Legend Of The Pony Express Lives On

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Riding endless hours without sleep through the dangerous darkness to deliver mail for people they'd never meet, the legendary orphans of the Pony Express created one of the most enduring images of the mythic West.

Although their modern counterparts -- The Hashknife Pony Express -- cantering across the Arizona landscape with bags of mail don't brave bandits and renegades, they do face one constant as they gallop along the trail between Holbrook and Scottsdale: weather.

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Part of the Hashknife Pony Express tradition is a visit to outlying communities to collect the mail to be carried by the riders and marked with the special postmark that officially designates the mail as hand-carried. The riders all are made official mail carriers for the annual ride, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Mother Nature knows not the boundaries of time nor space and her ire or favor is the same today as it was in mid-nineteenth century America.

The modern Hashknife Pony Express begins its trek in windswept Holbrook in the dead of winter. At 2 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 29, Hashknife riders will meet at the post office in Holbrook to pick up more than 20,000 pieces of mail they must carry safely on their 200-mile pilgrimage through the Rim Country, across the Mazatzal Mountains and finally down into the desert and on into Scottsdale on January 30.

Riders must often start out in freezing temperatures punctuated by blowing snow that scours the face like sandpaper and pries open dusters, and

then end the journey under a desert sun in shirtsleeves.

Riders delivering mail for the original service rode approximately 75 to 100 miles before a "giving up the ghost," so to speak, and turning their sacred cache over to a new rider.

Hashknife members only ride about a mile apiece and then hand off the mail to the next one, but it is all still accomplished on horseback across the entire 200-mile journey.

Hashknife riders each ride multiple legs of the marathon relay along the rugged 200-mile route until their mission is fulfilled and the mail is safely placed in the hands of postal officials in the Valley.

And Mother Nature isn't the only thing that pays no heed to the boundaries of time; neither do saddle sores!

One Rim Country resident knows all too well the physical and emotional cost of continuing the 50-year tradition of the Hashknife's quest to honor those knights of yore they so adroitly mirror.

Assistant Trail Boss Chuck Jackman is a Payson resident participating in this year's 50th anniversary ride of the Hashknife Pony Express.

He has been doing the ride for eight years now and has no plans to stop.

Jackman is no youngster like the originals; he is in his second century of life as he takes on the 200-mile challenge.

An advertisement calling for riders in a California newspaper in the spring of 1860 should give some flavor as to the stark difference between the originals and those who strive to carry on the legend today.

The ad read: "Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Riders Pay--$100 per month."

Differences in today's participants are numerous, but let's concentrate on just a few.

For one thing, there's more than a quarter century difference in age between Jackman and the original Pony Express riders, as is the case with the vast majority of Hashknife riders.

Additionally, riders with the Hashknife get not a dime in pay for doing what they do.

"We're a nonprofit organization," Jackman said. "We do get donations from the public and we have sponsors to help cover some of the costs, but a lot of it still comes out of the pockets of members. And money isn't the only thing they give up, it takes a significant amount of time both preparing for the ride during the year following, and doing the ride itself," said Jackman.

Still, Jackman's love of virtually anything related to the Old West keeps him securely planted in his saddle. But then, it certainly helps that the worst he has to cope with is a facial scouring by wind-hurled snow.

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