For 19 years he walked his route, delivering letters to families’ front doors and making personal connections up close and on foot. But then suddenly, his feet lost feeling.
Alan Snarr, a 20-year resident of Tooele and letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, began to lose the use of his legs in 2015. He has since seen a long list of specialists and undergone a barrage of tests, but he still has no answer for why his nerves have given out on him.
“It’s a challenge,” Snarr said. “I’ve had to rethink my life.”
And what a life it has been.
Snarr grew up in Murray, Utah, and attended the University of Utah. After serving an LDS mission in Argentina, where, he joked, he “discovered that Spanish is my primary language,” he earned a Master’s Degree in Spanish Literature. He and his wife, Heidi, then moved to Lansing, Michigan, where Snarr pursued a PhD.
From there, the couple went to Virginia, where Snarr had a temporary appointment to teach at Virginia Tech while he worked on his dissertation. When that job ended, they moved back to Utah.
Fully intending to finish his dissertation, Snarr picked up part-time work with the post office in Salt Lake City. But life got complicated, the dissertation didn’t happen, and the part-time job turned into a long-term career.
In 1998, the Snarrs moved with their two young children, Mathew and Beth, to Tooele. As soon as a position opened here, he transferred. Snarr walked his routes in “old town Tooele” for the next 13 years.
Though his work was different from the teaching position he had once envisioned, Snarr embraced the more charming aspects of being a letter carrier.
“It’s really kind of a 19th-century job,” he said. “It’s very low-tech to go from door-to-door. But I guess I’m a low-tech person.”
As his feet followed the same path every day, Snarr was never bored. Spending so much time on his own gave him a chance to think, whether about great works of Spanish literature or the state of world politics.
“It’s a benefit of having read so many books,” he said. “There was always something interesting to ponder.”
But also, there was always someone interesting to meet. Walking up to the same front doors day after day, year after year, Snarr made connections with people on every economic level and from many different backgrounds.
He has met some descendants of the very first settlers of Tooele and learned all about the mining industry and culture that was once the lifeblood of the area. He has seen up close the struggles and successes of a wide variety of citizens.
“I could tip my hat to the mayor and do a quick parent-teacher conference for one of my kids on a late delivery day,” he said. “It’s fun to give and receive a kindly nod. It helps me feel an extra connection to my city and its people.”
Delivering mail isn’t the only way Snarr has gotten involved in his community. He has served as a Democratic precinct chair and attended many events and meetings with the Tooele County Democratic Party. He was also an LDS bishop for several years and is a father of four busy and involved children. His family has put down roots and flourished in Tooele.
Snarr has also been conscientious of his citizenship in the wider world. He has a passion for travel. He has been to South America several times to do aid work with Rotary International. Serving as a translator for medical teams in the Amazon, he has marveled at the beauty of Cusco and the Andes.
His plan was to retire, travel and climb mountains in South America. But that’s not how things worked out. Snarr gets around in a wheelchair these days. He has stopped driving, because he can’t tell how much pressure he’s putting on the pedals. He deals with daily pain and mental fog from medications. He has slowly seen his legs waste away.
Snarr has also watched other life-long dreams dissolve.
“There’s no greater thrill for me than standing on the top of a peak and looking at the horizon,” he said. “I had a goal to stand on every peak along the Wasatch before I died. I’m obviously not going to make that goal anymore, unless I can get a helicopter to drop me there.”
How does he deal with this undesired change of plans?
“You start not dwelling on what you can’t do, but what you can do, and then doing it,” he said.
Snarr sees his new situation as an opening to other possibilities. He enjoys writing, drawing and discovering new interests.
“Maybe I’ll finish up some of the projects that I started and left hanging,” he said.
In the meantime, Snarr keeps learning. He hadn’t realized before the kind of challenges people with disabilities face. He has discovered firsthand how inaccessible certain “wheelchair friendly” places can be. His loss of ability has given him a greater appreciation for others.
“It’s hard to just think of myself when there are so many other people I know who are restricted because of ability challenges,” he said.
When asked to name the most difficult part of living with his mystery disease, Snarr shared the story of his great-grandmother, who drove three wagons with four children across Nebraska. When she was 102 years old, a reporter asked her what was the most difficult trial she had ever faced. She replied, “I’ve never had any.”
“With that kind of heritage, I’m embarrassed to talk about my current situation as a trial,” he said.
Snarr has come to a place of acceptance and hope. No diagnosis means not knowing what the future holds, good or bad. He goes to physical therapy to strengthen the muscles in his back, which will make a difference no matter what happens with his legs.
“It’s about maintaining what I still have and what is still good,” he said. “I think that’s important.”
Snarr is maintaining in more ways than one. What he still has, besides working back muscles, is a lively curiosity and appreciation for the world, as well as a great love for people that was honed over years of meeting them where they were.
“There’s no excuse to be bored or lonely if you can get out of the house and meet someone else,” Snarr said. “Everyone has a story.”