Dairy farming and rural mail delivery actually have a lot in common: they both involve physical labor, a circuit of routine and a love of– or at least an ability to function in– the wee hours. “Except with dairy farming, you don’t have to leave home to go to work,” Alan Young tells me as we’re cruise through the predawn hours in his box truck, on our way to St. Johnsbury to fetch the day’s first shipment of mail. Up ’til seven years ago, Alan did not leave home, a home that’s been in his family for over a century, to go to work—instead, he commuted to the barn to milk his cows, just as his father, and his grandfather, and his great grandfather, and his great great grandfather had done, twice a day— he was literally following in his ancestors’ footsteps. Furthermore, Alan tells me, “When I was a baby I used to get car sick, even just going to the village. It got so bad my parents couldn’t take me anywhere.” But by the time he was a teenager in Future Farmers of America, his motion sickness had subsided and he flew off and bussed around the United States to all kinds of conferences before settling down to work on the homefarm. Even though his herd has been sold, he still gets up at four o’clock every morning and goes to work on behalf of another demanding, ongoing current of white stuff: the U.S. mail. Alan is a contracted worker for Rogers Brothers Trucking, and not a U.S. government employee, therefore he’s not permitted to sort the mail or deliver it to mailboxes. His work is more like the milk hauler, actually, picking the up bulky bags and bins of outgoing mail at the eight little post offices on his route and delivering them to the bigger post office in St. Johnsbury, as well as running the route in the opposite direction, which is the one I join —gathering all the incoming mail at St. Johnsbury’s post office, freshly arrived from White River Junction, and stashing the carts and bins of it into the back of his truck for the first delivery run of the day.
I could set my watch, if I wore one, by Alan’s truck, either his one with the red cab or his other one that says “Windows” on the side, rumbling past my house, six times a day. Usually I’m fast asleep during his first pass, but the other morning he slowed to a halt at my driveway and let me climb on at 4:40 a.m. Why I did not choose a balmy spring morning, or one amid summer’s verdure or another in the fall when the trees’ embers are still rosy and gold in the hills—I can not say. It was 18 degrees when I climbed aboard and we lumbered off into the darkness for St. Johnsbury 35 miles away. Like dairy farming, Alan’s job is another solitary pursuit. He listens to just about anything on the radio: hip hop, county, talk—he likes it all. Except for brief, often jokey bantering with the female postal worker (Alan calls them his “wives”) at the eight places he delivers to, it’s just a quiet ride. He recalls when the Iraq war ended and all the footlockers came home—sometimes two or three a day. And in the spring he’ll haul dozens and dozens of day-old chicks in his hold. He had a box of them just last week, too. When it’s that cold out he’ll bring them into the cab and set them where I’m sitting, in the shotgun seat. One time some folks mailed their summer tires back out to California—just slapped a label on it and off they went. And there’s a guy in Hardwick who gets a shipment of coffee every so often. It smells good, even though Alan himself never touches the stuff—he doesn’t think coffee tastes quite as good as it smells. I ask if he gets worried about the weird stuff—Ricin and other crazy things. His reply is succinct, “Nah.” And sure, he suspects there’s probably been a box of marijuana in there too, but his job is not to inspect or examine, but to unload. And unload he does, over and over: in Danville, West Danville, Hardwick, East Hardwick, Greensboro Bend, Greensboro, Craftsbury and Craftbury Common.
By 7:45 a.m. he’s shutting the back door on the box truck, fixing the hasp with the cotter pin for the final delivery of the morning. Somewhere inside the Craftsbury Common post office among the sacks and flats of mail he just lugged in, there’s a bundle for him. Technically, he’s not authorized to collect it himself, so he just tugs out his Orleans Record newspaper to read before he sets off for the lunchtime run.
After Alan gets home this morning, he’s still got some chores to do—feeding and bringing water to his beef cattle and laying hens. Elizabeth will deliver his mail on her local route, stuffing it in the mailbox stationed between his barn and the house sometime this afternoon.
Alan drops me off right where he let me on in the dark, about four hours ago, in my dooryard. I wave as he goes rumbling off, down the road, over the hill to his place, knowing that I’ll hear him pass by like clockwork, today, tomorrow, in the morning, in the afternoon, again and again and again.