The real Pony Express lasted less than two years, but the Hashknife re-enactment that will gallop into town Feb. 1 is approaching the half century mark -- one of the longest running Pony express rides in the nation.
While the original route -- from St. Joseph, Mo. to Sacramento, Calif. -- bypassed Arizona altogether, large numbers of Rim Country residents are expected at the post office at 4:45 p.m. Wednesday for the 48th annual ride staged by the Navajo County Hashknife Sheriff's Posse.
Why do they turn out year after year? And why do 39 grown men (including Gil Perkins, the oldest at 78) gallop 200 miles from Holbrook through Payson to Scottsdale in the dead of winter? Payson Swing Boss Chuck Jackman says the answer is simple -- everybody loves the romance and spirit of the Wild West.
"It's all about keeping something alive that has to do with western heritage," he said. The image of two riders passing mailbags in full gallop is as much a part of western lore as rodeo.
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."
The original pony express riders covered 75 to 100 miles, with riders changing to a fresh horse every 10 to 15 miles. During the re-enactment, each rider only covers one mile, but 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."
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 stop in Pine is always special, according to Jackman.
"There's three of us that usually go up there -- we break away from the main group," he said. "When we ride into the post office, there's people standing in the middle of the street and you can see them go, ‘Here they come,' and you can hear the band a-going before we even get there. There's moms and pops and grandpas, grandmas, little bitty babies. It's like the first time it ever happened."
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 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.
"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 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 trifold 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 Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce office. For more information, call the chamber at 474-4515 or Jackman at 238-0090.
48th Annual Hashknife Pony Express Schedule of Events
Friday, Jan. 27
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Meet and Greet the Hashknife Gang
Mazatzal Casino Bingo Hall
Wednesday, Feb. 1
8 a.m. - Riders begin relay mail run, Holbrook Post Office
2 p.m. to 3 p.m. - Riders arrive in Christopher Creek
4 p.m. - Riders arrive in Pine
4:45 p.m. - Riders arrive at Payson Post Office
6:30 p.m. - Annual Hashknife dinner, Mazatzal Casino, Tickets: $20
Thursday, Feb. 2
10 a.m. - Riders depart Payson Post Office
Friday, Feb. 3
Noon - Mail arrives, Scottsdale Osborn Post Office
1 p.m. - Riders' lunch, Rusty Spur Saloon in Scottsdale
Saturday, Feb. 18
10 a.m. - Parada del Sol, Scottsdale Rd. from Oak to Indian School
Noon - Riders' lunch, Dirty Drummer in Scottsdale
Students to sing ‘Hashknife Pony Express Song'
This song was written by Trina Gunzel, Julia Randall Elementary School teacher, Feb. 2, 2005.
It is dedicated to the Navajo County Sheriff's Posse "Hashknife" Pony Express Riders.
(Sung to the tune of "Old MacDonald had a Farm.")
In January of 1958,
The Hashknife Pony Express began.
Yippee, caya, oh!
The riders are official
Yippee, caya, oh!
They pass the mail at one
Yippee, caya, oh!
All the way from Holbrook
Yippee, caya, oh!
With a clop, clop, here.
And a clop, clop, there.
Here a clop,
There a clop,
Everywhere a clop, clop.
There go the Pony Express riders...
Last year ELL (English Language Learner) program instructor Trina Gunzel took the background information out of the pony express letters.
"I wanted to teach my students about the pony express so I used the song to teach them some concepts," Gunzel said.
"We presented the Hashknife Pony Express a large matted poster of the song when we sang it to them last year.
"They called and invited us back to sing ... the students are very excited."
Gunzel and about 40 students from Julia Randall Elementary School would like to invite the community to sing with them at 4:45 p.m. Feb. 1 when the Hashknife riders pick up mail from the Payson post office, located at 100 W. Frontier St.