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Pony Express Re-riding for 30 Years
The real thing 150 years ago lasted only 18 months

One ancient May, my father enlisted my brother and me in his start-up business of silk-screening commercial posters. By Labor Day, it was a bust. Left behind were unpaid bills, torn screens, half-empty paint cans, bloody razor blades and the stitches from sewn-back-together fingertips. Like most short-lived, failed enterprises, it was soon forgotten, everything but the blood (nightmares about severed digits, don’t you know). Reenact those silk-screening days? I’d sooner reenact the time a spirited teen driver ran a red light in his Ram-tough pickup and barreled like a bull into the driver’s side of my Honda Civic.

It was 150 years ago in April that young riders first saddled up for the Pony Express and only 149 years ago in October that those still young riders last carried their mochilas (mail bags) cross-country. Financial woes and the intercontinental telegraph doomed that 18-month mounted mail service (see cover story, this issue). But unlike most other failures, from Sony’s innovative Betamax to Lalire’s cutting-edge silk-screening, the Pony is still celebrated. The National Pony Express Association (NPEA) has conducted June “re-rides” over the nearly 2,000-mile trail (St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento) for 30 years. Previous re-rides (the NPEA avoids using that other R word, reenactment) lasted 10 days, but the 2010 sesquicentennial ride will stretch over 20 days to allow for commemorations in eight states along the time-honored route. “We have riders from other Western states, too, and some Eastern states and foreign countries,” says NPEA President Lee Bennington of Wyoming. “We have 800 members, and about 550 of them will be riding. We have horse lovers, history buffs and a combination of the two. We alternate the direction, and this year we’ll be headed east from Sacramento to St. Joseph. It should be easier with less night rides (crazy stuff can happen at night, such as riders getting lost) and more time.”

The original riders worried about bad weather, hostile Indians (mostly Paiutes in Nevada), water supplies and exhaustion (they galloped up to 150 miles between “home stations,” changing horses at way stations spaced 10 to 15 miles apart). The re-riders, says Bennington, seldom go more than 20 miles at a time, but they have their own problems—asphalt, broken bottles, lightning and, particularly, vehicular traffic. NPEA’s president says only one 1860–61 rider died in the saddle, while “we’ve had two riders die in the saddle from heart attacks.” Bennington will travel the entire distance, mostly in modern vehicles. “All the rain in 2009 put us 5 1⁄2 hours behind after seven days,” he said. “I can tell you that horses handle the mud much better than pickups. But we made up the time.”

This year there will be time enough to celebrate. In fact, the 2010 mail will pause at the Pony Express Bridge for four days to allow the grand finale—the Missouri River crossing and a parade through downtown St. Joe—to fall on a Saturday (June 26). That jumping-off town has also scheduled activities April 1–3 (the first westbound rider left on April 3, 1860). “To Americans,” says local sesquicentennial proponent Jim Conlon, “the Pony Express represents that ‘can-do spirit’ that makes the country what it is today….The riders were the astronauts of their time.”

The Pony’s timeless appeal is something Bennington fully understands. “It was an exciting Western event that was not a battle (not many people were killed); it was more of a challenge and an adventure,” he said. “It was an effort by man and beast to beat the elements and the clock, and that appeals to many people. So do the horses. And the men in the saddles were doing a dangerous job without any help. A cowboy riding alone is one image we all recognize. It is still very powerful.”

Even more powerful than the image of a silk-screen apprentice slicing open a fingertip with a misguided razor blade.