We were deep in the woods of Humboldt County at Katie Azevedo’s family ranch, gathered around the table for breakfast. It was a comfortable scene, but six weeks ago Katie was dirty and dusty, in the midst of a transformative experience: She and her mother, Linda—along with their horse, Sedona—were riding the Pony Express Trail.
There was a faraway look in Katie’s eyes when she talked about it. “It’s those little moments,” she tried to explain, “the ones you can’t believe are happening.” Take, for instance, the mustang. “It was the middle of the day, and there was a lone stallion on the trail,” she recalled. “A mustang. We were in the mountains. We rode right by him. There were incredible views behind him, and the sun had just risen.” It’s the sort of moment you just can’t recreate, the sort of moment that made riding the Pony Express Trail the best decision Katie says she ever made.
The Pony Express existed for just 19 months, from April 1860 until October 1861, but it’s the stuff of legends, a significant detail in the history of America’s Wild West. It was a mail service on horseback: Riders would carry messages between Sacramento, California and St. Joseph, Missouri, changing horses every 15 miles. The journey took riders through the Sierra Nevada mountains, across Nevada’s harsh deserts, and onward through Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, and northern Kansas until finally reaching their destination in Missouri. Pony Express riders completed the route in only 10 days—an unprecedented pace on horseback. The invention of the telegraph brought about the end of the Pony Express, but its mythology lives on, celebrated to this day by endurance riders like Katie and Linda, who this year spent eight weeks riding along a trail that has captured the imagination of Americans for over 150 years.
Katie, who celebrated her 30th birthday while on the trail, had a few reasons for hitting this well-worn road. Freshly out of a relationship, she was looking forward to a new challenge. As someone who is fundamentally fascinated with the world around her, she was also eager to experience the West authentically, seeing the trip as a way to get close to America’s western roots. Perhaps most importantly, Katie recognized an opportunity to strengthen her relationship with her mom.
Linda, an optometrist in her sixties, is not one to watch life pass her by, and riding the Pony Express was an experience she couldn’t refuse. “People don’t realize the idea of an adventure. Yes, it’s dangerous, but you can die just as easily on a freeway,” she explained. “Why not have some fun out there and do something even if it’s got some risk?”
But gumption alone doesn’t get riders out on the road. Permits are required to access various segments of the Pony Express Trail (colloquially referred to as “XP”), so Katie and Linda relied on an organizing group called XP Rides to show them the way. (They were lucky to ride with XP when they did; trail permits are becoming more difficult and expensive to obtain.) Multiple groups of riders were a part of the XP trek; riders had the option of going it alone or with groups during the day, but everyone came together at camp each night.
Planning the trip requires a massive amount of effort: Riders have to figure out how to feed human, equine, and canine mouths for the next eight weeks. They need to have the right maps and navigational tools. They must plan their finances wisely, as money must be both saved and spent on the trail. And they must be in good physical shape. The Azevedo women described training for two years to prepare themselves, dedicating their time to reaching ultra-marathon levels of athleticism. Katie, a nurse, went without a vacation for those two years, saving her money and paid time off for the adventure.
For as difficult as the prep was, the ride itself was a considerable challenge. There wasn’t much GPS or cell phone service. Riders were forced to rely on intricate and sometimes indecipherable maps, and they repeatedly found themselves lost, either from misreading the route or because the trail always has surprises: closed roads, mudslides—the sort of things you won’t find on a paper map.
And then there was the weather, like that one night in Wyoming when they were about two miles away from that day’s drop-off point. “Everything was dark and it starts to rain,” recalled Katie. “The road we were going to turn on was dirt, meaning in two seconds it would be mud. How are we going to turn around? We decided to not push our luck, and found a way to turn our rigs around on this tiny little road, not much wider than our trailer.” They relied on Linda’s navigational skills to find another road they could take to that night’s camp, where they arrived many hours later than anticipated, soggy and exhausted, but alive. This kind of derailment meant they had way less time to prepare and rest up for the following day, which would invariably be demanding.
At another point, Katie and Linda were faced with cyclones on the horizon; the high winds threatening to throw their heavy rig off the road. It would have been futile to try and get the rigs going the other direction, so they went heads down into the inclement weather and hoped for the best (which worked out for them, seeing as they are alive to tell the tale).
But for these challenges, there were just as many rewards. The women learned the meaning of generosity when, during a two-day pit stop in the tiny village of Oak, Nebraska (pop. 66), a stranger brought them food before they resumed their journey. In Julesburg, Colorado, another XP riding crew convinced Katie to join them for a night out on the town, where she learned how to dance The Wobble—not exactly a skill she anticipated developing on the trip, but it’s a memory she says she’ll never forget. And they discovered their Arabian horse, Sedona, delighted in the long days of riding. Happy horse, happy riders.
To go on an adventure such as this requires an emotional commitment: you and your companion are signing on to sharing two exhausting months together. When that companion happens to be your mother, the dynamics are further complicated. Mothers and daughters are the best at pushing one another’s buttons—as many daughters know, a meaningless bad day or a simple disagreement can quickly become something more dramatic when mom is involved. But the intensity of their situation only deepened Linda and Katie’s already strong relationship. Their mutual respect for one another was evident when I met them: They smiled at the same time during various moments of retelling the adventure, even finishing each other’s sentences as they became energized by shared memories. Physical affection was freely given, and neither gave a second thought when the opportunity arose to help one another, and riding the Pony Express together reinforced this dynamic. “Early on we discovered that we both have great ideas, but we arrive at them differently,” said Linda. “Recognizing and celebrating those differences makes it easier to work around them.”
Six weeks later, with two intense months on the trail—during which they were separated from their homes, jobs, friends (and, in Linda’s case, her husband)—behind them, the women yearned to return. “[Riding the trail] was that profound,” Katie explained. “It was the most adventurous thing I will ever do in my life.” (Fortunately Katie kept a blog the entire time, so the memories will be easily accessible.)
At the end of our conversation, that dreamy look returned to Katie’s face as she talked about riding through Nevada. “We started riding in the dark, riding through the sagebrush as the sun came up. We came to this salt wash; it was just white—think white sand or the Bonneville Salt Flats. No sagebrush. Just salt, flat with little tiny ripples. I hadn’t cantered my horse for months before this. So we decided to now.
“We didn’t speak. We didn’t take pictures. We all just focused on riding. My depth perception was off, because the horizon and where the salt flats ended were all white. It was like being in a different world. It was nothing but hoofbeats.”
Ali Wunderman is a part-time writer and traveler, and a full-time dog lover. Follow her on Twitter at @aliwunderman for stories on food, life, and San Francisco.
Photographs via Ali Wunderman. Pony Express archival image via Getty.