Take a road trip out West, and you’re likely to catch sight of a giant letter on a hill. To native Westerners, these hillside letters hardly merit a second look. For East Coast transplants like myself, they pique more curiosity. The first letter I encountered was a big white W (allegedly the tallest of them all at over 400 feet) upon a hill above Western State Colorado University in Gunnison. Another letter caught my attention during my first week of graduate school at the University of Utah: a giant U above campus.
Before the letter, there was a number. On Arbor Day in 1905, two sophomores cut their class year (’07) into the grass of Mount Van Cott, a hill above campus named for the University’s first female dean. Soon after, the class of ’08 converted the mark to match their graduation year. Back and forth they went until the two classes settled on their shared appreciation for the letter U. This became the first hillside letter in Utah and the second in the nation, beat out by mere months by a letter C overlooking the University of California, Berkeley.
During the rest of the twentieth century, hundreds of hillside letters appeared across Western hills. While a precise count doesn’t exist, we know there are at least 400. Over time, new letters appear while others succumb to environmental erosion.
If it weren’t for a series of facelifts, the University of Utah’s Block UTM (yes, it’s trademarked) would be but a heap of crumbling limestone today. The letter’s life story reads like a battle between the U and nature, playing out across a century. Snow and rain melt the original U. In 1906, 600 students carry buckets of lime up Mount Van Cott to fortify the letter. The elements strike again. In 1907, military mules haul up concrete to give the U a fighting chance. Slowly, the U slips down the hill, as cracks splinter the concrete.The same year humans reach the moon, the U is embellished with lights that “flash in victory” when the University of Utah Utes win and hold “steady” when they lose. Bushes and weeds proliferate in the cracks of the U as it continues its slow descent of Mount Van Cott.
Fast forward to the early aughts, when an enraged alum—Sue Christensen, Class of 1956—informed University President Michael Young about the deteriorated state of the U. Young enlisted the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to strategize the U’s rehab, leading to the “Renew the U” campaign. By the summer of 2006, Christensen had raised $460,000 to restore the letter, plus an extra $163,000 for scholarships. With plenty of money in hand for a new U, Christensen instructed the contractors, “I don’t want a bunch of rocks scattered around. I want it solid.”
The U is born anew in concrete. A drainage system protects the new letter from erosion. And fiber optic lights—240 of them—blink red and white when the Utes win. But not everyone viewed the restoration of the U as a triumph.
Before the nearly half a million dollars was spent on the Block UTM, The Salt Lake Tribune published an op-ed entitled “U should go,” writing: “It is a 100-foot-tall anachronism, built back in 1907 before Salt Lake residents and enthusiastic university students realized what a priceless bit of open space the foothills would become.” Ultimately, The Salt Lake Tribune tagged the U and other hillside letters as “institutional graffiti” and “giant environmental scars.”
The op-ed drew protest. Many pointed out the hypocrisy of decrying the environmental impact of a letter when it was surrounded by “trophy homes.” Salt Lake resident Linda Marion declared that “the much-loved symbol” made her feel proud and safe, while Ronald E. White added, “I have never been offended by any of these monuments.”
In the eyes of today’s students, the U is at the very least a popular site to visit. In my survey of 17 University of Utah underclassmen, about 35 percent have made a pilgrimage to the letter to celebrate football victories, watch the sunset, mountain bike, and initiate romantic relationships.
What’s less clear is how students classify the U. Many identified it as a monument or mascot, some called it art or environmental eyesore. The most popular categorization of the U, however, was as a sign. “My immediate reaction . . . is recognizing it as a sign or indicator of the university,” remarked one student.
If the U is a sign, it is not an object unto itself, but an indicator. Of what? An answer lies in the roots of the word “sign”: the Latin signum, meaning “mark” or “token.” Ultimately, the U marks the hill and the larger landscape as an extension of the university and city below. It is a mode of claiming, a way of saying, “this is our hill, our viewshed, our land.”
If the letter is a mark, then it’s inevitably tied up in the spirit of Manifest Destiny, of purported discovery and territorial kismet. By putting a letter that represents our educational community on a hill, we have shoved words into the hill’s mouth: “I belong to you! I am part of you!”
Where does this instinct to mark and brand land come from? French philosopher Michel Serres argues that we mark to claim land and resources. This instinct is not just human, it’s animal, Serres insists—as primal as “piss on the edge of [the tiger’s] lair.” Evidence of the urge to mark appears throughout time and space, from pictographs engraved in rock and initials carved into aspen trees, to ranch gates emblazoned with surnames.
By constructing a U on a hill visible throughout the Salt Lake Valley, all members of the University of Utah collective can look up and recognize a part of themselves in the landscape. One of the students I surveyed, Tina Pham, remarked that when she beheld the U, she felt that it represented a part of her. At first, this didn’t resonate with me. But after a few weeks of studying the U, I knew what she meant. I began to search for it in the horizon, and, upon finding it, felt a sort of comfort. The U had become a part of my cultural landscape, and thus, a part of me.
Over a decade since its rehabilitation, the U on the hill is looking a little beat-up again—chipped paint, hairline cracks, broken lights. Is nature wreaking havoc again? It’s not just the U that could use a little love, but the entire site. Human debris decorates frail vegetation: an upside-down couch, a flip-flop, an empty bottle of tequila.
Whether the U is a mark, monument, or environmental eyesore, the question now is whether we’ll continue to preserve it. Of the students I surveyed, 94 percent believe the U is worth maintaining. But when tagged with the likely price of “several hundred thousand dollars,” only 24 percent felt a restoration was justified. We may decide that avoiding more tuition hikes like the recent 4 percent increase are more worthy causes.
As for me, I feel relatively ambivalent about the U and its future. With climate change underway, do hillside letters really deserve a spot on the podium of environmental issues? On the one hand, opposition to the hillside letter seems rooted in an outdated approach to environmentalism—one founded in the myth of a people-less nature. On the other hand, the U is an artifact of humanity’s anthropocentric streak that has gotten us into our environmental mess.
If the Block UTM endures nearly 2,000 years as the concrete of the Roman Pantheon has, it may end up outlasting us all. I imagine a Utah crippled by drought, devoid of humans. When the rare snowstorm does strike the Wasatch, our hillside letter will disappear—but there may be no one around to notice. The question of whether our hillside letter is eyesore or emblem will be irrelevant then.
Maya Silver is a writer based in Kamas, Utah. She's the head of copy at Backcountry.com and is also authoring the forthcoming Salt Lake, Park City, and the Wasatch Range travel guide from Moon (out fall 2020). Find her writing at www.mayasilverwrites.com. b. 1986