It was a beautiful winter day in the middle of the week, and I had some pieces of mail that needed to go out. Being the middle of the week, there was likely to be less traffic on the county road, so it seemed the perfect opportunity for another run of the Willowtrail Pony Express.
I try to write my father a postcard a few times a week, usually with a picture of a pony on it. His advanced age has unfortunately robbed him of the ability to appreciate words, but pictures still are of interest, and I’m told he has quite a collection of all the postcards I’ve sent him. Our postmaster has also expressed appreciation for the postcards, wishing she had thought to do the same for her father before he passed away. All of this is added motivation to keep sending the postcards through the mail.
The trip down the driveway with my two ponies, one ridden, the other led (ponied) was routine. Even better, I didn’t hear the roar of snow machines that is common on many winter days here. While I have ridden ponies past snow machines at times, usually the one-eyed noisy and smelly monsters cause more excitement than I choose to encounter, so I appreciated the quiet. As I’d hoped, when we reached the county road, there were no fresh tracks indicating any sort of traffic. One day I’d taken my pony pair out like this and found the fresh snow in the road similarly undisturbed, so I turned up the road for an extended outing. Unfortunately I’d forgotten to look both directions, and when we turned around, we came face to face with the county snow plow! It wasn’t cause for quite as much excitement as snowmachines are.
On the Pony Express day, it was especially quiet. We encountered just one walker and no vehicles on our two mile round trip on the county road,. Two trucks went by on the highway where the mailboxes are, and that was it. We made it to the mailbox on time for the mail to go out, and the only real reason for increased adrenalin was figuring out how to get around the cattleguard. We use the snow machine trail that travels along beside the road, but the snow bank between the road and the trail was bigger than usual, and while a moose had breached it, the moose obviously had longer legs than we did, so we floundered a bit.
In addition to moose tracks, we saw evidence that the little white tail deer herd that’s been trying to winter here had been on our route, but mostly we saw canine tracks – fox and coyote. I heard a dog bark as we approached a cabin camp where a neighbor had said she’d had trouble with the employee’s pets. I dismounted and led the ponies along that part of the road, but we didn’t encounter anyone.
I’ve just finished an article for Rural Heritage magazine about my great-great grandparents’ journey through California by horse and wagon in 1903. As background research, I’ve done quite a bit of reading about stagecoaches, which they encountered on their trip. Stagecoaches were of course preceded by pony express riders in carrying mail in our country before the railroads. My own experiences riding to our mailbox and other places over the years have made it easy for me to visualize what my ancestors encountered on their journey and similarly what stage drivers came across, including the varied terrain of the routes and the unpredictable weather and road conditions. It’s also easy for me to imagine the close relationship that the riders and drivers necessarily had with their equines. To do their job, they had to know them well enough to anticipate how they would react to the odd bear or stream crossing or highwayman jumping out from behind a rock, just as I have to anticipate reactions to snowmobiles and pedestrians and moose.
One of the stagecoach drivers that worked the routes my great-great grandparents traveled was Charley Parkhurst. Parkhurst developed a solid reputation as a coach driver in Rhode Island before being drawn to western opportunities by the gold rush. Parkhurst worked another twenty years on the lines in California. “Charley drove stage over various California routes and experienced his share of near-death incidents, including a bridge that collapsed moments after he had drawn his team and coach over it. It is said that after he point-blank shot two would-be stage robbers, he wasn’t bothered with that particular problem anymore.” (1) Parkhurst was sometimes called ‘One-eyed Charley’ because of losing one eye after being kicked by a horse. (2) Upon Parkhurst’s death in 1879, Charley’s friends were astounded to learn as they prepared the body for burial that Charley was actually a woman. “Stout-bodied, homely Charley Parkhurst is mostly remembered for masquerading as a man throughout her entire adulthood so she could drive stage, one of the most physically punishing occupations of her time.” (3)
While there are certainly other ways for me to get the mail to the mailbox, just as there were other ways that Charley Parkhurst could have made a living, I’ll continue to use my Willowtrail Pony Express when I can, enjoying the opportunity to experience a journey through the great outdoors with my equine friends.
- Stapp, Cheryl Anne. The Stagecoach in Northern California: Rough Rides, Gold Camps & Daring Drivers. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2014, p. 83.
- “Charley Parkhurst” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charley_Parkhurst
- Same as #1.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016
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