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What Does Your Bucket List Really Say About You?

by Alexandra Brueckner Dec 17, 2013

IT HAPPENS fairly often. Lonely Planet, Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, or Matador will tweet or post a picture of some unearthly landscape. I’ll open said picture and exhale a sigh that’s usually a mixture of envy (of the photographer) and wonder (of the incredible world we inhabit).

I’m in love with my job teaching English in Japan, but when I’m sitting at work, elbow-deep in grading final exams, all it takes is a picture of some far-off city to send me to Kayak to look up the cost of plane tickets. Just in case. Once I pry myself off WikiTravel, I head to my desktop to open a file simply titled “Bucket List.” And then yet another experience or city or landmark gets added to an already substantial catalog.

My bucket list started off with around 40 items or so. Now it consists of a good 200 things, and the vast majority of them are related to travel. Some of those items are fairly standard, as far as travelers’ goals go. I want to release a floating lantern in Taiwan, go on a safari in the Serengeti, and “prop up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa. (Sorry, but I’m one of those travelers who enjoys a good staged photo.)

Others speak to my personality. I’ve definitely got a head for heights, so “The Bolt” at Lysefjorden in Norway has been calling my name for years. Music has been a huge part of my life, so seeing a band on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury will hopefully eventually happen. I’m a romantic at heart, so someday I hope to attach a lock on the Hohenzollernbrücke in Cologne, Germany.

When you get right down to it, what’s the real point of bucket lists?

As for my completion rate, it’s all over the place. Some of them are checked off. Bungee-jump from the Macau Tower? Done. Climb Mount Fuji? Check. Drink a beer at Oktoberfest? Affirmative. A few of the items, like seeing the Taj Mahal, are set to be completed in the next year or so.

Overall, though, the overwhelming bulk of my bucket list remains incomplete. And if I’m totally realistic, some of the things, like running in the Great Wall Marathon and getting to Antarctica, might very well never be accomplished.

When you get right down to it, though, what’s the real point of bucket lists?

I think it’s a bit dangerous to plan your travels around crossing off things from your bucket list, because you run the risk of missing 95% of the rest of your surroundings. It sort of paints the picture of plowing through some amazing city until you reach whatever landmark you’ve been dreaming out, snapping a few pictures in front of it, and then proclaiming, “K, another thing crossed off! Where to next?” It’s like going to France and saying all you want to see is the Eiffel Tower and Mont Saint-Michel. Going to Australia only for Ayers Rock and the Sydney Opera House. Going to New York City and leaving after hitting the top of the Empire State Building and eating a cupcake from Magnolia Bakery.

There’s no telling how many worthwhile experiences and hidden sights you’ll miss because you’re so set on accomplishing that one thing. You get a cool picture out of it, or maybe a good story. But did that experience really change or affect you on a deep level?

To their credit, I do think bucket lists can expand your boundaries and lead you to discover places that are totally new to you, so long as you keep your eyes open and look at something other than your prize. I’ve dreamt of seeing Petra, but it wasn’t until I started researching a trip to Jordan that I realized I had just as much desire to see the otherworldly landscapes of Wadi Rum and the Jerash ruins north of Amman, too.

But even with that advantage, why do travelers salivate over checking off things from their bucket list? For most people, there’s not one single thing that would define their life as being worthwhile or not. I’ve stood in the shadows of the ruins of the Parthenon. Does that single event make me consider my life a success? Not really.

It’s impossible to say we’re ever truly finished traveling because there will always, always, always be something else to see.

Likewise, if you’re lying on your deathbed, I don’t think missing out on seeing a sunset in Hawaii or swimming in the Dead Sea would cause such a deep sense of regret in most people. If I died tomorrow, without checking off “walk on the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia,” would I consider my life lacking something essential? Not particularly.

At their core, aren’t travel bucket lists basically just glorified to-do lists? Yet unlike the list of chores you tack up on your refrigerator, they can never truly be completed. That would seem to imply there’s a limit to the things you want to see or experience. Logic says that for any list, there will be an end. For most to-do lists, they exist to be completed. That’s their entire purpose.

And that, I think, goes against the very core of traveling and wanderlust. Imagine that once you’ve ticked off all the entries on your bucket list, you’ll hang up your hiking boots, stow your Lonely Planet guidebooks on the shelf to gather dust, and stay planted in one spot. You’ve seen the auroras in Norway, thrown colors during Holi, hiked the full Torres del Paine circuit in Patagonia, and gone hot-air ballooning over Cappadocia. All of the things on your bucket list have been struck through. So that means you’ve finished, right?

Obviously, that’s not something most travelers could fathom, and for good reason. It’s impossible to say we’re ever truly finished traveling because there will always, always, always be something else to see.

If that’s the case, then maybe half-finished bucket lists are in fact an appropriate symbol of a life lived well and traveled far. Traveling is the action that can never be truly finished. Bucket lists, a list that can never be finished, just serve as a reminder of that. Treat them like a simple catalog of experiences to be completed, and they’ll turn into hollow accomplishments. But see them as something that pushes you to new places, experiences, and memories, and they’ll inspire you to keep going as long as you can.

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