Photographs by Derek DiLuzio
In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express, one suburb slicker suits up, saddles up and holds on tight for the ride of her life.
I am galloping full-throttle across the Wyoming
prairie on a stranger’s horse, and I’m desperately afraid of breaking my suburban neck. My designer leather boots won’t stay in the stirrups, and the expensive cowgirl hat I bought at an East Coast boutique flew off miles ago. I imagine it rolling across the green expanse like a tumbleweed.
ONE AND A HALF CENTURIES AGO, RIDERS CARRYING MAIL MADE this same trek — and with much greater finesse, I’m sure. On today’s journey, which is being held to mark the 150th anniversary of the famous Pony Express, I don’t have much in common with those riders — mostly wiry teenage boys who rode 75 to 100 miles at a stretch during the journey from St. Joseph, Mo., to San Francisco. If I were half the cowboy they were, I’d know exactly how to slow this chestnut bay gelding named Blue. Unfortunately, I am a writer with only four months of riding lessons under my large, tacky belt buckle who mistakenly thought that retracing a portion of the 2,000-mile Pony Express route would be a breeze.
I had an easier time with childbirth.
Scanning the raw, dusty land that’s devoid of jagged skyscrapers and strip malls, I try to feel a kinship to the country’s heroic cowboy past and imagine what it must have been like to be out here alone, with only a saddlebag of letters and a company-issued Bible for courage. But the only thing that registers is fear.
Pat Hearty, the Utah division president of the National Pony Express Association, is driving a horse trailer on the road alongside me, and I notice from the corner of my eye that he’s giving me the thumbs-up. This encouraging gesture gives me the confidence to pull hard on the reins and holler, “Whoa!” But Blue only rears his head and snorts as if to say, “This ain’t no carnival ride, sister. If you can’t hang with the big guns, get off my saddle.”
If I hadn’t taken an oath not to swear, like the original riders did, I’d give Blue an earful. Instead, I prostrate myself across his mane and look for a soft patch of grass to cushion my inevitable fall.
THE NATIONAL PONY EXPRESS ASSOCIATION WAS OFFICIALLY established in 1978 as a way to celebrate the gutsy cowboys of the 19th century and their can-do idealism that epitomized the spirit of the Western frontier. Approximately half of the original trail exists, the rest subsumed by private property, parking lots and development. But it’s the legacy of the ride that matters to the association’s more than 800 members.
“It grounds us to our roots and puts us in touch with who we are,” says Hearty, a chemist with Battelle, a science and technology research and development company. “It gives us an appreciation for what they sacrificed. This is uncomfortable work. They did what needed to be done to build a nation.”