There are some people you can count on

Column by Hal Walter

Rural life – September 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

There are two things you can count on here in the mountains — two snow-free months and the guy in the brown truck.

So when the Teamsters Union representing United Parcel Service drivers voted to walk at the beginning of August, I started watching for a summer blizzard. A lot of important stuff that I buy comes here via UPS: coffee, running shoes, vitamins, tack, tacky attire, books, office supplies, sporting goods. Pretty much any durable or semi-durable good that can’t be bought locally is delivered by a guy by the name of Kenny Patterson who drives a brown truck.

The thing I like about Kenny is that he knows where I live and he always has a smile and sometimes even a joke. The only jokes drivers for other delivery services seem to know are leaving my stuff at other addresses, taking a week to deliver an overnight package, or two weeks to deliver a package from Denver.

This lack of confidence I have in drivers of any delivery truck that is not brown is not unfounded. Drivers of non-brown trucks have delivered my stuff all over the county. I’ve had photographic slides returned from a magazine and dropped off at the sheriff’s office. I’ve had gifts ordered for Christmas arrive at the Rainbow Inn coffee shop and the Valley Ace hardware store. One package addressed to me was dropped off at a residence in the Centennial Ranch subdivision south of Westcliffe; I live on Centennial Drive, east of town. A neighbor who ordered a big-ticket item to be delivered by a non-brown truck had his package show up across the valley at the Pines Ranch. Same zip code. Wrong mountain range.

I know exactly why these drivers don’t leave packages at my house — it’s because they can’t find the place. What escapes me is how they decide just where to leave the package once they can’t locate the address. It seems pretty random to me, but it’s always fun trying to guess where it will turn up.

The basic problem is that the drivers in the non-brown vehicles don’t know their way around this area as well as the driver in the brown truck. Sometimes they call. The smarter drivers call before heading out to deliver the route. Others call from town after driving around in circles looking for it. When I tell them where it actually is — about 15 miles out — they usually ask where in town they can leave it. It’s occurred to me that instead of addresses, these drivers should be supplied with dashboard-mounted global position devices and coordinates for delivery destinations.

I’d rather just place my trust in a person driving a brown truck.

Especially if that person is Kenny, who has a big advantage over these other drivers not because his truck is brown, but because he’s been delivering for UPS in this area for almost a quarter century, and was raised on the west end of Westcliffe when his house pretty much was the west end of Westcliffe. That honor now belongs to the new supermarket.

“Things have changed.” Kenny says. But even as much as things have changed, he still knows his way around. He knows the area roads by their numbers and their names, and he knows some roads that have neither numbers nor names.

When he first started delivering for UPS, the route made for a real long day of driving — up to 360 miles. But Kenny didn’t have as many packages to deliver then. It was just a lot of miles between drops. His route started on the west side of Pueblo. He delivered the Siloam Road route and Wetmore area before heading on up to the Wet Mountain Valley.

Then he’d often make a side trip to the Tallahassee country east of Salida, then drop off a few packages at Royal Gorge, Buckskin Joe and the west end of Cañon City on his way back to Pueblo, where he lived at the time. The typical load filled a “bubble-top” van with a cargo space of just under 300 cubic feet.

These days Kenny needs a bigger truck just to do the rural route around Westcliffe. The drive isn’t nearly as long — he figures less than 200 miles daily — but he makes 40-45 stops. And that’s with another driver handling up to 80 drops daily in the Westcliffe and Silver Cliff Megalopolis. He’s moved back to his hometown, into the same house in which he grew up. His cargo is trucked up from Cañon City, where UPS has located a new center at the airport. He says that with the influx of new residents there’s little difference in the types of packages he delivers. “There’s just more of them,” he says.

During the holiday season it takes three drivers working from sunup to well after sundown to get the packages delivered in Custer County.

Certainly many rural folks do a good deal of their yuletide shopping through mail-order catalogs. I know I do. It’s just easier to pick something out, call a number and wait for Kenny to bring it to my house. In this way I am able to avoid the crowded stores, the malls, the picked-over merchandise.

But Kenny says mail-order shopping isn’t even half the story of the holiday shipping crunch in Custer County. He says the bulk of the business is due to the recent influx of new residents, especially older people with grown children who live elsewhere. They receive and ship lots of gifts. The result is literally mountains of ingoing and outgoing packages.

As for the strike, Kenny didn’t expect it to last too long. He said the key issues were pretty clear. The company wanted to hire part-time workers for ground deliveries, take over the pension plan and sign a five-year contract. The Teamsters believed the part-time help would cut into full-time salaries. They wanted to maintain control over the pension plan and sign a three-year deal.

It sounds to me like the Teamsters had all the cards. After all, they’re the ones who drive the brown trucks and know where everybody lives.

With as much as 80% of all packages nationwide delivered via UPS, this strike means a lot of packages are likely to be scattered willy-nilly over the countryside as people are forced to use other delivery companies due to the strike. That’s okay here in Central Colorado where we just laugh at that kind of service. But I’m not sure it’s going to go over so well in other locales.

Ironically, at the time of the strike, Kenny was out with a torn rotator cuff. But he’s waiting for both his shoulder and the rift with management to heal so he can get back to the delivery business. He says when a tentative settlement is reached Teamsters members will be sent a ballot to vote on the agreement.

That ballot, oddly enough, will be delivered via the U.S. Mail.

Hal Walter used to deliver newspapers from a brownish Toyota Landcruiser when he was attending journalism school at the University of Colorado in Boulder.