Songdog Diary: 66 Stories from the Roadby Michael Wallis, Carol Stanton (Illustrator), Suzanne Fitzgerald Wallis, Suzanne F. Wallis
After a lifetime of following Route 66 and the other trails that crisscross the great American West, bestselling author, Michael Wallis, (Route 66: The Mother Road) and Suzanne Fitzgerald Wallis have accumulated a wealth of stories.
- Council Oak Books
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1st ed
- Product dimensions:
- 7.78(w) x 7.81(h) x 0.95(d)
Read an Excerpt
A Few Good Men
Along with a few good women, what the U.S. Marine Corps is always looking for, and what the legendary Pony Express found in the reckless boys recruited to deliver the mail.
* * *
Young skinny wiry fellows not over eighteen.
Must be expert riders
willing to risk death daily.
Orphans preferred. Wages $25 per week.
As we traverse the towering concrete and glass canyons of New York, flashes of color whiz faster than shooting stars past our taxi windows. We realize they are not comets, but young couriers bearing documents and parcels. They speed down the avenues and boulevards on bicycles and roller skates, weaving in and out of traffic with the finesse of Comanche warriors riding like the wind.
Those fleet messengers we see today put us in mind of the daring Pony Express riders delivering mail between Saint Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, for nineteen months starting on April 3, 1860. Their speedy maneuvers out on the open plains evoked even more of a response from curious stagecoach passengers straining to catch a glimpse of one of the young riders going hell-bent for leather. Mark Twain described such a scene in Roughing It when he wrote:
We had a consuming desire, from the beginning, to see a pony-rider, but somehow or other all that passed us and all that met us managed to streak by us in the night, and so we heard only a whiz and a hail, and the swift phantom of the desert was gone before we could get our heads out of the windows. But now we were expecting one along every moment, and we would see him in broad daylight. Presently the driver exclaims: "Here he comes!"
Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky, and it is plain that it moves.... In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising nearer growing more and more defined nearer and nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our own upper deck, a wave of the rider's hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm!
So sudden is it all, and so like a flash of unreal fancy, that but for the flake of white foam left quivering and perishing on a mail-sack after the vision had flashed by and disappeared, we might have doubted whether we had seen any actual horse and man at all....
Organized by Russell, Majors and Waddell, an overland freight and coach-line service, the Pony Express undoubtedly will always remain one of the more memorable episodes in the history of the American frontier. Much of that fame comes from the bold messengers who galloped across the 1,966 miles of plains, mountains, and deserts to deliver the U.S. mail.
During the brief time the Pony Express managed to stay in business, the riders endured extreme elements and other perils while carrying almost thirty-five thousand pieces of mail and earning only $100 to $150 per month, plus room and board. Remarkably, only one rider was killed and one mail sack lost.
To keep their burden light, the riders usually carried nothing more than a trusty Colt revolver or two, and a knife. They kept their precious cargo between forty and ninety letters wrapped in oiled silk and crammed inside the pockets of a leather saddle cover, called a mochila (Spanish for "knapsack"). It was slung over the saddle and easily removed when the riders changed mounts at relay stations every fifteen miles along their path.
The company issued each young man a leather-bound bible and required him to sign an oath which read:
I hereby swear, before the great and living God, that during my engagement, and while I am an employee of Russell, Majors & Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language; that I will drink no intoxicating liquors; that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of this firm; and that in every respect, I will conduct myself honestly, faithful to my duties, and so direct my acts as to win the confidence of my employers. So help me God.
But even the Almighty could not keep the Pony Express alive. Although the method of mail delivery was fast and efficient, the price of operation was too costly. After losing more than $200,000, Russell, Majors and Waddell decided to discontinue the service. Most of the riders were not surprised. For a long time, they had been delivering progress reports to work crews erecting transcontinental telegraph poles. On October 26, 1861, just two days after the nation was linked by the "singing wires," the Pony Express officially ceased operations.
The trails worn across prairie and mountain have faded, and the old stables in Saint Joseph house the Pony Express Museum, where memories are stored. Still, the spirit of those nimble "pony boys" gallops to life every time our faithful postman tiptoes up the icy sidewalk or an express delivery truck screeches to a halt in front of our house or, from the corner of our eyes, we catch the blur of a courier hurtling down the streets of New York "like a belated fragment of a storm."
* * *
If Ansel Adams, a maestro of light and shadow with his camera, had taken only one photograph "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" we would still consider him one of our icons.
Certainly the best-known photograph of the many images he captured of the American West, the compelling "Moonrise" was taken on October 31, 1941, while Adams, his son Michael, and photographer Cedric Wright motored from Colorado to Carlsbad, New Mexico. The party was on U.S. 84 in the Chama River Valley about six miles north of Espanola, New Mexico, when Adams glanced to the left near the village of Hernandez and caught a glimpse of the rising autumn moon. As the moonlight played on the village graveyard, Adams slammed on the brakes and rushed to set up his eight-by-ten camera.
"The situation was desperate," Adams later wrote, "the low sun was trailing the edge of the clouds in the west, and shadow would soon dim the white crosses."
There was time to take only a single photograph. But that was enough.
Excerpted from Songdog Diary by Michael Wallis and Suzanne F. Wallis. Copyright © 1996 by Michael Wallis and Suzanne Fitzgerald Wallis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Michael Wallis is the bestselling author of Route 66, Billy the Kid, Pretty Boy, and David Crockett. He hosts the PBS series American Roads. He plays The Sheriff in the animated Pixar feature Cars. He lives with his wife in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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