FRANK CHURCH-RIVER OF NO RETURN WILDERNESS, Idaho
In the small airport lounge, his former wife and business partner rattles off the weather report and frowns as a surge of wind blows open the door and invites in the morning chill.
Ray Arnold slumps in a chair holding the side of his mouth. The 72-year-old pilot had a root canal the day before. Staring out the window, he weighs years of flying experience against an uneasy sky. Finally, he lifts himself from the chair.
At his signal, Arnold Aviation employees wheel cardboard boxes into the hangar on dollies and stack next to the plane the wish lists of those who live and work along the only backcountry air mail route left in the lower 48 states.
Bananas. Eggs. Canned fruit. Flour. Frozen fish fillets. Oranges. Ice cream. Stripping wax for floors. An 18-pack of Coors. And bright-yellow mail bags, stuffed with everything from bills and letters to magazines and Netflix movies.
“I got to get rid of the ice cream first,” Mr. Arnold says.
The pilot ticks off the items to be loaded first, guiding the workers like a backcountry Santa Claus. In the back of the plane, the parcels are arranged in the order they’ll be delivered. Deep in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, folks are waiting.
For 34 years, the pilot has served as an ambassador to this tiny segment of Americans who prefer isolation over convenience, the roar of a river over the bustle of traffic, a sky dusted with stars instead of the fog of city lights.
Every week, the Cessna 185 lands on river banks and grassy cliffs scattered across remote parts of the Salmon River country, a stretch of land that is bigger than Indiana. In a place where time seems stuck in a bygone era of the West, the sound of the plane reminds the wilderness dwellers that they are not forgotten.
But on this blustery day, Mr. Arnold finds himself preparing goodbyes — the U.S. Postal Service sent notice in March that his roughly $43,000-a-year contract was being canceled.
He flew the letters announcing the decision into the backcountry himself. He could not know that a former executive whom he flew into the backcountry decades ago, a businessman elected to Congress from Idaho last year, would attempt to wrangle a reprieve at the eleventh hour.
Mail has been carried over the mountainous terrain on sleds and horses; and in the unforgiving cold of a central Idaho winter, carriers in the late 1800s crossed the wilderness on skis and snow shoes.
Lafe Cox signed a contract to deliver mail to mining camps, ranches and homesteads along 45 miles of backcountry in 1942, the same year he moved into the wilderness with his young wife, Emma.
“It was a way of making a living,” Mrs. Cox says.
The air mail route includes about 20 ranches scattered throughout the wilderness area, and the Shepp Ranch stop alone serves about 30 people, says Mike Demerse, who with his wife, Lynn, organizes hunting, fishing and outdoor trips from a ranch property that straddles the Nez Perce and Payette national forests.
What would losing the mail service mean? “I can’t order tractor parts. I can’t get a magazine subscription,” he says.
The couple sift through their mail. Mrs. Demerse sorts the doctor bills and magazines, grins when she finds the Netflix movie she rented. They’d survive without the mail, but that’s not the point.
“The point is, is it a basic government service or not?” she says. “Is getting the mail a privilege or a right?”
A delegation of Idaho lawmakers were asking the Postal Service the same question.
From the cramped cockpit, endless forest rolls out over the mountains like carpet. The roads are impassable for about six months of the year. The backcountry radio used to provide the only source of communication, but now people also access the Internet through satellites.
“With the world the way it is right now, it’s a good place to be,” said Sandra Alley, who lived off and on in the Idaho backcountry for about a quarter-century with her husband, Jack Badley.
The U.S. Postal Service faces a potential $6.5 billion loss this year. Postmaster General John Potter says thousands of carrier routes have been eliminated as mail volume declines.
A March 24 letter notified the Idaho backcountry residents that the air route would be cut. If they made the trek to the mountain town of Cascade, a daylong affair for most of them, a mailbox would be available at no cost.
“The initial decision was made with the thinking that there was going to be an acceptable alternative,” said Al DeSarro, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service Western Region in Denver.
Mr. Arnold delivered the letter to the Yellow Pine Bar caretakers on April 1. They thought it was a joke, partly because it was April Fools’ Day, but mostly because they couldn’t imagine sustaining their livelihoods without Mr. Arnold and his deliveries.
As the plane circled above the property, Mr. Arnold peered down for a landing spot that would avoid deer. Sue Anderson pushed a wheelbarrow carrying muffins and coffee to the landing site.
“I guess it might seem to some people as selfish, to want to get your mail,” said Ms. Anderson, 45, who helps maintain the ranch with Greg Metz, 46.
They grumbled about a remark by the postmaster general in March during a House subcommittee hearing.
“We must serve every customer and every community. Rich or poor, from the biggest cities to the smallest towns, we must provide the same high level of service. We must provide the same access. We must make our services available — in both easy-to-serve locations and locations so remote they can only be reached by mule, by swamp boat, or by bush plane.”
The comment became a battle cry in the Idaho wilderness.
A month later, Rep. Walt Minnick, Idaho Democrat, visited Mr. Arnold’s small hangar. The lawmaker remembered the pilot who flew him into the backcountry more than three decades earlier, Mr. Arnold says.
He wondered whether the visit might bode a change in the Postal Service’s decision - and indeed in May, the agency ditched the plan to sever the backcountry mail contract.
“There was no other alternative” for mail delivery, said the agency’s Mr. DeSarro. Mr. Minnick hailed the decision as a victory.
Actually, the Postal Service is exploring alternatives, requesting quotes to find out whether the service could be provided at a cheaper cost. Mr. Arnold must bid for the first time since he took over the contract in the 1970s.