Those words appeared in an advertisement for the Pony Express. Though I’m on the trail, they don’t apply to me at all.
I’m older than 18 by way too many decades, and the farthest I’ve galloped a horse is about 100 yards – and even that short distance gave me the willies.
On top of that, I’m not an orphan, and I wouldn’t say I like to risk death more than
once or twice a week, tops.
Despite my lack of qualifications, I set out on the Utah portion of the Pony Express National Historic Trail.
The service, which carried mail from April 1860 until October 1861, is an Old West icon.
California’s statehood and the frontier’s settlement called for the speedy exchange of news between the East and West coasts.
Although most people considered it impossible, the Pony Express carried mail between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, in 10 days or less.
For the most part, it did fulfill that promise. California newspapers received news of Lincoln’s election only seven days and 17 hours after East Coast papers did, all because of those young, wiry riders.
Traces of the trail still exist in California and Utah, and I intended to follow it for much of its length through Tooele County in Utah.
About an hour south of the Great Salt Lake, I turned off Highway 36 onto the historic trail.
Although it’s still dirt in this area, the trail is considerably wider and smoother than it was in the 1860s.
These days passenger cars have no trouble negotiating this stretch of the trail.
Still, a car is a poor substitute for a racing horse, but the wide, open spaces I traversed were humbling even in relative comfort.
After climbing Lookout Pass, the 6,100 – foot high point of the trail section, high desert dotted by small mountain ranges spread out as far as one could see in every direction, and one could see a long way.
It gave me a new respect for the exploits of these young riders. When the Pony Express took off in 1860, the stretch between Salt Lake City and Carson City, Nevada, was the route’s wildest.
The U.S. government had forced Native Americans to relocate away from most of the Pony Express Trail, except Western Utah and Nevada.
This was a Paiute territory, and the tribe objected to stations monopolizing water sources. In fact, managing a station in this area was considerably more dangerous than being a rider.
Only a handful of riders ever died in the work line, but two dozen station workers lost their lives in Native American uprisings.
Utah played a key role in the Pony Express route because it had the largest
population center along the route. Locals grew hay and grain for the riders.
And some riders were Mormons who came from this western part of the country . They were young, tough, and extremely responsible, so they drew heavily from the local population. The trail through this part of Utah is its wildest section.
Pavement covers almost the entire 1,800- mile route from Missouri to California, and that is what makes this 100- mile stretch of dirt road so special.
It’s far from pristine, but with a bit of imagination, you can envision riding on horseback with nothing but the desert landscape between you and the next station.
My ego was somewhat soothed to find out my mental image of a rider galloping full speed between stations was based on a myth.
A good horse can maintain a fast gallop for only a couple of miles, and the riders averaged a relatively easygoing pace of 10 miles an hour, switching horses every hour or two.
Each rider covered 75 to 100 miles. I spent much of our time traveling between the sites of two Pony Express stations: Point Lookout and Simpson Springs.
Good water made Simpson Springs particularly noteworthy in this dry country.
Today a replica of the actual station is at the site, and a campground is nearby, as well as a restroom ( the only one for many miles, I might add).
Another stop is known for its abundant water supply later became the Fish Springs.
National Wildlife Refuge.
Today, nature lovers explore the refuge with cameras to take snapshots of wildflowers and migratory birds such as the horned lark.
ALL THE BEAUTIFUL HORSES
Wildlife thrives near the waters once reserved for the stations of the Pony Express.
Seeing herds of wild horses was one of the big reasons I intended to explore this Pony section.
Express route. I found large bands of horses within 5 miles of Simpson Springs in both directions.
These animals are descendants of escapees from local ranches. Occasionally you can still spot one with a brand.
One of the things that make this Pony Express Trail horses special is the size of the herds.
In most places, I saw horses congregating in bands of four to a dozen. Here I saw
the small bands gather together into herds of more than a hundred animals, which is the only place we’ve seen such numbers.
It’s a glorious sight. My first view of them was as they crossed the road right in front of me, and many of these animals are quite tolerant of wildlife watchers, even coming right
up to people on foot.
It’s fascinating, but keep in mind that horses are large animals. A startled one could seriously injure a bystander, so keep your distance.
Still, seeing the horses running free is a bridge to another time,
when wiry, young men risked death daily to deliver the mail.
Did You Know?
Despite the heroics involved, the 35,000 pieces of mail delivered, and the half a million miles covered on horseback, the Pony Express was a financial disaster.
It cost the equivalent of $135 to send a half-ounce letter, and most people couldn’t afford it.
The cross-country telegraph line’s completion was the final nail in its coffin, and only 18 months after its initiation, the Pony Express folded.