The Pony Express was formed in 1860 by three Missouri businessmen in an effort to speed mail delivery from the East to the fledgling state of California, where the population had swelled after the discovery of gold, creating an appetite for timely news back home. At the time, it could take several months for a letter to travel from Washington, D.C., to Sacramento, Calif., by stagecoach or boat.
The Pony Express cut the amount of time it took to cross the western half of the continent to 10 days. Starting at the end of the train line in St. Joseph — the last supply post before the frontier unfolded — the trail crossed the endless plains of Kansas and Nebraska, then clipped a corner of Colorado before heading back to the grasslands of Nebraska. From there, it wended through Wyoming’s prairies and mountain passes, rounding Salt Lake City, where Brigham Young envisioned the spire-topped temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Often following established routes including the Oregon and California trails, the Pony Express then descended to the deserts of Nevada before scaling the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The trail ended in San Francisco after a quick jaunt by paddle steamer.
Despite its storied history that has been played out in movies and songs and commemorated on lunch boxes, souvenir saltshakers and aftershave bottles, the Pony Express lasted only 19 months. Like a victim of a shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, it died a quick death, having lost ground to the transcontinental telegraph. Its founders never made a dime and ended up $200,000 in debt — a hefty fortune in those days.
This spectacular financial failure means little to the National Pony Express Association volunteers, who dutifully re-create the ride each year. Every detail is historically correct, from the carrying of real mail in a mochila (a leather pouch with four locked compartments) to wearing similar clothing to promising not to get drunk, to gamble or to treat animals cruelly during the ride.
As Blue continues to bump me around on his back, I’m rethinking that last vow. When he finally stops after my designated three-mile leg, I slide off the saddle and sheepishly get back into the cab of Hearty’s horse trailer.
“Don’t feel bad,” he tells me. “They were tougher than us by a long shot.”
Unlike on the real Pony Express, in which riders mounted a fresh horse every 10 to 12 miles at one of the 190 way stations along the trail, re-enactors carry the mochila for three to five miles before someone else takes it up, like a relay race on horseback. Most years, it takes a total of 10 days to transport the mail along the entire 1,996-mile route — the same as it did in 1860 — but because of this year’s milestone anniversary, the ride will last 26 days so that towns along the way can host parades, rodeos and museum talks in celebration.
All that’s necessary for people to participate in the annual ride is a membership in the Pony Express Association (which can be had for just $30 in yearly dues), a good horse, competent riding skills, a trailer and a willingness to endure a sudden rain shower and even the occasional hailstorm along the ride. Brutal heat and mosquitoes also come with the territory.