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Escanaba — Susan Kleiman pulled off her rural postal route on County Road 426 on a recent weekday after spotting an Amish family's cow loose in a neighbor’s field.

She alerted the owners of their wayward animal. 

“It’s just part of our neighborly response,” she said. “We watch out for everyone along our routes.”

Kleiman, 53, is a rural mail carrier, and her Escanaba post office route is the longest rural route in the state, according to the U.S. Postal Service. 

Monday through Friday, she drives more than 131 miles a day. It's a route Kleiman has driven for two years, and it takes her roughly 10 hours to complete.

“I’m on my fourth vehicle since my first days on the job," Kleiman said. “This route can split the ball joints in your vehicle in half."

With 361 stops on this particular Tuesday, she delivered mail to parts of two counties: Delta and Marquette.

Kleiman, who joined the postal service in 2004, traversed many unpaved roads that can be muddy and water-logged. Road conditions along Rural Route 33 can change from morning to late afternoon because of warming and cooling weather conditions.

“All rural carriers in the Upper Peninsula drive all-wheel-drive vehicles,” she said. “Weather in the Upper Peninsula can be a challenge.” 

She begins each workday sorting mail in the Escanaba Post Office at 7:30 a.m. and works as late as 6:30 p.m.

“I never deliver after dark,” she said. “If I have to turn on the interior light to read a mail address, I’m done for the day.”

After mail and packages are sorted and organized into boxes in the Escabana post office, the boxes are loaded into her 2015 Jeep Wrangler.

It’s equipped with right-hand drive and shows more than 133,500 miles on the odometer. A metal shelf covers the left-hand seat in the front, where mail is stacked for delivery in the order of her delivery route.

“I also serve an intermediate post office in Cornell," she said of the small village north of Escanaba along the Escanaba River. “It’s only open two hours each day, so delivery to the rural population saves a lot of time and effort by having their mail delivered daily. I even sell stamps.” 

Kleiman said she enjoys the work, likening it to many farmers along her route that she serves. The land is covered with potato farms and fields of corn for dairy farmer‘s cows along her route.

“I think the two hardest working people are farmers and mail carriers,” she said. “We both are out in all kinds of weather, constantly watching for obstacles, twisting and turning our bodies to see around us. We’re both constantly in motion." 

Animal sightings are common along her route. She’s seen coyotes, wolves, deer and bear. She’s had several deer run into her vehicle but has avoided hitting any animals.

During this day's deliveries, she had to slow for a deer crossing the road and twice had to slow to avoid turkeys along the shoulder. 

A cloth tire cover on her Jeep sports tears along the bottom, the result of overly aggressive dogs along her route. At one point on the route, a dog guarded the road. She did not have to exit her vehicle to deliver any packages, so the threat was minor. She says she is always alert and prepared for anything.

“I’m tired at the end of the day, but I know I have provided a good service to the people along my route, giving them news and a contact with the world," she said. "Some of these folks are retired, and I might be the only person they see or talk to in days.”

Weather along her route can be unpredictable. It can be sunny in Escanaba but snowing along the northern portions in Marquette County. She has driven through deep snow, deep mud and heavy rain. Checking weather reports is a daily task for rural carriers, according to Kleiman.

“All of us who deliver mail carry extra clothing for weather changes and are prepared for anything the Upper Peninsula can throw at us,” said Kleiman. “Safety is a major concern for all carriers.” 

Rural free delivery of mail began in the United States in 1896 and averages seven new rural mail delivery points a day due to growth nationwide, according to the U.S. Postal Service. 

“There are 1,781 rural routes in greater Michigan,” said Sabrina Todd, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service in Michigan. 

City and some rural carriers drive vehicles provided by the U.S. Postal Service. Most rural carriers like Kleiman, however, drive their own vehicles and are compensated for costs.

Escanaba Postmaster Lisa Cordell speaks highly of her 24 carriers.

“They average about 80 miles daily on their rural routes," Cordell said. "Rural Route 33 is our longest route. City routes average about 12 miles daily. We have a good crew.” 

The shortest rural route in Michigan is in Evart, Osceola County, 3.5 miles long. Rural carrier Mary Vanassche, 31, drives Route No. 5 daily.

“It’s a short route,” Vanassche said. “I do other deliveries and sub for drivers, too. It doesn’t take long to complete the route.” 

As a rural postal delivery person, Kleiman, a native of the Upper Peninsula, loves her work.

“I’ve driven all four seasons in Michigan ... in one day,” Kleiman said. “I wouldn’t change anything.”

John L. Russell is a writer and photojournalist in Traverse City.

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