The first thing I noticed when I was plucked from a sound sleep by aliens and we started flying around was that all the Western towns and cities were conveniently labeled. Lifting off from Logan, Utah, I could clearly see the big mountainside "L" get smaller as we zoomed skyward. Heading west, it only took a few minutes in hyper-drive before we were over the big "C" near Carlin, Nev. I wondered aloud to my pointy-eared pilots: "Is this helpful?"
They replied that it did indeed help with their humanoid catch-and release program. My orb-headed tour guides explained that the hillside letters were taken as sort of an "open for business" sign for alien-abduction-friendly towns.
Maybe that wasn't the real reason the townspeople put the letters there. No matter. It was the logical interpretation of life forms more advanced than ours. The telepathic messages emanating from their huge throbbing brains told me that if the people believed that putting mammoth letters on the sides of pristine mountains was a good idea, they would likely be receptive to almost anything; including abductions.
Apparently, Western states are just begging to be sucked up by zero-gravity rays, because now you can't drive 50 miles without seeing a mountain or hillside festooned with letters of some sort.
In the universal time scheme, mountainside letters have only been around a few minutes. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, put up what is believed to be the first hillside letter in 1905. Brigham Young University put up a monstrous "Y" the next year, then every school and town in the West started monogramming their mountains. Soon after, all manner or pranks ensued. The blue schools started painting the red school's letter blue and vice versa. One high school in Utah, foolish enough to put up a giant "SS" on a hillside, routinely has an "A" added as a first letter by a cross-country team's rival school. This custom is similar to painting combative epitaphs on water towers in the pancake states.
We love our letters. Some towns even set them on fire or illuminate them in other ways when the home team wins. This must really confuse the aliens.
I know you may not believe me. I have no real proof that aliens flew me around the West. There is something about their warp drives that renders digital cameras functionless. Let's just say for the sake of argument that the letters weren't really put there to guide advanced life forms. If not, why are the letters there? Why would every town from Arcata to Las Cruces label a nearby mountainside with grandiose graffiti?
Drive or fly Air Alien through the Midwest or South and you don't see any of this. Globally speaking, many perfectly fine towns around the world have no letters whatsoever plastered on their hills and mountains. Humans and aliens alike must rely solely on maps and signs to find each town. It is possible that this phenomenon has something to do with the West's abundance of mountains coupled with low self-esteem. Even the smallest mountains in the West would be recreation destinations almost anywhere else in the United States. Westerners, however, have so many peaks that they feel the need to use them to draw attention to their towns and universities.
"Look at us! We're not really hicks. We have high schools and institutions of higher education right here!" the letters seems to say.
When you mix all these letters, you have an alphabet soup or some giant game of Scrabble. It must look like something readable from low orbit. Why big letters at all? If you are going to plaster something on a mountain, why not a logo or an artist's rendering of something or other? Or, cities could have something more symbolic. Logan, Utah, where I live, could have a big wedge of cheese to symbolize its most prominent agricultural product. Berkeley could most aptly honor its counter-culture heritage with a big "LSD." And what about Boise State? Wouldn't those make interesting initials to see from the air?
Dennis Hinkamp is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Logan, Utah, and does not believe in either aliens or the need for mountainside letters.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.