Hoofing it through life

Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

She walks down the street, pushing her mailcart, and people do a double-take.

The headgear is what really sets Janice Urben apart.

Today it’s a jaunty set of stars, which bounce above her head as she walks.

“Hello!” she calls loudly and cheerfully, in a somewhat gravelly voice, as she enters a business and deposits a pile of mail on the counter. “Have a nice day!” and she’s gone.

It’s a nearly daily routine for Urben, who worked the downtown mail route for 13 years, after 11 years of serving as a part-time “flex” carrier, filling in on other routes. Her route has been revised in recent weeks, part of a reorganization of the local city delivery routes, but her enthusiasm has not.

When she’s not delivering mail, Urben is taking care of a herd of horses on her 91-acre Rocking Red Ranch on Crescent Hill Road. Last week she was nursing a couple of injured ribs after one of her horses “slammed me to the ground,” she said.

Urben, 48, departs from that routine every so often, though, and when she does, she really leaves.

She and her father, Paul, who turned 78 in June, are world travelers. She’s visited 36 countries, she reckons, some more than once.

“My main purpose in going around the world is to ride horses,” Urben said. “When I travel, I always try to find horses. I’ve never not been able to find a horse. I can always find a horse to ride, no matter what.”

She said Cambodia has been the oddest place she’s ridden a horse, but it’s one of the countries she’s visited that impressed her the most – especially the Angkor Wat temples.

“The temple had a tree temple that was absolutely to die for,” she said. “I mean really, it was unbelievable to see those roots growing through the stones of the temple and everything. It was a magical place. It was 3,000 years old.”

Urben’s first trip outside the United States was in 1975, when she went to Costa Rica to visit her sister, who was a foreign exchange student there. In 1976 she became an exchange student herself, spending a year in Italy, where she met Todd Wooley, son of Sweet Home Fire Marshal Gerald Wooley.

“He said ‘You probably don’t know about Sweet Home,’ and I said ‘I know you have a rock show every year in March,'” she recalled, adding that her father was interested in rocks.

When she returned to the United States, Urben spent the late 1970s in Florida, riding horses at a racetrack, and in Southern California, where she worked at the Thoroughbred Training Center at San Luis Rey Downs in Oceanside, north of San Diego.

Though she grew up in Milwaukie, in Clackamas County, Urben had owned horses since she was 11, when she and her childhood friend Kristy Schindeler went together to get one.

“I could ride from the boarding facility to my parents’ home,” she recalled. “It was really cool.”

Moving back to Oregon in 1978, she joined the U.S. Postal Service in Lake Oswego.

In doing so she was following in the footsteps of her dad, who was the personnel manager of the Portland Post Office.

“While I was growing up, he gave me the applications to take (Postal Service) tests,” she said. “I ignored them, then finally I took one.”

She and Kristy moved to Sweet Home in 1980 and eventually became partners in the Rocking Red Ranch, though, she said, they’ve since parted ways.

The ranch has been the site for some major parties and celebrations over the years, Urben said.

“We used to have the Barn Bash Party for years,” she said.

Now, it’s pretty much a home for her nine horses, some cattle and Spike Parham, a sign painter who lives on the place along with Urben.

She still travels, most recently to Australia, in March of 2007, when she attended a wedding of a couple she met on one of her 10 trips to Thailand.

She first visited that country on the advice of Todd Wooley, now an entrepreneur in Portland, she said.

She’s made three trips to Thailand to learn classical dressage, the style of riding used with the Lipizzaner stallions, at Horseshoe Point Resort and Country Club, an international riding school in Pattaya. Horseshoe Point has some 150 Lucitano, Hanoverian, Trahkener and Lipizzaner stallions and is run by a Thai man who was trained in Portugal.

“It’s learning to dance with a horse,” Urben said of the riding style. “I couldn’t afford it in the United States. For $600 you can get two lessons a day for five days.

“It’s an incredible riding facility with three dressage arenas and two jumping arenas as well as a trail ride.”

Back home, Urben has worked for the local Post Office for 24 years.

“I’ve watched a lot of people retire,” she chuckled. “I’ll be there until I drop dead on the city streets.”

She said she enjoys her job because “I like dealing with the community all the time.”

She said her hat schtick came about when she was shopping at Target one day and found a set of antlers headgear and thought it would be fun to wear them on her route.

“I found these antlers and I thought they were really cute,” she said. “I went, ‘Hey, you know?’ and I bought them.

“All the different smiles I got from people walking down the street changed my life,” Urben said. “I came up with other things to wear. If I have to look silly to get you to smile, that’s what I’m going to do.

“Now my patrons buy me things to wear.”

Presently, she has thematic headgear for all but two months of the year, August and September. They range from St. Patrick’s Day headgear to a turkey tail headdress made from a wild turkey that a friend shot.

Her collection has grown, thanks to the customers who have been contributing.

“I’ve been getting a bunch more new ones,” she said. “The only months I don’t have are August and September.

“That’s pretty good, you know,” she said, laughing.

Her latest interest is trash car racing at Willamette Speedway, though she hasn’t been able to do that this season because of her ribs.

In that event, similar to a demolition derby in which drivers are all traveling the same direction on a track slick with water, the object is to try to cover as many laps as possible in as short a time as possible while staying intact, because hitting other cars is permitted – even encouraged.

Her car has “Janice is gone postal without a weapon” emblazoned on the driver’s door.

“I drove a buddy’s the first time and my car twice,” Urben said. “I got two fourth-place trophies.

“It’s a great thing.”