Walking shoeless on Miami’s South Beach sounds like a photo op during a vacation. But for 450-plus Scouts and Scouters, the experience is far from a beach holiday. Their bare feet striped with duct tape, moleskin and other scraps of makeshift blister prevention, the hikers dodge sharp seashells and rocks as they walk along the hot sand.
These tired walkers are only a mile away from completing their two-day journey that started 35 miles north on the eastern coast of Florida. For the boys and adult leaders — who make up about one-third of the walkers — taking off their boots is optional, but it’s considered a final salute to the honorary subject of the weekend event: mail carriers each known as the Barefoot Mailmen.
These men delivered letters and goods along a route from Palm Beach to Miami during the late 1800s, before roads connected the cities. The mailmen, who often walked barefoot along the hardened sands of the coast, used their navigation skills, athleticism and bravery to journey into uninhabited wilderness. They walked alone for days, used rowboats to cross water inlets, fished for their food and slept beneath the stars, taking about a week to complete the round-trip journey. “They might not have been Scouts, but they serve as an example of very skilled outdoorsmen,” says hikemaster Steve Blair Sr. from Kendall, Fla.
The South Florida Council recognizes the similarities between the Scouting program and skills employed by the mailmen with an annual hike retracing a segment of the historical route. A 35-mile journey — which begins the first Saturday of February — not only provides the council with a way to celebrate local history, but also challenges units with the training required for boys to successfully complete the course.
Thanks to the council’s 51 [as of 2015] years of hosting the hike, a tight-knit camaraderie and tradition flourishes among both youth and adult Scouters who return every year for another successful walk.
At 5:30 on Saturday morning, in a parking lot near Pompano Beach, the first wave of hikers sets off before the sun rises. Because the hike attracts so many Scouts from across Florida, the groups are staged in sets of about 60 to 80 walkers with each wave starting every 30 minutes to help keep the sidewalks less crowded.
Instead of marshland unpopulated by humans (but inhabited by plenty of alligators), hikers now walk along busy roads and paved boardwalks crowded with tourists. “The mailman didn’t have to worry about obeying traffic laws,” says chaplain Peter Zies, as he holds out an arm to stop the Scouts trailing behind him from crossing a busy intersection.
Zies, a leader of Troop 854 from Lake Mary, Fla., first attempted the Barefoot Mailman hike as a Scout in 1979. “I didn’t train properly, and I wasn’t able to finish,” he says. He spent years remembering this missed accomplishment. “It wasn’t until I was involved in Scouting with my son that I decided to attempt the hike again, but that time I trained,” he says of his first hike completion in 2004.
Since then, he returns with a group of boys from Troop 854 every year — including his now 20-year-old son, Zach, who’s finished the hike six times. Zies has a total of 11 hike completions. “It’s become a rite of passage,” he says. “It gives us a goal to set every year, and we work hard to train for this goal.”
Training hikes in each unit’s respective hometown start with a shorter distance, such as 5 miles, with increasing mileage to help Scouts build stamina. These training exercises typically top out at about 20 miles, readying the boys (and leaders) for the first day of the Barefoot, a 23.5-mile walk.
Not only do Scouts train to be physically fit, they also refine their packing skills. Each participant must complete the hike carrying everything he or she might need during the journey, just like the mailmen. Except, unlike the mailmen (who carried small knapsacks with just the essentials), modern-day Scouts carry specialized backpacks, shelter and high-tech cooking equipment. Water is provided at stops along the route.
Packing for the hike tests a Scout’s ability to be prepared for anything he might need along the way — a lesson that leaders like Zies say remains at the heart of their troop’s goals. “The fact that this hike is urban — versus in the backcountry — doesn’t mean the boys can’t learn some of those same lessons. It’s an accessible, low-budget way to challenge the boys and still teach them those principal skills of Scouting.”
The mailman kept his bag light because he was also charged with carrying a large pack of mail destined for his final destination. To keep this tradition alive, the Scouts also take turns carrying a mailbag. “They become the Barefoot Mailman when they carry the bag,” says Blair, who has completed 25 hikes and served as hikemaster for 10 years.
Each mailbag carries letters containing historical facts about the walk. “The post office hand-cancels all of the letters and delivers them to the boys’ houses through the regular mail. Inside the envelope is a letter that explains the purpose of the hike and what was done over the weekend.”
By late afternoon, the temperature spikes to 82 degrees. Assistant Scoutmaster Michael Wengrenovich, who wears a wide-brimmed hat and dark sunglasses, stops for a moment on the Highway A1A sidewalk to wipe sweat from his brow. “Don’t forget to keep drinking water,” he reminds some boys who walk past, their metal hiking poles clinking on the sidewalk.
Wengrenovich, from Coral Springs, Fla., serves as section two’s leader, keeping the group on route and on time and reminding leaders to push the importance of hydration. He’s just one of an army of volunteers who keep hikers safe and organized during the event.
Each section has dedicated drivers who carry water to stops along the route. Volunteers provide medical support to the hikers, too. “We call upon the local EMS Explorer post, so it’s another tie-in to local Scouting support,” Blair explains.
But perhaps the most important volunteers are those who ferry the hikers across the Intercoastal Waterway at the Port Everglades Inlet near Fort Lauderdale. Coast Guard Auxiliary members — many of whom are Scouters who have hiked the Barefoot — steer motorboats through the channel, dropping off hikers where the trail picks up on the other side of the waterway. The mailmen of the 1800s would have been stunned at the hikers’ modern-day view: seven towering cruise ships lined up and waiting on the next wave of passengers — some of them carrying 5,000 people apiece.
After the short rest aboard the boats, the hikers continue south, arriving at the day’s final destination around 6 p.m. Standing in the grass of Haulover Beach Park — among a sea of tents — Wengrenovich says he’s relieved his boys have made it through a tough day. “I always say this hike is far more difficult than a trek at Philmont. The heat and humidity is incredibly tough, and there’s no easing into the mileage. Today was no exception,” the 12-year hike veteran says.
With more than 450 Scouts and Scouters walking through public beaches and roadways, the Barefoot Mailman remains one of South Florida Council’s most public appearances in the community. That’s why all participants wear Class A uniforms to help identify the group to onlookers (and hike organizers, too).
On Sunday, the presence of Scouts along popular Highway A1A grows by more than 180 Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and leaders joining the walkers in a shortened version of the hike called the Big Toe. “The 11.5-mile walk is still a challenge for many of the younger boys. It tests them. But more than anything, it gets them hooked and they can’t wait to turn 12 and hike their first Barefoot,” Blair says.
No one embodies the multigenerational tradition of hiking the Barefoot more than Scouter Fred Kimball. Kimball was a youth when he first walked to Miami with his troop. The 57-year-old completed his 44th hike this year. He also took over as hikemaster this year, following Blair’s retirement. “I want to make it to 50 years of finishing the hike,” he says as he walks with stiff legs on Sunday morning. “It tests you. The mileage and the heat, they are tough to battle.”
At the hike’s final destination, Lummus Park near Miami’s South Beach, the weary boys sprawl out in the grass and sit around trees with their feet elevated up the trunks. The boys rally and collect about 50 American flags and unit flags for a final shuffle down sandy South Beach to the real attraction: hot pizzas and cold drinks to celebrate their success.
Exhausted, Zies says he and his troop — along with many other veterans — will be back next year to do it all over again. “We made it, yes. We’re tired and hot. I imagine this is what the mailman felt like, except he would be gearing up to walk home. I think a car ride home sounds much better,” he laughs.