Fred Kimball slipped off his worn sneakers and beige socks and picked up the 20-pound backpack he had already carried for some 35 miles.
He set out for the beach, wanting to feel the sand between his toes – just as he imagined the mailmen of the late 1800s did on the final leg of their grueling route from Palm Beach to Miami.
Honoring the “through rain, hail, sleet or snow” creed of mail carriers is what the annual Barefoot Mailman Historic Hiking Trail is all about. The trek revisited — from Pompano Beach to South Beach — honors the mailmen who walked 66 miles to deliver mail before a new post office opened and new roads were built.
Keeping alive the memory of the herculean effort is what has kept Kimball coming back to the annual event for decades.
“They had a lot of obstacles,” said Kimball, 57, who walked alongside Peter Lewis, 78, who has done the walk for 38 years. “This is just a little taste of it.”
The 49th annual walk, which is led by the Boy Scouts of America, South Florida Council, attracted more than 500 scouts and adults – ranging in agefrom 12 to 78.
“It honors a very unique period of South Florida history,” said Stephen Blair, who has coordinated the hike for about seven years.
For the young scouts, it’s also a test of endurance.
“The boys learn how to be more self-sufficient, they learn teamwork and it teaches them about goal achievement, as well as basic scouting skills,” Blair said.
The walk began at 5:30 a.m. Saturday at the east end of Atlantic Boulevard in Pompano Beach.
The group walked all day, camped overnight at Haulover Park and then gathered at Lummus Park on South Beach Sunday before taking off for the last stretch.
Some of the younger Cub scouts joined in for the second day of the walk.
Robert Goodin, 15, sat barefoot “giving his feet a rest,” as they waited to get to the finish line. A member of Troop 457 out of Palmetto Bay, Robert said the walk was tough, especially where the sand was soft.
“It’s definitely challenge,” said the teenager, who weighs about 100 pounds – and carried about 40 pounds of gear.
In the days of the barefoot mailman, letter carriers faced challenges like snakes and alligators; inlets where they needed dinghies to get across; and they had to live off the land.
The scouts faced challenges like blisters and sunburns. They also had to carry all their food and sleeping gear.
Blair said only a few dropped out.
One was Garry Alan Taylor Sr. Taylor started out with his son and grandson to make the trek as three generations, but had to stop after about 12 miles because of circulation issues.
But Garry Alan Taylor Jr. and his 12-year-old son Garry Alan Taylor III completed the walk together.
“He did great,” Garry Alan Taylor Jr. said of his son, who came as part of Troop 247 out of Palm Springs North. “He was in front of me the whole time.”
The first South Florida hike, led by scoutmaster John Sherwood, was held in 1964, and covered 50 miles. It was later reduced to nearly 36 miles.
Sherwood began the hike after he read Theodore Pratt’s book The Barefoot Mailman, which described the real barefoot mailmen’s 66-mile route.
Each walker carries a letter, which is then placed in a mailbag.
The letter, which is sent back to the walker, tells the story of James Hamilton, who was one men who walked the route.
Hamilton’s route took him about three days; he usually lived on oysters, turtle eggs and oranges.
On Oct. 11, 1887, Hamilton’s mail pouch and clothing were found, but not his body. They mystery was never solved.
Legend has it that he took off his clothes and left the mailbag behind to swim across to get his boat, which floated to the other side.
But no one knows what really happened to Hamilton.
So in his memory — and the other men who braved the treacherous route — the walk began.