Sometimes one can imagine a parking lot in Payson as being the flat top area of a mesa. Some riders are grouped around a fire. Some Hashknife riders have hashknife marked chaps to denote how many rides these men have taken. Some men are taking their saddles off of hard ridden ponies, breathing heavily in the cold mountain air. A small, make shift corral for the horses and tack, is seen in the distance. A chuck wagon with hot coffee brewing and cowboy beans served and being eaten by men just coming in from their leg of this historic ride completes this scene from yesterday.
But then, one looks again, and there are horse trailers parked behind large trucks with four doors and decorated with western brands representing various ranches.
Some riders are smoking hand rolled cigarettes, some lean on their mounts, smiling and posing for pictures. Curious people stop and park their cars, get out and walk around, staring; wondering: can I ask for a picture of them, can I get an autograph?
County Sheriff cars are parked anywhere they want to, lights on and flashing, waiting for the last riders to enter town. A grouped ride will be climaxed at the Payson Post Office and the 26 bags of Hashknife Pony Express, hand stamped letters, can continue their journey to Scottsdale the next day.
The parking lot at the post office is alive with noise, music, people milling around, digital cameras recording this detail and that, as everyone waits for the announcement that the riders are coming.
It isn't as cold this year, this 53rd running of the mail. The sun is bright but low in the sky and draws long shadows. It is difficult to position one's self for a strategic shot with the sun so low in the sky. It is a professional photographer's nightmare.
The riders arrive and gallop into the roped off area as the crowd cheers and whistles. The postmaster pushes a cart out to the ramp and signals the riders to hand over their sacks of mail. Lining up and handing it off is a process of moving the horses around and getting the bags on the left side of the horse into the waiting hands of mailmen.
The crowd waits as riders approach the rope and are given scarves, posters and other paraphernalia to autograph. Children of various ages stare at the horses and the colorful leathers the Hashknife riders wear. People have come to see a tradition honored and re-enacted. They leave with treasures and wistful thoughts of what it was like, back in the day. The sun drops behind the hills on the west end of town as light fades and the air turns cold.
The riders truck their horses, and prepare for the evening banquet.
Strolling into the old casino room at Mazatzal Hotel and Casino, one notices smalls groups of men and some women, finely dressed in western attire, chatting sipping drinks, waving to friends. The only thing missing is the jingle of spurs and the smell of horse sweat from a long, hard, day of riding.
Snippets of conversation drift past; “I've never been up that trail, but Jim says his horse pulls back when they first go down the steep part of that draw;” “You want soda, Missy?” “Hay look, there's Chuck, I gotta ask him about...” and the sentence drifts away and mingles with the music provided by DJ Fred Carpenter.
A young lady's back is used as a place to sign a bandana. Several young ladies ply the crowd to purchase raffle tickets. Chuck Jackman finally arrives and is accousted by several people, one after the other, each with a genuine need, but they want it, right now. He is patient and friendly and does what he can, always under the gun to get'r dun.
A flag presentation ceremony commences, a pledge is heard from the mouth of a child, ever so sweetly, true and serious. The meal begins and everyone lines up to receive sharp tasting cowboy beans, beef, a baked potato and salad. Fine desserts are available for those who still have room, and some who don't but eat them anyway.
Placques and awards, and flowers are gifted, as speeches are pronounced proudly extolling the history, tradition, and cameraderie of this event. It is part of the American West, during a period that still fascinates, and enthrals, as these traditions are carried on.
It makes one want to find a horse and gallup into the future while visiting the past.