Bucket List Lessons

I don't know about you, but I had a bucket list long before the term became mainstream. I grew up in a very small town and, thanks to my parents saving money all year to take us kids on a trip each summer, found myself enamoured with travel. I'm sure somewhere in my collection of journals there are pages dedicated to formal lists of place, cultures and countries I'd hoped to someday visit, but the reality is that I'm usually up for a trip at any time.

When the chance to visit one of my informal bucketlist entries came about without much effort last week, I jumped at the chance. Key West, its lore, history and location have fascinated me for years. I hopped in the rental car, plugged the final address into Google maps and began my trek over the 42 bridges on my way to that southernmost American point. Six hours and three Jimmy Buffett playlists later, I parked the car, threw open the door, stepped into a humid but breezy climate that teased me with a golden-orange streaked sunset sky and reveled in the idea that if I had an actual written bucket list, I could technically cross off Key West.

I'd made it. But now what? I'd spent so much time thinking about just making it to my destination that, once arrived, being there seemed somewhat anticlimactic.I had a couple of tourist spots I absolutely wanted to visit. I am nothing if not a thorough researcher--but I had three days and only three destinations to check out. I could get those done in a matter of hours. What else was I going to do? 

In the moment, I made a hasty decision: instead of being the supreme manager of time and efficiency and doing everything I wanted, I would allow Key West to instruct me. As a teacher, I am used to planning lessons that lead everyone to understanding. It's what I do and what I know. What I struggle with is handing over the reins to allow someone, or, in this case, something, to present the lessons. Key West proved to be an excellent teacher.

1. Be the passenger.

Ever the Girl Scout, I intended to park my rental car in a public lot for the day and just hop from location to location. But for the price of daily parking where space was at a premium, a two-day trolley pass around the entire island was a smarter investment. Not only did I get to actually enjoy the sights without the stress of driving, the trolley drivers gave me history and lore no guide book could compete with. You don't have to always be the one to get yourself from point A to point B there's a joy in the ride you can't achieve when you drive.

2. Trust the locals.

The trolley drivers, many of them saltwater conchs (one of those non-tour book terms), knew the best what, where and whom to see on the island. Sure, they pointed me in the direction of restaurants and visitor sites, but also to hidden places most tourists skipped. They were invaluable resources in connecting me to other locals who could answer questions I had on specific topics. This lesson was particularly hard for the always-prepared part of me who enjoys traveling alone and doing my own thing, but it also helped restore my faith in the idea that most people only want to be helpful.

3. Be open.

In new surroundings or situations, my default is to close down and shrink into observation mode. Sometimes I let my fear of the unknown dictate my actions and thoughts, which keeps me from what might turn out to be amazing experiences. As a less than stellar experience at a local restaurant wrapped up my first night, I was tempted to hightail it back to the safety and solitude of my hotel room. Instead, I opted for polite conversation with a local. We found that despite the distance of our regular lives, we shared a surprising geographic bond from both of our childhoods. The memory filled her with happiness and turned my concern on its head.

4. Follow your passion.

I do not need sandy beaches and warm water to have a good vacation. It seems almost a sacrilege to admit that when visiting a place like Key West, and flat-out blasphemy to folks like my husband whose batteries recharge as soon as he gets near water. My passions, on the other hand, include exploring history and culture. What I found ironic as I trekked from the Little White House to the Wrecking Museum to the Martellos was that doing what I wanted and not what others thought best anchored me to the moment. It made every minute of my vacation count with a memory that mattered rather than wishing the moment away in hopes of that elusive 'something better.' Of course, knowing your passions in advance is a prerequisite to embarking on your own adventure.

5. Enjoy a sunrise, a sunset and don't forget the stars.

Both literal and figurative, making time to simply experience your bucket list destination not doing, going or moving--needs to be a priority. As a sunrise kind of girl, I tend to take mornings slower and enjoy them longer, which in a subtropical locale like Key West means sipping iced coffee on the veranda while watching the world come to life one sun-mottled palm tree at a time. Find great conversation at a local watering hole as the sun slips down into the golden orange-streaked sky that speaks deeply to your soul, and watch that sun until its chased away by the blanket of stars. Search out constellations you won't see at home (the Northern Cross and Southern Cross are both visible at times from Key West) and contemplate our smallness in relationship to this big universe--a task difficult to complete at home where the 'to-do' list trumps our time.

Beth Morrow is an educator, blogger and program director for Camp Hamwi, a residential camp for teenagers with diabetes. Connect with her on Twitter @BethFMorrow

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