I think sometimes we as a society get much too wrapped up in the bucket list concept. The planning. The scripting. Perhaps it’s time to throw caution to the wind and simply wander.

I’ve always loved to travel. As I child I would live for outings with my parents to “motels” where my sister and I would rush into a room, flop on the bed, and then run excitedly to open every drawer, tear the little paper thing off the toilet cover (I saw one of those recently – didn’t even know they still existed) and count the number of water glasses. We would play for hours in the room, using the tray under the requisite ice bucket to pretend we were serving guests in some exotic location.

Howard_Johnson's_Motor_Lodge_

“Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge – Penns Grove, New Jersey” Photo by pds209 – via Tumblr http://ift.tt/1fshE5h. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Even at home, I would lie down on a little hill by my front driveway and stare up at the clouds, watching for airplanes flying overhead and imagining where they were going. There were far fewer airplanes in the skies back then, but I imagined grand adventures.

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I remember one summer day when my sister and I were maybe 8 and 11 years old. We were sitting in the front yard, something we actually did very seldom because back then kids could run free. We lived in the country and spent as many days as possible either playing in the woods or riding horses with my cousins (three of us on one horse was always an adventure). That day, my sister and I were having a picnic lunch. We had our little white table and chairs in the yard (the same one my grandkids now play with when they visit) and were enjoying some kind of lunch. We were talking quite seriously about restaurants and traveling. I remember distinctly my sister looking up at me and saying, “When we are grown, we should have lunch together in Paris.”

Lunch on the Champs-Élysées by Glenn Forrest via Creative Commons

Lunch on the Champs-Élysées. Photo by Glenn Forrest via Creative Commons

Lunch in Paris. We didn’t know what a bucket list was back then. I don’t think the term had been invented. This was in the mid-1970’s, when travel was still a big deal and I had just that year watched the Concorde land at Dulles for the first time. But to have lunch in Paris seemed like a perfect idea to two little girls from rural Virginia. By the way, I’ve had lunch in Paris many times over the years, as has my sister, but we’ve never had lunch together in Paris. Yet.

Yes, I have a bucket list, but I find that I am much happier when I simply travel unburdened by the “shoulds” and trying to visit every tourist “must do” in the guidebooks. I’ve discovered over the years that some of my favorite trips, best experiences, have been when I did something not at all on my bucket list.

Houma House

Houma House in Louisiana. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

I mean, really, how many people would put Louisiana or Missouri on their bucket lists? But those are just two examples of experiences that are a part of me. That have shaped who I am as a person and as a traveler. Sure, I have those big places on my bucket list. I still want to see the Taj Mahal, visit Hong Kong, see the Great Wall of China and sit on the beach in the Maldives. But it’s the little experiences that make all the difference. Don’t be so wrapped up in checking off the bucket list box that you forget to check out the tiny little zoo in Springfield, Missouri, the living history museum in Rockford, Illinois or stroll the grounds at Houmas House near Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Dining at Plage Keller in France

Seaside dining at “Le Cesar” on Plage Keller in Cap D’Antibes France. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Even in those places that show up on the bucket list, remember to look for the hidden experiences. Sure, climbing the Eiffel Tower is great, but what about finding that tiny little cafe on some back street? I know plenty of people who check off a visit to the French Riviera, but my visit was most memorable for one afternoon spent on a beach with two other women, eating a meal with the sand at our toes, the sun overhead, watching yachts off the coast and laughing at a little girl playing in the sand. In London, I loved visiting all the big sights and I felt like a child up in the London Eye, but the best memories were sitting with friend over tea, sharing the visit with a 15-year-old who was wide-eyed in wonder and sitting at a pub with friends, surrounded by locals who all wanted to share their stories.

In the Ely Cathedral

So if you have that bucket list, enjoy it. But don’t get so wrapped up in the check boxes that you forget to enjoy the experience. I’m flying over the Pacific as I write this, looking down on the Big Island of Hawaii in the distance. I’ll be checking off the “Visit Hawaii” check box on my bucket list, but I’m looking forward to experiencing the community in Oahu and Maui, to find the off-the-beaten-path places that make me stop in wonder and say “Wow”. I also have trips planned this year to places most people wouldn’t add to their bucket lists, from Solvang, California to Central Missouri to Southern Indiana. I’m excited anticipating the amazing people I’ll meet, the delicious food I’ll sample, the sights I’ll see that I never even imagined.

Nakalele Blowhole

Nacelle Blowhole in Maui. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham

Where will you wander—unplanned, unscripted and full of wow moments?

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