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Posted by on Apr 4, 2014 | 0 comments

What’s Wrong With ’1,000 Places to See Before You Die’?

Remember, in the 1983 film National Lampoon’s Vacation, when Chevy Chase pauses at the Grand Canyon for two seconds before rushing off? It’s probably travel’s most laughable cinematic moment (and one that’s spawned many terrifically awful reenactments on YouTube).

I’d make fun of it, except for the fact that I may be the only person to visit the Canyon–and see it for less time.

My trip there a dozen years ago happened to coincide with a freak snowstorm. Standing at a lookout point on the south rim, I stared hopefully into an apocalyptic expanse of foggy nothingness. I waited and waited. After a half hour or so, the clouds relented, offering a teasing glimpse of the far side of the massive chasm, before swallowing up the view for good.

Question: Have I “seen” the Grand Canyon? Have I even “been” there? And, either way, does it really matter?

When can you say you've actually "been to a place"? (Photograph by cobalt, Flickr)

When can you say you’ve actually “been to a place”? (Photograph by cobalt, Flickr)

This question has become more relevant in the wake of one of the most popular travel books of the 21st century: Patricia Schultz’s 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

Since its fateful first edition was published in 2003–a few years before that Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman dying-buddy film would lend the concept a buzz-worthy name–”bucket lists” have hijacked popular discourse on travel.

By the looks of my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and the dozens of websites and apps devoted to helping travelers create destination checklists, you’d be forgiven for mistaking some travel planners for task-oriented data entry clerks. That’s fine. But to paraphrase Waylon Jennings, are you sure Marco Polo, Meriwether Lewis, or Bill Bryson [would have] done it this way?

The problem with the bucket-list mentality is that it reduces travel to a pass/fail proposition. You want good pizza and spend a half-day in New York trying to find a legendary joint in a far corner of Brooklyn. It’s either tasty, or it’s not. (Quite an onus for pepperoni!)

A more rewarding approach to travel, at least for me, is less clinical–where the aim is to find reward from unplanned, spontaneous encounters. Often that comes with homing in on a theme to focus your planning around, not simply things to see. (It’s a bit like traveling like a travel writer.)

Instead of racing around Brooklyn to find that pizza place, why not spend a half day exploring Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst–where John Travolta struts at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever–and then go see if L&B Spumoni Gardens lives up to its hype?

The “goal” here, if it exists at all, is the open-ended exploration of a neighborhood, not simply an acquisitive hunt to check something off a list.

Awhile ago, I floated the question on Twitter about what it takes to say you’ve “been” to a place. Does walking across a border or an hour in an airport terminal “count”? Where’s the line?

Someone suggested using this definition: that you’ve only “been” somewhere if you had some experience there worth sharing. That, to me, seems like the ultimate point of travel. But too rarely do we hear of such experiences from bucket-listers’ jet-set cousins, what I call the country collectors.

Many of these folks wear the tally of the countries they’ve visited as badges of honor. Adding to the total in as little time as possible often means horribly ill-timed flight connections and a couple of hours spent outside the terminal, before moving on to the next destination. Guinea-Bissau? Check!

If that seems a little silly to you, read this San Francisco Chronicle article, which shows how travel has literally turned into a contest for many.

In it, the head of the Travelers’ Century Club, an “elite” group for those who’ve bagged over 100 countries, who in the article, admits that it’s “all about bragging rights.”

John Clouse, once the official “most traveled person” in the Guinness Book of World Records (which no longer awards the title), calls it a “competitive sport.”

Charles Veley, who has long called himself the world’s most traveled man (though even he admits he might now be considered second on his website), maintains that “If you want to have a complete world view, you have to go everywhere. Five hundred countries is better than 400.”

Please feel free to ignore these guys altogether.

I’m not too bad at travel, and I don’t know how many countries, or places I’ve visited, nor do I plan on counting them. And whenever I hear people comparing passport stamps, I think of Shakespeare’s lowly pen collection of a few battered, disposable goose-feather quills. None survive.

The number of quills he had, or seeing one, is hardly the point. What he made with them is more important. All this is not 1000 Places to See’s fault.

It’s OK to make a list of dream destinations, but let’s try to remember that travel is not a contest. To put it simply, we travel because it’s fun, because we want to experience moments worth remembering.

Often, we get the most out of it when we connect, bond, do good for people in the places we go to. But we should do it for ourselves–not the points we’ll win at the office water cooler when we get back home.

If you want to go around the world simply to accrue status and tick off place after place on an Excel spreadsheet, go ahead. But please call it what it is–building your brand–and leave “travel” to the rest of us.

Robert Reid is National Geographic Travel’s Offbeat Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @reidontravel.

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