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Two “Grumpy Old Men” make Pony Bob proud in the National Pony Express Association’s sesquicentennial re-ride.
Photo: Provided by Gary C. Ridenour (pictured is Ralph Michka)
Few Nevadans can brag that they have carried mail for the Pony Express. My friend and I entered that prestigious group, 150 years later.
In March, my Assistant, Erika, told me that her father was the president of the Nevada Pony Express Association and that 2010 marked the 150th anniversary of the famed mail route. She asked if I wanted to participate in the annual re-ride, and I told her I would talk to a friend and get my 62-year-old body on a horse and see what falls off.
My 70-year-old friend, Ralph Michka, agreed. However, he said, I had to survive a test ride on one of his horses. I was sure he figured I would be bucked off, kicked, or bitten, and that would end my crazy dream of being a Pony Express rider.
The following Saturday, I found myself saddling up his horse, Traveler, and trying to remember 50 years ago as to what went where. We rode for more than an hour, and on the way back to Ralph’s place I began to feel the effects of my age. Ralph offered a litany of reasons why we shouldn’t do this. I tried to raise his spirits.
Later, we slowly dragged our aching bodies out of the barn and toward the house. We groaned at every step and helped each other up the two steps to his place. Ralph had become Walter Matthau, and I was Jack Lemon—from the film “Grumpy Old Men.”
The months flew by, and we continued to ride, grumble, moan, and sometimes quarrel about this ordeal I got us into. Ralph’s biggest gripe was that for the entire 2.6-mile section, we had to at least trot the horses to arrive on time for the exchange. The real Pony Express riders traveled 10 miles at a gallop, then switched horses and took off again.
The original ad for the Pony Express flashed into my mind: “Young, Skinny, Wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” That wasn’t us. Besides the real riders were young and tough like the famous Pony Bob Haslam, who rode the same trail.
We continued to blame each other for this craziness, but traded advice on salves, proper underwear to prevent chafing, and what our cardiologists would say if they found out. We went so far as to trade recipes of what concoctions of over-the-counter medications worked for the pain and what body parts gave us the most trouble.
We went to a meeting where we were sworn in as riders in the tradition of the Pony Express. The 1860 riders carried a Bible. Likewise, we were given a pocket edition. I wondered if we would have to use them.
Months flew by, and Ralph and I complained to everyone, including strangers. Once, due to a loose cinch, Ralph demonstrated his attempt to ride with the saddle under the horse. I sprained an ankle and collected various bruises.
Erika informed me that an 80 year old rode last year. We asked about his present condition, or where he was buried. She stared out the window and was vague about the details. I made a mental note to search the net for a story of an old man being dragged through the sage by a runaway, trampled to death, or still missing.
June 9 found us waiting on the dusty Fort Churchill trail for the riders to appear and put the mochila over our saddles and send us off. The mochila is a large piece of leather with a cutout in it to allow it to be placed over our saddles. The cantinas, or mail pouches, were sewn into the mochila. Two are in front of your legs, and two are behind them. I decided this was a good design to keep us in the saddle and would act as a slide in case we went sideways.
Re-ride participants wear a black or brown hat, a red shirt, and a yellow bandanna. Some still carry 1860-replica pistols. Ralph and I decided to skip the guns for fear they would bounce out, or we might shoot ourselves because we forgot to unload them.
Without any fanfare or a shot of Gabby Hayes yelling to The Duke, “They’s a’comin’ lickity split. Like the Devil is a chasin’ ’em!,” Erika and her dad could be seen coming around the bend. We threw our cell phones and other personal items in our trucks. We tried to smile and wave.
Behind the riders was an SUV followed by a caravan of trucks and trailers of the previous riders, who would follow the rest of the riders to Fort Churchill. I held my horse’s bridle as some people from the lead SUV transferred the mochila.
I mounted and saw that Ralph was already down the trail. I got on my horse. Quietly, we began our trot into history.
Along the way we rode through a military tank test range. The chain-link fences and the old tires, rims, and various mechanical parts piled against it spooked the horses. We reached a small puddle across the trail. The horses balked. We tried every trick. Frustrated, Ralph slid down the side of his horse in slow motion waiting for the pain monster to strike. He began to lead his horse toward the puddle without difficulty.
I heard someone behind me. I turned to see a young man with unruly hair, dressed in the proper attire for the time period of 1860. He said, “They’s spooked by the fences and now the puddle. Try and follow the other guy. His horse has it.”
Ralph led his horse through. My horse jumped the puddle. I was sure the guy behind us spooked the horses into moving. Sometimes that works. There seems to be no solid rules for horse behavior.
I started to trot and looked back, but the stranger was gone. I rode up to Ralph and did my Slim Pickens impression: “What in the Wild, Wild World of Sports is a going on here?” Ralph shrugged. Proudly we rode into our exchange area smiling because we now knew why.
Later, at Fort Churchill, I asked Erika: who was the small, young guy that got out and forced the horses to move on? She said she saw no one. A few days later, Erica and her father said they had asked around, and no one else saw the stranger.
Thanks, Pony Bob, if that was you, for lending a hand to a couple of old riders still carrying on the tradition.
National Pony Express Association