Re-Riding History: Men, women mount up to experience the thrill of the Pony Express
Across the varied terrain of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California, The National Pony Express Association volunteers are re-riding the steps this week taken by the short-lived Pony Express in 1860. The original trail began in St. Joe, Mo., and wrapped up in Sacramento, Calif., and took Pony Express riders 10 days to complete.
The mochila, which is Spanish for saddle blanket, said Wyoming Division President Les Bennington, and the attached cantinas, which house the mail, are slung from one horse to the next throughout the ride and is on the move 24 hours per day.
“It takes 55 hours to get across Wyoming non-stop. Once it starts, it goes day and night,” Bennington said. “This year we’re going west. Each year we switch. It’s pretty much the same trail, we just change it so some people have it earlier than others.”
Mailing a letter in the Pony Express Re-Ride costs the same as in 1860: $5. Once the mail has traversed nearly 2,000 miles and reaches Sacramento on June 15, it is taken from the mochila, which is signed by each rider along the way, adorned with a special stamp, and sent in regular U.S. Mail. The 800 to 1,000 letters packed in the mochila makes for a combined weight of roughly 50 pounds, Bennington said.
The Pony Express existed for only 19 months before the telegraph was invented and deemed it unnecessary, but the Pony Express Re-Ride has been trailing through the West since 1980.
“It’s not a re-enactment in any way shape and form,” Bennington said. “The riders used to stay at a home station and when the mail came they’d take off, ride 10 to 12 miles to the next remount station, get a fresh horse, put on the mochila and ride again. They might do that five or six or seven times.”
Re-ride participants might only ride a mile or two, though some ride longer, depending on where they are meeting the next rider, how many volunteers are available and accessibility to a pickup and trailer.
Bennington will be riding a leg or two this year as he has for more than 30 years, as will Nebraska Division President Lyle Gornald, who was waiting for the rider to come into Rock Creek Station in eastern Nebraska when he spoke with Tri-State Livestock News on Tuesday. He rode a leg of the trail on Wednesday, as did his two granddaughters who, this year, reached the golden age of 14, old enough to take part in the re-ride.
“We get new riders every year. In Nebraska, there are 225 NPEA members. They won’t all ride; there will probably be 150 of us that ride,” Gornald said. “I’ll ride this year. I ride tomorrow and maybe even the next day. We just have a good time doing it.”
Gornald and his granddaughters traveled to the capitol of Nebraska, earlier this year in celebration of the state’s Sesquicentennial, which has been woven into the Pony Express Re-Ride this year. The commemorative letter being carried in the mochila celebrates Nebraska’s 150th birthday by describing the history of The Great Platte River Road and highlighting one of the state’s most iconic landmarks, Chimney Rock. A U.S. Postal Service-issued Nebraska Sesquicentennial stamp is affixed to each commemorative letter as well.
Having ridden the trail for more than 20 years, Gornald has experienced late-night rides and stretches of wide open terrain.
“The road I just came across, if it wasn’t gravel, you’d think no one lives here. That’s how it was back then,” he said. “I’ve ridden some really dark and rainy nights. It makes you think, you were out here all by yourself. I have had a really fun time doing it and keeping history alive and getting young ones to ride again and keep it going.”
Bennington also has ridden through the night in the name of history. Horses can see better than humans during the dark, he said, and given enough moonlight, as is the case this year, it is possible to keep the steady pace.
“The longest I’ve ever ridden is 11 miles. It’s important to give a horse time to catch its breath,” he said. “Some people don’t ride their horses this much, so we are lucky to get two miles out of them on a gallop. We’ve got to make 2,000 miles in 10 days. In the daytime we do well, and average 12 to 15 miles per hour, but at night time we slow up to 7 miles per hour. We do the re-ride during this time of year, so we’ve got more daylight. It helps us cover more ground at a faster speed.”
Bennington’s two sons make the trip annually from Montana and Colorado, respectively, to participate in the re-ride.
As a nod to technology, the re-ride can be followed this year via a GPS device placed in a cantina by visiting the website http://www.NationalPonyExpress.org and clicking “Follow the Ride.” F