Posted 3/14/12 (Wed)
By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer
Mark Knutson has been a rural route mail carrier in McKenzie County for over 36 years, but after logging over a million miles with 10 or so vehicles, he has decided to give up what he describes as an enjoyable job to let someone new take over.
Both Mark’s dad and uncle held contract routes in McKenzie County. Sometimes, according to Mark, he would have the opportunity to ride along.
“I used to think it was the most boring job in the world,” Mark states, citing the time or two the ride-along lulled him to sleep.
However, as Mark aged, his opinion changed.
He started helping with his dad’s contract route when eventually a relief carrier position became available. And while the long-term benefits may have initially drew him to apply, the job he would acquire grew into one he would love.
He spent roughly seven years as a relief carrier for Fred Piper, who previously held the rural route Mark eventually took over.
The route was originally two routes that had been combined into one sometime before Mark. It took him east of Keene to Tobacco Gardens and ended northwest of Watford City.
“It was 130 miles of county road and 115 of it was gravel or scoria, which is very hard on vehicles,” states Mark.
But he is thankful for two things - the first being the fact that McKenzie County had the best rural roads and the road department was good at keeping them open. The second was the ability he developed to change tires and brakes quickly.
“One time it was so bad, I went through five tires in one week,” Mark states, “which pretty much ate up that week’s profit. Thankfully, the invention of steel-belted tires made a big improvement.”
Mark tells of the years he spent driving the county roads, the peacefulness of his route and the ability it gave him to essentially be his own boss.
“There was one particular stretch of road where I would meet another vehicle maybe once a month,” states Mark.
One of Mark’s favorite stories from his route occurred when he was a relief carrier.
“There was an elderly farmer on my route that had worked hard all of his life,” Mark states. One day they got to visiting and the farmer asked him if he liked his job. Mark’s response was yes, to which the farmer replied, “well, it’s an easy job for a lazy man.”
However, this didn’t shake him as he continued on his route.
On fall Saturdays, he would have college football games to keep him company, and different radio broadcasts throughout the week to help pass the time. If that wasn’t enough, every day brought something new to Mark’s attention.
“Especially after he had his LASIK surgery 10 years ago,” adds Jess Anne Knutson, Mark’s wife. “He was legally blind without his glasses and after the surgery, he was even more amazed at the things he would see.”
Though Mark did love being a rural carrier, he admits that the winter months could, at times, be less enjoyable.
One time in the ’70s the snow got so bad Mark had to borrow his dad’s truck because it had two gas tanks and his pickup only had one.
“I couldn’t make it through my entire route on one tank of gas, because the snow was so bad and I had to do so much back-tracking,” states Knutson.
Jess Anne recalls the times she got a call to rescue her husband, or when the weather was so bad that Mark waited for Jess to get off work so she could go with him.
Fortunately, in all Mark’s years of delivering mail, this kind of weather was pretty uncommon.
“Normally, you would need four-wheel drive maybe four days out of the whole winter,” states Mark, “with the last three years being the possible exception.”
However, two shoulder surgeries exempted him from experiencing the bulk of last winter.
Now, things have changed for Mark and Jess Anne.
That same peaceful stretch of road that hardly held one vehicle a month now carries 25 vehicles a day. And the same peaceful drive has become congested and hectic.
“You really have to be on your toes, with the increased oil activity and traffic,” states Mark. “I feel like I have a close call now almost every day.”
That, coupled with the fact that his wife retired from her job last year, made Mark’s decision to retire an easy one.
With work to be done on their house and land, and family living in different parts of the country, Mark and Jess Anne are looking forward to what their next years together will bring.