The West is more than just a region on a map. The West is a place rooted in the ideas of American consciousness. There is something romantic about its colorful cast of historical characters – cowboys, gunfighters, Indians, and outlaws – set against the dramatic backdrop of mountains, big sky, and wide open spaces. The drama and the excitement of Western history captures the imagination of every generation and has become an enduring part of American identity.
The lone Pony Express rider galloping across the desert is one such iconic image of the West. The mail service, which ran from 1860 to 1861, promised to get mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California in 10 days or less. In order to do that, riders on horseback traveled day and night through some of the country’s wildest and most hostile landscapes. “There’s not many people that want to do that again,” says Dean Atkin, president of the National Pony Express Association.
Despite the challenges of the ride, modern equestrians can get a taste of the original overland mail service. About 750 people ride the Pony Express each year. Since 1980, the National Pony Express Association (NPEA) members have been riding and carrying letters along the original 1,900 mile Pony Express route. And just like the riders in the 1860s, NPEA riders travel 24 hours a day, averaging 10 mph, to arrive within 10 days, and hand off the mail to the USPS for its final delivery. NPEA has grown over the years, but their mission hasn’t changed: to preserve the trail and keep the history alive.
The annual re-ride is a relay race of sorts. Each rider does a two to seven mile leg, handing off the mochila (the saddle bags holding the mail) to the next awaiting rider. “I’ve ridden on a moonlit night from the Wyoming border into Utah for four miles,” says Dean. “It’s an experience when you’re out there riding and loping along, moving the mail. It just kind of captures you and makes you part of that history.”
The riders travel through eight states: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. Each year the route switches directions. This year it runs west to east. In many places, the trail has been overtaken by civilization, so riders must navigate pavement and busy traffic. But in Nevada, the route is largely as uninhabited as it was in the 1860s, crossing the mountain ranges and wide valleys of the high desert.
The Pony Express Trail runs just under 500 miles across the central latitude of Nevada, from Lake Tahoe on the California border to the Goshute Indian Reservation on the Utah border. Riders have 60 hours to get across the state. Because of its terrain, Nevada is considered one of the most difficult states of the re-ride.
Eastern Nevada is the toughest part of the state. “It’s pretty brutal because on the east end there’s not much access and the riders have to do longer stints,” says Dean. “They’re pretty dedicated to push it through there.” The section through eastern Nevada is reserved for some of the most experienced participants – a group that calls themselves the Schellbourne Riders.
Their section stretches from the Diamond Mountains on the border of Eureka and White Pine counties to Ibapah, Utah. It’s a distance of only 100 miles as the crow flies, but it means crossing seven mountain ranges, and riding vast expanses of empty desert.
“We do not go through civilization except for the little bit through the Indian Reservation,” says Wendy Anderson, one of the Schellbourne Riders. “Then we cross Highway 93 and we don’t see civilization again until we’re done. So it’s just like it was back in the 1860-1861 era.” Wendy says it’s the unique experiences and the challenges that she loves. “It’s so cool to be on a horse and it’s 2:00 in the morning and you’re running down a road and it’s pitch black and you can hear the wild mustangs crashing through the brush.” Along with difficult terrain, the riders never know what the weather will bring.
One year when Wendy and her horse crossed the Antelope Range, they encountered rain, thunder, lightning, and snow. “I had to get off and she and I were fighting our way through two or three inches of snow to get to the top [of the mountain],” she says. “That was the coolest ride because I experienced every single thing that I could experience in there.”
Riding the Pony Express Trail through the backcountry of Nevada offers riders the chance to experience remote vistas of the state that few others see. “It’s amazing what beauty is hidden in those mountains,” Wendy says. “A lot of people don’t get off the highways and they have no clue.” Because of the remoteness of the trail through eastern Nevada, the Schellbourne Riders camp out together and help each other trailer from section to section. “We love our little group. We’re just like a little family,” she says.
This will be Wendy’s 18th year as a Pony Express re-rider but she’s been involved with the group since moving to Ely in the 1980s. “Back then it was totally a man’s organization, especially here,” Wendy remembers. In those days women weren’t allowed to be re-riders. Instead, Wendy was relegated to camp cooking, cleaning and packing gear, and taking photos. Still, some women were finding ways around the rules. “A few women were sneaking in. They weren’t signing up and riding as members, but they were going!’ she says.
Eventually, states began to allow women to officially participate. In 1990, Nevada’s first five women participated in the Re-ride. In 2000, Wendy and her daughter were the first women re-riders on the Schellbourne section. Not everyone was happy with the progressive direction of the organization. “A few of the old timers – they had been riding for 10 or 15 years – some of them got a little bit miffed and they quit!” Wendy says.
Today, women make up a large part of the NPEA membership, including the newest generation of re-riders. At the ripe age of 15, Chloe Young is already a seasoned Pony Express rider. When the Washoe Valley high school student isn’t studying, she’s riding and training with her horses. This will be her third year on the trail with the Pony Express.
“The first year I had to be a shadow rider because I was too young to actually carry the mail,” Chloe says. Since riders must be at least 14 to carry the mail, Chloe rode alongside a more experienced re-rider in 2016 who carried the mochila. Last year, Chloe was old enough to ride by herself and carry the mail. She rode two sections – from Cold Springs through the Desatoya Mountains and a section in Carson City.
“The most challenging and fun part was when we were out near the Desatoyas and there were cows on the range and then they started running next to us so we kinda had to chase them down the road,” says Chloe. She gained some valuable experience that year, especially since it was her first solo ride. Chloe has been riding since she was eight, but she doesn’t come from a horse family. Even so, the Pony Express is a family event.
Chloe’s parents have helped out each year she’s ridden the Pony Express. Her father, Darren Young, is an avid distance runner. In 2016 and 2017, he ran Chloe’s sections on foot, opening and closing gates along the trail while she rode. He was glad that she had an experienced rider alongside her the first time. “We were fully confident with everything going on that first ride,” Darren says. “The second year might have been a little more nerve-wracking because it was just us.”
Chloe remembers being nervous those first two years but says the experience was worth it, especially for the opportunity to see more of Nevada. “I think it’s really cool because I’m used to just this area – Reno and Carson – and you kinda get used to seeing the mountains here,” she says. “But it’s different, how the landscape changes even just a few hours away from here.” This year she’ll get even more new views. She’s signed up to ride sections in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska.
Chloe admits that she didn’t know a lot about the Pony Express before she became a re-rider, but she feels a connection to it now. “When you’re out there it feels really real because that’s actually where they rode and seeing what they were seeing back then.” She’s learned a lot about the Pony since she started, thanks to Petra Keller, the rider that Chloe shadowed the first year on the trail.
Petra Keller has become a mentor of sorts for new re-riders in Nevada. She coached Chloe for months leading up to that first ride. “It’s important to me that they have a positive experience,” says Petra. “They enjoy it, we have fun, and we work together the first ride.” Seeing Chloe now riding solo makes Petra proud. “She had so much fun the first year that she wants to continue doing it, which is a great compliment!”
This will be Petra’s ninth year riding the Pony Express Trail in Nevada. “I kinda got the Pony fever,” she jokes. Petra was born and raised in Germany and grew up riding and competing. She also grew up watching American Westerns. “There’s this fascination of the American West in Europe,” she explains. After moving to the states, a friend suggested she try the Re-ride in 2010 and Petra jumped at the chance. “I feel like I’m in a Western movie. That’s what I grew up with and I’m living it now! I’m there. I’m in that place.”
Along with history and scenery, the Re-ride also offers a lesson in horsemanship – something Petra has experienced first hand. She rides Red, her 17-year-old Thoroughbred, every year carrying the mail in Nevada. “I see how the relationship with my horse has changed,” she says. “Just that trust factor. When he gets that mochila now, he’s on a mission and he goes.”
Like the other riders, Petra and Red have encountered many obstacles over the years – from rough terrain to unpredictable weather. “Last year was so muddy. My horse had to go through this mud bog to go pick up the mail bag and then on the way back was willing to go through it again even though he sank in beyond his hocks,” she explains. But, those obstacles are part of what makes the Pony Express Re-ride such a unique experience for a horse and rider. “It challenges you on so many levels,” Petra says.
It may not be the Wild West anymore, but that doesn’t mean the Re-ride isn’t without its dangers. Last year, Petra was riding with another member on a single-track trail near South Lake Tahoe. When they encountered a bear, the other rider came off after his horse spooked. “My first priority was taking care of the rider,” explains Petra. “His horse took off with the mochila and after I took care of him and made sure he was with an EMT, then the next step was to figure out how to get this horse.”
Luckily, the NPEA has incorporated a little modern technology into the Re-ride. In addition to the mail, the mochila also carries a GPS tracker which is linked to the NPEA website. “Once we start riding there’s a little envelope going across [the map on the website] that you can follow and see where the rider is,” says Petra. In the case of the downed rider, they were able to use the tracker to find the horse and save that year’s batch of mail. GPS technology also helps attract new fans to the Pony Express, since anyone can go to the website and follow along.
Petra says people around the world watch the Pony each year and want to take part. “We have people order international mail. They contact us from different countries and say we want to send a letter.” The NPEA has members outside of the U.S. and has even inspired some of them to do their own Pony Express rides. Since 1989, the European Pony Express has been holding an annual ride, carrying mail across Germany!
It’s pretty amazing that something so short-lived continues to inspire people today. During this year’s Re-ride, Petra will be traveling to Nebraska to welcome another new re-rider – a nine-year-old girl coming all the way from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. She’ll be riding a section in Nebraska with her mother. “She won’t actually carry the mochila, but she will be part of the experience,” says Petra. “It’s a neat way to see a family engaged in a fun activity and helps keep the history alive.”
Even during the short run of the Pony Express, people were fascinated by it. In his famous book, Roughing It, Mark Twain described how he hoped to catch a glimpse of a rider as he made his way from Missouri to Nevada by stagecoach in 1861:
“We had had a consuming desire, from the beginning, to see a pony-rider, but somehow or other all that passed us and all that met us managed to streak by in the night, and so we heard only a whiz and a hail, and the swift phantom of the desert was gone before we could get our heads out of the windows.”
Mark Twain finally did see a Pony Express rider during his journey and he described the excitement of the experience:
“Across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky, and it is plain that it moves. […] In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling – sweeping toward us nearer and nearer – growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined – nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear – another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider’s hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm! So sudden is it all, and so like a flash of unreal fancy, that but for the flake of white foam left quivering and perishing on a mail-sack after the vision had flashed by and disappeared, we might have doubted whether we had seen any actual horse and man at all, maybe.”
You can see the Pony too. This year’s Re-ride begins on June 20 in Sacramento, California. It is scheduled to arrive in St. Joseph, Missouri on June 30. The schedule has the riders coming through Nevada June 21 – 24. Spectators are welcome to come out and see a mochila exchange in-person. (For ease of access, we recommend Carson City, Fort Churchill, Hwy 95, Sand Pass, or Cold Springs.) Remember that the schedule is tentative and the riders can be early or late.
Learn More: www.nationalponyexpress.org
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Call the Pony Express Hotline for trail reports from riders and support staff:
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Story by Samantha Szesciorka