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Roughing It on the Pony Express Trail

Posted By Thomas Bunn, Thursday, December 4, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, January 28, 2015

As told by Mark Twain, Annie Lu Jarvis, and Suzan Chaffin

"WANTED. YOUNG, SKINNY, WIRY FELLOWS. NOT OVER 18. MUST BE EXPERT RIDERS. WILLING TO RISK DEATH DAILY. ORPHANS PREFERRED" -supposed California newspaper help wanted ad

The Pony Express delivered U.S. mail 1,900 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, Californa, and, even though the Pony Express only ran for 19 months from 1860 to 1861, it is a fascinating piece of American folklore and still invokes the pioneering spirit and ingenuity of American culture. From April 3, 1860, to October 24, 1861, it was America's fastest and most direct means of coast-to-coast communication. It ended with the first transcontinental tap of the Morse code key for express dispatches, but it was not until November that the last Pony Express letters in transit completed their journey. The Overland Stage continued to carry the paper “snail mail” and parcels.

 

...

 

The original route ran through Salt Lake City, then across the western desert, entering Nevada near Ibapah. Today, the Pony Express trail looks very much as it did 154 years ago (or even 1500 years ago): vast expanses of open terrain, jagged peaks, remote springs, and desert wildlife. Thousands of square miles of primal landscape.

Concurrently, and for years after the demise of the Pony Express, the Overland Stage followed the trail for cross-country passenger travel. It was this route that 25 year old Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) took via the Overland Stage in August of 1861. He chronicled his adventures in Roughing It, his second novel. The novel was a romantic, humorous, and often too matter-of-fact recollection of his stagecoach trip from St. Joseph, Mo., to Carson City, Nev., in the blistering summer of '61 with his brother Orion Clemens, the newly appointed Secretary for the Governor of the Nevada Territory.

Our modern day intrepid group of riders followed the trail, as best they could, from Salt Lake City to Ibapah in the August of 2014. The trip was not made in the sweltering, blazingly hot weather Twain experienced, but in dramatic, lightning-fisted, monsoon storms where floodwater was the antagonist.

The team was Matt on his 800GS, Suzan on her F650, Tom on his R1200GSA, and Annie in the gear-laden FJ Cruiser support vehicle. Although they had all travelled this route before, the weather made this trip an entirely different experience.

Mark Twain:
I left Great Salt Lake a good deal confused as to what state of things existed there—and sometimes even questioning in my own mind whether a state of things existed there at all or not...we had learned that we were at last in a pioneer land, in absolute and tangible reality.

And now we entered upon one of that species of deserts whose concentrated hideousness shames the diffused and diluted horrors of Sahara—an "alkali" desert. For sixty-eight miles there was but one break in it.

Mark Twain:
—but now we were to cross a desert in daylight. This was fine—novel—romantic—dramatically adventurous—this, indeed, was worth living for, worth traveling for! We would write home all about it.

Mark Twain:
This enthusiasm, this stern thirst for adventure, wilted under the sultry August sun and did not last above one hour. One poor little hour—and then we were ashamed that we had "gushed" so. The poetry was all in the anticipation—there is none in the reality. Imagine a vast, waveless ocean stricken dead and turned to ashes; imagine this solemn waste tufted with ash-dusted sage-bushes; imagine the lifeless silence and solitude that belong to such a place …

At the peak, there were some 184 stations on the route. The distance between each was how far a good pony could gallop, depending on terrain, that being between 5 and 25 miles (8-40 km). Each rider put in about 75 miles (121 km) a day.

One of the owners of the Pony Express company, the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company (the Mayflower movers of the day), was devoutly religious man. He made sure that each rider was issued a Bible to fortify courage and nerves to endure the ride through dangerous country of often frustrated aboriginals, armed bandits, deadly blizzards, relentless rain and mud, and lethal heat.

Mark Twain:
... there is not a living creature visible in any direction whither one searches the blank level that stretches its monotonous miles on every hand; there is not a sound—not a sigh—not a whisper—not a buzz, or a whir of wings, or distant pipe of bird—not even a sob from the lost souls that doubtless people that dead air.

Mark Twain:
Two miles and a quarter an hour for ten hours—that was what we accomplished. It was hard to bring the comprehension away down to such a snail-pace as that, when we had been used to making eight and ten miles an hour. When we reached the station on the farther verge of the desert [Callao/Willow Springs], we were glad, for the first time, that the dictionary was along, because we never could have found language to tell how glad we were, in any sort of dictionary but an unabridged one with pictures in it.

As appreciative as Mark Twain was for the end of the day's adventure, the team feels worn and in need of food and rest. They head into the Deep Creek Range west of Callao and find a lovely plateau overlooking the immense breadth of the western desert. The team poles up tents, collect firewood, concoct evening refreshments, fire up the stove and begin cooking.

Day 1

Annie
I loved how we hung in there with plans for doing the trip, in spite of huge storms in the area. Intent on pulling it off, we NOAA'd, watched radar tracks, and heard the massive downpour from the comfort of our beds Friday night ‘til the wee hours of Saturday morning. I was grateful to be inside, aware of how brutal that deluge would be in a tent. Little did we realize how Nature's forces would affect our journey, where flash floods raged and blasted through areas of the route. We would be so thankful for the timing and kindness of the weather-gods.

Saturday morning, with the clearing confirmed, the committed crew gathered up at 10 a.m at Suzan and Matt's in Salt Lake City. We cut due west over to Faust with the first photo op on that dirt road. Then we were off onto the Pony Express route. We stopped where the pavement ended and the fun began.

Crossing over Lookout Pass, we got our first taste of the road and land being affected by the volume of water it had seen in last 24+ hours. Since there had been a recent fire there, charcoaled rivlets carved into the gullies, making the already stark and naked landscape more sensual, even more contrasted: black on red on white and gray. Nostrils filled with the intense smells of forest fire. It was strangely delicious. Evoked by the wetness, scents were emboldened.

I was following the three bikes and began to dare to shoot pics while driving. I felt my view was too good to let awesome opportunities pass. This was fun.

Suzan
The road has changed over the years and you never know what to expect. This year was mud, washed out roads, water pools, green plains, beautiful flowers. The last time I was on the road, it was 100 plus degrees and traditional desert. My experience level the first time I ventured out was beginner. If I had tried to ride the road this year with that level, I would not have made it. I was blown away by the washouts and pleased that I made it 19 miles without crashing, although there were a few narrow escapes. I was a much stronger rider after this ride.

Annie
We stopped in Simpson Springs for lunch and all the historic photo ops. The day was rare for August, with cool temperatures and rolling clouds. Shadows crept over and hugged the ranges and little buttes. I was following, and pictures were begging to be made: the vast and great wide open, freeing the heart and mind and matter. Out there is beyond words. Only rhythm. Boundless current. 

The three had stopped ahead, and it took a moment for me to see the magnificent wild mustangs getting some real estate between them and us as they funneled away into the distance. Luckily, the long camera lens could still bring them in. Tom took time to capture them, but only how he ever would...a respectful beholding. Through the camera were sacred moments, strong and wild herd of horses, roaming as they have for centuries, though not native here. Long may they endure.

Suzan
Wild horses – It always feels like the Wild West on this road, and I always see the horses. The herds tend to hang around Simpson Springs and like to run as you get close. I like the painted horses the best.

The long straight stretches of road made me think of an old western, riding off into the sunset. It made me smile.

Annie
Leaving there, I went ahead for a photo shoot. Tom wanted photos of the riders with the long and open road fading to the horizon. No problem, plenty of that available. 
The next pass, I went ahead, where there were some nice “S” turns down the west side. I pulled over, climbed up, sat on a rock and steadied myself, waiting. Heard the motors coming and blasted off some shots. I had to shoot fast as they moved into and out of the frame quickly. 

Annie
We came up to the geode beds and the big lonely “alien” rock that Suzan needed to climb. We found skulls, a molting lizard, and cool rocks. 

Annie
Back on the trail and to Fish Springs, where the oasis did not disappoint. Flowing steppes of grasses, solid, but appearing like a river of greens, alternating darks to light, to dark. Sunflowers, birds and crickets. Glorious. Exotic. Precious.

The motorcyclists stop near the wreckage of what appears to be a blown-apart and bullet-riddled school bus. Any chance for a photo-op and they are on it. There appears a young woman nearby, walking towards the west, alone, carrying only a small backpack. Matt asks if she is "OK," she gives a thumbs-up.

Annie
Fish Springs’ Hitchhiker Girl: Julie. She was on a "walkabout," if you ask me. A more primal, trusting way of moving in the world. She might have made her destination afoot by next morning, but her hitchhiked ride with me in the truck may have gotten her to her friends by midnight. She was a beauty, light poured from her eyes. She is touched and has become the essence of the land out here, has her sense of place in this world, and it is that place. Surely, one of the most remote locations a young biologist could sign onto; she could not love it more. 

I offered her my sweatshirt as she had only a tank top, shorts, and backpack on. She said she'd be fine. Somehow, I had to agree. She surely was. I reflected on if I had followed my heart at that time in my life.

She was on her way to the "peacock palace," out there south of Boyd Station. Her friends have peacocks, guinea hens, gardens, and Home; out there beyond ideas of urban sprawl. Julie plans to find land there too, once she pays off her $15,000 in student debt.

Suzan
The hitchhiker that Annie picked up is worth discussing. Annie agrees to take her to Boyd’s Crossing. The three of us on the motorbikes are uneasy about this odd girl and Tom proceeds to follow Annie closely. He must have been going 70 mph; who knows what is in the backpack? At Boyd’s Crossing around 5 o’clock, the hitchhiker is dropped off. It is miles to the Peacock Palace. I wonder if she will walk through the night. Does she have matches to light a fire? She says she does this often. I picture this girl being my daughter, and I am anxious for her. Relying on strangers in the desert to transport her, the elements, the animals, and the night cold. I can’t imagine doing this.

Annie
Then to camp in the Yosemite-like Deep Creeks. Remote, wild, quiet, so very special. 

Suzan
The Deep Creek Range mountains are a hidden gem. I had passed by them before, but had never taken a moment to get close to them and look around. Hiking along the ridge of our campsite, I found pools of water that looked like birdbaths. I thought it was amazing that two days after a rainstorm, in the desert, there were still pools of water sitting atop rocks. The mountain profile looks like a national park with impossibly tall peaks, rounded granite faces, and deep green valleys. The variety of plant life was impressive, and the numerous groups of plantings appeared to be arranged by a professional gardener.

Camping in the desert – Motorcycle camping is for the young, the poor, and the extremely adventurous, I am the latter. After collecting firewood out of a small ravine, we had enough to build an impressive fire for many hours. We set up camp, Annie made a fabulous dinner of guacamole and turkey burritos (but we forgot the tortillas), and we drank margaritas as the sun went down. The stars were brighter than I had ever seen and with the fire, it felt like we should be dancing around it like wild natives. After a long day, my tent and sleeping bag felt like a four star hotel.

Annie
The Galaxi tent by Nemo. Perfectly named, a bedded window to the world...where far, far beyond what my eyes can see this universe continues to unfold. But I did wake often and welcomed the magnificent clear night into my sweet and modest slumber place. Oh to live this way? How tenderly could my heart feel, how aware could I become, when every breath nearly forgets to exhale, in witness to this sacred night.

I want to live like this: adventure, love, margaritas, sacred night, and mystical blessed morning. Then...more adventure.

Day 2

All peaceful, quiet, holy, in this place. Waking often through the night, opening the shutters of my pupils to take it in. Always checking the eastern horizon, then, a scarlet glow begins to break the surface of the day. Still, serene silence pounds on the inner ear. 

First sounds from any of the locals is precisely, directly and unmistakably, the very instant when sunlight pours through an opening in the long cloud hugging the distant eastern range. From my spot on the rock, the morning chant of pinyon jays encircle our camp as they fly back and forth singing, "Hooray, another day to play!" Exactly. 

Camp was quickly disassembled and onto our steeds and wagons were loaded. I went ahead and looked back to confirm my crew. My new learned practice immediately took effect; I can now quickly stop, turn off engine, set gear and brake, grab camera, and position myself to capture the splendid moments of three friends, three easy riders, descending from on high, or out across the landscape. 

Kissing the morning breeze, and with smiles and good feelings, we coasted down to the aptly named Tom's Creek to play for a moment. Before taking to the road home, Suzan and Matt took turns blasting through the stream. -Annie

The streams that run from the valleys were cold and clear. I had some fun and drove my motorcycle through and gave the bike a needed wash. -Suzan

Venturing home, we pointed ourselves northward, back past Callao, leaving the lovely and grand Deep Creeks in the rear view. After a left onto the Old Lincoln Hwy, following the Pony Express trail, we quickly came upon the evidence of Nature's movie that had played out two nights prior. I was leading the team and drove up to a great swath of mud and rock that had flowed like a river, much beyond the bounds of the desert wash. Since it wasn't clear whether it was safe to proceed, I stopped to walk the newly deposited rocky 'road'.

Annie
We decided we were fine to pass on through. That was only the first of many, many challenging passages on this day's journey where the flash flood had rearranged an otherwise graded scenic byway through Overland Canyon. Repeatedly, Nature reclaimed her path, her choice of waterway. It was satisfying to know that man's carved road could so easily be disrupted, back to what is natural. However hard on those riders, I could tell were having a blast dancing through the rocks, ruts, mud, and crevices. They probably gained some new found skills and surely should have all gotten their BMW backroad byway badges. 

The Canyon Station, built in 1861, was located northwest of this site in Overland Canyon. It was the simplest constructed log house, stable, and a dugout kitchen. In July, 1863, aboriginals killed the Overland agent and four soldiers and burned the station. The 1863 Overland Station was a more defensible location, being a stone fortress. It did not have a roof so defenders could leap or climb over the wall and fire through the rifle ports.

Annie
Coming out to the welcomed blacktop, then north on Ibapah road through gorgeously pleasurable rolling hills and softened buttes. We stopped to set up for a "photo op." This stretch of road could easily fill a day taking profoundly beautiful photographs. Subtle, remote, empty, full, rich, and encapsulatingly exquisite.

Annie
No ride here would ever be complete without a stop to the Hat Tree. Now morphing into hats-and-other-objects tree, but happily standing out in on otherwise lonely road. This was the official end of our pilgrimage, save the Salt Flats. 

Suzan
The Hat Tree - a monument to silliness. A lone pine on the side of the road that now holds hundreds of hats, jackets, gloves, boots, underwear, beads and bracelets. Tom gave me a hat to throw and we played Frisbee with the wind trying to get it to stay. Tom was smart and brought a piece of rope and tied it and a rock to his hat. It is now nestled in a top branch. Annie gave the tree a beautiful purple beaded bracelet, while Matt brought a Canyons' ski resort visor. 

I wonder who started the tree? Do people see the tree and come back again to donate? Does the tree ever get cleaned up? Would the hitchhiker Annie picked up wish she would pass that tree and grab a jacket?

Suzan
Salt Flats – It was an ocean. I had never seen the salt flats that close up and was shocked there was a foot of water covering the area in my view. There was no way to see the groomed track due to the water. Another day.

Annie
Salt flats and ride home. We made it through. Happily satisfied, grateful for our safe return, deeper in awe of the western desert and her secrets, tired, but overall so much more rich in heart and spirit, history and respect; we embraced goodbye, looking forward to the next ride.

The privilege we open ourselves to, when a part of the flow.

Suzan
The tarmac –10 minutes into the ride back to Salt Lake City on I-80, I decided I would rather have gone home by retracing my steps. After having a great ride on dirt road, taking our time, stopping to smell the roses, it was a harsh reality to deal with semi-trucks! The speed limit increased to 80, and with the side winds, I had a hard time at 70. Just as I got comfortable, the wind would give me a nice slap on the face and remind me that it was in charge. 

At the first rest stop I could find, I went and laid on the grass and tried to catch my breath. Matt took the lead after that so I could watch him be blown over first and then I could brace myself for impact. I love the dirt even more now. 

Box Score
Total distance of route (MO to CA)

1900 miles (3100 km)

Number of days for delivery, coast to coast

10

Cost to mail 1/2 oz letter

$5, eventually to $1 at end ($26 in today's $)

·Number of stations (swing and home)
·Existing station ruins
·184
·50

Number of miles between stations and fresh horses
5 - 25 (8 - 40 km)
Number of miles riders rode in a day (distance between "home stations")
75 (121 km)

Longest single rides
· "Pony Bob" Haslam rode 380 miles (610 km)
· Jack Keetley rode non-stop 340 miles (550 km) in 31 hours (arrived at his final stop asleep in the saddle)
· William C. “Buffalo Bill” Cody rode 322 miles in 21 hours and 40 minutes using 21 horses(Cody was prone to exaggeration)

Number of Express riders employed
120

Number of support personnel
400

Number of Express riders in the saddle at any time
80

Number of horses
400

Maximum weight of pouch (mochila)
20 pounds (9.1 kg)

Speed of ponies @ fast trot to canter

@ full gallop

· 10 to 15 miles per hour (16 to 24km/h)

· 25 miles per hour (40km/h)

Pay for Pony Express Rider

$50 - 125 month

Fastest delivery (Lincoln's inauguration news)

7 days, 17 hours

Typical delivery time via ship or stagecoach

6-8 weeks

Longest delivery time (delayed due to Paiute War)

2 years

Number of miles per gallon on the trail

Suzan's F650: 110

Matt's 800GS: 72

Tom's R1200GSA: 58

Annie's FJ: 18

 

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