The sun’s golden rays fight to break through slate-gray clouds on an early February morning in a desolate area of northern Arizona’s vista-ridden Mogollon Plateau. Suddenly, spectacularly, Robert Perry and his 19-year-old Arabian horse burst over the crest of a hill a half mile away at a full gallop. As they near a highway mile marker, another rider on horseback prepares to take off. With the smoothness of a handshake, Perry extends a canvas and leather bag to the departing rider as plumes of dust kick high in the air behind the horses.
The U.S. Mail is en route from Holbrook to Scottsdale, Ariz., via a most unlikely modern-day letter carrier—the Pony Express.
As a member of the Hashknife Pony Express, Perry, 31, is part of the nation’s oldest continuous Pony Express affiliated with the U.S. Postal Service. In a few weeks (Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 2007), he and his fellow riders, most of them members of the Navajo County Sheriff’s Posse Search and Rescue Unit, will set out again on the annual mail run—their 49th straight. During this three-day journey covering 230 miles, 20,000 special hand-stamped letters from around the world will be hauled by some 35 riders, all of whom are sworn in as official mail carriers by the U.S. Post Office in Holbrook (pop. 5,101).
The letters are placed into nearly 24 different mailbags, each weighing from 10 to 25 pounds, and are passed from rider to rider along the route. Horsemen relay at every mile marker along the route that winds through the scenic Mogollon Rim country, through little towns and hamlets such as Heber, Christopher Creek and Payson, before ending with a ride en masse to the Scottsdale Post Office, where the mail re-enters the conventional postal delivery system. In all, each rider will take two to three rides per day, using trucks pulling horse trailers to race ahead to their next assigned mile marker.
“The riding is the easy part,” acknowledges Hashknife Pony Express captain Mark Reynolds, 50, a deputy commander of the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office, which organizes the annual event. “This ride costs around $30,000 to $35,000 to put on,” says Reynolds, noting that money is raised through fund-raisers and business sponsorships. “It’s paying for all the motel rooms, all the food, all the dinners. It’s quite an expense. The pilot cars, the riders—each rider is different, each horse is different, each hand-off is different; different towns, different city councils. Some people have fast horses, some people have slower horses. It just builds the history of this thing: Everybody’s got a story.”
Tales along the trail abound from the youngest riders to some of the oldest. Kelland Webb, 51, an actual U.S. Postal Service mail carrier on the Scottsdale-Kachina rural route, has ridden with the Hashknife Pony Express gang for 24 years. He remembers a pristine picture-postcard setting accompanying one of his rides.
“It was right along this stretch of road, with snow about a foot deep,” recounts Webb, standing next to his trailer parked along State Route 377. “Twenty wild horses covered in snow are running right alongside me! I look up to my left and there’s 20 of ’em chasing me on that side of the fence. Wow!”
Webb’s relay partner Ron Tolland, 45, a database marketer for General Electric in Pagosa Springs, Colo. (pop. 1,591), adds: “The part I look forward to every year is the ride into Scottsdale to the post office. You got 35 to 40 riders on horseback charging down Scottsdale Road. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. People on the sidewalk are so overcome they jump up and down. Some have tears in their eyes. It’s incredible to see.”
A group of riders from the Navajo County Sheriff’s Posse made the first run to Scottsdale in 1958 and called themselves the Hashknife Pony Express. The term “Hashknife” comes from a cattle brand registered to the onetime Aztec Land and Cattle Co., which opened a sprawling ranch in northern Arizona near Holbrook in the late 1880s. The sheriff’s posse is permitted limited use of the brand as a logo for its Pony Express.
The following year, in 1959, the Scottsdale Jaycees again invited the posse to carry letters along the route, this time to kick off the city’s annual Parada del Sol celebration—billed as “The World’s Largest Horse-Drawn Parade”—and they’ve been doing it every year since.
“The first time we left Holbrook it was dirt all the way to Fort McDowell,” recalls Gayle Perkins, 71 and retired, a rider in the inaugural run. “There was no pavement. Back then, we rode seven miles at a time. You’d get right in the middle of the road and nobody would come by. No police escorts. There weren’t any of these semis either.”
Experience of a lifetime
Along the route, sightseers display genuine appreciation of the event. “It’s fascinating,” exclaims Jean Condon, who, along with her friend Carolyn—both from Newport, Vt.—trek around Arizona each winter. “I’m a history buff and I just read a book about the Pony Express last year, so this is kind of near and dear to my heart. This is as good as it gets.”
All participating Navajo County Sheriff’s Posse members and their guests are excellent riders. Of course, conditions have changed considerably since 1860 when the original Pony Express riders battled brutal weather, Indian ambushes, rugged terrain and parched thirst along their route. Asked whether he could have been a rider back then, Webb smiles, then says with mock seriousness, “Oh certainly, I’m the wiry kind. Adopted.”
Both he and Tolland hoot at the reference to the original Pony Express “Riders Wanted” ad placed in a San Francisco newspaper in early 1860, in which young, wiry riders “willing to risk death daily” and “preferably orphaned” were recruited for the daredevil job.
The riders of the Hashknife Pony Express point to one overriding reason for their participation in this arduous but historical event: “It’s the camaraderie between all the riders,” Webb says.
“We’ve all experienced the same things along the road; we know what each other is going through. The same saddle sores, the same trips, yuks and giggles.”
For most of the riders it’s an experience of a lifetime, a chance to race alongside a piece of American history, despite the fact that the original Pony Express riders traveled from Missouri to California, never passing through Arizona.
“We all have jobs, we all work, we all have families and children and animals at home,” says Jim Dusenberry, 52, a carpenter-cowboy from Scottsdale on his 17th Hashknife Pony Express run. “But when you’re doing your mile, you’re just into the ride. It’s an adrenaline rush. It’s just a high. You think about you, the horse, and what’s going on. To the rest of the world, you’re 200 years old.”
Visit www.hashknifeponyexpress.com to learn more.