Into the Mailstrom
Watching a piece of mail make its way across the USA
With nearly a billion of pieces of mail in the United States Postal Service system at any given time, tracing the route of a single item traveling across the country in the weeks before Christmas may seem like trying to follow a single snowflake in a blizzard. But many Americans did, regularly refreshing online tracking systems that provide occasional and momentary (if not reassuring) glimpses into the mysterious and miraculous machinations of the continental landscape machine known as the US Postal Service.
6238 Origin facility: the Miracle Mile post office in Los Angeles. CLUI photo
AT 4:30 PM ON NOVEMBER 27, 2020, the CLUI dropped off the day’s outgoing mail at a post office in the Mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles. The mail included an envelope containing a copy of the Center’s Coast to Coast field guide, ordered online by a CLUI supporter, to be sent to his home in Ithaca, New York. The Click-N-Ship label on the three-day Priority Mail envelope showed an estimated delivery date of December 1, 2020. This, however, was not to be. 
Stop 1: Los Angeles Central Processing and Distribution Center, Los Angeles, CA
Within a few hours, the package was on its way to the Los Angeles Central Processing and Distribution Center, where, according to tracking information, it arrived at 9:04 PM. This facility, on a half-mile-long site south of Downtown, is the Mothership of Los Angeles mail. Its thousand-foot-long, 750,000-square-foot main building has more than 200 loading docks, accepting and emitting incoming and outgoing mail from much of the city.
The Los Angeles Central Processing and Distribution Center is a type of mail processing center known as a Sectional Center Facility (SCF), which serves one or more three-digit zip code prefixes—in this case zip codes beginning in 900, 901, 902, 903, 904, 905, 907, and 908, which is why the mail from the Wilshire post office, with a zip code of 90036, came here. There are eight other processing and distributing facilities like this in Southern California, though this is the largest, followed closely in terms of square footage to the Santa Clarita SCF, located at Castaic Junction, and serving much of the San Fernando Valley. There are more than 250 SCFs in the USA: 16 in California, 13 in Texas, 11 in New York, and so on.
Traffic flows directly between the SCFs, but postal circulation is also served by another class of sorting facilities, known as Network Distribution Centers (NDCs). NDCs act as a kind of backbone to the national system, especially for bulk mail and bundles of junk mail, which constitute the majority of the 150 billion pieces of mail the USPS handles every year. There are 21 NDCs in the USA. The one in Southern California is a 600,000-square-foot warehouse with 150 loading docks in Bell, in one of LA’s primary intermodal and logistics zones. 650 people work on the labyrinth of sorting machinery there, at what several complainers on the internet call “The Black Hole of LA.”
Being just one small priority mail envelope, our package, headed to Ithaca, avoided the NDC. Instead it seems to have spent some time at the LA SCF, then more time in transit, likely by truck and not plane, to a regional facility in Memphis, Tennessee, known as the Memphis Distribution Center Annex, where tracking information said it arrived at 5:14 PM, on December 1, the day it was supposed to arrive in Ithaca. And this is where things get a little more interesting and mysterious.
Stop 2: Memphis Distribution Center Annex, Memphis, TN
Memphis is a national logistics node for business envelopes and packages, as it is the location of FedEx’s World Hub, possibly the busiest and most sophisticated sorting facility on the planet. Located at the north end of the city’s airport, the hub and auxiliary buildings cover millions of square feet, and more than a hundred FedEx cargo jets can be parked there at the same time, while being loaded and off-loaded. The airport area is home to a variety of logistics centers and corporate warehouses, in symbiosis with FedEx, including Nike’s national distribution center and a large UPS cargo facility.
The USPS has one of its 21 Network Distribution Centers in Memphis, located a few miles north of the airport. But our package, bound for Ithaca, does not appear to have gone there, but rather to the Memphis Distribution Center Annex, where the USPS uses part of a 1,200-foot-long warehouse as a transfer facility. Located less than a quarter mile from the FedEx hub, this USPS facility supports the relationship the USPS has with FedEx, where priority USPS envelopes and packages, and even regular mail, are often carried by FedEx planes. Lots of mail is carried as cargo on passenger jets as well, since the USPS has no planes of its own anymore.
It seems, however, that although our Ithaca-bound package was sent “three-day priority mail,” it did not get a seat on any aircraft. Instead it sat at the annex from December 1 to December 13—12 days in limbo next to the fastest and most connected package hub in the country. However, at 10:04 PM on December 13, the package headed out the door on a truck to a small regional facility in Oxford, Mississippi.
Stop 3: Oxford Postal Facility, Oxford, MS
The Oxford Postal Facility, just an hour and a half from Memphis, is less than 25,000 square feet in size, and has a public post office in the front part. Even so, it is the largest USPS facility in Oxford, a town known best as the home of the University of Mississippi. Besides “Ole Miss,” a major employer in town is a Winchester ammunition plant, north of the postal facility, where 1,000 people make bullets for the military and civilians. Next door to the postal facility is a small mosque. Across the road is the National Sedimentation Lab.
The package arrived in Oxford just after midnight, and left at 5:10 AM on December 15, after a stay of 29 hours. It headed out by truck and went to a processing and distribution center in Rochester, New York, where it arrived at 3:23 AM on December 16. 
Stop 4: Northwest Rochester Distribution Center, Rochester, NY
The Northwest Rochester Distribution Center is located south of the old sprawling Kodak plant site, and is one of six regional mail processing centers in upstate New York. It is around 230,000 square feet in size.
The package sat there for a few days, and appears again on the tracking system on December 20, listed simply as “In Transit to Next Facility.” Its next appearance on the tracking system is two days later, December 22, at 9:56 AM, when it is listed as having “Arrived at USPS Regional Destination Facility.”
Stop 5: Rochester Distribution Center, Rochester, NY
Despite the indication that the package spent two days in transit, the “Regional Destination Facility” is the Rochester Distribution Center, which is just seven miles away from the Northwest Rochester Distribution Center. Located on the south side of town, it is a 415,000-square-foot Sectional Center Facility. The package stayed at the SCF for a few hours, before departing for a small postal facility in Corning, New York where it arrived at 6:50 PM, according to the tracking system. 
Stop 6: Corning Postal Facility, Corning, NY
Like the facility in Oxford, Mississippi, this 20,000-square-foot building has a post office in front, and a small sorting area in back with just a few loading docks. And like the Oxford Postal Facility, it is less notable for its scale in the national USPS network than for its context—in this case the largest USPS facility in Corning, the hometown of the famous glass company, which has facilities all over the region, including a plant a few miles away in Big Flats, where they are currently making millions of vials for the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine.
After spending the rest of the evening in Corning, the package was back on the road in the morning, making the 45-mile trip to the postal facility next to the airport on the north end of Ithaca. 
Stop 7: Ithaca Postal Facility, Ithaca, NY
Arriving at 7:05 AM, the package was listed as out for delivery just 11 minutes later—its shortest stop while in transit, and the last. The letter carrier dropped it off in the mailbox at the recipient’s house at 3:58 PM on December 23—one of 150 million addresses visited by 300,000 postal carriers daily across the country. It was three weeks late, but just in time for Christmas. ♦
6240 The package, on arrival. CLUI photo