For rural America, the post office is more than a convenient place to mail letters. It's income in areas where jobs are scarce, a place to pay the bills, and at times, a neighborhood spot to socialize.
From Alaska to Maine, residents in rural areas are holding their collective breath after the financially troubled U.S. Postal Service said this week it was considering closing 1 in 10 of its retail outlets to save money.
The post office in the rural West Virginia town of Odd is one of more than 3,600 local offices, branches and stations that could be on the chopping block. Residents there say getting by would be difficult without it.
"I don't have no car," said 59-year-old Betty Ann Whittaker, who lives on Social Security and needs to be close to home because she cares for her mentally disabled siblings and nephews. Her run-down home at the foot of a mountainside is just a short walk away from the Odd Post Office.
Other Americans who don't drive, or are on a fixed income like Whittaker, would face a similar dilemma. In West Virginia, there are 150 offices on the list. Only six other states _ Texas, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa and Missouri _ have more outlets under consideration for possible closure.
In Odd, many of the 800 residents have mail boxes in the post office in part because mail theft is a big concern. Those without checking accounts also buy money orders at the post office to pay their bills. Whittaker does that regularly. The nearest full-service bank is 10 to 20 miles away.
Christine Wood lives in an apartment attached to the post office and has a mailbox there. Her family owns the building and has been renting the office space to the Postal Service for decades. The rent helps her pay the bills.
"In the winters, sometimes you can't go out, unless they come and plow which they don't always do," Wood said.
The nearest post office, in Ghent, is about five miles away.
The Postal Service, which has been losing money as customers use the Internet in increasing numbers to do business instead of using the mail, said space in local stores, libraries and government offices may be used to offer postal services in some areas where post offices are ultimately closed.
But that is little comfort to worried residents.
In Alaska, there are 36 post offices under review. One is in Sleetmute, a tiny village on the east bank of the Kuskokwim River, 250 miles from Anchorage.
"It would leave a big hole," said Sophie Gregory, the village's president and fill-in postmaster.
Nebraska has 90 facilities up for possible closure. In Grafton, Roxann Baumann, the town clerk and a local business owner, said losing the post office would force residents in the village of 125 to drive at least eight miles to the nearest post office.
And some hikers use post offices in out-of-the-way places just to survive. Each year, thousands traverse sections of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada. Some send packages of food and other provisions to post offices along the way to pick up and resupply.
At least three rural post offices along the route are slated for potential closure in California and Washington, including the last stop before Canada: Stehekin, Wash., a wilderness community reachable only by boat, floatplane or on foot. Backpackers would have to carry many more pounds of food between stops, which would make the trip more difficult and less enjoyable, said 28-year-old Heather Tilert of New York.
The eastern Washington town of Starbuck, population 130, advertises itself as "45 minutes from anything you could want to do except walk on an ocean beach." Soon that may include being 45 minutes from a post office.
Across the country in Maine, the post office on Cliff Island is among the 34 slated for possible closure there. Cliff Island is 10 miles from the mainland and takes at least an hour and 15 minutes to reach by ferry.
"What I have learned about island surviving as year-round communities, they need three main elements. They need a post office, they need a school and they need a store for survival," resident Cheryl Crowley said.
The Postal Service operates 31,871 retail outlets across the country. In recent years, business has declined sharply. The agency lost $8 billion last year.
Once an office is selected for a review, people served by that office will have 60 days to file their comments. If an office is to be closed, they will be able to appeal.
Back in Odd, letter carrier Tamera Eskins and post office clerk Melinda Dickerson crossed their fingers.
Eskins, who delivers the mail in her Chevy Blazer, said three of the four post offices she collects mail from are on the list for possible closure. She doesn't know what will happen after her contract to deliver mail is up early next year.
Dickerson also might be out of a job.
"I've thought about getting people to sign a petition to keep it open, but I don't know if it would do any good," she said.
Associated Press writers Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska; Grant Schulte in Omaha, Neb.; Shannon Dininny in Yakima, Wash.; Nicholas K. Geranios in Spokane, Wash.; and Clarke Canfield in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.
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