"When you're waiting for the rider who has the mail, and he starts coming up behind you, you get a lot of butterflies in your stomach," Chuck Jackman said, describing the thrills that come with being a rider in the annual Hashknife Pony Express mail run.
"There are a lot of priorities, and it's not easy figuring out what order you should put them in," the Star Valley horseman said. "For one thing, you don't want to drop the mailbag. But is that your top priority? Well, no, maybe your top priority is to make sure your handoff is good and smooth. Or maybe it's to watch out for your safety, because there have been some guys who've been hurt pretty bad.
"In the 2000 Hashknife, a rider named Jerry Young was only a couple of miles out of Holbrook when his horse slipped on some ice, fell over on him, and he broke his leg in 13 places," Jackman said. "So keeping your priorities straight is pretty important."
With luck, all 40-plus volunteers in the Navajo County Sheriff's Posse's upcoming 44th annual Hashknife will do just that beginning Wednesday, Jan. 30 when the first rider departs from the Holbrook post office to begin the treacherous 230-mile gallop.
Once begun, the odyssey covers every inch of asphalt and wilderness through the Mogollon Rim, Pine, Payson, the Mazatzals, and finally to the Osborne post office in Scottsdale, where the Feb. 1 finish will serve as the kick-off for the next day's annual Scottsdale Jaycees' Parada del Sol celebration.
Riders, their steeds and the mail pouches are expected to arrive at the Payson post office around 4:45 p.m. Wednesday.
Brought to life for the length of its history by the Navajo County Sheriff's Posse, Scottsdale Jaycees and the U.S. post office, the event begins with the Holbrook postmaster's swearing-in of each rider as an honorary mail messenger who will brave all weather, terrain and modern day obstacles (such as automobiles) to deliver about 20,000 pieces of mail bearing the valued "Pony Express" cachet.
"We did a mail carry in June for the Historical Society, from Holbrook to Scottsdale, and we went from one extreme to the other," Jackman said. "It was like 17 degrees when we took off out of Holbrook, and about 92 degrees when we went across the Painted Desert. It can be grueling."
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, many of whose members are in the Hashknife Sheriff's Posse.
Despite what roadside gawkers might expect, not all of the members of the posse are Arizona cowboys. "We've got one guy, Greg Long, a retired Army colonel who has a business in Cambodia that cleans up land mines, and he also runs an orphanage there," Jackman said. "He's based out of Florida, but he comes here every year for the ride."
Special envelopes, being sold this year for $1, will be available at the Payson post office through Jan. 26th. 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 for $10 each.
Anyone hoping to have their own letter 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.
Mail to be carried by the Pony Express must be received by the Payson post office no later than Friday, Jan. 25. 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.