“C” is for Cambridge

Bedridden with the flu bug last September, I had plenty of time to stare out of my bedroom window towards the steep hills to the west. From my angle, I could just barely make out the letter C on the hillside above town. The letter C stands for the town of “Cambridge,” our new home in a quiet part of Idaho.

I’ve seen a few of those letters on hillsides in my lifetime but I’d actually never thought much of them until that day confined to bed. I started some research on my laptop and discovered that there are around 500 hillside letters scattered across United States, with most of them in the west. Some were built as community landmarks but most as a source of school pride and rivalry.

Distribution of Hillside letters.

The first hillside letter in the United States was built in 1905. It was a big C on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, which coincidentally happens to be my husband’s alma mater. Idaho has 34 hillside letters, with Cambridge being the only C in the state. The majority of letters dotting the west were built in the 1920s and 1930s. Our hillside letter in Cambridge is maintained once a year by the high school senior class. This year, my husband asked all seven of his senior English students if I could tag along while they added a fresh coat of paint and changed the number to the current year. My main goal for the trip up the hill, besides wanting to do a short blog and photo essay about it, was actually to see the size of the C up close since from a distance it doesn’t really look that big. I felt privileged and honored that they agreed to allow me to accompany them.

Mitch unloading his ATV to carry the two- 5 gallon buckets of white paint that he picked up at Cambridge Lumber.
Mitch and Josie head out to the top with all the supplies.

Getting to the base of the hill below the C required us to take a dirt road on a local ranch. In our small town, where everyone knows everyone, it sometimes isn’t a problem but it’s always a good idea to ask first before trespassing on private land.

P1070542 Once we found it I was amazed at the size of the C and the size of the rocks, and to think that I almost suggested bringing only a couple cans of white spray paint. On this hot day I’m glad we only had to change one number. Skye, Hillary, Ryan, Jesse, and I formed a line and started passing the rocks, while Mitch and Josie were still slowly driving the ATV to the top of the hill with the paint and brushes, trying to find us.

State champion shot putter Hillary easily tosses a rock to Ryan.
Nice catch, Ryan.
Jesse moved the big rocks.
We moved lots of rocks while waiting for the paint to arrive. We neglected to bring gloves to pull weeds, and in rattlesnake country it would have been a good idea. Luckily, no snake sighting on the hill.
The number three in the process of being rearranged to a four.
Paint arrives. It had to be carried down from the top. Josie prying the lid off with her hands.
Seniors and paint!
Let the paint fight begin! I’m glad that I left my good camera at home.
Working on painting the C.
The seniors on top of the C.
Skye and Hillary navigating the steep slopes.
A nice view of my house (almost smack middle of the photo) from the hillside.
Ryan mopping on the paint.
Skye admiring her work.
The town of Cambridge, population 360, in the background.
Applying some final paint touches.
Jesse hands Josie the bucket. Good thing they used acrylic paint for easier clean-up.
Painting complete, Josie calls Mitch who, after a sketchy ride, finally made it back down to the base of the hill.
Paint crew before heading down.
Rushing down the steep hill carrying some left-over paint with Mitch’s name on it.
Mitch about to get painted. I hope he didn’t like that t-shirt.
Cambridge Class of 2014 (unable to attend painting was graduating senior Samantha).
Heading back slowly and carefully afterwards. Kids: don’t try this stunt at home.

It took about four hours for the six seniors to complete the project. On the walls inside the school are rows of photos from graduating classes going back to the early 1930s. Imagine all the stories, great times, accidents, or even bad weather over the past years. Looking at the photos of the senior classes from year to year, one can see they’ve gradually gotten smaller and smaller. Cambridge like a lot of small towns in America is slowly decreasing in population as the kids move away and never come back. Hopefully, in the future the seniors will carry on the painting tradition, even though it’s more work with fewer students. It ended up being a wonderful afternoon spent with some respectful young adults that were very kind to me and thankfully didn’t get paint on me. It’s nice to feel welcomed and part of the community. From now on, I will look at the C on the hill with fond memories of time spent with the Cambridge, Idaho graduating Class of 2014.

Good bye seniors. Best of luck in the future.


  1. This is very nice thanks for going with us had a good time and thanks you for the hot DPG afterward

  2. Another great blog, Leslie! You take such ordinary subjects that we take for granted, or that we look at nearly every day (like the hillside letters) and make them special. I almost felt like I was up there on that steep slope with you! It was great to see you at the WRT 50K . I hope you guys have a great summer!–Irene

    1. Thanks for commenting and appreciating those small things as well. My natural curiosity and new life in a very rural landscape is giving me plenty of material and interesting things to wonder about? Next time you’re passing thru my neck of the woods, stop by for a cold beverage. Leslie

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