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Idaho Pilot Becomes Keeper of Backcountry Lifestyle, Carries Mail Tradition Since the 1970s

The postal system connecting today’s United States has just one backcountry air mail route left: the now-threatened system overseen by 72-year-old Ray Arnold that carries everything from groceries to floor wax to cases of beer to ranchers and other rural denizens of the West.

Because the mail plane’s weight is limited to around 1,000 pounds, the boxes and mailbags are weighed carefully, with each box marked with initials such as SR for Shepp Ranch, YPB for Yellow Pine Bar, and MB for Mackay Bar Ranch. These letters and packages make their way to the residents of Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, an untamed region beyond the reach of cell phones where the employees of Arnold Aviation are the lone ambassadors from the wider world. Arnold himself flies a Cessna 185 on the mail route, with the hand-and-foot motions perfected over his half a century as a pilot guiding the mail plane weekly to cliffs and riverbanks in a remote region larger in area than the state of Indiana.

A few decades after this mail route was established, Arnold Aviation took it over as the lowest bidder in 1975—a new business for former high school teacher Arnold, who had established an air taxi business in Cascade, Idaho, and learned of the mail route via an ad at the local post office. Mail service remains vital to the region’s extreme rural residents such as Mike Demerse of Shepp Ranch, who says that without the mail service, “I can’t order tractor parts. I can’t get a magazine subscription.”

However, on March 24, the U.S. Postal Service notified nearly two dozen Idaho backcountry ranches that their mail route would be cut, forcing them to make their way to Cascade to pick up their mail. Still, the postal service continued looking at the alternatives available, and so Arnold ended up bidding for the first time in more than 30 years—and after several weeks of negotiations starting with Arnold’s bid of $2.95 per mile or $52,309 a year, Arnold says he and the agency have reached a number of $2.85 a mile or $50,536 a year. Says Arnold, “I’ll give ’em the dime.”

July 13, 2009

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