Home delivery is handy, of course, but I had the urge to pick up my mail in person, so I flew to New Zealand and rented a car to drive through Fiordland National Park on the west coast of the South Island to the wondrous place where the road ends: Milford Sound.
Nine thousand miles for a kind word? I've traveled farther for less.
For 15 years I have paid rent on one of 12 wooden boxes at this remote post office in a rain forest. Its window frames the jaunty cap of Mitre Peak, which juts a mile above a fiord that runs to the Tasman Sea.
It was probably the most impulsive and romantic of my travel souvenirs, a morning-after splurge that continues to bring private smiles in public places. It happened one May when banks of clouds sat down on snowy peaks that isolate the sound.
I did not feel socked in by the front, but others were surely socked out. No planes could make the scenic hop from the inland resort of Queenstown. Because it was midweek of the off-season, no tour buses chugged in from Te Anau through narrow Homer Tunnel, the only break in the vast mountain wall.
Only Two Guests
For two nights my handsome friend and I were the only guests at the 36-room Milford Hotel. We hiked and laughed on silent trails; we gazed at unfamiliar stars that were strung by the Southern Cross. We feasted on crayfish--which they called lobster--from the waters of the fiord and sipped New Zealand Chardonnay.
After dinner on that rainy first night we found a lone man leaning on the bar and joined him for a brandy. He turned out to be the postmaster of Milford Sound, a station, he said, that served the lodge fishing fleet and airstrip in this niche of the national park. He claimed it was the wettest post office in all New Zealand.
At dawn, a veil of mist made Mitre Peak elusive; eerie light played on the ice of Pembroke Glacier.
Haunted by the majesty of this wild place, we walked to the small frame post office and asked to rent a box as a memento. Now sober with business, the postmaster seemed wary of a joke; he said he could not accommodate us because he had lost the keys.
No problem, we insisted; we would not need a key in California. We would leave a few New Zealand dollars and he could forward our mail.
And so it is that we have paid rent to the postal service Down Under since 1972. The cost has risen from $4 a year to $28.
Much mail has passed through that box: Christmas cards from New Zealand friends and love notes on anniversaries of the heart. Letters have been posted from California to Milford with instructions to forward to a hotel in Rio or Rome. Each finally has found us, and arrived with our favorite postmark.
To honor a special occasion, that fellow who shared my room at Milford gave me engraved stationery from Gump's that says: Judith Morgan, Box 11, Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand. It is wonderfully baffling when I use it to regret social invitations at home.
When I returned to Milford this season, to that winsome cul-de-sac of emerald grass and giant ferns and forests of hoary beech, I found that some things had changed: My sky-blue box had been painted red, as bright as the Christmas blooms of the native rata tree.
Planes and Avalanches
Yet the mail still comes in by bus once a day, five days a week, from Te Anau. Those sightseeing planes that seem to be catapulted into the sky from a strip near the lodge carry mail only when avalanches block the road.
At the post office counter I was greeted by a smiling, dark-haired woman--Jude Bennett, the postmistress.
"Any mail for Box 11?" I asked.
"Heaps and heaps," she replied, in her clipped Kiwi accent.
Jude's idea of "heaps" turned out to be five post cards, bearing football scores and snips of scandal from stateside friends. I bought floral stamps for replies.
A new sign out front confirms the former postmaster's boast: "The Wettest Post Office in New Zealand."
"It's true," the postmistress swore. "Three hundred inches a year."
I squinted at her, suddenly wary of a joke, as the bright sun of spring poured in.
It may have been the same expression I remember on the face of the postmaster when I asked to rent a box on that long-ago morning in May.