Rim Country residents can relive one of the most romantic aspects of the Wild West when the Hashknife Pony Express gallops into town on Wednesday, Feb. 1.
Although the pony express only lasted 18 months 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. This will be the 48th annual ride staged by the Navajo County Hashknife Sheriff's Posse covering 200 miles from Holbrook through Payson to Scottsdale.
"It's all about keeping something alive that has to do with western heritage," Chuck Jackman, Payson Swing Boss, said.
And then there's the thrill of it all.
"When you're waiting for your turn to take the mail from the rider that's coming up on you, you get these butterflies in your stomach. Then all of a sudden there he is, and he rides past you, and you catch up with him and grab the mail and yell out, ‘Hashknife,' and get going."
"After you get probably a half mile down the road, you are into it -- you are definitely focused."
While each rider only covers a 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. "You don't know if your horse is going to step in a pothole and flip you upside down and kill you."
Jackman himself had an accident last year.
"The guy who puts our mail bags together broke his hip and they brought in another guy to put them together," he recalled. "They were like 40-45 pounds apiece and we're only used to carrying like 30 pounds.
"So when you're handing this off at a full gallop, you've got your arms stretched out and you're going up and down and in and out of these little ravines on the side of the road, your arm gets tired.
We're holding it out and my ride partner grabs the mail bag. I'm telling him, ‘It's heavy, it's heavy.'
"He grabbed hold of it and it came back around and hit his horse on the flank and his horse went sideways and knocked the mail out of his hand. His horse was like a three-year-old and just full of piss and vinegar, and he's going, ‘Whoa! Whoa! and his horse is hopping forward.
"I pulled up my horse and when I went to get off my spur got caught on the back cinch for a second or two seconds. I had to get my foot undone, and I reached over to grab the mailbag off the ground, and all of a sudden I hear, ‘Look out!'
"I didn't have a chance and he rear-ended my horse who ended up on top of me pulling me to the ground. I smashed my head into the ground and I got fine sand in my ears and my nose and my mouth, and my glasses were broke and my nose was cut.
"My horse's leg went over my thigh, so my thigh is between his front legs and he had his whole body on my left leg. Finally I got my spur turned around back underneath him and just pushed real hard.
"I was alright that day, but I woke up the next morning and I was very sore. But people have gotten hurt a lot worse.
"This one guy, about 13 years ago he broke his leg in 13 places. His name is Jerry Young, and he's still riding."
The riders leave Holbrook at 8 a.m. on Feb. 1 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 bandannas. The Hashknife Pony Express Dinner is at 7 p.m. at Mazatzal Casino with a dance following at 9 p.m. at the historic Ox Bow Saloon.
The riders depart from the Payson Post Office at 10 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 2. Then, on Feb. 18, they kick off the Scottsdale Jaycees Parada del Sol celebration.
The Parada del Sol has been moved back to align it with the Super Bowl at the Cardinals' new stadium in Glendale in 2008.
"We are in line to carry the official coin and the opening game ball for the Super Bowl in 2008," Jackman said.
The ride is a re-creation of the famous pony express that ran between Sacramento and St. Joseph, Mo. Each rider covered 75 to 100 miles, changing to a fresh horse 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.
The hashknife was a tool originally used by chuck wagon 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.
Every year the riders are officially sanctioned by the U.S. Postal Service to re-enact the ride. Special envelopes are sold by the riders at all Hashknife Pony Express events for $1 and are also available at the Payson Post Office and Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce.
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 of commerce. For more information, call the chamber at 474-4515 or Jackman at 238-0090.