What’s the Point of Bucket Lists?

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 then 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 or wading through three hundred essays, 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. It never hurts to know, right? 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 forty items or so. Now it consists of a good two hundred 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.

As for my goals’ completion, 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 going hot air ballooning over the Cappadoccia region of Turkey, are set to completed in the next year or so.

Overall, though, the overwhelming bulk of my bucket list remains incomplete. (At least for now.) 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 even the real point of bucket lists? It sounds a bit hypocritical for me to criticize them, seeing as I have one, but I still can’t help but question why we even make such a thing.

For one thing, 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 ninety-five percent of the rest of your surroundings. That 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 proclaiming that all you want to see is the Eiffel Tower and Mont Saint Michel. It’s like going to Australia and only wanting to see Ayers Rock or the Sydney Opera House. It’s like going to New York City and leaving after going to 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 missed because you were 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 truly deep level?

To their credit, I do think that bucket lists can also expand your boundaries and lead you 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 was certainly a highlight, to say the least, but I’d never consider it the one that made living meaningful.

Likewise, if you’re lying on your deathbed, I don’t think that missing out on seeing a sunset at some specific locale or swimming in one particular body of water 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 that 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: we write them to finish them.

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 throw down permanent roots. You’ve seen the auroras in Norway, thrown colors during Holi, hiked the full Torres del Paine circuit in Patagonia, and swum in the waters around Ko Phi Phi in Thailand. All of the things on your bucket list have been struck through. So that means you’ve finished, right?

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