At 10 a.m. Wednesday, three riders set off from the corner of Second and J streets in Old Sacramento, their horses treading the same route that the riders of the Pony Express used a century and a half ago.
To honor the mail carriers of 1860 and 1861, the National Pony Express Association conducts an annual "re-ride" event. The organization's members travel the historic route carrying commemorative letters in the traditional mail pouch – the mochila – to St. Joseph, Mo.
Last year's re-ride concluded at the Pony Express Plaza in Old Sacramento, so this year, it kicked off at the plaza, headed toward Missouri. At the pre-ride ceremony, the first riders were sworn in using most of the original Pony Express oath. The riders promised not to "use profane language," to "drink no intoxicating liquors," and not to "quarrel or fight with any other associate."
Each stretch of the 1,966-mile journey lasts for at least a mile and a half but doesn't exceed four miles, with varying levels of difficulty. Nighttime and mountain rides are harder, and combinations of the two make for the most demanding treks. That means California riders have the biggest challenge going over uneven Sierra trails without the sun to guide them.
"When you're riding as hard as you can through tunnels at night, that's when you know you got to really put your trust in the animal," said Dan Ditrich, one of this year's first set of riders. He and his two sons, Walker and Tim, had the opportunity to ride together to celebrate the family's multigenerational participation in the NPEA.
And it's not just the Ditrichs. There are several families who joined the association, as the passion of one family member for the Pony Express often pulls in others.
"I joined because of my husband. I got caught up in the excitement of the organization," said Melba Leal, a member since 1985 and the first female rider in 1990.
While the NPEA attracts new members every year, there are people who have been involved for decades. Rich Tatman, president of the NPEA California Division, said that some members will get their 35-year badges this year.
So in reliving the colorful history of the Pony Express, the NPEA creates a new story every year. This year's story is expected to conclude at 10 a.m. June 23 in St. Joseph, Mo.