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The Last Ride of the Pony Express
My 2,000-mile Horseback Journey into the Old West
By Will Grant
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The Pony Express was a fast-horse frontier mail service that spanned the American West— the high, dry, and undeniably lonesome part of North America. While in operation during the 1860s, it carried letter mail on a blistering ten-day schedule between Missouri and San Francisco, running through a vast and mostly uninhabited wilderness. It covered a massive distance—akin to running horses between Madrid and Moscow— and to this day, the Pony Express is irrefutably the greatest display of American horsemanship to ever color the pages of a history book.
Though the Pony Express has enjoyed a lot of traction over the years, among the authors that have attempted to encapsulate it, none have ever ridden it themselves. While most scholars would look for answers inside a library, Will Grant looks for his between the ears of a horse. Inspired by the likes of Mark Twain, Sir Richard Burton, and Horace Greeley, all of whom traveled throughout the developing West, Will Grant returned to his roots: he would ride the trail himself with his two horses, Chicken Fry and Badger, from one end to the other.
Will Grant captures the spirit of the West in a way that few writers have. Along with rich encounters with the ranchers, farmers, historians, and businessmen who populate the trail, his exploits on horseback offer an intimate portrait of how the West has evolved from the rough and tumble 19th century to the present, and it’s written with such intimacy that you’ll feel as though you’re riding right alongside of him. The result is an extraordinary portrait of the treacherous and, at times, thrilling landscape of the known and unknown American West, and the people who populate it.
The Last Ride of the Pony Express is a tale of adventure by a horseman who defies most modern conveniences, and is an unforgettable narrative that will forever change how you see the West, the Pony Express, and America as a whole.
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In May 2019, I set out from St. Joseph, Missouri, with two horses and a plan to ride to Sacramento, California, along the Pony Express Trail. This book is the story of what I saw, who I met, and what happened. I undertook the journey as a largescale exercise in horsemanship with the goal of achieving a boots-on-the-ground understanding of the famed Pony Express mail service. I also wanted to make a transect of the cultural West. I wanted to meet the people and learn about their lives in all the places that I'd never been to along the trail. I hope that I have portrayed those people with the same levels of respect and grace with which they treated me. I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who helped and supported me during my summer on horseback. The journey would not have been possible without them.
I WATCHED THE roan horse wallow in a mudhole a mile below me. You wouldn't have thought that amid all that wind and sky and rock of Utah's West Desert there'd be water enough to make a mudhole, but there in front of me on a yellow plain that seared under a high sun, the dusky horse flopped from side to side, kicking its legs in the air like a dog scratching fleas. The horse's solitude told me it was a stallion. Four hundred wild horses, known as the Onaqui herd, summer in this valley, and the only ones that range alone are mares about to foal, old horses about to die, and stallions without harems of mares. This horse didn't look old and wild mares don't foal in August, so I assumed he was a stallion. He stood from rolling, and when he walked out of the mud, he appeared a much darker horse. He hadn't seen me and my two horses—Chicken Fry and Badger—enter the valley from the east, but I figured it was only a matter of time.
Chicken Fry and Badger showed no signs of agitation, but why would they? For the past three months, we'd been traveling west on rural roads, past farms and ranches and suburban subdivisions, and they'd seen many horses. But those horses posed no threat; they were domesticated. This one was different.
This was a wild horse, a mustang, a free-roaming member of feral equines that became part of the Western landscape after sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadors brought the first horses North America had seen since the last ice age, ten thousand years ago. The Spanish, and countless others since, lost horses that stampeded to freedom in the middle of the night or wandered off in search of fresh grass or otherwise untethered themselves from their owners. Those strays gathered in herds and became known as mesteños (Spanish for "escaped livestock"). The word was later anglicized into "mustang," and today it's a common term for a wild horse of the American West. Over the centuries, one enduring trait has been that they're apt to harass domestic horses. The roan mustang before me posed a problem because I wanted to camp at a corral beside the mudhole that he'd just rolled in. That corral was the only safe haven for my horses for a day's ride in any direction.
Wild stallions will kill a domestic gelding, a castrated horse, in the same way that wolves will kill a domestic dog. Chicken Fry and Badger, therefore, were vulnerable. Mares may be absorbed into a harem, but geldings are a threat. And since domestic geldings rarely mature with the sparring and fighting that establishes social hierarchy within a wild herd, Chicken Fry and Badger would likely not last long. They'd also be wearing their saddles and carrying my gear—trappings of domestication that would hinder their survival. I was more than halfway up the Pony Express Trail—ninety-two days and more than a thousand miles out from its eastern terminus in St. Joseph, Missouri—and I hadn't come this far just to lose my horses in a running fight with a mustang stallion.
So I decided to take a nap. Better to do nothing and potentially avoid a wreck than walk right into one. I figured the situation might work itself out, that after an hour's doze the stallion would be gone. As I unlashed the panniers from the packsaddle, slid the bridle off Badger, and loosened the cinches on the saddles, both horses sighed with the prospect of a reprieve. I leaned against a tree, and ran the ropes under my legs so that I could feel any sudden movement they made. When I lifted my hat from my eyes an hour or so later, three mustangs stood on the plain. An old white horse with a swayed back, a black horse, beyond the white, that waved in mirage like a candleflame, and, nearest to us, the roan. The area around the mudhole had become a bachelor boneyard, and I could have listed things I would rather have seen.
I asked Chicken Fry and Badger if they had any ideas about scattering the congregation, but they only yawned and stretched like soldiers waking from a halt. So I came up with one: I would throw rocks. Rocks the size of lemons or baseballs. I'd wait to throw them until I could see the whites of the stallion's eyes. I carried a lightweight .357 revolver in case I needed to humanely put down one of my horses due to some catastrophic injury, and I took the pistol from my saddlebag and slid it into my vest pocket. I didn't know what I would do with the gun—maybe shoot the ground in front of the roan—but if I did that, Badger, sensitive as he was, would probably jerk the reins from my hands and take off across the desert. Which would leave me down a horse and in a world of trouble, assuming I could still hang on to Chicken Fry.
I readied my horses and hardened up the cinches on both saddles tighter than if there had been no mustangs in my future. I stepped onto Badger, and eased downhill into the furnace of an August afternoon. When I was halfway to the corral, the roan horse saw us. He jerked up his head from grazing, and I cursed him. He took a few halting steps, broke into a trot, and pretty soon headed our way at a run.
I slid from the saddle and informed Chicken Fry and Badger that we were about to have our first scrape with a mustang. The roan stallion made quick work of the distance between us, and when he was a hundred yards off, he vectored to the right, hammering over the dry plain on black hooves that looked and sounded as hard as the basalt cobbles beneath him. He arched his neck and swung his head in bold communication, and his posturing was not lost on me. He was a large horse, the color of rust, with a black mane and tail, and his head was dark and unrefined. Old scars on his flanks and along his back showed as gnarled lines and crescent moons—haired-over glyphs from that hierarchical herd sorting that betrayed him to be no colt, but a mature horse. The tops of his legs had the horizontal striping of ancient equine DNA, and though I knew he carried the distant pedigree of a domestic horse, he looked as raw and wild as the desert that made him.
He wheeled a full circle around us at a gallop. In one hand, I held the reins to Badger and the lead rope to Chicken Fry, and had a rock in the other as he came in front of us, some forty feet off. I missed with my first rock. The second hit him at the base of his neck, and he shied violently, leaping forward into the air and pawing at the rock that had just invaded his space. I landed another rock in his flank, and he bucked, kicked his hindquarters straight out with a snap of hooves and muscle that looked like he might kick the door off heaven, and then he took off at a flat run in the other direction.
He charged another circle around us, but this time he appeared frustrated. He stopped square in front of us, looking right at me with his head held high and his nostrils flaring, and I figured that this was my chance to put one between his eyes, but I missed. The rock flew wide to his left, and he dodged right and disengaged, quartering away from us at a walk. Chicken Fry and Badger were unfazed, had stood quietly behind me while I stood our ground. I filled my pockets with more rocks. Once the roan was about one hundred yards away, he lowered his head to graze. But he was not disinterested; I could see the insides of his ears. His ears turned toward us told me that we held his focus as I made for the corral afoot, leading Chicken Fry and Badger so that if the stallion made another run for us, I'd be ready.
I'd known there would be wild horses in western Utah. I'd known that wild horses would be a fixture of the range between the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada. But I hadn't anticipated the acute threat they would pose to my horses. I might as well have been camped on the African savanna with lions and leopards. The mustangs felt just as dangerous.
For the past three months I'd seen the color of the West in shades of people and land and circumstance. I was passing through a continental theater where I found too little rainfall, too much of the original prairie broken up by the iron plow, too many old timers who remember heavy-snow winters like they don't get any more. I found too many invasive species, too much irrigation draining dwindling aquifers, too many small towns ready to fall off the map. But what I found at the mudhole three days into the desert was different, more unsettling. The roan stallion reminded me that the undiminished wildness of the West was dangerous—beautiful and intriguing, but dangerous—and that not everything had changed since the days of the Pony Express.
The Making of the West
SAGEBRUSH IS AS good a way to define the American West as anything else. Other metrics may be used to delineate the high and dry Western midsection of North America, but few do so as fully as the woody, generally low-growing shrub of the Artemisia family commonly known as sagebrush. It's endemic to the North American West. You won't find it on the banks of the Mississippi River or in the forests of New England or anywhere else in the world. It prefers an open steppe-like environment with poor soil and plenty of wind. On a landscape scale, it covers rolling prairies with a greenish-gray hue that can only accurately be described as the color of sagebrush. An afternoon rain shower releases its sweet, unique aroma. Terpenoids give it its pungency and flammability. Indigenous peoples use it as a smoldering smudge, among many other things, and anyone who's ever camped on the plains has likely used it for fuel wood. More so than the pronghorn or the bison or the mounted cowboy, it is an icon of the American West. Which means that if you want to know the extent of the West, look at a map of the distribution of sagebrush.1
Technically, the American West includes portions of seventeen states. Border states foster the gradients of change. Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, and the Dakotas lie over the transition zone from the humid forestlands of the Midwest and South to the arid shortgrass prairies of the high plains. From farm country to rangeland. From muggy summers to monsoonal summers.2 From a region where precipitation exceeds evaporation to where the opposite can be true: there are places in the West where more water returns to the atmosphere through evaporation than falls from the sky.3 California, Oregon, and Washington are part of the West in their interior regions, but their coastal portions receive too much rain and are home to too many people, and sagebrush is found in only a few locations there.
That's the geography of the West. Academic authors of peer-reviewed journals and bureaucrats like those at the Bureau of Land Management sometimes call portions of it the Intermountain West. People who don't live there refer to it as Out West. It runs from the center of Nebraska to the Sierra Nevada. From the northern grasslands of Montana to the bootheel of New Mexico. It's the high, dry, and lonesome part of North America where you find prairie dogs and jackrabbits and vistas so long you can see into next week. It's prone to its romantic moments—if you don't mind the dust and the wind—but for all its spatial grandeur and wide-open freedom, one of the most important things to know about the West is its contribution to our national identity.
The first European American to put a number on where the West begins was the geologist and Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell. In an 1879 report to the U.S. Congress, Powell identified an east-west rainfall gradient along the 100th meridian. He found that annual rainfall decreased from twenty-four inches of precipitation east of the 100th to eighteen inches west of it.4 Powell's study of the West was largely scientific, but in 1931 the historian Walter Prescott Webb, in his seminal book The Great Plains, refined the observation to the 98th meridian and furthered it to include the cultural gradient between the East and West:
As one contrasts the civilization of the Great Plains with that of the eastern timberland, one sees what may be called an institutional fault (comparable to a geological fault) running from middle Texas to Illinois or Dakota, roughly following the ninety-eighth meridian. At this fault the ways of life and of living changed.5
This is not a revelation. Where thin runs the fabric of civilization, the hand of the land bears heavily upon those who make from it what life they may. Before anthropogenic development deprives a landscape of its natural attributes—before sidewalks pave the red-dirt mud or city parks beat back the thorned vegetation or municipal water runs from household taps—the earthen qualities of that landscape may be seen in the crow's-foot folds of the eyes squinting into its sun. I know this to be true. That land arrests certain characteristics of its people—how they look, how they dress, what they build their houses with—to a degree proportional to their proximity to the land. I don't need an anthropologist to tell me that a Sámi reindeer herder is a product of the Scandinavian landscape. Or that a Maasai tribesman of East Africa reflects his environment. In the heart of the American West, I see three tangible factors that have shaped the cultures within it: a lack of timber, a scarcity of water, and a temperate, continental climate. But more so than any climatic or biological influence, the wide-open country is what has made the people. The miles between horizons produce a psyche that, like sagebrush, doesn't happen in the East. The psyche that the western frontier of the United States produced in the nineteenth century is significant because it affected the national psyche. One of the first people to recognize this was the historian Frederick Jackson Turner.
In 1893, Turner published an essay titled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," in which he argues that the idea of a frontier was fundamental to the American character. Turner's essay reflects a dated perspective, and it's been widely criticized for its failure to address the expansion of the U.S. as the conquest of existing societies. But one thing that he articulated as well as anyone since was the roughshod psyche that developed in European Americans during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance…The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.6
The West, therefore, becomes more than a region. It is a time and a place and a consciousness. Turner argues that when the census of 1890 declared that the frontier no longer existed, it was, in fact, the truth. Others have felt similarly. The scholar Charles Neider, who's best known for editing Mark Twain's autobiography, published in 1959, assembled contemporary articles, documents, and essays in the compendium The Great West: A Treasure of Firsthand Accounts, published in 1958. From the conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado's own account of his expedition to the death warrant for Billy the Kid, Neider's coverage of the West is thorough, though it contains many excerpts rather than complete works. The first sentence of the introduction opens the book with its place-time parameters:
For the purpose of this volume, I have regarded the American West as beginning geographically west of the Mississippi River and ending chronologically at the turn of the last century, approximately with the closing of the frontier.7
The chronological beginning of the West is not as clear as its ending. The current environment began to take shape when the last ice age ended ten thousand years ago. Indigenous peoples developed nomadic and seminomadic lifeways that followed the seasons, the wildlife, the water. A network of trade routes connected parts of the West with the rest of the Americas, and complex civilizations arose on the Great Plains and throughout the Southwest and wherever there were sufficient resources to support settlement. The biggest change to the cultural landscape, though, came with the arrival of Europeans. In 1519, the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés landed at what would become Veracruz, Mexico. Twenty-one years later, in 1540, Francisco Coronado marched north as far as present-day Kansas with guns, germs, and 1,000 horses.8 By 1790, Spain claimed sovereignty over most of western North America, from Mexico to Alaska. At the same time, British, French, and Anglo-American trappers looking for beaver hides made inroads to the Pacific Northwest. Indigenous peoples faced intrusion from all sides, and the end of their pre-European existence began in earnest when Spain ceded the massive territory of Louisiana to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1800, who took physical possession of it in November 1803 and quickly turned it over to President Thomas Jefferson in December of that year.
No one from Spain, France, or the United States knew the extent of Louisiana when it was handed over. Jefferson interpreted it to include land from the Mississippi River to the Continental Divide, but no one knew for sure the trace of the Continental Divide or how far north the region ran. The historian Stephen Ambrose makes this clear in his book about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Undaunted Courage:
Jefferson wanted land. He wanted empire. He reached out to seize what he wanted, first of all by continually expanding the boundaries of Louisiana.9
And then he sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find a navigable waterway to the Pacific Ocean, what was optimistically referred to as the Northwest Passage. They found that no such waterway existed—"It was Lewis's unhappy task to tell the president that his hope for an all-water route linking the Atlantic and the Pacific was gone," Ambrose writes—but they laid the first tenuous trace of U.S. sovereignty in the West.10 For the purpose of this book, that is the chronological beginning of the American West.
The West existed in two phases: the Old West and the Wild West. The Old West opened in the beginning of the nineteenth century with fur trappers wading in icy streams up and down the Rocky Mountains. They were known as "free trappers" because of their fickle allegiance to anything other than money, wild places, and the freedom to wander. They filled in much of the map, though, for the country behind them, and a handful were actually literate enough to draw maps for publication.
The beaver trade dried up about the time Oregon became an emigrant's destination. In the 1830s, the mountain man found new work as a guide, scout, un vaqueano—Spanish for "one who knows the way." By the late 1830s what beaver remained in the Rocky Mountain streams weren't worth the effort to trap, and though Oregon was claimed by both the United States and Great Britain, American settlers began arriving once the wagon road over the Rocky Mountains was established. When Oregon became a U.S. territory in 1846, emigration became more organized and consistent. The decorated historian Francis Parkman was there to see it. He's best known for his book The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life. Like every other account of the trail, the book is filled with roadside graves and wagon accidents and failing livestock. It also depicts another aspect of the frontier: the diversity of people attracted it. Parkman's point of view reflects a dated prejudice of the time, though his tally of ethnicities present is informative. From a boat on the Missouri River, which was the jumping-off point for all the trails going west, he describes an array of characters assembled on the bank on a rainy evening in the spring of 1846: a group of Spaniards headed for Santa Fe, Mexican Indigenous peoples crouched over a fire, a few French hunters "with their long hair and buckskin dresses," and "sitting on a log close at hand were three men, with rifles lying across their knees."11
Emigration westward idled along through the 1840s. Brigham Young and his Mormon vanguard broke earth in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, and in 1848, gold washed up in the tailrace at Sutter's Mill near Coloma, California, setting off the gold rush. California became a state two years later—the first state west of the Missouri River—and emigration westward soared over the next decade. Nearly three hundred thousand people left the East or a homeland abroad for the wide-open West between 1840 and 1860.12 And yet, European-American inroads across the West were little more than that. The bison herds were intact. The U.S. government had not declared widespread war on Indigenous peoples in the West. The only sizable European-American settlement between California and the Missouri River was the Mormon outpost in Utah. Then, in April 1861, shots at Fort Sumter turned all attention to the East. The Civil War ended the Old West.
After the Civil War, the Wild West was born. The people who populated the Wild West lent their character to the time. They were party to the deflowerment of the landscape, and they affected the profound changes that forever altered the West as they had found it, as it had been for millennia. One such man was a buffalo hunter named Frank Mayer.
Mayer was born in Louisiana in 1850 and served as a bugler during the Civil War. He lived to be 104 years old. He came west in 1872 and first heard about bison hunting in Dodge City, Kansas. He dictated his experience as a commercial hunter to author Charles B. Roth. Roth published Mayer's account in The Buffalo Harvest, a thin book printed in 1958 that gives procedural detail to the wholesale slaughter of the bison. Mayer was part of the contingent of men who supplied the booming hide trade of the 1870s and '80s and who left in their wake millions of hideless carcasses to rot on the prairie. His story encapsulates what happened on the Great Plains from 1870 to 1890, and part of understanding that episode is understanding those people's reasons for being on the plains in the first place:
At the close of any war there are bound to be thousands of young men who find peacetime pursuits too dull for their adventure-stirred lives. Maybe that was truer after the Civil War than at any other time. I know how I felt. I was restive. I wanted out. Fortunately for us then we had what you don't have now: we had a frontier to conquer. It was a very good substitute for war.13
Mayer and his colleagues made quick work of the bison. What had once been a population estimated at approximately 60 million was reduced to 541 by 1889. Mayer conceded that the removal of the bison was a condemnable act but argued, essentially, that no one knew any better. A detail he refers to is that they didn't call themselves hunters: "We professionals didn't run buffalo at all, but we called ourselves buffalo runners, never hunters." But it was clearly a commercial hunting venture, and it was done without regard for the long-term survival of the species:
Maybe we runners served our purpose in helping abolish the buffalo; maybe it was our ruthless harvesting of him which telescoped the control of the Indian by a decade or maybe more. Or maybe I am just rationalizing. Maybe we were just a greedy lot who wanted to get ours, and to hell with posterity, the buffalo, and anyone else, just so we kept our scalps on and our money pouches filled. I think maybe that is the way it was.14
Mayer's statement approaches the great paradox of the Wild West. The subjugation of the Indigenous peoples and the near extinction of the bison are the ugliest aspects of the time—two points of no return that speak to the imperialistic, headlong expansion of the U.S.
“The Last Ride of the PonyExpress by Will Grant is a spellbinding account of the author’s solo 2,000 mile horseback journey retracing the route of the old Pony Express. Beautifully and vividly written, it weaves adventure and hardship with history and a deep appreciation for the land and its people. Many books have been written about the Pony Express by people who immersed themselves libraries and archives, but this book does the opposite, taking the reader into the vastness of our landscape on an unforgettable journey across the American West. Anyone interested in western history, horses, and adventure travel will love this book! Highly, highly recommended.”
—Douglas Preston, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Cities of Gold and The Lost City of the Monkey God
- “The Last Ride of the Pony Express is immersive, moving, and beautifully rendered. It’s so much more than an adventure on horseback. It’s, at heart, a love letter: to the landscape, and to the people who inhabit it. An absorbing tale of the American West, and a remarkable debut.” —Kirk Wallace Johnson, author of The Fisherman and the Dragon and The Feather Thief
- "In The Last Ride of the Pony Express, Will Grant has braided one of the finest tales in the storied history of the American West, a grand adventure in which the hoofbeats laid down by a writer whose prose is as controlled, as rhythmic, and as beautiful as his horsemanship come together to form a hymn to the land itself. A gorgeous and compelling ride."—Kevin Fedarko, author of the New York Times bestselling The Emerald Mile
- “Will Grant takes readers on a rollicking ride across the most famous horse trail in America in The Last Ride of the Pony Express. Navigating present-day highways and byways as well as history, the author and his steeds travel through a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope, introducing us to two-thousand-miles’ worth of colorful characters, both dead and very much alive. Like Grant, we may know more or less where he’s headed, but the fun is all in getting there. A unique and enjoyable read about today’s America and its storied past. Highly recommended, whatever you know or think you know about the West, old or otherwise.”—Jim DeFelice, co-author of the New York Times bestselling American Sniper
- “The Pony Express is something every American school-child learns about, but which we rarely see portrayed in its full, sweaty, bloody reality. By embarking on this adventure, Grant blows the dust right off this chapter in history and leaves it fresh. But I was delighted to discover that this book is as much about the present as it is about the past. The West that Grant shows us from “between the ears of a horse” is resilient and precarious, highly mechanized and still surprisingly wild. It's a journey well worth taking.”—Robert Moor, bestselling author of On Trails: An Exploration
- “The Pony Express was in existence for less than two years, yet what a terrific pull it's had on our national imagination. Will Grant, a horseman through and through, is just the right writer to capture its soul. In prose that’s appropriately lean and raw, he's written a seamless and unforgettable blend of history and horses that pays homage to those brave, Mercury-like messengers of yore.”—Hampton Sides, NYT bestselling author of Blood and Thunder
- “The Last Ride of the Pony Express is exactly my favorite kind of book, a travel story, chock full of history with a genial and completely fascinating tour guide. Will Grant writes about horses with a special insight, compassion and good humor that let me know I was on a ride with a real horseman. I loved riding across the West with Grant and his two horses, as he introduced me to people and places most of us will never visit, with verve, adventure, and unfailing good nature that shows us the best of America’s less travelled by-ways.”—Elizabeth Letts #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Ride of Her Life
- On Sale
- Jun 6, 2023
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown and Company