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Calistoga resident Wally Abernathy walks the world

On Saturday, Calistoga resident Wally Abernathy, age 87, will reach his goal of walking the distance of the earth’s circumference measured at the equator – 24,901 miles. His mission, which started...

Wally Abernathy, age 78, walks the unmarked Calistoga route known to locals as 'the Loop' every day. | Photo by Clark James Mishler

CALISTOGA – On Saturday, Calistoga resident Wally Abernathy, age 87, will reach his goal of walking the distance of the earth’s circumference measured at the equator – 24,901 miles.

His mission, which started with a smaller, more attainable goal, began on May 27, 2005, when he was living in the Caribbean and challenged himself to walk 100 days in a row.

“I thought that would be too much,” Abernathy recalled. “When I got to 100 days, naturally, I said, maybe I can do 200. That seemed like an awful lot at the time. And then I just kept going until one day I just said, ‘I wonder if I can make it all the way around the world?’”

14 pairs of walking shoes and almost 19 years later, on April 6, two miles into his regular route, as he will reach his wife Nancy’s store, Blackbird, on Lincoln Avenue, the answer will be a resounding: yes.  

Due to the nature of his standard 3.5-mile loop, he’ll have to surpass the globe’s circumference by 1.5 miles in order to get home. He joked, “No way I’m continuing. I’ll take an Uber home or call my wife to pick me up.”

To put the feat in perspective, Saturday’s milestone achievement will have taken Abernathy 6,889 days to accomplish.

When he finishes his morning walk, at home, he’ll do what he has done every day – make a beeline straight to his computer to log his progress in a spreadsheet, which calculates the degrees of longitude he covers, east from Calistoga. It’s a meticulous process – he even tracks extra miles he’s walked and banks them, in the event he gets sick and is out of commission for a few days.

The Abernathys moved back to San Francisco from the Caribbean in 2008, and in 2009 they purchased their home in Calistoga. Walking, he said, was a great way to become familiar with the town.

“When I first started walking here, I was looking for a route, and pretty soon it became obvious that they’ve got this natural route,” Abernathy said of the circular, unmarked path many locals refer to as ‘the Loop.’ “It’s not designated or formalized in any sort of way, but it’s just kind of a natural way to go. Pretty soon, you see the same people on your walk almost every day.”

A fixture of his morning walk is a friendly encounter with Richard Hayman, who owns a barber shop on Lincoln Avenue. Hayman said he sees Abernathy almost daily, like clockwork. 

“He's a trooper, and a man of habit, shall we say,” Hayman said. “He's on his walk at a certain time of day, he goes to Cal Mart at the same time every day. You always know where he's going to be.”

Staying on track to walk the 6,889 consecutive days wasn’t without obstacles and injuries. Years ago, he was bitten by a dog and injured on one of his walks. Most recently, in January, he took a tumble that rerouted him off ‘the Loop,’ and over to the St. Helena Hospital where he ended up with five stitches across his forehead. 

“I landed right on my face,” Abernathy said of the fall. 

The next day, though, stitches and bandages on his head, he hit the trail, where as usual, he crossed paths with Hayman.

“It was just amazing, he was back at it the next day,” said Hayman. “I told him, thank God he hurt his face and not his legs.”

Just as a few stitches aren't enough to stop Abernathy from logging his miles, he also doesn't let travel get in his way. Turns out, he said, airports are a great place to get his walking in. 

In the last 19 years, in addition to walking the white sand beaches of the Caribbean, the Calistoga Loop and the hilly sidewalks of San Francisco, where he and his wife maintain a home, he has walked in dozens of other cities around the world including Cartagena, Havana, New Orleans, Normandy, Copenhagen and New York City.

His wife Nancy joked that his diligence to get his steps in doesn't always make him the most flexible travel companion. 

“He is tireless about it and he’s almost impossible to travel with,” she said. “I ask him, ‘Do you want to catch the 10 a.m. flight?’ He’ll say, ‘No, I can't catch that flight because I have to do my walk.”

Despite a full travel schedule and having lived in multiple cities over the last 20 years, Abernathy estimates he has walked about 75 percent of the 24,901-mile distance in Calistoga.

He credited his discipline to his upbringing and his Army service for instilling in him the benefits of a regimented and structured lifestyle, which were essential to him meeting his goal. He also admitted his stubbornness could be a factor.

Abernathy was raised in Louisville, Kentucky where he attended a military boarding school. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee before moving to California to join the Army, where he served two years of active duty before serving 15 years in the Army Reserve.

He worked at the Port of Oakland for 25 years and served as the port’s executive director for 13 of those years before moving to London, England to run the Bechtel Corporation’s aviation program. He then moved to the Caribbean for seven years to privatize an airport and oversee the construction of an airport terminal.  

Abernathy’s standard routine: He leaves his home on Foothill Boulevard at 9 a.m., and when he reaches the downtown stretch, he’ll stop at Blackbird to do some bookkeeping. Then he completes ‘the Loop’ and is home by 11 a.m. 

With his aspiration to walk around the world complete, Abernathy said he will now set his sights on new ambitions.  

“Now, what’s my new goal?” Abernathy pondered. “I don't know. We’ll have to figure that out.”

Asked what he would do on Sunday, April 7, the day after he achieves the milestone almost two decades in the making, he replied with a laugh, “I’m thinking of taking the day off. And then I’ll turn around and walk back.”