"When you're riding a horse at full gallop, carrying the U.S. mail, you feel like you've been transported back in time," says Valley resident Dave Alford, trail boss for the 43rd annual Hashknife Pony Express run.
"I don't think there is any other organization or riding group that can give you that kind of feeling. You're not really re-enacting history; you're doing exactly what other riders did over 100 years ago, often on the same trails."
While most Rim country folks will never get to experience first-hand what Alford is talking about, they will get a chance to witness it beginning Jan. 30. That's when more than 30 volunteers from the Navajo Sheriff's Posse, known as the "Hashknife Posse," will brave the elements and relay pouches of U.S. mail from the high country of Holbrook, through Pine and Payson, and on into downtown Scottsdale a treacherous 200-mile journey.
"When you're done, you've got this adrenaline rush and an incredible sense of satisfaction knowing that you're helping to keep this piece of American history alive," says Alford, who'll be participating on horseback for his 20th consecutive year.
The odyssey begins at the historic Holbrook post office and covers every inch of asphalt and wilderness through the Mogollon Rim, Pine, Payson, the Maztazals, and finally into Scottsdale, where the Feb. 2 finish scheduled for high noon, naturally will kick off the annual Scottsdale Jaycees' Parada del Sol celebration.
Strawberry native Matt McRae, now a resident of Reno, Nev., will be one of two riders delivering the mail to Pine. His arrival is tentatively scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 31, Alford says, depending on weather conditions.
Riders and their steeds are expected to arrive at the Payson post office at 4 p.m. the same day.
Every year the riders are officially sanctioned by the U.S. Postal Service to re-enact the Pony Express. This year marks the 43rd anniversary of the ride, one of the longest-running rides in the nation.
"We ride at full gallop the whole stretch, weather permitting," Alford says. "It can get a little snowy and icy up in Holbrook and across the Rim, but you go all out the whole way." Most of the riders go a mile at a time sometimes longer, sometimes shorter "because some of those uphill runs can be very tough on both the rider and the horse," he adds.
The Pony Express has been brought alive for the entire length of the event's history by the Navajo County Sheriff's Posse, Scottsdale Jaycees and the U.S. Postal Service.
The re-enactment is the oldest officially sanctioned Pony Express in the world. Each rider is sworn in, by a postmaster, as an honorary mail messenger braving weather, terrain and modern-day obstacles such as automobiles, to deliver the U.S. mail.
Riders annually deliver about 20,000 pieces of mail bearing the valued "Via Pony Express" cachet. Working in teams of two, the riders relay the mail pony-express style by handing off the canvas and leather bags from one rider to the next with practiced timing and a holler of "Hashknife!"
The hashknife was a tool originally used by chuckwagon cooks to cut meat for hash. The Hashknife brand originated in Texas as the identification for the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, which moved to Holbrook in 1886. Later, in 1957, the Navajo County Sheriff's Posse retained limited use of the brand, which now identifies the Pony Express, which shares many of its members with the Hashknife Sheriff's Posse.
Special envelopes, being sold this year for $1, will be available at the Payson post office through Jan. 26. The tri-fold envelope bears a picture of a rider, a brief history of the pony express and plenty of room for a personal message. Also available is a poster of the event, created by Arizona artist K.M. Freeman, for $10 each.
Correspondents who want to have their letters delivered by the Pony Express should address an envelope to themselves or a friend or relative, affix a first-class postage stamp, and write "via Pony Express" in the lower left corner.
Place the letter(s) in a larger envelope with proper postage, and mail it either to Pony Express, Postmaster, Holbrook, AZ 86025-9998, or Pony Express, Postmaster, Scottsdale, AZ 85251-9998.
To avoid additional postage costs, letters can be brought to either post office location and placed in a special Pony Express mailbox in the lobby.
Mail for the Pony Express must be received by Jan. 26. Each letter aboard the Pony Express will receive a special Hashknife Pony Express postmark and cachet stamp that will be available at each post office along the trail.
Believe it or not, getting 20,000 pieces of mail delivered in a timely fashion by 30 horsemen is not the biggest challenge of the Hashknife Pony Express run, says Susan Kulak, the event's organizer and customer relations director for Scottsdale's main post office
"There is a challenge even bigger than that," she says. "Even though we feel we've been put on the map because this is a historical event, we don't feel like we get enough recognition or enough people out on the day of this event.
"We really want more people to get out to enjoy it and share the history this year."
Hashknife Pony Express schedule of events
Jan. 30, 2:00 p.m. Riders sworn in as "official mail messengers" at Holbrook post office.
Jan. 31, 8:00 a.m. Riders leave with U.S. Mail and make stops in Heber and Pine, with the latter arrival roughly estimated at 1:30 p.m., depending on weather and other potentially detrimental conditions.
Jan. 31, 4:00 p.m. All 30 riders arrive en mass at the Payson Post Office.
Feb. 1, 9:00 a.m. Riders leave Payson for Fountain Hills.
Feb. 1, 2:00 p.m. Riders arrive at Fountain Hills Post Office.
Feb. 2, 9:00 a.m. Riders leave Verde River campsite.
Feb. 2, high noon: Riders gallop south on Scottsdale Road to the Scottsdale main post office and deliver all the mail to both the Postmaster and Mayor of Scottsdale.