Above photo: Allison Tiffany. From AZ Central.
In rural Arizona, the postal service is a literal lifeline.
On an otherwise typical summer day, rumors started spreading in the small rural mountain community of Munds Park in northern Arizona: The local post office had been shuttered.
As the chatter and gossip grew on social media, Allison Tiffany, a seasonal resident, drove down to check. She found a suspension notice taped to the building’s glass door. “It was so shocking that you had to find out for yourself,” she said. “Sure enough, the doors were locked.”
The closure was “extraordinarily disruptive,” said Tiffany, who became the de facto organizer of the community’s response. “Just under ordinary circumstances, we rely very heavily on the post office to receive the essentials.”
Across the rural West, the U.S. Postal Service has long been an integral part of everyday life — especially in recent months, ever since the pandemic made residents wary of going to the grocery store or driving to town for necessities. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank, the postal service is a literal lifeline: About one in four veterans live in rural communities, and 80% of their prescriptions come through the mail. Additionally, residents 65 and older rely more on mail prescriptions than younger people do. Many rural post offices also distribute packages from private delivery services, such as UPS, FedEx and Amazon. And across the Western United States, residents also rely on the postal service to deliver mail-in ballots.
For the residents of Munds Park, losing their post office basically meant losing their pharmacy, bank, grocery store and social center, too. It radically changed their way of life. The ability to mail something across the country for 55 cents is a modern-day miracle, one that we take for granted — until it disappears.
The town of Munds Park has a year-round population of approximately 868. In the summer, however, thousands of part-time residents move here for the cooler mountain climate, coming from cities hundreds of miles way, such as Phoenix and Tucson.
When the post office closed, people were suddenly forced to trek over 40 miles round-trip to nearby Flagstaff. This was particularly challenging for older adults who had to drive on a high-speed freeway and then wait outside in long lines in 90-degree heat. Local media reported that one resident fainted during such a trip this summer and had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance.
“It was very troublesome and frightening,” Tiffany said. “It was the middle of COVID, so we were being asked to stay home, stay safe — and now you are asking the vulnerable and elderly to go and do that?” She decided to start a new Facebook group, Munds Park Post Office and Community News, that provided a way for residents to strategize.
News reports soon confirmed that the old post office, which was run through a contractor — a common arrangement in rural communities — had been terminated after an altercation that ensued during an audit. (A postal service spokesperson said he could not comment on a personnel issue.) Privately contracted offices can be difficult and expensive to run, and there is a high turnover; for every new contract signed, nearly three were terminated in fiscal year 2019. And unlike regular post offices — which need to go through an extensive closure process that involves notifying the public — contracted outposts can be closed without warning, leaving rural communities especially vulnerable.
The contract model itself is emblematic of the tenuous ties rural communities have long had with the U.S. Postal Service. Recent cutbacks and postal delays have made headlines ahead of the 2020 presidential election, but rural residents have experienced closures and cuts for years. In 2011, the Postal Service announced plans to shutter 3,700 post offices across the country, many of them in rural areas. But after a nationwide backlash, the agency agreed to other cost-cutting measures to keep services in rural communities, including shorter hours and an increase in contract-run facilities. When the post office closed in Munds Park, residents had no idea when it would reopen.
In the meantime, residents took charge. Thomas Hlusak, the 74-year-old administrator of the Munds Park Community Church, organized a volunteer courier service so that community members could drive to Flagstaff on behalf of their neighbors. Within a week of the closure, volunteers started daily runs to ensure that disabled and elderly residents received their important deliveries in time. At one point, 25 volunteers were picking up the mail for 155 residents. Hlusak, who jokingly refers to year-round residents like himself as the “frozen chosen,” due to the cold winter temperatures, said, “I had people pull into our parking lot here in the church and get out of their car in wheelchairs, (using) canes and walkers,” to sign up for the service.
Around the same time, Tiffany spoke with media outlets, while residents began reaching out to elected officials and county staff who sent letters to postal officials. Within a few weeks, a new contractor had been found — something Tiffany thinks would not have happened as quickly had the community not come together. When Hlusak heard the post office would be reopening, he was elated. “It is kind of a social center for us,” he said. “We don’t have a senior citizens’ center, so the post office was the place where everyone meets.”
Since mid-July, Laurie A. Ward has been operating the quaint facility under a new name — The Outpost – and new short-term six-month contract. I could hear the beeps as she scanned packages in the sorting room and described how she and her husband are managing the business, which is new to them both. There was such a backlog at the beginning, she said, that during the first few weeks they worked 80 hours a week to sort all the items into their respective P.O. boxes. (The tiny outfit, which consists of one room for sorting packages and a lobby area, has 1,300 active boxes and four part-time employees.) The Wards plan to bid on a longer-term contract, but running the post office has turned out to be more work than they initially realized. It’s also more expensive; the Wards are responsible for salaries, rent and other expenses, including postage meters.
But the locals are thankful she’s there. When she first opened, they dropped off cookies, donuts, houseplants and apples. People were so grateful, she said, one person even brought her a new shirt. “We got lots of gifts of gratitude,” she said.
For good reason: On the community’s Facebook page, Ward has frequently reached out to help community members. In one post, she notifies a resident that they have a perishable package waiting to be picked up. In another, she appears on video, holding a stack of bills and chastising the utility company for sending bills to residents’ street addresses instead of to their P.O. boxes.
Slowly, she’s learning people’s names and box numbers. “A gentleman came in the other day and he said, ‘I’m having a senior moment,’ ” she said. But Ward, who recognized his name, was able to remember the last three numbers of his P.O. box and track down his mail. “You know, they’re really appreciative,” she said. “Like when we carry out their boxes for them, especially when they’re older and they get the packages that are heavy for them. It’s just nice to be able to help.”