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The rural routes: Work unpredictable but rewarding for these mail carriers

Lone mailboxes, such as this one seen Aug. 19, 2015, dot Moorhead’s rural mail carriers' routes.W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum1 / 9
Jeremy Sieling, seen Aug. 18, 2015, in the Moorhead Post Office, has been a mail carrier for eight years, but has done full-time delivery for only two. He requested a rural route because of the customer interaction. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum2 / 9
Rural mail carriers can face rough road conditions, especially in winter. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum3 / 9
Sherri Sanderson's "MAILADY" license plate touts her status as a rural carrier.W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum4 / 9
Sherri Sanderson, seen Aug. 18, 2015, is a rural mail carrier who works for the Moorhead Post Office. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum5 / 9
Mail to be delivered overflows from Sherri Sanderson's passenger seat, Aug. 18, 2015, near Sabin, Minn. She drives a 125-mile route with 400 stops. Her steering wheel acts as a pully against the original one.W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum6 / 9
Jeremy Sieling seen Aug. 18, 2015, on his route near Wolverton, Minn., has been a mail carrier for eight years, but has done full-time delivery for only two. He requested a rural route because of the customer interaction.W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum7 / 9
One of the stops on Heidi Hauger's rural route features a giraffe-shaped mailbox as seen Aug. 19, 2015, near Kragness, Minn.W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum8 / 9
Heidi Hauger, seen Aug. 19, 2015, in the Moorhead Post Office, says she enjoys the freedom of being a mail carrier, seeing the wildlife, and listening to books on tape. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum9 / 9

MOORHEAD – We see them coming, and wish they would hurry. What they bring is essential, personal, sometimes junk, oftentimes sacred. What they bring is news, obligation, packages of stuff we desire, and if we are lucky, love. They bring the whole of the outside world, a confirmation that our lives are connected—by name—to places and people we cannot see.

Few things are more solidly welded into the way we order our days. "Is the mail here yet?" If we don't ask it out loud, we wonder, look over our shoulders, check the box again and once more.

We all know the motto, even though it's not official. "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." We like the sense of adventure here, the sense of high purpose. It's romantic, in the best sense of that term.

Benjamin Franklin was our first postmaster. Kevin Costner made a movie about delivering mail after an apocalypse. The Pony Express was noble and grand. Pilots who flew airmail were explorers in white silk scarves.

Most of us live in town. Our mail is delivered by wonderful men and women who drive small white trucks, who wander up and down our avenues with shoulder bags. But then there are the others, those intrepid souls who load their cars and head away from shelter to bring the rest of us news.

"You got to be pretty tough to do a rural route," says Sherri Sanderson, who has been a mail carrier for 18 years. Route 11, 125 miles. Every day except Sunday, no matter what weather. A bit more than 400 stops, 400 places to put the mail.

"You're out there by yourself and a lot of things can happen," she says. Car trouble comes with the territory. Blizzards. Whiteouts.

Sherri Sanderson's "MAILADY" license plate touts her status as a rural carrier.W. Scott Olsen / Special to The ForumOne day she turned down a road, snow higher than her bumper. The county snowplow saw her and waited. When she returned, the driver pointed, asking which way she was headed next, and plowed the road in front of her.

She sees lots of animals. Moose. Deer. Farm dogs. Stray cows. A few years back there was a black bear. "North of Glyndon," she says, "he came out of the ditch and crossed in front of me.

"At the same time I noticed there was a farmer out in the field checking his soybeans. He didn't see the bear. I drove up a little farther and let him know it was time to get out of the field."

Jeremy Sieling got the bees. "This isn't something you'd expect," he says. The mailbox had been turned into a hive. Thousands of bees crawling over the door and inside. "For a while I delivered to the house," he says. "It's getting better, but they're still inside the tube for the paper."

Jeremy drives Route 2—114 miles, a bit more than 400 stops.

He's been a mail carrier for eight years, but in only his second year of full-time delivery. He requested a rural route assignment.

"You get a lot of one-on-one interaction," he says. "Lots of customer service."

Mail to be delivered overflows from Sherri Sanderson's passenger seat near Sabin, Minn. W. Scott Olsen / The ForumHowever, the route for him is new. "I actually haven't been out on this route in the winter yet," he says. "I've heard it can get kind of dicey."

Heidi Hauger drives Route No. 1, which runs from the wind turbines, past Kragnes, then back into town. Ninety miles, 540 stops. She's been a mail carrier for 22 years. "I love it," she says.

"You have a lot of freedom. You get to see all kinds of wildlife. There's a lot of eagles out there now. Hawks. I saw a snowy owl once, just standing next to the road."

Hauger listens to talk radio and books on tape. John Grisham's "Testament" is her favorite so far.

When it's cold, it's just another day, she says. Except you run from the car to the door when there's a package involved.

"My customers are awesome," she says. "One day I pulled into a customer's yard to deliver a package and didn't know I had a flat tire. He said, 'Would you like my Suburban or my pickup?' People in the country are really nice."

Their day begins at 7 a.m., sorting mail in the back of the Moorhead Post Office. They are on the road by 8:30 or 9. They could be done at 3. They could be done at 6. Christmas means high volume and icy roads. Summer means heat, flat tires. And on the prairie there is always the wind. It really doesn't matter. The route isn't done until the mail's all gone.

"Just the other day," Sanderson says, "I was at a mailbox and someone swung up in an ATV and threw sweet corn in my car. Someone else hangs produce from their mailbox. There are lots of perks. Lots of fresh cookies."

One of the stops on Heidi Hauger's rural route features a giraffe-shaped mailbox. W. Scott Olsen / The ForumAnd there are lots of miles. "My last vehicle," Sanderson says, "I killed it at 473,000 miles. The dealer called and said come and get her, take her home. It's over."

It doesn't matter if the mail is a contract, a bill, a racy catalog or a preschool drawing of the family dog. Once sealed and placed in the mail, the letter is a matter of trust.

The Constitution gives Congress the responsibility to establish not only post offices, but post roads as well. It's a felony to tamper with the mail. Every address will be served, no matter how far away, no matter how lonely. Every morning, shortly after coffee, we wonder and hope. Is the mail here yet? The motto does not mention bears or bees. We wave and say hello. We say thank you, too.

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