Here’s a quick quiz that will test your knowledge of geography.
If someone asks you to name as many countries as you can, how many can you come up with? Fifty? Maybe 75?
It’s not as easy as it sounds, but there is one man in Aspen who can name at least 175, because that’s how many countries he’s visited.
Johnny Walker just returned this past month from a visit to North Korea, marking the 175th country he’s been to.
Walker is originally from Dallas and made Aspen his home in 1993. He first visited the area in the late 1970s on a ski trip and, like so many people, fell in love with Aspen immediately.
A former restaurateur, Walker owned 28 restaurants, including the old Judge Bean’s in Aspen, which he ran for two years in the early 1980s, before retiring from the business.
“Judge Bean’s was a good restaurant,” Walker said. “But I didn’t like the rent or the offseason.”
He raised his daughters, Hailee and Bree, in Aspen, pays his taxes here and still calls it his home. As much as Walker still enjoys living in Aspen, he hasn’t been able to kick the travel bug since it bit him years ago.
The first country Walker visited was Cuba with his father when he was 15. The images from that trip will remain with Walker for the rest of his life.
Not only did he see showgirls dancing at the Tropicana resort, but he saw Ernest Hemingway gambling at a craps table.
“I didn’t know who he was until my dad pointed him out and explained a bit about him,” Walker said. “It was a very glamorous place, especially with Hemingway there.”
After attending North Texas State and Louisiana State University, where he played a year of college baseball, he became a traveling salesman for 10 years. As he went from state to state on business, he began to realize how much he enjoyed traveling.
During that same time, he began dating a woman who worked for an airline and was a ski instructor at Squaw Valley, Calif.
“We ended up skiing all over North America and Europe,” Walker said. “She was an outstanding skier, and I had to really improve to keep up with her.”
One of those ski trips was to Aspen, beginning his love affair with the Roaring Fork Valley. He enjoyed the area so much, he took a year off from work to be a ski bum in Aspen.
“I still love it here and always will,” he said.
All the traveling he did as a salesman and a skier led Walker to his next journey, which was to open his own restaurant. After eating at so many, he figured he knew a thing or two about the business, and he returned to Dallas in 1973 to open his first restaurant, H.P. Cassidy, with his friend and partner, ex-NFL quarterback Craig Morton.
The venture was a success and gave Walker the financial support to open other restaurants and to continue traveling.
He married his wife, Jan, in 1979 and kept returning to Aspen to ski.
Ten years later while visiting Aspen, two friends approached Walker and asked him if he was interested in joining them on a trip to the North Pole.
They made it to the top of the world successfully, and later that same year, the same two men invited him to take a trip to the South Pole. With young children and holidays approaching, Walker passed on going but told himself he eventually would make the journey.
It was 1997 when he finally decided to make the South Pole trip, but daughter Hailee, who was 13 at the time, wanted to go. Walker agreed and, despite the many hardships and extreme weather, made it to the pole.
“To this day, Hailee is the youngest woman to reach the South Pole,” Walker said. “She proved how tough she was on that trip.”
Walker has been to all seven continents, sampled foods he couldn’t begin to identify and come to the realization that while countries and governments may be very different, the common bond is always the people.
“There’s a connection to each other everywhere I’ve been,” he said. “There may be some superficial differences, but the bottom line is we’re all human beings. Once we begin to communicate, the barriers seem to fall fast.”
THE CENTURY CLUB
As Walker continued to travel, he told his travel agent that he thought he was finally reaching his 100th country. The agent then told him about the “Century Club,” a group that awards people who visit different countries. The club awards people with a copper pin at country 100, a silver pin at 150 and a gold pin if they make it to 200 countries.
A recent trip to North Korea puts Walker at 175 countries visited. He owns the silver pin, but he hesitates when he considers the gold pin.
“I’m not sure what I want to do,” he said. “I’m satisfied at 175, but we have a few more countries we want to visit. If I make it to 190 or so, I’m pretty sure I’ll feel obligated to make it to 200.”
Jan Walker said she’s been to 160 countries and that her husband has been to more because he’s older than she is.
When asked what motivates Walker to visit so many countries, he said it’s a love of discovery that emanates from his soul.
“I love meeting people and learning about different cultures,” Walker said. “Really, I’m advancing my own knowledge and learning about peoples from all over the world. Now I see countries on television, and I can really relate to what I see.”
Walker has visited China 18 years in a row. He lists Hong Kong as one of his favorite places to visit, along with Venice, Italy, describing it as romantic and beautiful.
He’s not a huge fan of Muslim countries. Walker didn’t like the way they treated women or the fact that the majority of people in those countries wouldn’t look at a person directly in their eyes.
His recent trip to North Korea puts that country high on his list of countries he didn’t like.
“It was the darkest of the dark there,” he said. “My impression was that the 20 million people there are more or less living in jail. There’s no private enterprise, nobody walking on the streets, and every time we ate a restaurant, we were the only people there.”
Up next will be trips to Venezuela and Iran. Jan Walker is pushing for a visit to Switzerland.
“After North Korea, it sounds a little tame,” she said. “But I hear they have good chocolate there.”