Riding Into An Epic Past

Photographer on the trail of the Hashknife Pony Express finds a buckskin time machine

Handing off the mail on the last leg of the Journey to the Payson Post Office, one rider brings his mount to a halt as the other rider gallops into the sun and another year of history.

Handing off the mail on the last leg of the Journey to the Payson Post Office, one rider brings his mount to a halt as the other rider gallops into the sun and another year of history. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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Hashknife Pony Express riders who started in Holbrook passed through Payson on Wednesday on their way to Scottsdale with sacks of mail. The annual recreation of the mail service that once connected the country raises money now for search and rescue operations.

Lots of people dream of the Old West, but have to settle for movies and daydreams.

Not so this week, when the arrival of the Hashknife Pony Express provided a time-honored touch of days when the West was growing in spurts and fits and starts.

The original Pony Express carried the mail on horseback from St. Joseph, Mo. to Sacramento, Calif. — a legendary time that left tales of courage, misadventure and speedy delivery. The actual delivery service involved 120 riders, 184 stations, 400 horses and hundreds of personnel. It didn’t last long until the railroad supplanted it, but it has persisted in legend for generations.

The Hashknife Pony Express carries on that tradition in fine spirit and form with their yearly demonstration of that earlier time.

Now, horses remain inherently unpredictable, so it’s hard for a chain of galloping riders to promise they’ll be in such and such a spot at 1:30 p.m. Different horses travel at different speeds, a shoe could get thrown, the horse might balk, a saddle strap might break — then where would you be?

Assigned to photograph the gallop down the hill outside of town on a relay from Holbrook to Scottsdale, I drove around looking for the Hashknife riders. When they didn’t show up at the expected time and place, I realized I needed to play the cards I had — hoping for an ace in there somewhere.

Lucky me.

I spotted a telltale horse trailer on Highway 260 near Christopher Creek.

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Demian Weignad holds up his brother Seth after this year's Hashknife Pony Express scarf is signed by many of the riders at the Payson Post Office.

This brought me to a second challenge: Getting the shot. I followed the trailer to the Creekside Restaurant in Christopher Creek. Finding a place to park, I jumped out and walked toward a group of riders.

I’d stepped into another time. They wore old school leathers — chaps, vests, some leather shirts, and of course, leather jackets — some with fringe. Colorful scarves, black hats and gloves rounded out the outfits of these rustic riders of the Hashknife contingent of the Pony Express, out to raise money for search and rescue teams.

Most were discussing who was left on the trail, whose horse was more tired, which rider had the best part of the route and who had room to haul their steed. Most could have walked out of a tintype, icons of the Old West, in spirit, dress, code and mannerisms.

I asked one rider for tips on the route. He just gestured, a laconic Gary Cooper impersonator. I stood in the middle of the road and waited for the horseman.

I got the shot, but not by much. Fortunately, another chance was in the offing on the hill coming up from Star Valley into Payson. I took up my post, grateful for the bright sunlight. The wait paid for itself in images. Once more I concluded that when the Old West calls — best to answer. These days it only finds you occasionally, so grab those reins and ride ’em hard.

Comments

Pat Randall 1 year, 2 months ago

Anyone that runs or gallops a horse on pavement is nuts. The horses have or should have iron horse shoes on which makes it dangerous to run on paved highways. It is very easy for them to slip and fall. Crippling them or the rider. The horse has to be shot and the rider should be! The Hashknife riders are not setting a very good example. For some of them it is probably the only day of the year they get on a horse and make believe they are real horsemen.

Rodeo horses and stock are treated a lot better.

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