A Century-old Tradition: Alumni and Students Hike to Clean the “R”

Looking out at the San Bernardino Mountains, especially from the basketball courts to the left of Armacost Library, a century-old symbol of the University of Redlands is just a bit more visible, thanks to the efforts of over forty students and alumni.

 

Last weekend, on Oct. 9th, Scott Lacy, ‘90, led one of the biannual hikes to the “R” on the face of the mountains to clear the brush that has begun to grow on the letter.

The hike is a physically demanding ascent 5,000 feet above sea level, where participants then traverse the face of the “R,” cutting away at the brush. The giant letter spans roughly 415 feet in length, 275 feet in width. For reference, that’s about as long as the quad is wide.

 

The expedition began at seven in the morning, where participants convened in front of Memorial Chapel, and departed in a cavalcade of vehicles down Highway 330 past Highland towards Big Bear. A sharp right onto the unpaved Old City Creek Road and suddenly the line of vehicles were climbing the first leg of the journey, past rugged chaparrals and waterfalls covered by tree canopies. Eventually the dozen or so trucks and sedans parked at the foot of the “R”-branded mountain, and the troop ascended the remaining 1,400 feet on foot. 

 

For reference, Lacy mentioned the recent “Fight for Air Climb” that raised money for the American Lung Association. The event involved climbing all 1,393 steps to the top of the 858 foot-tall Aon Center in Los Angeles. In fact, the top of the “R” would peak above even the tallest skyscraper in Los Angeles, the Wilshire Grand Center (1,099 feet!).

 

The trek up the mountain is a steep climb up a narrow gravel path, with loose, shifting sand and rocks underfoot. The occasional bee wizzes by, and a variety of insects scurry about. Hikers became intimately familiar with a particular species of shrub on the path called Yucca. Its long, tough leaves come to a sharp point that pierce through pants and gloves, punishing a careless leg or arm with painful scrapes and pokes.

Once at the slanted face of the “R,” participants clipped, hacked, and tore away at the brush. The incline makes traversal difficult, so people often stood on large rocks to steady themselves, or sat down on the mountainside and slowly cut away. The trail leads hikers to the lower left hand side of the “R” first. Because of the angle hikers approach the letter and the steep incline, it’s easiest to reach (and therefore cleanest) on the lower left, while only the most dedicated and physically capable made it all the way to the right-hand leg of the letter (in the case of our group, four men all registered under the same name, Tom).

 

Scott Lacy is an alum who has lead hikes to the “R” for two decades, but only started doing so after graduating. He confessed he felt a need to give back to his alma mater.

 

“I can see the ‘R’ from the window in my house, you know. I live in Loma Linda, you can see it across the valley,” Lacy said. “[Guiding these hikes is] just something I can do to give back. It’s weird though, I’ve been more active with the school as an alum than I ever was as a student.”

 

His help is certainly needed; the hike is an exhausting ordeal. And yet, plenty of unlikely, adventurous community members have attempted the hike—though not everyone has made the whole journey without giving up.

 

“There was one trip a few years ago when I held back and escorted these two seventy-plus year olds,” Lacy said. “It took us three hours just to get up to the Vista Point. We didn’t even make it to the ‘R.’ Then we turned around and it took them almost three hours to get down.”

 

Among the hikers Lacy has guided is a man one year recovered from a triple bypass, a woman five months pregnant, some ten year olds, and a few dogs.

However, the physical demands of the hike often leave hikers needing to stop and take a break at Vista Point, a peak just before the trail virtually disappears in the last hundred or so yards from the face of the “R.” This peak is accomplishment enough, and serves as a checkpoint for groups making the trek up. In fact, the letter isn’t even visible for the majority of the on-foot ascent, as Vista Point obscures the higher peak which the “R” is emblazoned on.

 

The group that made the journey last weekend was mostly comprised of alumni, and all of them noted the strenuousness of the hike. Among the first-timers was Lily Barger, ‘15, who admitted like most of the group she “paused a couple of times” on the odd solid rock to sit and catch her breath. Aude Cabaldon, ‘83, said the same, but enjoyed the experience regardless.

 

“[This is] my first time also,” Cabaldon said. “This has been cool. I’ve been able to connect with people through the community … from all aspects of life.”

 

At least five students made the entire trip up, including myself and freshman Kyle Eaton, photographer for the Redlands Bulldog. Another freshman and first-timer, Danica DeVoe, joined her mother Marcy DeVoe, a department coordinator in the Gannet Center. Danica DeVoe said the hike was “fun but a lot harder than you think.” Despite this, she was enthusiastic. “I want to come back and do it [again] for sure,” she said.

The forty-plus hikers joined a long and storied history that spans more than a hundred years. However, the composition of the group that made the climb last weekend was notably different than it has been in the past.

In the book With Unbounded Confidence: A History of the University of Redlands by Larry E. Burgess, the history of the “R” from it’s creation in 1913 is outlined. According to Burgess, the project of cleaning the “R” began as an initiation for freshmen, with a poem to direct them:

 

Little Freshies, grab your mattocks,

Also seize the ancient hoe,

Take a bunch of grub and scurry

Up the mountains in a hurry

To the “R” where weeds now grow.

 

Burgess’ harrowing account of the early years of the “R” in which its existence was threatened by the United States Forest Services is a testament to its enduring legacy. The early practice of lighting the letter with railway flares was deemed a fire hazard, and the “R” itself called “a means of advertising” prohibited by the National Forest Reserves. Outrage throughout the San Bernardino Valley reached Colonel Greeley of the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., who eventually ruled that “existing school letters on National Forest Reserve” were exempt from this advertising law. The “R” was saved.

 

So take a moment on your way to breakfast and look out at the mountains. The “R” is currently cherished and maintained by students and alumni in every graduating class from 1968 to 2023. Although it has become primarily the project of alumni, a growing group of students join the ranks of the sojourners to preserve one of the things that makes the U of R such a tightly knit, multi-generational community.


Photographs by Kyle Eaton and Jono Ruhlman. Group Photo by Debi Logan.




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