Rural mail carrier Frank Esworthy knows who along his route in the Germantown area of Montgomery County is sick, who has been burglarized, who is difficult and who is an "everyday guy." Certain favorites are like family.

"A mailbox is a mailbox," he says. "It's the people that make the difference."

"I got something to go, Frank," says the owner of the Willard Main Grocery, J. Willard Main, who has known Esworthy "ever since he's been on this route." Before that, Main knew Esworthy's father.

Esworthy says Main keeps him posted on "weddings, graduations, everything." Main's country store is the only place for miles with an antique Coke machine, and Esworthy opens the rounded red machine's vertical window, helps himself to a bottle and pays Main at the counter. But time is catching up with the grocery: The machine mostly stocks throwaway bottles.

Esworthy, 46, is one of three rural mail carriers at the Germantown post office. The number of rural mail carriers has increased nationally in the last dozen years because postal officials broadened the definition of rural.

"A lot of so-called rural carriers are working in suburbia," says Lou Eberhardt of the U.S. Postal Service. "It's a changing category."

But at least half of Esworthy's route is truly rural. With bales of hay in the foreground and Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance, his daily course takes in two orchards, three working farms and miles of rolling fields. "The speculators are just holding onto them until someone offers . . . the right money," Esworthy says.

On Wacomor Drive, he points out three buffalo grazing in the field, swatting flies with their tails. On Wildcat Road he notes the spot where he once ran over a 36-inch rattlesnake. He says he has a photo of the snake next to a yardstick to prove it.

Except for stops at Willard's grocery store and a gas station, Esworthy stays in the car for his deliveries. On the road he's relaxed; it's the three-hour sorting routine he starts at 7:30 a.m. that can be tedious.

Esworthy gets 25 cents a mile and about $24,000 a year for the seven-hour days, six days a week that he works. He drives his Pontiac sitting spread-eagle in the right front seat, guiding the steering wheel with his left hand and coaxing the accelerator with his left foot.

From the passenger seat, he flips open the faces of roadside mailboxes with his right hand, tucks a batch of letters and magazines inside, shuts the door with the snap of a wrist and secures the latch with a good whack -- all in one fluid movement.

Then he rolls on to the next box, as he's done for 14 of his 27 years with the Postal Service.

"Jury duty. Hmm," he says, perusing a letter left to be mailed and lowering a box's red metal flag.

When customers leave 20 cents with the envelope, Esworthy fishes an American bighorn sheep stamp from the glove compartment, attaches it and wedges the letter into the dashboard stack. Mail is stacked window-high in plastic trays in the back seat, in bundles at his side and on his lap.

"This is about my favorite section of the route. It's really about the only rural area I have left," Esworthy says in Cedar Grove, where cornfields, woods and open land surround huge homes with the equivalent of city blocks between mailboxes.

He and his wife Sue, a Gaithersburg insurance agent, and two of their three daughters -- a third is in college -- live closer to the real country in Ijamsville in Frederick County.

"I'd like to live out so far it would take about $5 to mail a postcard," Esworthy says.

He laments the building booms in Gaithersburg and Laytonsville, and what he sees as an apathetic modern attitude that, he says, has even spread to public service institutions such as his local post office. "The name of the game now is speed."

Past the Germantown Carryout where a sign advertises 59-cent hamburgers, past Butler's Orchard and a farmer putting in soybeans, beside a feeder stream of the Little Seneca River, three men are building a dam to create a swimming hole.

Driving under shade trees arched over narrow Davis Mill Road, Esworthy laughs and says, "I wish all my routes were just like this. I wouldn't mind the dirt roads."