“Why do they have an M too? What is this, Mozeman?” we joked, looking at the giant M on the side of Mt. Baldy outside of Bozeman. I had just driven there with Toni from Missoula, Montana. In that town was also an M in the hillside, a big white serifed capital letter in honor of Missoula High. In both places, it was a popular activity to “hike the M.”
Maybe to some people, this sounds normal. To east-coasters like me, maybe less so. (Or anyone from outside the US, unless you are from Peru, perhaps.) Apparently, the western part of the United States has just decided that putting letters into hillsides is a thing, while the east coast just DOES NOT DO THIS. This is such a phenomenon, someone has even made a map showing the distribution of hillside letters. Maybe part of the reason this seems unfamiliar to me despite living on the west coast for years is that western Washington appears to be largely immune to this trend. There is the one exception of a giant Seahawks “12” I pass on I-90, but this seems like a separate phenomenon, cousin to the madness that puts 12s on airplanes, boats, and the side of the Boeing factory, the largest building in the United States.
In Montana, California, and Utah, there are around 80 hillside letters each. These letters are nearly always white, like the populations of these western towns, and they seem to usually commemorate a college, a high school, or the town itself. Many have documented histories of being built, destroyed, and rebuilt over the years. A common theme is students carrying white rocks up to them and/or removing white rocks when they graduate. They almost all start out as rocks, and some graduate to wooden letters (destroyed over and over, replaced by rocks again sometimes), some fade from existence, and some, like the Missoula “M,” become more permanent, in concrete. The one in Bozeman, viewed from up close, looked like approximately nothing. Some rough wood construction holds the rocks in place, and while we came down from Baldy, small crowds of people brought their dogs after work to hike up 850 vertical feet and stop at the pile of white rocks. What’s weirdest to me is that of course you cannot really see the M from the M. Why is this where people stop? Why not any other place on the hillside?
Coming from Washington the elevation in Montana is consistently disorienting. So it seemed almost disappointing that an 8800 foot peak was defaced with a random letter, but then again in Montana peaks of that height are basically just hills– we climbed around 4000 feet to the summit. Still, Baldy is an obvious and impressive sight from Bozeman, so it was heartening that at least one other person that day braved the knee-deep snow to get to the top of Baldy, instead of stopping at the man-made landmark. It was clearly a popular hike; the summit register was an ammo box filled with pages and pages with no empty margins whatsoever. Despite how unsettling it was for such a tall mountain to feel so casual, the early winter hike treated us to weird cornices and untracked wind-affected snow in swooping patterns. We saw a bald eagle circle the summit, as if he knew it was basically named after him.
Toni, one of my close friends from the Appalachian Trail, is from Iowa and had been living in Missoula for a while. She took the concept of meaningless crowdsourced rock decoration in stride, as this is a relatively common roadside sight in the Midwest, and she’s been driving between the M and the L in Missoula for many months now. I probed her about it on the hike. How do the students of Sentinel High feel now that their S is gone, forgotten except as a footnote on Wikipedia? Still, I later looked up the history of several roadside letters online, and some had quirky stories. In addition to the simple and delightful fact that “Hillside Letters in Montana” is a Wikipedia page, I found that Colorado School of Mines also has an especially famous “M.” Creating an M that did not appear distorted from any angle was a descriptive geometry problem in a student’s thesis. The building of the M, and the subsequent lighting projects, absorbed the time of class after class of students, created press controversy, and spawned multiple traditions. If that’s not weird enough, the people of Platteville, Wyoming decided specifically to make an M larger than CSM’s, starting with a letter in the snow and eventually declaring a field day to construct a rival letter. They now hold an “M Ball” every year to celebrate it. In England, apparently, they take it a step further with an epidemic of hillside horses.
While these hillside figures in Europe have some (dubious) historical background, the American letters are mostly defined by ostentatious displays of spirit. The M for Colorado School of Mines is permanently lit, turns red for Christmas, and now has segmented programmable lights. The over-the-top tackiness of the roadside letters, along with the requirement that open, undeveloped hillsides exist for them to be visible, feels so western to me. Big landscapes, big letters, and tons of empty space are all concepts unique to this part of the country. Even the loyalty to schools and communities evokes a feeling of ranch-town charm, along with the idea that people have literally nothing to do except carry rocks uphill. The big skies and cowboy-themed establishments matched the weird hokey culture Montana now embraces for tourists. I eventually found it charming as I reflected on it over the best cider I’ve had, with people I’d just met who showed me infinite kindness. Nothing is strange in a town where people go cross-country skiing before work, and where small hordes move to go ice climbing. It’s all a dream, anyway.