The Pony Express is riding again - carrying mail to residents of four communities in California's Sierras cut off from their post office by a massive landslide that has blocked US Highway 50.
The 40-mile ride from the US Post Office at Pollock Pines east to Little Norway is a far cry from the 1,966 miles from Sacramento to St. Joseph, Mo., covered by the original Pony Express in 1860-61. But the taxing route lies at the 6,000- to 7,000-foot level near Echo Summit, just west of Lake Tahoe.
Volunteer post riders, most of them members of the Pony Express Association, don't have to contend with ''hostiles'' or scorching desert, but trails are soggy and clogged with downed trees, and the snow is up to 20 feet deep.
Some 20 riders are involved, with 9 or 10 sharing each day's trip by riding stretches of five to seven miles with a ''mochila'' (saddlebag) of first-class mail. The service began April 15, when 366 pieces of mail were delivered to Pacific House (a motel on the site of a former Pony Express way station), Kyburz , Twin Bridges, and Little Norway, near Echo Summit. It will continue, six days a week, until the highway is reopened, says Walter Harmon, operator of the Sportsman's Hall in Pollock Pines and publicity chairman of the eight-state Pony Express Association.
A Postal Service truck takes bulkier mail to the four communities via a 115 -mile alternate route using Interstate 80.
On April 9 a massive landslide pushed across US 50, blocking a one-mile stretch of the road and creating a natural dam behind which a sizable lake soon formed. The lake is slowly draining, and California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) crews are working to stabilize the huge mass of earth, rock, and debris. Caltrans spokesmen say the highway will probably be rebuilt right over the slide, since removing it would be tremendously costly and time-consuming.
As it is, Highway 50 is expected to be closed for at least another month, much to the chagrin of resort operators in the Lake Tahoe area.
''We've got the volunteers and the enthusiasm to keep the mail moving,'' says Mr. Harmon, who admits the road blockage has presented a timely opportunity to publicize his group's campaign to have the Pony Express route designated as a National Historic Trail.
In June the association will stage a long-planned publicity stunt - a Sacramento-to-St. Joseph reenactment of the famous trek made by intrepid young riders in the 18 months before transcontinental telegraph service made the Pony Express obsolete. On June 3 a packet of mail will be put on a boat in San Francisco for the trip upriver to Sacramento. There the mail will be placed in a mochila, and the first rider will begin the 10-day, 1,900-mile relay to St. Joseph.
Governors of the eight states traversed by the old Pony Express trail are joining the 425 association members to press for National Trail designation. ''We don't want their (the federal government's) money,'' says Harmon. ''We just want the trail designation.''
The association plans to purchase and maintain new markers ''at all the main stops'' along the trail, he says, in addition to the numerous plaques and monuments that have already been placed at some of the 190 way stations.