Cowboy and journalist Will Grant visited Westminster May 3 to speak to the community in an all-school assembly about his horseback journey following the 2,000-mile route of the Pony Express. The experience is captured in his recently published book, “The Last Ride of the Pony Express” (Little, Brown and Company). While at Westminster, the Colorado native also visited English classes to talk with students about adventure writing and eco-writing.
Grant, who is the brother of Newell Grant ’99, Westminster’s director of advancement, traveled the entirety of the Pony Express route with his two horses, Chicken Fry and Badger. The frontier mail service spanning the American West was in operation during the 1860s and only ran for 18 months. It required riders to carry mail on a grueling schedule between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif., through a vast and mostly uninhabited wilderness.
In his book, Grant writes that he undertook the epic journey as a “large scale 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.”
While other authors have written extensively about Pony Express, none have ever taken on the challenge of riding the route on horseback themselves. Pony Express riders did not keep journals about the trek, and there are few details to illustrate what it was really like to complete the journey.
To recreate the experience, Grant had to gain permission from landowners on the private property through which much of the original trail runs into Wyoming where it traverses public land, and he had to secure campsites along the way from ranchers and farmers where he and his horses could overnight. Already an expert horseman, Grant was prepared for long days in the saddle, covering up to 25 miles a day with his pack horse trailing behind him.
The original Pony Express riders would ride one horse 15 miles to a station, then get a new horse and continue riding, completing the journey in roughly 10 days. The fastest delivery in the history of the Pony Express was seven days and 17 hours.
It took Grant five months to complete the journey. Horses at a walk travel about 3 miles per hour. En route, Grant had to slough through deep mud, torrential downpours, parched tumbleweed desert land and he had to fend off a wild stallion and sidestep rattlesnakes before he reached Sacramento, where he ended his ride at the Pony Express monument.
During the ride, he observed how the ecosystem of the West has been forever changed by invasive species and human intervention. But he also was heartened by people he met along the way and by his own resilience.
“The hospitality of people gave me faith in humanity,” he said. And he learned that when it got rough, if he put his head down and plowed through it, it would get better. His book includes encounters with the ranchers, farmers, historians and business owners, creating an intimate portrait of how the West has evolved from the rough-and-tumble 19th century to the present day.
For his next riding adventure, Grant says he is exploring riding horseback on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route connecting China to the West, which covers roughly 4,000 miles across some of the world's most formidable landscapes, including the Gobi Desert and the Pamir Mountains.
You can see a video of his talk here.