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Mountain Mail : Rural Carrier Battles the Elements in Living Up to the Postal Service Slogan

October 13, 1985|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

Forest Service operations, the tiny enclave at Mt. Wilson, Caltrans road crews and several rattlesnakes along Angeles Crest Highway are in good working order in part because of a mail carrier who has come to believe that she owns a piece of the mountain.

"It's my mountain and I have to take care of it," said Raymonde Lewis as she set off recently on her 3,400th or so mail run up the 66-mile Angeles Crest Star Route.

For 11 years Lewis has negotiated every winding inch of the route, which runs from the foot of Angeles Crest Highway in La Canada Flintridge to Chilao Ranger Station and back, with a side trip up Mt. Wilson. She has made the trip six days a week with no vacations and only rare long weekends to break the routine. Thus Lewis has become the most consistent and predictable worldly connection for about 20

mountain families and workers who are sometimes isolated by weather and landslides. Lewis has never failed in the swift completion of her appointed rounds, they say, sometimes with awe.

Lewis delivers the paychecks, bills and operating manuals that keep the mountain personnel and systems functioning. She also delivers The Times as a favor to a dozen people, fills orders for stamps and, as a special favor, will sometimes buy groceries and medicine for the people on her route. Occasionally she rescues endangered wildlife, including rattlers she finds on the highway that she carries to safety on the end of an old golf club.

"If something happened to her I think everyone on this mountain would move off. She's a godsend," said Albert Hailey, postmaster and weather observer on Mt. Wilson. Hailey called Lewis "the Good Samaritan of the mountain," who gets prescriptions filled and milk for babies when nobody else can get through.

Hailey is one of the 11 permanent Mt. Wilson residents who live in a forest of towers and antennas that transmit television and FM radio to the Los Angeles area. Seven of them work at the Mt. Wilson Observatory.

"She's unreal," said Cristy Sheehan, who lives up the road with her husband, a heavy-equipment operator, and their four children in a remote house that Caltrans provides for Angeles Crest employees. Sheehan remembers a night when she called Lewis at her Montrose home and asked her to find the rest of the Sheehan family at a Glendale High School football game to tell them their home had to be evacuated because of a threatening fire.

"She even kept our pet rabbits at her house during the evacuation," Sheehan said.

The Wonder Woman of the mountain doesn't share her friends' amazement at her devotion to duty.

"It's the least I can do," she said. "They take care of me. If I'm late they'll start worrying and check up on me."

Private citizens bid for the Angeles Crest Star Route contract. She would not disclose the terms of her bid, but when she won it 11 years ago, Lewis said, she was terrified of the territory she now claims as her own.

"On my first day I was petrified," she said. "I thought I'd never be able to make it. I didn't believe I could cope."

That's because the spectacularly beautiful route she travels in a four-wheel-drive sedan climbs to an elevation of 5,700 feet on what Lewis calls "a two-faced mountain." There are actually several mountains, often shrouded in clouds and treacherous when covered with winter snow and ice. The mountain winds are so ferocious they trigger landslides.

Other perils come from speeding motorists and cyclists, and deer that leap across the road. Lewis has had one bad accident, when a skidding car slammed into hers, but she was not injured.

Lewis puts on her own tire chains at the snow line, thaws frozen mailbox padlocks with her breath and carries mail by hand when she has to hike through landslides. But she still admits to occasional terror.

"I've come up when the sheriff says I'm taking my life in my hands," she said."But Mt. Wilson is a very important place where people do important work. Sometimes their orders come by mail. They need me."

Her work is a radical departure from everything Lewis had known in the past, especially her first 17 years in a tiny French village, five of them under German occupation during World War II. She spoke no English when, as the teen-aged bride of American Donald Lewis, she came to America and devoted her life to homemaking and raising two children. The Lewises still live in Montrose, where they settled 40 years ago.

Now 58 with three granddaughters, Lewis has mastered English and earned the acceptance of the "hill people" who, she said, sometimes look down on "lowlanders."

She knows their children, their ailments, hopes, dreams, pets. She knows that they are there because they want to be alone, but that she's always welcome.

"I'm one of them," Lewis said proudly.

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