Ask them why they do it, and the 39 Hashknife Pony Express riders are likely to shrug and change the subject.
"They ride just because they want to," Chuck Jackman, Payson Swing Boss, said. "When it gets in your blood, it's kind of hard to get rid of it."
"It" is the 47th annual re-enactment of the Pony Express, an institution that contributed greatly to the lore of the Wild West. In fact, preserving a piece of history is another reason they ride.
"We do it to preserve the tradition of the Hashknife Pony Express, but also to let people remember the old ways of the Pony Express," Jackman, said. "It began way back on April 6, 1860. It only lasted for 18 months, so we're keeping an old tradition alive. It's part of western history."
Although the original Pony Express ran between Sacramento and St. Joseph, Mo. and never came through Arizona, the image of two riders passing mail bags in full gallop is as much a part of western lore as rodeo.
The original Pony Express utilized 90 riders and 500 horses. There were 119 relay stations along the way, with each rider covering 75 to 100 miles a day, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles.
An ad for riders in a California newspaper read:
"Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."
The riders, most around 20 years of age and weighing about 120 pounds, were paid $100 per month. The completion of the telegraph in 1861 marked the end of the Pony Express.
While each rider only covers one mile during the re-enactment, it's not an activity for the casual rider.
"As simple as it may sound, it's dangerous when you get out there and ride in the weather and stuff across the elements we run across," Jackman said. "These guys are a bunch of tough guys."
The riders leave Holbrook at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 2 and, after stops in Pine and Christopher Creek, arrive at the Payson Post Office at approximately 4:45 p.m. where they will sign autographs and pass out commemorative bandanas.
The Hashknife Pony Express Dinner is at 7 p.m. at Mazatzal Casino with a dance following at the Ox Bow Saloon.
The riders depart from the Payson post office at 10 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 3 for Scottsdale to kick off the Scottsdale Jaycees Parada del Sol celebration.
The Hashknife re-enactment features teams of riders relaying the mail Pony Express-style by handing off the canvas and leather bags from one rider to the next with practiced timing.
"When the rider hands off the mail, you both yell, ‘Hashknife,' and you ride like the wind," Jackman said.
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.
The posse was formed as a search and rescue unit following an incident that occurred in 1957.
"There was a military plane that went down up there in that area," Jackman said. "This was before we had satellite phones and cell phones, and communications were really bad."
It was a U.S. Navy bomber that crashed during a heavy snowstorm with 11 men on board. The sheriff's office only had two men on duty, but miraculously they found and rescued all 11.
"After that they said, ‘What we really need is a search and rescue outfit,' and that was the beginning of the Navajo County Search and Rescue," Jackman said. "That's the group that does the Hashknife."
The cost to send a letter via the original Pony Express, $5 per half ounce, makes today's postage rates seem like a bargain. In fact, you can send a letter via Pony Express for just $1. Special mailers are available from the riders, at the post office and the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce before Jan 28.
The tri-fold envelope has a picture of a rider, a brief history and plenty of room for a personal message. Letters are hand-stamped with the official ride logo, a treasured cachet coveted by stamp collectors around the world.
Tickets for the dinner can be purchased at the casino gift shop, Ox Bow Saloon, or the chamber office. For more information, call Jackman at (928) 970-0595.
47th Annual Hashknife Pony Express Schedule of Events
Friday, Jan. 28
5:30 - 7 p.m.
Meet and Greet the Riders
Taste of Payson Chamber Mixer
$5 for members, $8 for non-members
Ox Bow Saloon
Wednesday, Feb. 2
Riders begin relay mail run
Holbrook post office
Riders arrive in Christopher Creek
Riders arrive in Pine
Riders arrive at Payson post office
Thursday, Feb. 3
Riders leave Payson post office
>Friday, Feb. 4
Mail arrives Scottsdale post office
Rusty Spur Saloon in Scottsdale
Saturday, Feb. 5
Parada del Sol
Scottsdale Rd. from Oak to Indian School