The third week in April. Spring in zip code 84722. Daryl Hulet, highway contract mail carrier, had a pretty typical week.

His is the route from Cedar City to New Castle, to Enterprise, to Central, to Pine Valley, to Veyo, and finally, to Gunlock, Utah.His job puts him on some of the loneliest highways in the state. Yet he knows more people and knows more about their lives than if he worked in a big office in a big city.

During the third week in April, he stuffed 10,000 letters, bills, catalogs and TV Guides into rural boxes. He also dropped 60 sacks of mail at six small-town post offices.

He delivered a carton of baby chicks and a sapling. He removed two snakes from the drop-off building in Pine Valley. (Holding a forked stick in one hand and a stack of mail in the other, he performed this task without dropping a letter.) He rose at 4 a.m. and got home at 5 p.m. and drove 200 miles a day, six times.

On Sunday, he took his family fishing.

"You can't fish every day. Takes the fun out of it," he said, by way of explaining why he chose the long hours and absolute responsibility that go along with the job in 84722.

The good parts of the job are evident, especially this season. Hulet drove a gorgeous route through rain and spring sunshine, through cedar and pine forests, and then out onto the Utah desert. At each stop, at each tiny post office or set of boxes he was greeted warmly by a postmaster or a customer.

And everywhere, everywhere, along the way meadowlarks sang.

Daryl Hulet was born in New Castle. His parents bid on the route and won it back in 1960. After his father died, his mother handled the job alone for seven years, occasionally hiring men to help her. In 1982, she told Daryl she wanted to retire. He quit his job as an airplane mechanic. Hulet didn't want to see that route leave the family.

There are 133 highway contract carriers in the Utah/Eastern Nevada region. Unlike the approximately 1,000 city carriers and 100 rural carriers, contract carriers aren't federal employees. They don't wear uniforms; they don't drive little white mail trucks.

"I cover my own health insurance and truck and fuel and tires. I'm just kind of independent."

So, small-business owner Daryl Hulet put 92,000 miles on his truck in a little more than a year.

"I never call up sick," Hulet said, winking. He couldn't if he'd wanted to. No one else is approved to drive the route ("You have to be fingerprinted by the FBI and have a background check") or knows it well-enough to do it.

Half of all highway contractors are "transportation carriers" who drive semitrailer trucks full of mail between the state's large cities. The others, like Hulet, deliver to post offices and people.

And more and more often those people are "NCBU" customers. People who have given up the country charm of a mailbox on a post in favor of a shiny silver box in a condo complex of boxes officially called "Neighborhood Community Box Units." In the several years since they were installed on Hulet's route, they've become a gathering place at delivery time.

Bill Davis is Hulet's postmaster. He says,"Daryl really takes care of his people and they love him. He goes a little extra."

On the day he was carrying a carton full of squawking baby chicks from Iowa, "going a little extra" meant making it possible for the new owners to go off visiting without worrying about their investment. "Will you stop by our place and put that carton inside in the shade?" they asked when they met Hulet at the community boxes on their way out of town. "Sure."

"Sometimes there are things you can't do, but you always do the best you can according to the regulations," Hulet explained. He's not required to sell stamps, for example. He just does it for his customers.

At the restaurant in Veyo where he stops for coffee, he talked with two local ranchers about the price of steers. Then he offered to help water the property of a neighbor who died recently. "I like to keep busy on my layover time in Gunlock," he said. "I do mechanic work. I'd even dig ditches."

He spends two hours each day in Gunlock before retracing his route to pick up the mail. Proudly he pointed out the small town's reservoir, new rodeo arena and peacefulness. Hulet would like to retire there. Hulet did his job quickly, never wasting a motion. All the while he carried on short conversations _ about fishing, taxes and comings and goings.

"The motor home quit on us coming back from fishing yesterday, Daryl," complained a woman at one of the community box units. "We were going uphill at 30 miles an hour. Folks behind us really appreciate that. Now I know why people have heart attacks." Later he explained, chuckling, "Well that motor home hasn't run too well since her ex-husband put sugar in the gas tank when he left."

As the people on his route have learned to count on him, he knows he can count on them. They'll drive him into St. George to pick up a part if he has a breakdown.

They understand what it is to have a family business, to have gone six years without taking sick leave or vacation. They know how completely Hulet counts on his wife. They know that more than once he's been under his truck in the snow at 2 a.m. replacing a U-joint so he could deliver their mail the next day.

Recently, Hulet put in countless hours of uncompensated effort changing his route from box numbers to street addresses.

To understand the word "controversy" try to understand what it was like to change an address system and mapping for an entire town. "One town would have been bad enough," says Hulet. "We did five."

He just explained and explained and explained. At every stop, people who had for 50 years gotten letters addressed by box number _ or merely the name of the town _ came out to ask Hulet why they needed street numbers. "Addresses don't move," he said. The logic was irrefutable.

"With boxes you have, say, a Box 1 and then a vacant lot and then a Box 3. So as you go down a road you might have Box 85 and then Box 94. Nothing in between.

"Now me, I could deliver that way. But say I broke my leg and someone had to relieve me . . . "

Because he knew the route better than anyone else, Hulet felt duty-bound to help map it for the post office. "Can you imagine if they'd had to send somebody down from Salt Lake to do it?"

The phone company and the Washington County commissioners were partners in the project, too. (Though the original idea to extend the numbering system from downtown St. George didn't fly with anyone in the smaller towns.)

It was a project Hulet didn't have to do. But it was making his job easier and he could see that the time was coming, enough people were moving in, that someday he just wouldn't know them all by name. "This area's going to grow bigger than me," he said. "I know it. We've got a possibility of 700 boxes. The post office is going to divide it someday." When the time comes, Hulet will have a hard time giving up even one mile of his route.

"Looking at this job from the outside, people might think it would get boring. But I like the drive. I look for deer, eagles . . . and I like the people saying hello. I know them all. I've watched their kids grow up.

"I'd say I've been real lucky to have this job."