National Geographic : 1980 Jul
I mulled Paul's premise concerning Slade, and a pattern of character found focus in my mind: All chief figures in the Pony Express story-from Majors to Slade to Buffalo Bill-were types undismayed by quick trig gers or long odds. In a word, they had grit. Don't Look for an Early Spring From Bridgeport west, the Great Plains give way to buttes and spires and mesas and finally to the thrustings of the Rocky Moun tains. For the pony rider this geographic graduation was indexed by familiar land marks: blocky Courthouse Rock, the 325 foot spire of Chimney Rock, table-topped Scotts Bluff, horizon-held Laramie Peak. By the time I reached Fort Laramie, today a national historic site, I had mushed through two snows, and a third was a-brewing. I would defer travel farther west until spring, an option not open to pony riders. In May I headed for Wyoming's South Pass, where the riders crested the Continen tal Divide, but was turned back by the sea son's worst blizzard. I asked a grizzled native when spring could be expected, and his reply was profound: "We only have two seasons here-winter and July." I didn't wait for July, but wheeled back to South Pass on June 7. Itopped the divide in a sleety barrage that was erasing the Wind River peaks from the skyline. Descending below the fury, I stopped for a breather, not far from where a monument marks "the parting of the ways," with one trail heading for Oregon, the other for Cali fornia over the route of the pony riders. Nearby I saw a small station wagon and be side it a young couple standing, in earnest embrace. "We're celebrating our survival," the man said, pointing back at the snow whipped pass. "When the car began to slow down going downhill, even when I gave it the gas, I knew we were in trouble." South Pass country is still short on roads and people, and so I was delighted to discov er an experienced guide in Charley Wilson, son of Pony Express rider Nick Wilson. In younger days Charley had been a profes sional hunter in the area, and now he guided me along the lonely pony trail. I exulted in the great grassy sweeps of hills, still home to wild horses and thousands of antelope. And we cautiously negotiated half a dozen marshy fords, Charley explaining it was no problem at all to get a car stuck-but sometimes a lengthy problem to get it out. What was the longest you were ever stuck? I asked. Two weeks, he replied. Our talk drifted to the life and deeds of his father, Elijah Nicholas Wilson. When Nick was a boy in frontier Utah, he ran away and lived for two years with the Shoshone tribe of Washakie, becoming that chief's foster brother. When the Pony Express began, Nick, 18, signed on as a rider. The horses he rode were memorable for their orneriness. Later he wrote: "Generally just as soon as the hostler could lead them in and out of the stable without getting his PONYEXPRESSSTABLESMUSEUM IIVNG LINK to history, Charley Wilson (facingpage) shares stories he heardfrom his father, Nick Wilson (above). When the Indian war flared, Pony Express rider Nick, then 18, helped fight off attacks and defend corrals, and almost died when an arrow lodged in his forehead;in later years he usually wore a hat, even indoors, to hide the scar.