Lake valley isn’t sparsely populated anymore and school boundaries have divided over and over again, so Bingham’s B hasn’t been located in the vicinity of Bingham’s school boundaries for decades. Several other high schools are geographically closer to the Bingham B than Bingham itself.
In spite of its distance from the school, Bingham students used to proudly journey to it annually to whitewash the B. Whitewashing day was a big event for Bingham students, a sort of school-wide outing—at least, until my first year at Bingham, when officials finally decided that sending the entire student body up a distant mountain was a logistic nightmare and limited the event to seniors only.
I was still excited to participate as a senior, but by my senior year, the powers that be decided that even with just the seniors we had too big a crowd, so the event was limited to student body officers, cheerleaders, and their best friends. Basically, they invited all of the kids that sit at the cool table to go up the mountain together, creating just one more way to exclude self-conscious teens from the in-crowd.
As Utah high schools become more urban, there are many options for school spirit that don’t involve trespassing into animal habitat and destroying what is left of our foothills. I once saw a school with their monogram installed on a freeway overpass. More of that, please! Don’t ruin a beautiful hillside; improve an ugly road.