Last year, Barack Obama was asked whether or not he had a bucket list. “I have something that rhymes with bucket list,” he said. I echo the guy’s fatigue with the concept, especially when it comes to travel.
It’s not just that every other link that rises to the top of my Facebook feed is named “24 Literally Heart-Stopping Places to See Before You Die!”—or that these types of lists are breezy, not-so-subtle reminders of death (lovely!). My real gripe with a bucket-list is that it can affect the way we look at travel.
On the one hand, the process of writing down every place you want to hit before THE END can motivate you to actually get your ass to wherever. On the other hand, it can turn a trip full of possibility into a mindless thing to be consumed. Get too focused on the list and you may lose out on a genuinely beautiful and life-changing experience because, check-box ticked, you saw the Bolivian Salt Flats and have to hurry to the Cliffs of Moher and then down to Gibraltar to pet a wild monkey before—ya know.
That’s not to say that you can’t make seriously valuable memories on a hyped “bucket list” vacation. Take my trip to Iceland in 2004—easily the vacation you’re most likely sick of hearing me talk about if we’ve ever met. It began with me studying abroad in Europe at 18 years old, and desperate to see the Aurora Borealis. At the time, I ranked it highest among my imperatives. I convinced three friends to spend our Thanksgiving holiday stalking the lights for a week in the backcountry of the island. It was a craps shoot, but we found them. On our second night there, a few miles outside the city where we had were had staked out in an old four-wheel drive, Aurora appeared in all of her glory. What you don’t get from the photos is how quickly the threads of green and blue and the occasional red flicker in the black, arctic sky—or how quickly they disappear. It really was cool for the couple of minutes it lasted, but it was also like, all right, now what?
The moments I most recall from the trip—the ones that made a week-long journey to the middle of nowhere absolutely worth it—are the ones after our mission was accomplished. Like floating in the Blue Lagoon among terrain that looked more akin to Mars than Earth. Or hitchhiking like fools to our hotel because we couldn’t find a cab and, so, meeting two benevolent teenage Reykjavik residents (both big fans of Eminem). Or running stark naked through a meadow of spongy moss and fog because why the hell not? And, above all, inviting the kindest, 80-year-old man named Thordur, who we had met in the tiny village of Skógar and who had never left Iceland, to our makeshift Thanksgiving dinner in a hotel room. We feasted on the best lamb ever and laughed all night—although, in deference to ancient Nordic lore, not when he earnestly recalled a dozen or more personal encounters with fairies, elves, and trolls.
Thank God a fetish-chase led me to those unanticipated moments.
I’m not gonna say bucket lists are evil (although they totally commodify the most fulfilling aspect of travel—experiences—and you really shouldn’t, seriously or ironically, have one). I’m just gonna say that, beautiful as those lights were, I’ll die happier having spontaneously run through an Icelandic field in the nude.