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A Rural Lifeline 

Protecting the USPS is about a lot more than ballots in Humboldt's far reaches

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A 74-year-old woman in Honeydew. The 84-year-old man in Redway. A 79-year-old widow in Ettersburg. These are the people whose lives will be upended if we accept any reductions in service to United States Postal Service. This is not only about the beating heart of democracy and a secure election. This is about life and death for rural seniors.

The 74-year-old woman in Honeydew has no vehicle. She lives, as a SoHum resident might say, "way out there." Her car needs a new starter and even if she could afford a replacement part, how exactly would she tow the thing into town? It's a 68-minute drive to make it 1,600 feet down the mountain into Redway.

Instead, life's essentials must make their way to her. Non-perishable foods, toiletries, cleaning supplies, hardware and tools for home repair, even drinking water if her natural spring runs dry, as it tends to in August. All of these items are lugged up the mountain and delivered to her by the Postal Service. She sometimes has fresh meat, fruits and vegetables delivered by the senior center, and her neighbor often picks up perishable foods for her in Redway. Without this hodgepodge of deliveries that help keep her fed and bathed, it's grim to imagine what her life would be like.

There's a dirt road, less than a half-mile long, that separates her front door from the mountain road where her mailbox has sat for the 38 years she's lived way out there. She dropped her first ballot into that mailbox, casting her vote for Tom Bradley for governor. The walk to the mailbox must be undertaken with care and a dash of superstition. If it's raining, the road turns to squishy mud and she has slipped before. But ever since she bought a new pair of rainboots last year with a nice flowery design on them (delivered by the USPS), she hasn't slipped once. She now wears them every day to get her mail, squishy mud or not.

In Ettersburg, I met a 79-year-old who takes five different medications to regulate her blood pressure, heart and thyroid. She has a helpful prescription drug plan that auto-renews her medication on a precise day, every three months, to ensure she doesn't run out. Should there be any delay at postal sorting centers due to a reduction in equipment or personnel hours, or a decline in capacity of the Garberville post office that delivers her mail, it would wreck her fragile medication regimen. But she has no room for error. She cannot afford even a one-day delay of her mail, let alone a week. The consequences of her missing a dose are too much to bear. I've often wondered if her USPS letter carrier knows she is keeping this dear woman alive.

She described her life on an isolated mountain. She does not have internet access and cannot order groceries online. There is no pizza delivery, no DoorDash. She uses a flip-phone to send text messages to neighbors who might be going into town to ask if they could bring back groceries or just a bag of Signature coffee.

Without Facebook and email, she still writes letters. Yes, short, handwritten letters – the equivalent of a friendly hello to someone in the grocery store. She updates her kids who live in the Bay Area on the progress of her mountaintop garden ("my tomatoes are almost ready and they're fatter this year!"), she describes her view of King Peak and the rainstorms that glide over the mountaintop, and she corresponds with old friends who live on the East Coast. She pays all her bills by mail and she sends donations to SoHum nonprofits in support of essential programs. She gets a newspaper delivered to her by mail once a week. After our last conversation, she asked if I could bring her some canning supplies the next time I head up the mountain. She is excited about those tomatoes. And of course I'll bring the supplies because I know I'll be paid with homemade marinara.

The 84-year-old Redway resident is passionate about voting. He is a quiet man, a patriot, served his country and voted by mail when stationed in Korea. He lives a stone's throw from his polling place in Redway, where he has cast his ballot for decades. But the last few years, his lung ailment has progressively worsened, sapping his energy and affecting his motor skills and confidence. With a walker, he can manage to cover a few dozen feet per day, shuffling around his house. A proud man, he prefers not to be seen in a frail state.

What he misses most about his younger days is running simple errands, particularly checking his mail at the Post Office. Ask a Redway resident what the Postal Service means to them. Most will say they don't have postal delivery service at their homes and are obliged to rent a P.O. box to get mail. Since he lives close to the Redway Post Office, walking over to retrieve his mail was an errand he treasured. He caught up with friends and read the bulletin board. Now he relies on his neighbor to retrieve his mail once a week on Mondays for him.

I thought of Southern Humboldt's isolated seniors this week as I read stories about the United States Postal Service's capacity being diminished in advance of the election. Several people on social media remarked that because of political interference, the Postal Service should not be trusted to handle the increase of mail-in ballots and the best way to ensure our votes are counted is to physically drop off our ballots at a local polling place or the Humboldt County Elections Office. This is understandable, given the doubts the White House has sown in the USPS.

Many Southern Humboldt seniors would love the opportunity to cast their ballots in person. But the Redway gentleman's physical state prevents him from doing so. In order to have a say in the direction of the country he served, he feels his most secure option is to get his ballot to the USPS and let them take care of it. Voting via the Postal Service served him well in the military and he thinks it's time to call on them again. For the senior ladies isolated in Honeydew and Ettersburg, their sole chance at exercising their democratic muscle is to hand their ballots to the United States Postal Service and trust their vote will delivered and counted.

And this should be enough. In fact, this should be plenty. Any senior living anywhere in Humboldt County, even if she lives two blocks from Garberville Town Square or up on a green mountain watching the storms slither over the King Peak ridge, should be able to hand her ballot to any letter carrier, knowing this venerable institution will transport it safely to the vote counters. The Postal Service has protected our democratic process for decades. But when D.C. bureaucrats dare to reduce the capacity of the Postal Service, they are saying to rural seniors that they don't give a damn about them. When we defend the USPS, we defend our elders.

Nick Vogel (he/him) is the executive director of Southern Humboldt's Healy Senior Center.

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