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In rural Montana, carrying the mail comes with special challenges

In rural Montana, carrying the mail comes with special challenges


OUTSIDE FAIRVIEW — It took Merlene Cherrey a while to figure out the tires.

“When I first started, I would have flats all the time, and I would get tired of changing them,” said Cherrey, a rural mail carrier who works outside this small northeastern Montana town of 840.

“Then I figured out you get 10-ply.”

There are two rural routes outside Fairview. One runs 82 miles with 157 deliveries, and Cherrey’s is 100 miles with 212 stops. A big chunk of the longer route goes through North Dakota, delivering to addresses across the border that still have a 59221 zip code. Eighty percent of the routes are on all-weather roads, the rest on pavement.

“Up in the hills, trees don’t grow out there,” Cherrey said. “But there is one tree. It stands out.”

One tree for a hundred miles on rough roads sounds like something that wouldn’t endear a job to a person. But for Cherrey and Robin Trudell, the other rural carrier, it’s as good as work can get. “I wish I would have started earlier,” Trudell said. “I’ll retire doing this.”

The last house before a 13-mile stretch of no deliveries on Cherrey’s route is Trudell’s. Trudell is fond enough of her job she drives 50 miles in and out of town each day on top of the 82 miles of her route.

“I like driving,” she said. “I like the pay and the benefits.” She started as a substitute driver a decade ago and has been full-time for eight years. Cherrey has been full-time for nine years — so long she knows most everyone she delivers to and every part of the route that can give her trouble.

Because there are no other options, people in rural areas serve sentry for one another, said postmaster Holly Cotter. “There’s a guy that ranches down there, and if there’s a bad spot he’ll call Merlene and say ‘Hey there’s trouble on this road or this is going on on another road,’ which is nice, a little heads-up.”

The frozen cowpies are worse than rocks along the county roads in the winter. One year the wind blew tumbleweeds so hard they were 20 feet high, and the county had to borrow a snowplow from the state highway department to clear them.

Cotter, who doesn’t deliver mail on the routes often, has had her husband replace the mechanism that rolls her truck windows down more than once, the parts worn from heavy use.

“The worst, worst, worst thing for mail delivery is not the cold and not the heat,” Cotter said. “It’s the wind and the rain, and we do see a lot of wind out here.”

Turn signals are about as necessary as checking for a cellphone signal, and GPS doesn’t work so well. Not that it matters, all three women are all lifelong residents of the region.

A lot of people out here decorate their mailbox according to the season, even though only Trudell, Cherrey, occasionally Cotter and the attentive oil truck driver or hunter will see them.

“The people that are on this route know me, and they're looking out for you,” Trudell said. “If I’m not where I should be, they’ll call and ask, 'Is everything alright?'"

She has OnStar, which can get out to her in half an hour — she knows because she’s used it. But help is never far away, Cotter said.

“Of course you know everybody on your route, it’s usually not a problem to pull into the nearest farmstead and they’ve got air for you, and they’re more than happy to help you.”

The folks along the route have good reason to appreciate mail delivery. Rural living doesn’t come with a lot of conveniences, but Cherrey and Trudell bring a bit of simplicity to their doorstep.

“Customers order cat and dog food off Amazon and with free shipping, and it comes right to your door,” Cotter said. “That’s a big, big change, as years ago it was just the mail. Now it’s a lot of packages, Especially out here when we’re not real close to shopping, people order online a lot.”

Life out here doesn’t accommodate a quick trip to the store to fill the empty coffee can, but there is a view. Sure this side of Montana takes its scenery with a dose of cattle guards and pivot irrigation systems, but there’s a sky that’s nowhere near ending where peripheral vision fades and vegetation demands respect for bending but not buckling to the north wind.

“This Missouri River valley, they get into some pretty cool spaces,” Cotter said.

One of her favorite stretches of the longer route is where the County Road 147 curves along the serrated feet of the hills, offering a ribbon of separation between the wrinkled shadows of elevation and the paper-flat of the farmland.

“Shortly after I got postmaster, one of these bluffs let loose and blocked the road,” Cotter said. “What a good thing we weren’t here when it happened.” Not that a rockslide could stop the mail — the county built a temporary bypass, and delivery never lagged.

County Road 147, part of Cherrey’s route, goes by Bonnie Berry’s house and the adjacent Nohly Cemetery, which she maintains.

It eventually finds its way down to what locals call the Nohly Lift Bridge, but on the map is the Snowden Lift Bridge, a vertical-lift train bridge across the Missouri built in the early 1900s. A few miles down, on another river and in another state, Cherrey drives past the Fairview Lift Bridge.

The span, built in 1913, leads into the Cartwright tunnel, possibly the only train tunnel in North Dakota, a state known mostly for being flat before it became known for crude.

Some locals say the bridges, built to accommodate river traffic that became less essential after trains arrived, have never lifted. Others say they only went up once. Trains still cross the bridge at Snowden, and the Fairview one has been developed as part of Sundheim Park.

The park was a temporary home to Bakken oil field workers who struggled to find lodging during the peak of the oil boom about five years ago. Now it’s cleared out, but Fairview hasn’t seen much of a drop in population. The 2010 census put the town at 840 people, up from 709 a decade earlier.

“There’s been a slowdown in traffic, but not at the post office,” Cotter said. “ Most of our growth around here has been families. They bring family out here and they’re looking for a place to live, they’re going to stay.”

Besides the oil truck drivers and longtime ranchers, Cotter and her crew are some of the only people who drive these roads regularly enough to understand how they’ve changed with the oil field boom and slowdown.

“What you’ll see now is signs that say absolutely no trucks,” Cotter said. “You’ll see that a lot on people’s private drives. GPS doesn’t work the greatest in the hills, and the oil traffic is such that you need those signs.”

Cotter, Cherrey and Trudell are invited down some of those drives to the mailbox at the end. People trust them to carry the paperwork that details much of their life — the phone bill, the paperwork for a new car, a past-due notice.

“Lots of times you see more than you’d like of people’s lives,” said Cotter, who's been postmaster since 2004 and started in the Fairview office in 1996.

She’s been around long enough she knows almost everyone she passes driving the long route, and Fairview is still small enough she can greet most folks by name at the post office.

“We can still keep up pretty good,” Cotter said. “It’s getting harder and harder to know everybody. But after a month or two, once they walk in the door I can put a P.O. Box to their face.”

“Customers order cat and dog food off Amazon, and with free shipping and it comes right to your door. That’s a big, big change is years ago it was just the mail. Now it’s a lot of packages, Especially out here when we’re not real close to shopping, people order online a lot.”

Postmaster Holly Cotter


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State reporter

State Bureau reporter for Lee Newspapers of Montana.

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