Dodging log trucks on steep, rocky roads and stopping for bears as they cross the street, Becky Erickson delivers mail to people in Selleck, Kanasket and nameless hollows along the Cascade foothills.
“I live next door to the post office here and when the mail truck comes every morning, it wakes me up and I go to work,” she said.
The U.S. Postal Service is celebrating 100 years of free delivery to rural areas. The program started in 1896 after a decade of lobbying by farmers who wanted information in between their monthly trips to town. The first rural route in Washington started north of Spokane in April 1897.
Today in Western Washington, more than 800 rural carriers drive 27,742 miles a day to deliver mail to 389,484 addresses, according to Ernie Swanson, spokesman for the Postal Service in Seattle. Nationwide, there are more than 60,000 rural carriers.
At the Ravensdale Post Office, Erickson and Lora Needham, a part-time carrier, deliver mail to 725 homes a day.
Rural carriers, unlike those in the cities, wear casual clothes instead of uniforms. They belong to different unions. Rural carriers work on contract, earning $25,000 to $35,000 a year depending on route length. City carriers work for hourly wages and often don’t have time to chat.
Rural carriers must provide their own cars. Erickson started with a used Dodge sedan more than 10 years ago. She learned to drive from the passenger seat, reaching across with her left hand to steer and her left foot to brake, while using her right hand to reach mailboxes out the car window.
“It was a miracle that I never crashed,” she said. After six years on the job, and four new transmissions, she bought a used 20-year-old mail Jeep with right-hand steering for $800. Her husband is handy enough to keep it running, she said.
Their routes take Erickson and Needham to places like Southeast Courtney Road east of Kanasket, where the snow and ice can make winter treacherous. Teenagers careen down that road, slaloming through snow in old cars, and there is no guardrail, just the trees, to stop anyone who drives off the high cliff.
This year, Needham has enjoyed watching the progress of a deer with fawns in a field she passes each day. Erickson once came across a bear with her cub as she drove down from the foothills.
Then there are dogs. “Some people have some mean looking dogs,” said Needham as she sorted letters beside a warning poster with a canine mug and the title: “Danger Dog.” She has never been bitten, but she once saved a jogger by scaring away the big rottweiler that had cornered him at the edge of a field. “He said, ‘Thank you, thank you. You saved my life.”’
Erickson has a snapshot of a new baby born to a family on her route. Getting to know the people, she said, is the best part of the work.
“If you deliver to an apartment complex with 1,000 people you don’t get to know them” said Erickson, who once summoned help for an elderly lady who’d fallen in her home and could not get to the door.
“We know pretty much everyone from the school fund-raisers or the water meetings,” said Needham, a Kent native. “It’s like a big family out here.”
The family is growing. When Erickson started 10 years ago there were fewer than 500 stops on the rural route. Needham’s job was added when the route grew too big for one person.
In this age of the cellular phone, e-mail and the satellite teleconference, rural mail delivery seems like a quaint tradition.
According to Swanson, despite electronic competition, the volume of U.S. mail keeps growing. And after a century of success, free rural delivery seems safe for the future.