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Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Diane Worman, left, hugs George Lang on Sunday in Simpson Springs after riding a two-mile stretch during a Pony Express re-enactment.

SIMPSON SPRINGS, Tooele County — Mud and leather flying, the Pony Express re-enactor approaches the desolate West Desert watering hole at a full gallop. It's a hoof pounding and heart pounding sight.

A large gathering of friends, family and other riders crowds around the replica station at Simpson Springs on Sunday afternoon to celebrate the efforts of 22 horses and riders who began today's leg of the ride in Callao, Juab County, near the Nevada border.

If the group's spirited whoops and hollers are any indication, steady rain throughout the day did little to dampen anyone's spirits. It's hard imagining water being in short supply around these parts given the day's deluge, yet it was the availability of potable water at Simpson Springs that made it such a vital West Desert wayside.

Several hours later, after a feast of burgers and hot dogs, another team of re-enactors on fresh horses lights out for Lookout pass, where the mail was scheduled to put up for the night. On Monday, the re-enactment heads to Fairfield and Camp Floyd, the next major stop along the Pony Express' system of approximately 165 stations. Later in the day the ride culminates with riders reaching "This Is the Place Heritage Park" in Salt Lake City for more festivities, proving that you just can't overdo your 150th birthday.

Pat Hearty, a past president of the National Pony Express and current Utah chairman, said about 90 Utahns are involved in this year's Sesquicentennial ride. Riders alternate traversing two-mile segments of the historic trail — only a token of the bone jarring, muscle cramping 80- to 100-mile lengths endured by riders of yesteryear.

It was plenty for rookie rider Paul Kern. "They did a lot more riding back in those days, Kern said, explaining that Pony Express riders were better adapted to the rigors of the trail. "We're not in the same condition. You can't be only riding on weekends."

Kern found his first re-enactment "a real adrenaline rush." The Sandy man said he logged eight to 10 miles on the trail Sunday with his horse, Rory, who is parts Percheron, thoroughbred and paint.

"It's an odd mix, but it makes him go fast," Kern said, rubbing down his lathered animal. At one point the pair covered a two-mile stretch in about eight minutes, he said.

Eighty riders, 400 horses, 1,966 miles of mostly untamed, hostile country: The numbers never added up to financial success. But in terms of defining an era and captivating a still-adolescent nation, the Pony Express left an indelible mark on America.

The fleeting 18-month experiment, which operated from April 1860 to October 1861, was American gumption at its finest — innovative and audacious, romantic as well as heroic.

There was no shortage of legends in waiting. Men of smaller stature (weighing 125 pounds or less) jumped at the opportunity to be part of this newly launched Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company — an enterprise promising mail delivery between St. Josephs, Mo., and San Francisco, Calif., in 10 days or less. Pay averaged about $100 a month.

Mark Twain described the "pony-rider (as) usually a little bit of a man, brimful of spirit and endurance."

While such a timetable is glacial today, the Pony Express was a quantum leap given that mail delivery by boat to the West Coast took at least a month at the time. Mail carried overland by stagecoach between St. Louis and San Francisco was slightly faster but still took three weeks or more to arrive.

Sending mail via the specially designed saddlebags of the Pony Express wasn't cheap, especially at the start. The original cost was established at $5 per one-half ounce, although it was later lowered to $1 per one-half ounce.

Riders changed horses every 10 miles. Morgans, thoroughbreds, pintos and mustangs were the preferred horses, typically costing several hundred dollars apiece. Morgans and thoroughbreds were used mainly in the East; pintos in the Central region; and mustangs throughout the West.

The Pony Express system also included some 400 other support employees, including station keepers, stock tenders and route superintendents.

Despite its mystique, the Pony Express had poor timing. Progress on the first transcontinental telegraph threatened its existence from the mail service's inception. Two days after ceasing mail delivery on Oct. 22, 1861, the first transcontinental telegram was sent, further punctuating the point.

e-mail: chuck@desnews.com