ASHLAND — When he accepted a contract to deliver mail to the rural Greensprings area along Highway 66, Michael Gutman was a bright-eyed 28-year-old “living in a commune, growing pot and occasionally participating in tree-planting gigs."
More than three and a half decades later, he delivered his final batch of mail, to the 143 mailboxes, on Saturday morning.
The view headed from Ashland to Greensprings, he’s quick to point out, has been as beautiful each day he’s driven it as the first time he showed up to deliver parcels and envelopes with a newly purchased Dodge van on his 28th birthday, July 1, 1981.
“The way I actually found out about that route was that I was tree planting at one point with some of my commune friends and I put in to apply for the Postal Service through the civil service. I was at a tree planting camp and had to leave because I had an interview at this post office but then I ended up quitting to go back to the commune,” he said.
“In the mean time I heard about these star routes and self-employment sounded interesting.”
“Star routes,” or highway contract routes, are the earliest form of self-employment under the Postal Service dating back to the horseback and stagecoach days of mail delivery. When he took over the route, Gutman replaced a retiring carrier who had driven 130 miles total to incorporate the Greensprings area. His route, with 143 addresses along Highway 66, is closer to half that distance.
“The guy before me started in Klamath Falls and delivered the mail going west. After 20 miles, then he’d drive 40 more miles over to Ashland and he would pick up the mail for out on Greensprings,” said Gutman, now 64.
For my route, I go to Ashland and sort the mail and go 2 miles into Klamath County. For some reason there’s a guy who has an Ashland address even though he’s in Klamath County.”
While the roadway is windy and narrow — and winter can be treacherous — Gutman said it’s familiar enough that weather has thwarted his delivery efforts only a handful of times. For the bulk of the years, he’s had subcontractors handle delivery but he’s been on full-time since October.
“Whenever there’s been a big storm, I’d just go later in the day. I’d generally call up to Green Springs Inn or one of the other guys who lived on the route or the volunteer fire department and check to see if it’s snowing,” Gutman said.
“I have to say the highway folks do a pretty good job of maintaining the roads up there.”
As to changes, Gutman said the evolution of everything from the internet and social media to an influx in online shopping has transformed the job from letter carrying to parcel delivery.
“The biggest changes is all the parcels we delivery now — not as many letters. The postal service should be renamed the United States Parcel Service. They’ve even got a private contract with Amazon so they deliver Sunday for Amazon.”
For his last day of mail delivery, Gutman said he got out of his car and hand delivered the final piece of mail to the lone Klamath County address at his route’s end along Highway 66.
Gutman said one of his subcontractors had applied for the contract, which he hoped would be finalized in time for Monday’s mail run.
Diarmuid McGuire, owner of the Green Springs Inn, said it would be a little strange to have someone else overseeing the route. McGuire said having the same face responsible for the mail on dusty Greensprings was “not so far off from an Andy Griffith scene for the tiny mountain community.”
“We remember him fondly for coming up in the winter and getting the mail into the mail boxes even though ODOT usually pounds up a big berm up along the road in front of the mailboxes. He’d always come in complaining bitterly about it. He’s kind of a live wire,” McGuire said with a laugh.
Even in his sixties, McGuire said the route has been good to Gutman, despite the ups and downs of windy roads, unpredictable weather and contractual negotiations over the years.
“I can’t imagine him sitting still after he retires. The route has kept him in pretty good shape,” said McGuire, who will host a New Year’s Day bash for Gutman on Monday.
An avid tennis player, Gutman said sitting still was, for sure, not in his nature, though he’ll probably "take it easy” a bit more.
The most laborious parts of his job, he noted, involved maintaining traction for his Dodge van for varying parts of mail carrying.
“In the early days, when I had to drive the van up the Green Springs, because it was rear-wheel drive and top-heavy, I would have to load up sand bags for traction,” Gutman said.
“But then I’d have to take them out every day for the Medford run. Great workout!”
All told, Gutman figures it’s been a pretty good three-plus decades taking care of the daily mail for rural Greensprings folks.
“I basically had to beg them to let me go. The rural star routes are very high-mileage routes and there’s not exactly a lot of people chomping at the bit to take them over. They’re going to have a lot of problems in about a year when they have a lot of contracts coming up for renewal. It’s definitely a lot of work for not a lot of money,” he noted.
“We are kind of the bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the barrel and it’s hard to know that the people who put out their contracts are making good money with sick benefits. This isn’t a job where you can call in sick. But, all in all, it’s been OK. And it sure is a beautiful drive.”
— Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.