This week’s travel dream: Chasing the Pony Express across the West
Pony Express riders could cover the nearly 2,000-mile distance from Missouri to California in just 10 days. The trail began in a town about 50 miles from Kansas City.
The Pony Express lasted less than two years, but “its lore lives on in a trail blazed across the West,” said Christopher Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times. From April 1860 to November 1861, the speedy overland mail service enlisted fearless horsemen—some as young as 11—to relay urgent messages across the untamed frontier. Despite “forbidding topography, nasty weather, stampeding bison, and hostile Native Americans,” riders covered the nearly 2,000 miles, from Missouri to California, sometimes in just 10 days. It took the newly invented telegraph to put them out of business.
Here I was, 150 years later, ready to follow their trail. I didn’t have a horse; instead I drove rental cars and hopped 737s, hitting three cities in four days. My journey began in St. Joseph, Mo., a town about 50 miles from Kansas City that in 1860 was where “civilization ended and the Wild West began.” St. Joseph’s Pony Express National Museum stands at Ninth and Penn streets, where riders used to mount their horses. They’d head to the dispatch office at the Patee House hotel—now also a museum—where Mark Twain, journalist Horace Greeley, and other luminaries once stayed. Then they’d catch a ferry across the Missouri River into the “raw territory” of Kansas. Standing at the banks of the river, staring at thickets on the other side, “I could almost imagine some terrified teenager on horseback, galloping off into who knows what.”
From St. Joseph, I skipped ahead to Salt Lake City. The Pony Express path here led down from the Wasatch Range, along Main Street, and out to Camp Floyd, a former U.S. Army base that’s now a 40-acre heritage park. Every day in summer, a “latter-day Pony rider dashes through” the grounds in homage. My last stop was Sacramento, which by 1860 was already a big city, having boomed following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. In Old Sacramento, I walked the last of the riders’ route, stopping at the B.F. Hastings Building, onetime home of a Pony Express office. Even though I hadn’t covered the land on horseback, I’d experienced firsthand “one of America’s best-loved Western stories.”