ST. HELENA — They’ve endured personal ups and downs, their walking pace has slowed down a bit, and their children have grown up, graduated and become parents themselves.
But for a group of St. Helena women, the one constant over the last 31 years has been their walks around town, starting in front of the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company every morning, except for the occasional holiday or heavy thunderstorm.
Sandy Herrick and Sylvia Pestoni started the tradition in January 1987, and Bev Popko joined soon after that. Their group has since grown to 14, with five of them older than the age of 80.
Whoever shows up at Oak and Adams leaves promptly at the appointed time, which fluctuates between 7 and 7:30 a.m. depending on the time of year. They head up to Main Street, always looking forward to Woodhouse Chocolates’ window display. They often see people they know along the way, but if not that’s OK – their walk is just getting started and there are sure to be plenty of adventures to come.
Judie Rogers invited Paula Young to join the group in 2003, shortly after Young had undergone treatment for breast cancer.
“They saw that I was kind of in trouble,” Young said. “They were wonderful. They kept me active, they gave me a reason to be here – I had friends, so many friends!”
As they head up Spring Street and onto lower Sylvaner, they keep an eye out for their favorite dogs (Hi Olive, Chelsea and Lucky). They pass the house where the late Steve and Pat Crowe used to live, and remember how their teenage daughters liked to lounge in the front yard in their bathing suits.
They pass the fire hydrant where someone always used to leave a penny. Every morning they’d pick it up, and the next morning a new one would be there waiting for them.
They reminisce about the people they have encountered over the years, some of whom they know by name and others only by nickname.
They recall “Cranky” (self-explanatory), “The Stick Lady” (when they finally got up the courage to ask her, she said she was collecting them for kindling) and the hunky shirtless jogger they call “Be Still My Beating Heart.”
“This has changed my life,” Valerie Presten said. “We’ve become great friends. We all get along. … We all have an interesting story. Even if people don’t feel like they have an interesting life, they actually do.”
Their route and pace have changed over time, from 3.7 miles in 45 minutes in the early days to 2 miles in an hour on a recent Tuesday.
On Farmers’ Market Fridays they start at Crane Park and head up Sulphur Springs Avenue past the White Barn, down Vallejo Street and back to the market. During the market’s off-season, they’ll sometimes spend Friday morning hiking past the library to the Napa River.
But while the route has varied, the rules of acceptable conversation haven’t changed much: no to politics, religion or gossip, yes to family news, current events, cooking and fun vacations, like Sarah Galbraith’s recent trip to see family in Myanmar. There used to be a strict prohibition on talk of bodily functions and malfunctions, but that went by the wayside as they got older and the topic became unavoidable.
There’s always talk about what people have done with their front yards and gardens: the good, the bad and the ugly. Sometimes the walkers joke about leaving Post-It notes critiquing the most unkempt yards, but they’re much too polite to actually do it – except for one time when they left a teasing one in front of Herrick’s house while she was away.
When they pass Presten’s home she mentions how her husband Earle grew up in the same house, and the house on the other side of the vineyard was home to the Sorensen family, including Edy, a one-time member of the walking group who had to bow out for health reasons, and her son John, future St. Helena fire chief.
When Earle Presten and John Sorensen were boys, Sorensen would shoot a bottle rocket across the vineyard toward the Presten house. If Presten responded with a volley of his own, Sorensen would take it as a signal to come over to play.
On lower Sylvaner they pick up one of their longtime members, Phoebe Ellsworth. Health problems prevent her from joining them on the full walk, but she accompanies them down Riesling Way to Madrona Avenue before turning back.
“There’s been a lot of good friendship and fun – and exercise,” Ellsworth said.
When they pass the tree that the late Mary Novak used to decorate at the corner of Madrona and Hudson, they remember the big red broken heart that appeared in it the morning after she died.
The women are friends apart from their daily walks, celebrating holidays together, taking occasional field trips to San Francisco and exchanging birthday cards. The cards they give each other now are nicer than the teasingly nasty ones they used to exchange, but there’s a growing consensus that the mean ones were more fun.
“We should go back to doing those,” one of them says, and there are nods and murmurs of assent.
They arrive back at the Roastery at 8:30 a.m., exactly an hour after they left. They don’t need to make plans for the next morning. 7:30 sharp. It’s understood.