The Pony Express Rides Into The Valley

By Stina Sieg
Published: Thursday, January 29, 2015 - 5:13pm
Updated: Thursday, January 29, 2015 - 6:03pm
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(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
The Hashknife Pony Express travels from Holbrook to Scottsdale every year, with thousands of letters. Above, first-time rider Walter Pacheco (right) rests in a Payson parking lot.

The Pony Express was only in existence for about a year and a half during the 1860s. But the horse-powered mail delivery system has become one of the most enduring symbols of the Wild West. For many folks across the country, cowboys riding hundreds of miles to deliver letters is the stuff of legend. But here in Arizona, it’s very real — at least for a few days every January.

Recently, people were lining the streets of Payson, both to pay tribute to the memory of the Pony Express and actually get their mail collected by 29 guys on horseback.

“Hashknife!” the cowpokes yelled as they whooshed by, flags waving.

The men of the Hashknife Pony Express know to work a crowd. But they’re no novelty act. Many are members of the mounted division of Navajo County Search and Rescue, which founded the group. For the past 57 years, they’ve galloped from Holbrook in northern Arizona to Scottsdale, 200 miles and three days of highway and desert and little towns.

“Makes you feel free,” said rider Justin Deetin. “Makes you feel young and free.”

For him, it’s also a real, if volunteer, job. The Hashnife riders are sworn in as postal carriers at the ride’s start. This year, they’re bringing along more than 10,000 letters, all hand-stamped with the Hashnife brand. The ride is only about a tenth of the distance of the Pony Express’ original route between Missouri and California. But rider Steve Reynolds said people sure get excited for it.

“This is an international event,” he said. “We get mail from all over the world.”

Once it arrives in Arizona, it’s hand sorted and stuffed into heavy bags that are switched off between riders every mile. Reynolds is on his 38th ride with Hashnife, whose popularity has prevailed even as letters themselves might be going out of style.

“You know why we do it?” he said, smiling. “Because we can.”

And he road off to get his horse put away for the night.

A short time later, he and his buddies were cooling their heels at the local Elks Lodge, where everyone wanted to chat them up.

Bill Bridwell was there, just as he has been for the past 20 years. At 83, he’s the group’s oldest rider.

Bridwell said the ride exhilarates him, “because you’re doing something to perpetuate the West, to perpetuate not just Arizona, but the West,” he said.

And that’s even with the flashing lights of police escorts and support vehicles in tow.

Most riders are from rural Arizona. But for Bridwell, this journey is about a certain kind of individualism he thinks all Americans share.

“There’s a little bit of cowboy in all of us. I don’t care if you’re in New York City or New Jersey or California or wherever,” he said. “I think everybody has a little cowboy in them.”

But it just seems a little closer to the surface for guys on this ride. Thomas Allen grew up watching Hashknife riders rush through his hometown of Holbrook. Now, on his first ride down this well-worn route, his thoughts sometimes wander to the original Pony Express riders.

“You know, we have a lot of good resources, you know, cell phones and radios,” he said. “They didn’t have that stuff back then. And that’s, that’s what’s cool.”

Even cooler? The first time it was Allen’s turn to carry one of the storied Pony Express sacks.

“You know, grabbing big ol’ mailbag it’s really traditional. Yeah, you really felt a connection with that, and it gets you good,” he said. “It really gets you good.”

There are still a few chances to catch the Hashknife Pony Express before they ride off into the sunset. From 6 to 8 a.m. Friday, Jan. 30, they’ll be hosting a breakfast at their campsite on the Verde River outside the Fort McDowell Casino. At the noon the same day, they’ll be ending their ride in Scottsdale right under the Hashnife Pony Express Statue, located on Marshall Way south of Camelback at the bridge (west of Scottsdale Road).

For more information on the Hashknife Pony Express, visit www.hashknifeponyexpress.com.

 

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