Ask Lufkin Hunt what it's like to be married to the same woman for 57 years and he says, "It's almost long enough to get acquainted."
It's an attitude that has not only kept the Hunts' marriage strong for over half a century, but also one that is reflected in the couple's keen sense of history. Especially when a piece of that history runs right through the Strawberry ranch where Lufkin and his wife, Mary, have lived for more than 40 years.
Back in 1884 when the small frontier settlement of Union Park received its first post office, it became necessary to extend mail service 50 miles east from Camp Verde to the community that would henceforth be known as Payson named after the senator who appointed the town's first postmaster. A route was carved through the rough and tumble terrain to allow mail riders to stop in the communities of Rutherford, Strawberry and Pine enroute to Payson.
That route, which is today referred to as the first mail trail, ran right through the Hunts' family ranch, where Lufkin was born, and where he and Mary still do some farming.
The Hunts are involved with a group that is working with the U.S. Forest Service to restore the trail so hikers and riders can use it. "Something needs be done to tell people about the history in this area," Lufkin said. "It's pretty valuable."
For Mary, preserving the trail is a way to remind people how far society has progressed.
"When you think about it, it's truly amazing how we've come all the way from this rough trail to driving cars in such a short time," she said.
From 1884 to 1914 a total of 60 riders delivered the mail over the rugged trail that started at Sutler's Store in Camp Verde. From there, they rode southwest past the confluence of the Verde River and West Clear Creek to Rutherford.
The trail then crossed the Verde and headed east through Clear Creek, past Wingfield Mesa, over to Thirteen Mile Rock and onto Mud Tank Mesa.
At this point, the trail turned south down Mud Tank Canyon on into Mud Tank Draw. At the bottom of the canyon, at a place the riders called the corral, someone from Childs would be waiting to pick up that community's mail.
Then the riders followed Fossil Creek around Nash Point over a shallow saddle between two hills before dropping into Strawberry Valley. From there the trail went east along Strawberry Valley, south down Strawberry Hollow and under Milk Ranch Point into Pine before continuing along Sycamore Creek into Payson.
Unlike the Pony Express, which involved multiple riders relaying the mail along a route, just one rider was used to complete the 104-mile round trip over the first mail trail.
"The Pony Express was altogether a different thing," said Camp Verde resident Howard Parrish, a longtime horse rancher and member of the Camp Verde Cavalry, the group that is spearheading the effort to re-open the trail.
"Each of the riders who rode our trail was under contract. One guy would take the mail from here to Payson, lay over, and then come back," he said. "There was no relay involved."
A rider was in the saddle from 11 to 18 hours at a time, changing horses twice in each direction. One change took place at the Diamond S Ranch in the vicinity of Clear Creek, and the other took place in Pine.
Once the mail was unloaded in Payson at a general store on Main Street that is no longer standing, the rider would grab a bite to eat and head back to Pine where he would lay over for the night. The next morning he rode back to Camp Verde where the routine would start all over again.
The only day the rider had off was Monday, and that was usually spent repairing tack. For all this, the pay was a dollar a day.
A man named Pret Gillespie was one of the first riders hired to carry the mail. Thirty years later, his two brothers-in-law, Howard "Hank" Peach and Clinton "Tuffy" Peach, were the last. Tuffy, who was reportedly quite a character, once lost a watch on the trail and was always telling young Lufkin Hunt to keep his eye out for it.
"It's still out there somewhere," Lufkin said.
Mary remembers a story Lufkin's grandmother told her about Tuffy.
"He came through here once in the spring with the mail, and it was hot, and he was angry," she said. "When she asked him what was wrong, he said, 'I hate Easter. Everybody orders Easter bonnets in these round hat boxes, and I have a heck of a time because they keep falling off the packhorses.'"
Parrish can appreciate Tuffy's frustration. "Right now, this is not a trail for those dudes who ride in arenas," he said.
And so far the project has been a lot bigger than expected, but the group is persevering.
"We want to get it designated a Historic Mail Trail, so it will stay, even if the Forest Service swaps some of the land it's on," he said.
Several archaeologists have agreed to donate their time, and other donations of labor and materials have allowed the group to make a start.
"I've even been going to trail school to learn how to be a trail boss," Parrish said.
At the Camp Verde end, a trail head is currently being built near Mud Tank Canyon with donated equipment, sand and rock.
"We're going to apply for some grants, and the Forest Service is going to apply for some grants," Parrish said.
The goal is to have the trail far enough along that it can be opened May 1 of next year. "Eventually we want to extend it all the way to Rye, where the riders had to go sometimes," Parrish said.
If all goes according to plan, Parrish plans to invite President Bush to the opening ceremony. "We hope to get our own postmark and actually carry the mail over the trail once again," he said.
"I also understand the Town of Payson is trying to get a historic park built on the site where the old general store once stood."
According to Main Street Coordinator Karen Greenspoon, the site the town is trying to acquire for that purpose is a half lot at Main Street and McLane that currently has old boxcars sitting on it.
Town historian and Rim Review columnist Stan Brown confirmed that the post office was, indeed, housed in the Payson Mercantile store on that site for a good number of years during the time the first mail trail was being used.
Meanwhile, Lufkin and Mary Hunt are occasionally asked to point out the trail where it runs through their ranch to various groups that want to ride or hike it.
"It runs through a pretty good canyon, so it's not a place for flatlanders," Lufkin said. "You can tell that the men who carried the mail over this trail made a lot of sacrifices."