April 30--KNIGHTS FERRY -- It's become her almost daily ritual for the past month.
Dolly Haskell summons her dogs, Maggie and a blind Yorkshire terrier named Missy, into her 156-year-old home and closes the door.
Then she heads off to the post office. The one about 100 yards away in Knights Ferry? The one that's served the historic community for the past 136 years? No, not that one. That would be too simple. The United States Postal Service closed the Knights Ferry office abruptly and with no warning in March, after the longtime contractor who ran it died.
Instead, Haskell gets into her car and heads about 13 miles into Oakdale, to the post office on the west side of town. She could take the more wide-open Highway 120/108, but prefers the more scenic route along Rodden Road to Orange Blossom and then into town. It's a nice-enough ride lined by horse pastures, almond orchards and beneath the shaded canopies of valley oak trees. Either route takes her about 22 minutes one way. But when there's a perfectly good post office sitting idle within a two-minute walk, it's a royal pain. And for someone on a fixed income -- many of the town's 100 or so inhabitants fit that description -- it doubles or triples the amount normally spent on gas over a month's time.
"Before this, I'd go into Oakdale maybe once a week for groceries," said Haskell, whose family has lived in Knights Ferry for more than 60 years. Her parents met there. "Now, I'm going there three or four times a week to get my mail."
She is not alone. Many of the 60 families that rented post office boxes in Knights Ferry make the same trip. On Tuesday, after making the drive, Haskell walked into the Oakdale Post Office, on California Street, to pick up her mail, which periodically includes her medications. She also gets mail for her sister, Laura Simons, who is visually impaired. To do that, Haskell each time must present a note from Simons along with a photo ID of her sister. It doesn't matter if the same postal clerk serves her each time. No permission slip, no ID, no mail. It would be the same if any of her neighbors asked her to grab their mail for them as well.
"It's a hardship for this town," Haskell said. "We have people who depend daily on the mail, for their bills and their pills. Lots of retired folks out here."
In fact, you can't blame residents of this Gold Rush-era community for feeling as though they are being pushed back in time rather than moving forward.
The town's fire station is now staffed only two days one week, four days the next. And a couple of years ago, Knights Ferry folks were excited to hear that AT&T would be bringing fiber-optic cable into the middle of town, paid for with state money geared toward upgrading service in underserved areas. Residents were tired of erratic satellite or excruciatingly slow dial-up Internet and enthused about being able to pay bills and make purchased more quickly online. The line arrived. The service didn't.
"There are no plans for DSL or high-speed Internet in Knights Ferry," an AT&T spokesman told me at the time, and nothing's changed.
The town's only grocery store, saloon and grill directly across the street from the post office closed in January 2015 when the co-owner died and her husband didn't want to run it alone. He's leased the business to another couple who hope to reopen it in time for Memorial Day Weekend.
Now, the post office also sits empty, and residents miss it. It's where people met every day, chatting about their lives and families, the town, and upcoming meetings and events.
The Knights Ferry Historic and Museum Association submitted the paperwork to become the contractor for the post office, which is in Miller Hall, smack-dab in the middle of town. The Oakdale postmaster forwarded the information to Sacramento. Officials in Sacramento sent it on to Washington, D.C. It remains under review, according to Postal Service spokeswoman Meiko S. Patton.
The association posted a note (dated, erroneously, "March 39, 2016") on the post office window, expressing optimism it soon will reopen. But residents are hedging their bets. Longtime Knights Ferry resident Carol Davis enlisted the help of Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, who said he is pressing the Postal Service to reopen it.
The closure affects only Knights Ferry proper. Those who live around the town, including the area closer to Highway 120/108 known as Buena Vista, continue to have their mail delivered to the boxes in front of their homes, as do other country dwellers.
The Knights Ferry residents, though, are getting restless.
"Why is it taking so long?" said Haskell, who hopes to be hired to run the office if and when it reopens as a village post office. Or what if the Postal Service opts to install cluster boxes or go the parcel post route, which means linking with a store such as Pak-Mail or UPS? They have stores in Oakdale, not Knights Ferry. And those two options likely would mandate changes of address -- something folks in Knights Ferry dread.
"All my VA communications and medications -- if I have to change things, they get screwed up," said Larry Hayes, a retiree and Vietnam War veteran who fought on famed Hamburger Hill.
"It takes an act of Congress to get it straightened out with the VA," he said. "This little town deserves its post office. Otherwise, we'd have to change every address for bank statements, driver's licenses and registration, VA and meds. Let the postmaster in Oakdale drive 30 miles round trip to get (her) mail and see how they like it."
For now, Hayes, Haskell and many other folks in Knights Ferry will continue to drive into Oakdale, 22 minutes or more each way, most driving right past the old post office on their way out of town.
It's a daily or almost daily ritual they could live without.
Jeff Jardine: 209-578-2383, firstname.lastname@example.org, @JeffJardine57
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