SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In the middle of the night on Aug. 26, Steve Pool will pull on a red shirt and blue jeans, wake his horse, Bud, and make his way to the North Fork of the American River near here.
The pair will wait patiently in the dark until 2:30 a.m., when another rider will hand Pool a leather pouch of letters. Then they'll ride off into the night for all of four miles until they reach the next member of the relay.
Pool, 57, is one of hundreds of horse enthusiasts and history buffs who will spend 10 days transporting mail along the original Pony Express route, covering 1,966 miles from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento.
The 850-member National Pony Express Association has been re-enacting the famed letter-carrying service each year for more than three decades.
"It gives me a nostalgic chill," said Pool, who owns a roofing company.
Every summer, more than 600 riders don clothes similar to what the original riders wore and relay letters across the country. A letter can be mailed via the volunteer riders for the 1860 price of $5.
The group has grown so rapidly that although the original Pony Express riders rode 75 miles apiece, the modern-day participants are allowed stints of just 2 to 10 miles.
And soon, the total time the riders have spent re-enacting the route will exceed the entire tenure of the legendary mail service. The Pony Express started in 1860 and ended in bankruptcy after 19 months.
Tom Crews, a professional photographer who has belonged to the historical group for 20 years, said the Pony Express' brief history "blows everyone's minds" because of its impact on the postal system and how significantly it figures in history textbooks.
"It can be credited for keeping California in the Union, it brought the news of Lincoln's inaugural address, and it cut the delivery (time) of mail from the East by one-half," he said.
The re-enactment is a "high-stress operation" that requires the utmost dedication and focus, Crews said. The riders are required to take an oath adapted from an almost identical 19th century Pony Express vow, pledging to abstain from alcohol and profanity and to refrain from "quarreling" with one another during the re-enactment.
Although the "re-ride" avoids the cold and snow that tested the original riders in the winter, the summer can still present weather challenges. "Coming through the Midwest, there are horrendous thunderstorms," Crews said. "One year, the mud was up to the riders' hips in Nebraska."
Riders make every effort to mimic the apparel, route and lifestyle of their 19th century counterparts, but they don't look a whole lot like them. Legend has it that orphans were specifically solicited for the Pony Express. The historical association discounts that as myth, but the original crew nonetheless was almost certainly younger overall. The re-enactors range from teenagers to a man who rode every year until he died at age 90.
The gender makeup has also changed. "As far as we know, all original riders were male," Crews said.
Now it's about 50-50, he said, even though women were banned from the ride until 1990.
Old Town Sacramento is the final stop, where the mail is turned over to the U.S. Postal Service. This year, riders will arrive Aug. 27 to cheering crowds.
While the riders look forward to the fans who meet them in Sacramento, rider Melba Ray-Leal, who led the fight to include women in the ride, said there's also a thrill about riding through the wilderness.
"Especially in the backcountry, it's just the rider and the horse -- and that's what makes it so exciting," she said. "It's a team effort and an adrenaline rush. Once you've done it, you're hooked."
E-mail Natalie Orenstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.