Rural mail carrier has been making her rounds for 47 years
March 30, 2015
Steamboat Springs — JoAnn Lombardi, 81, stepped out of her white Subaru Outback one morning last week on Routt County Road 29 right next to a row of mailboxes right where Trout Creek tumbles out of the foothills of the Flat Tops mountain range. The longtime rural mail carrier handed rancher Bernard Knott an "If it fits, it ships" parcel, probably for the last time.
After delivering the mail on the same little rural route for 47 years, Lombardi is retiring. Her last day is Monday.
Lombardi and Knott briefly reminisced about the time Knott came to Lombardi's rescue with a team of draft horses and pulled her old Toyota Land Cruiser out of a snowbank.
"I didn't really go in the ditch," she recalled. "I didn't land on my roof or anything. Bernard was in the field feeding cattle, so he unhitched the team and pulled me out."
Some things have changed since that day, and some have remained constant.
Knott has traded his horses for a big green tractor. But Lombardi has faithfully delivered mail twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays, to several generations of Knotts since 1968. In all those years, the run-in with the snow bank was her only mishap. She never ran out of gas and never broke down.
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"I think I must have been 21 years old when you started delivering our mail," Knott told Lombardi last week.
Driving mostly dirt roads through one of the least-visited corners of the county, Lombardi hasn't let Rocky Mountain snowstorms deter her from her rounds. With her granddaughter Marisa Lombardi often riding shotgun, JoAnn Lombardi has pushed through many a blast of wind-driven snow in the little four-wheel-drive car she drives only on her mail route.
"You run it, no matter," she said. "Marisa asks me, 'Nonny, can you see that road?' As long as I can see the trees standing out," all systems are go.
Asked if he ever missed daily mail delivery, Knott said, "Getting mail twice a week is better than having to drive into Oak Creek."
Then he quickly recalled that there was one particular day every year when his family didn't wait for Lombardi's next delivery.
"In May, my mother (the late Doris Knott) used to get a call saying her chicks were at the post office," Knott recalled.
Someone always made a trip to town to get the chicks.
Springtime, when the rear of the post office building comes alive with the happy sound of baby chicks emanating from several crates at once, is still one of her favorite times of year at work, Lombardi said.
Her mail route is tiny, and that suits her just fine. Along the 22-mile loop she makes 10 deliveries. Some days, a brown UPS truck, whose driver recognizes her and waves, is the only other car she encounters.
Oak Creek Postmaster Nancy Peckham says there are other rural areas in the country, though not many, that don't get mail delivery six days a week. In neighboring Grand County there is a route outside Kremmling that receives mail Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Peckham said her contract delivery drivers are like a family. Bill Babcock, who successfully bid to pick up Lombardi's twice-a-week route and already delivers to 550 boxes, six days a week, has worked with Lombardi for 30 years. And former postmaster Louis Bruder, who is also Lombardi's former boss, substitutes for her.
"They're such good people to work with," Lombardi said. "Bill has been teasing me and saying he will be Oak Creek's number-one mail carrier when I leave."
Lombardi's Contract Mail Route 80480 never pays her less than about $400 a month, she said. She started at $75, supplementing the money she made driving a school bus. As soon as the school route was complete, she'd pick up the mail and set out again..
Rural mail routes like hers have their genesis in the late 18th century when most rural mail delivered in the countryside arrived on horseback, later moved to stagecoach, and reverted to private contractors using mostly horses to save the Postal Service money.
On the morning of March 27, her second-to-last time driving her mail route, Lombardi left the parking lot at the rear of the post office and headed south out of Oak Creek, climbing the hill on Bell Street before turning right onto Routt County Road 25.
"This is where I live," she announces while passing a tidy home. "I don't deliver my own mail, which is crazy."
She admires the handiwork of the Routt County Road and Bridge Department on the freshly graded dirt road before turning left on Routt County Road 132, quickly leaving Routt County for a jaunt through the northeast corner of Rio Blanco County.
Lombardi has a chance to show off her instinctive driving skills where a patch of greasy snow is lingering on the north side of a road cut where the road descends in the shadow of an aspen grove. When the rear end breaks loose for a moment, she counter-steers like the pro she is without interrupting conversation.
The route rejoins Routt County Road 132A just before it intersects with Routt County Road 29 for the trip down Trout Creek and finishes on the pavement of Routt County Road 27, finally descending a hill into Oak Creek.
Lombardi may have concluded her long service to rural South Routt County, but she isn't done driving.
Peckham said she is beloved by senior citizens in Oak Creek where she is the designated driver, picking up neighbors and delivering them to bridge games and hot lunches.
Lombardi said she'll miss the "play money," which her mail route has provided over the decades, but she's ready for a little more freedom.
In her "free time," Lombardi cleans the basement community room of St. Martin's Catholic Church, so it was fitting that the community held her retirement dinner there Saturday night.
Maybe Peckham will give Lombardi a call later this spring, when the crates of spring chickens arrive at the post office and invite her to drop by.