In the city we take overnight delivery for granted. We’re near airports and encoiled by dense networks of highways and paved roads and our purple, brown or yellow-liveried servants shuttle almost unnoticed amongst us, leaving our packages of must-have goods. The further you get from the big cities, however, the more those highway arteries turn into veins, moving the lifeblood of commerce through their communities. If you get far enough out, those veins even become capillaries – narrow county roads, some paved, others often covered (mostly) with gravel, some hemmed in by brush and branches. The one thing they all have in common is that there’s someone waiting at the end of each one for that missing auto part, box of seeds, or froo-froo underwear.
My brother Jeff is an independent contractor for one of the big delivery services, and he services several rural communities in Missouri. He started with one truck a few years ago, and has expanded by buying two other trucks and hiring sub-contractors to drive additional routes. The newer trucks are diesel-powered Mercedes Sprinters, comparatively easy to operate and much more economical to run. My brother still drives his original one-ton Chevy truck with the big box. His route averages about 260 miles per day, the truck has more than 260,000 miles on it, making it a truck of 1,000 days. The miles aren’t the only things on it; a not-so-fine layer of dust from the gravel roads coats every surface inside the cab, and long scratches groove the sides and top of the truck so densely it looks like a weaving pattern. The branches grow thick and close to the “roads” in most of the places he goes. The outside edge of the driver’s seat of the truck, brushed by Jeff’s cheeks 80 or 90 times a day as he slides out, is ripped and the foam padding is practically gone. As the boss, Jeff could certainly keep one of the Mercedes for himself, but this Chevy has to operate at peak efficiency if he’s going to make any money, and no one is going to watch over this old truck as attentively as he will.
I meet my brother Tuesday morning at his terminal to ride along for the day. He already has his day’s deliveries stacked behind the truck, organized by community and order of delivery; there’s no point making a long day even longer by not being organized. Before loading up, however, we first have to replace the passenger-side mirror, which was lost to a tree on the previous run. Experienced in this task, Jeff has the new mirror in place in less than five minutes. Then we start loading; I’m hoping my extra set of hands will make the process go faster, but I feel more like I’m in Jeff’s way as he hands boxes up and directs me to where they should be placed. I should have played more Tetris when I was younger. I look at the large lettering on the side of one box: “Fra – geel – ay,” I say outloud. “Must be from Italy!”
As scattered as everything seems, most of the stops are as familiar to Jeff as if he were a local postman walking a route in town. The businesses and individuals get regular deliveries and he’s come to know them by their names, the names of their kids and even the names of their dogs. Actually, the dogs’ names aren’t that important. “The big ones I call ‘Tinkerbell’ and the little ones I call ‘Killer’ and the owners eat it up,” he says. Dogs are both a hazard and a fact of life in tihs business, and Jeff’s learned not to trust any of them. His business expenses include a healthy supply of Milk Bones to distract and/or placate the ones on his route, many which have come to know him as well as he knows them. One pitbull, however, wanted shinbone instead of Milk Bone and locked on, leading to several stitches and shots. Usually the dogs aren’t a problem, though. We pull up to a farmhouse of a Mennonite family and two of the girls come out in their cotton dresses and kerchiefs to get their boxes of botanicals. A Great Dane comes with them, but Jeff knows this one. “That’s the ugliest pony I’ve ever seen,” he says. The girls giggle.
The far-flung businesses in this area rely on regular deliveries, and we stop at car dealers, auto-parts stores, furniture stores, a veterinarian clinic, a dog-food factory, some nursing homes and at one general store with an amazing collection of new and vintage handguns, rifles and shotguns and a museum room of old motorcycles. We also make stops at various schools and at the public school in Tuscumbia we get a chance to admire another great delivery system: looking up from the parking lot I see the unmistakeable — and totally unexpected — shape of a B2 Stealth bomber cruising over the valley. My brother is ex-Air Force but we both gawk like kids as the jet glides silently by on a mission from nearby (as the bomber flies) Whiteman Air Force Base, home of the 509th bomber group.
In the school office we meet up with a driver for one of the rival delivery services, but there’s no rivalry here. Both drivers know the area and the people and update each other on useful information. The other driver tells about being surprised by the Rhodesian Ridgeback that lives at one of the places they both deliver to. He’d looked for the dog and hadn’t seen him, so he entered through the gate of the 4-foot fence around the property and stood on the porch and rang the bell. When the dog came tearing around the side of the house, the brown-clad driver gave new meaning to “UPS”, hurdling the same fence in a single, desperate bound.
We don’t have any dog incidents today, however, as we continue to beat across the backroads finding addresses that aren’t always consistently marked. One mailbox is actually duck-taped to its stand, the bands of tape completely covering whatever numbers were there. By knowing the road numbering grid for that county, and how many tenths of a mile between numbers, Jeff has figured this must be the place, and nearly half a mile up that driveway he’s proved correct. For many of the folks living out here it’s easier to shop on-line or from a catalog and have the delivery guys figure out where you live than it is to get to a mall. One long “driveway” we face toward the end of the route and well after dark is little more than a leaf-covered path between the trees. We finally arrive at a nice homestead on a secluded lot and deliver a box. The homeowner even comes out and helps guide the big truck as we try to turn around in tight quarters.
It’s a small enough service to provide in exchange for the delivery. These days, thanks to guys like Jeff you can live in a remote place, but you don’t have to be isolated.