Out here, miles from nowhere, one doesn't need much of an imagination to visualize "Pony Bob" Haslam galloping by on his horse while being pursued by Indians.
As the story goes, Haslam rode a record 380-mile round trip from central Nevada to Lake Tahoe past burned-out Pony Express stations during the outbreak of the Paiute Indian War in May 1860.
Riders typically rode 75 miles, stopping at stations every 10 or 15 miles for a fresh horse.
Fearful of Indians, a relief rider even paid Pony Bob $50 if he would take his ride rather than stopping to rest at Buckland's station, another Pony Express stop.
Bob took that offer and rode on, past the burned-out Cold Springs station and the station at Sand Springs, 20 miles east of Fallon, before resting for a few hours. Then he climbed on a fresh horse and rode all the way back to his home station near Lake Tahoe.
A legend in bravery was born.
But Pony Bob, "Buffalo Bill" Cody, "Bronco" Charlie Miller and other braggarts who delighted readers of yesteryear with their Pony Express exploits were fakers, according to today's historians.
This month , hundreds of riders from Missouri to California will hear Pony Bob's and other stories of glory -- some true and some not so true -- as they again carry the mail by horseback to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express.
Some will have Pony Bob on their minds as they pass the remains of stations at Fort Churchill, Buckland's, Sand Springs and Cold Springs in their ride across Northern Nevada. Those stations near U.S. Highway 50 remain readily accessible to motorists. Some are a mile or so off the main road, but signs tell tourists where to stop and walk.
"Bronco Charlie, Pony Bob and Cody (who was only 14 when the Pony Express operated) all knew each other," said Joe Nardone, historian for the Pony Express Trails Association. "They knew the truth, and they got their 15 minutes of fame."
Nardone, a retired Southern California real estate developer, has ridden the entire 1,966-mile Pony Express trail from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif.
He also walked the trail across Nevada and installed posts to mark the locations of Pony Express stations.
Nardone said mail was carried by horseback around the country into the 1920s, and Haslam might have been a rural mail postman around Virginia City.
But almost anyone who carried mail by horseback in those days would brag of being a Pony Express rider, he said.
"We are celebrating the 150th anniversary of what has become kind of an American whopper," said Christopher Corbett, author of "Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express."
Nevada is the best place to celebrate the whopper on this sesquicentennial anniversary year, because visitors can see the remains of several Pony Express stations, according to guidebooks.
Unlike in other states where growing populations have obliterated most signs of the Old West, riders in Nevada still can find the Pony Express trail and stop at actual stations.
At Sand Springs, where signs warn of Great Basin rattlesnakes, are the rock walls of what was a sizable Pony Express station. A tiny room housed the stationmaster and riders. On the other side of the rock wall are two large stables that could have held at least a dozen horses. One quickly realizes the horse was the most important element in the operation of the Pony Express.
Sir Richard Burton, a prominent English writer who crossed the United States by stagecoach, recalled his night at Sand Springs in October 1860:
"Sand Springs deserved its name Â the land is cumbered here and there with drifted ridges of the finest sand, sometimes 200 feet high and shifting before every gale. The water near this vile hole was thick and stale with sulphury salts. The station house was no unfit object on such a scene -- roofless and chairless, filthy and squalid, with a smoky fire in one corner, the walls open to every wind, and the interior full of dust. Of the employees, all loitered and sauntered about (like lazy) cretins except one, who lay on the ground crippled and apparently dying by the fall of a horse upon his breast bone."
Thanks to the sand that Burton abhorred, the Sand Springs station is surprisingly intact.
Through more than half of the last 150 years, it was covered by sand blown off nearby Sand Mountain. In 1976, an archaeology class at the University of Nevada, Reno uncovered the Pony Express station right where it was supposed to be.
"It's just history," said Joan Nitz, a Cleveland, Tenn., resident who had been stopping at a lot of historical sites, including Pony Express stations, on a trip home after wintering in Alaska.
She and her husband, John, will remember Sand Springs for the jackrabbits and lizards they encountered on the walk to the station.
Like Nardone, Corbett had to do a lot of digging in old journals and newspapers to separate truth from fiction about the Pony Express.
There is a good reason why Corbett, a longtime Associated Press reporter who now teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, entitled his 2003 history, "Orphans Preferred."
That is a reference to the advertisement for Pony Express riders that supposedly ran in newspapers in 1860:
"Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 per week."
Sounds great, but it is balderdash.
Corbett proved that ad was concocted decades after the last Pony Express rider handed over his "mochilla," or satchel of mail, at the station in Sacramento in November 1861.
In its 19-month existence, the Pony Express proved to be a financial disaster for the Russell, Majors & Waddell freight company that founded it, although it charged the ungodly price of $5 per half-ounce letter.
The final Pony Express rider rode into Sacramento just a few days after the first transcontinental telegraph line was completed.
Many people remember the Pony Express, yet no one celebrates the completion of the telegraph, the television or other modern technological breakthroughs.
More than 600 riders on horseback will participate in the annual reride from June 6 to June 26.
Nardone and Corbett have been booked solid for speaking engagements all along the Pony Express trail.
Pony Express memorabilia is a hot item. An envelope with a Pony Express cancellation sold for $460,000 at a New York auction in 2008.
"One reason it is remembered is because it is a heroic memory of the Old West," Corbett said. "It appeals to people because it is a benign memory. There is no slaughter of buffalo or decimation of Indians. The Pony carries no baggage. People who don't know English know of the Pony Express."
Despite the fakers, Nardone said the Pony Express riders were brave men worthy of remembrance.
Six died during the 19 months of the Pony Express. Three were killed in Nevada during the Paiute Indian War and three died of natural causes, if freezing in Nebraska is a natural cause.
The riders were said to ride like the wind, equipped only with a Bible, Bowie knife, Colt pistol and knapsack of mail. They were supposed to be men of good moral character.
Old illustrations show them leaping from tired horses to fresh ones, something they did every 10 to 15 miles to reach the next station down the line as quickly as possible.
In the summer, they would make the trip from St. Joseph to Sacramento and sometimes to San Francisco in 10 to 12 days and in 14 to 16 days in the winter, twice as fast as the stagecoaches.
The "Pony," according to Nardone, was the Internet of its time. Much of its mail consisted of news items sent to newspapers in San Francisco.
The newspapers would put a "by Pony Express" woodcut under stories carried by the riders.
"That meant it was the most current news," Nardone said.
San Franciscans learned of Abraham Lincoln winning the presidential election in November 1860 in just seven days, in part because of the Pony Express. They also read his inaugural address and learned who won battles in the Civil War in record time.
It wasn't just the Pony Express, but the expansion of the telegraph that contributed to the quick transmission of the news.
Throughout the short and unprofitable history of the Pony Express, telegraph lines were being sketched across the country, often following the same trail as the riders.
By the time of the 1860 election, the telegraph had reached Carson City and Fort Kearney, Neb. That shortened the mileage the Pony Express riders had to go with the latest news.
Corbett attributes the lasting fame of the Pony Express to Cody, whose Wild West shows in the late 1800s and early 1900s thrilled millions of people around the world. He included a Pony Express act that sometimes starred Pony Bob in his shows.
Mark Twain also deserves credit for preserving the Pony Express.
Corbett noted Twain saw a Pony Express rider while traveling west in a stagecoach from Missouri to join his brother in Carson City in 1861.
Although Twain observed the rider for no more than two minutes while in Nebraska, Corbett said 11 years later he wrote in great detail about that sighting in a chapter in "Roughing It."
"Presently the (stagecoach) driver exclaims: 'Here he comes!,'" Twain wrote. "Every neck is stretched further, and every eye straining wider. Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky, and it is plain it moves. Well, I should think so! In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling -- sweeping toward us nearer and nearer -- growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined -- nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of hoofs comes faintly to the ear -- another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of a rider's hand, but no reply, and a man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm!"
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901.