Treasure Hunt

During which a world traveler discovers what he loves about his hometown

Author: Jay Walljasper

I paid little attention when the phrase “bucket list” drifted into everyone’s vocabulary, thanks to a 2007 movie of that name starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman.

I was in the prime of middle age, busy raising a teenage son and working for a startup based in Rotterdam. The idea of cataloging everything I must absolutely, positively achieve before kicking the bucket seemed pointless.

Walljasper Author Erichanson
Illustrations by Eric Hanson

Too much was happening right in front me to worry about not seeing the Taj Mahal, driving a ’65 Mustang or eating at a celebrated French restaurant, as a character in the film dreams about.

But as the years pass, things change — children leave home, businesses falter, new aches erupt as a reminder we can’t keep going at the same pace forever. I eventually recognized that everyone — yes, even me — comes into this world with an expiration date.

My first, albeit unconscious, acknowledgment of mortality was the day I spotted a copy of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die on the discount table outside a used bookshop. Why not? It was only two bucks.

This 2003 bestseller, which sparked the bucket list phenomenon, profoundly deflated me. I mean, so many places to see and so little time — and not much money to make it happen.

At that stage of life, the bulk of our income was earmarked for college tuition, mortgage payments, exorbitant health insurance premiums (both my wife, Julie, and I were self-employed) and household expenses. Much of the rest went for playing catch-up on the retirement fund that was supposed to finance our golden-age adventures.

While priding myself on being resourceful, I couldn’t imagine any way I would ever be able to check into the Raffles hotel in Singapore, meander the backstreets of Bukhara in Uzbekistan, set sail along the Turquoise Coast of Turkey, trek the Etosha savanna in Namibia or hear the haunting tunes of Berber musicians in Morocco. And that covers just two of the world’s seven continents.

So I shelled out full price for 1,000 Places to See Before You Die in the USA and Canada, hoping to settle for more realistic yearnings, but once again I felt daunted. If only I could negotiate an extra 75 years of life — and win the lottery jackpot a few times.

But, hey, I’m not looking for sympathy. I lead a rewarding life. In the past decade, work as a writer and consultant on creating better communities has taken me to a number of places I always wanted to see — including Istanbul and Melbourne (adding two more continents to my collection). But that’s only a drop in the bucket of places I hunger to visit.


Dreams or discontent?

I had another concern about investing my energy in a bucket list. Aren’t they just a setup for dissatisfaction? Wow, this seems like a terrific Cubano sandwich, but it’s probably nothing like how they taste in Havana. What a lovely waterfall, but it’s just a trickle compared to what I’d find at Victoria Falls in far-off Zambia.

I understand why writing down your deepest wishes can be valuable — to inspire and motivate us to do what we really want with our fleetingly finite lives. As the old saying goes, no one on their deathbed expresses regret about spending too little time at the office.

But viewed another way, bucket lists reinforce a major source of unhappiness in modern society: our pervasive sense of scarcity, the belief that what we really want — need actually — is far out of reach, exotic, extraordinarily difficult to make happen. Something quite apart from what we’re doing right now.

This problem, of course, lies not with the list but with the list-maker, who single-mindedly pursues pinnacles of peak gratification. It’s one side effect of the overwhelmingly aspirational American imagination. Our civic religion — preached in popular culture for 200 years — promises you can have anything you want in life if you are willing to devise a plan and then work as hard as humanly possible to make it a reality.

Evidence all around us proves this is not true — otherwise most people would earn millions as movie stars, business moguls, social media influencers or pro quarterbacks. Yet the myth persists because humans are ingrained optimists, which explains why the American Dream of vast riches and unchecked freedom exerts such a force on people around the world. Anything you dream is possible! Never mind the 2008 crash, a recovery that never really took off beyond the stock market, widespread racial and social inequality or a planet whose natural systems are not equipped to service the desires of 8 billion people. Then, throw in a pandemic and another economic freefall.

But frankly, it’s almost impossible not to fantasize about what you want most out of life — especially if, like me, you are approaching the age at which one of your parents died. That’s why I didn’t chuck the idea of a bucket list, but decided to create two versions: 1) all the experiences I hanker for if time and money were no factor; and 2) ambitions that can be accomplished without wallet-flattening outlays such as airline flights — which in themselves threaten the Earth I am so eager to roam. After all, sampling a Belgian quadrupel ale in the abbey where it was brewed is different by only a few degrees from drinking a dubbel or tripel ale in the taproom of a local craft brewery. At last count, we have nearly 200 of those here in Minnesota.


Lighthearted in La Crosse

The genesis of this two-tier list strategy was a beautiful summer day last year in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where I was researching a story about a hospital that had become a national leader in renewable energy. My last interview wrapped up around 1:30, so I had a few hours to tour the town before driving back to my home in Minneapolis. Although La Crosse is only 150 miles away, I’d passed through a few times but never really dug in to see what’s there.

Getting hold of a bicycle, I pumped my way up a steep river bluff to take in the panoramic view of the Mississippi. Hardly the Himalayas, it nonetheless instilled me with a sense of awe as I gazed across a green valley dotted with islands and back channels. Tucked between downtown and the local University of Wisconsin campus is an architectural treasure chest of well-kept Victorian, Arts & Crafts, Prairie style and Tudor homes. It’s no Newport, Rhode Island — but I had a memorably fun bike ride anyway.

While bucket lists are useful, even more valuable would be an inventory of familiar things all around that nourish happiness: the prizes I notice too seldom in the landslide of daily life.

South of town, hidden among thick woodlands, lies the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, designed by Notre Dame architect Duncan Stroik, a newly built church in an Italian Renaissance style with enchanting grounds to stroll. While never the site of miracles like the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, it’s a beautiful spot. A fascinating scene unfolds in the vestibule of the church, where photos of Pope Francis and his fierce Vatican opponent, Cardinal Raymond Burke (who spearheaded the shrine’s creation when he was bishop here), face off from opposite walls. One stark difference from the original Guadalupe shrine, I assume, is the food — the café, gorgeously done with an Old Mexico decor, serves mostly American sandwiches and German desserts, not chilaquiles or barbacoa. So I opted to dine downtown — finding a restaurant with a patio overlooking the river.

A stroll after dinner quickly brought me to a vintage 1930s ice cream parlor featuring house-made flavors, the funky Bodega brewpub in a classic barroom dating to the 1800s and Pearl Street Books, a very independent bookstore with strong offerings in at least three areas that intrigue me: Midwest history, ecology and liberation theology. Not exactly the Left Bank, but I made a vow to come back to La Crosse more often.


From Bali to Nebraska

Once back home, I got busy sketching out my two lists.

Bucket list No. 1 (aim-for-the-stars edition) starts with cycling along the Danube River from Vienna to Budapest. Then making a pilgrimage across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago. Navigating the winding lanes of historic Cartagena, Colombia; Fez, Morocco; and Penang, Malaysia. Settling in for a summer on Gotland off the Swedish coast. Cruising the Mississippi River on a paddle-wheeler. Exploring the grand colonial cities of Latin America. Taking a dip in Bali’s hot springs. And on and on and on. . . .

Bucket list No. 2 (pragmatic edition) includes exploring places sacred to Native Americans, starting with Lake of the Woods in my own state. Riding Amtrak through the Rocky Mountains. Hiking the topographically unique Loess Hills in Iowa. Paddling the Niobrara National Scenic River in Nebraska. Discovering the French-speaking villages of Manitoba. Eating scones at high tea in the Panola Valley Gardens just outside St. Paul. And on and on and on. . . .

Compiling these lists — which justified a lifetime spent reading travel magazines — was a lot of fun, and whooped me up to find ways of scrounging enough cash and vacation time to make at least some of them happen. That’s the whole point of a bucket list, right?

And yet there was something still incomplete about the project. It felt like I was funneling all my energy — my precious personal mojo — into a narrow slice of life that even under the most favorable projections would account for only a small portion of the years I have left. Was I sacrificing everyday delights simply to check more boxes on an endless itinerary of exploration? Do all the weeks and months when I am not on the road amount to nothing?

Hmmm. I had no easy answers to those questions. This, I realized, called for some reflection and inner debate.


Portrait of the traveler as a child

On the one hand, travel has always roused my soul.

My life changed forever at age 10 aboard the Denver Zephyr train as we rumbled across the Great Plains from Iowa to visit relatives in Colorado. My parents let me sit all day, and most of the starlit evening, in the dome car. Even in the darkness I was thrilled at the thought of people and farms and stores and animals out there on the other side of the window. Then, in what felt like the middle of the night, the exceptionally bright lights of a town appeared, and the train came to a stop near a baseball park with a game being played under towering flood lamps. The sign on the depot read: Holdrege.

“Holdrege, Nebraska,” I gasped.

I knew from the back of baseball cards that a number of my beloved Chicago White Sox had played for the team’s farm club in Holdrege. And now here I was, on a train, glimpsing future stars who would lead the ChiSox to a World Series championship next year or the one after. The world was even more amazing, more full of marvels, than I ever could have imagined. Then and there, I became an avowed traveler.

Well, as it turns out, I would have to wait another 40 years for the Sox to win an American League pennant. And it must have been an amateur game I spotted that night because the Class D Nebraska League folded in 1959, ending the four-year run of the Holdrege White Sox. But none of that matters. Holdrege inspired me to ramble far and wide — and wondrous things often turn up wherever I go.

Travel feels like my psychic oxygen supply — without which I will perish.

Being out in the world is fundamental to who I am. Reading, movies and music — three of my fondest activities at home — are ways to transport myself to faraway places. At a play, my heart sinks a little if the stage set is minimalist, denying me a peek at Shakespeare’s Verona, Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans or August Wilson’s Pittsburgh. More than most people, I love hearing friends’ accounts of recent vacations and jot mental notes of places I might want to check out. Many people are surprised by my almost-total recall of geographic details. I remember what lake they went fishing on last summer, even if they don’t, and know their grandparents’ hometowns from a conversation 15 years ago.


A snowy day in Minneapolis

On the other hand, travel for me is like eating caramel corn — the more I get, the more I crave.

A person can’t endlessly gallop the globe — unless you’ve got a trust fund or work for an airline. Even then, is that how I want to live? What about family? Friends? A place in the world where I belong, not just somewhere I’m passing through?

Walljasper Spot Sidewalk

The answer is obvious, of course. But answering a question is not the same as accepting it. After a life inspired by the impulse to move around, get out of town, make tracks, see what’s on the other side of the mountain — how do you cultivate an appreciation for things close at hand that also feed and enrich you?

One morning last winter, I took a walk through my neighborhood as snow piled up in the yards. I felt a surge of energy as plump flakes tumbled down like a Christmas Eve scene in an old movie. I was not longing for balmy breezes in Antigua, Guatemala, or a majestic view of the Alps in Zermatt, Switzerland — two recent entries to my bucket list.

In fact, at that moment there was nowhere else I would rather have been. This place — where not so long before I had reveled at the fiery colors of maple trees and swooned at brilliantly pink crabapple blossoms against a bright sky — was the center of the universe.

I had just returned from a business meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, which had surprised me with its rollicking bars, tremendous art museum and plentiful street life along Court Avenue, where I was staying. But I was grateful to be back home.

Clomping back toward the house through accumulating drifts, an idea struck me: While bucket lists are useful, even more valuable would be an inventory of familiar things all around that nourish happiness. The prizes I notice too seldom in the landslide of daily life.

My mind flashed on a passage from novelist Paul Bowles I had recently run across: “We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. . . . How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”


Introducing the luvet list

Over the next few months, I mused often about pleasures right under my nose that merit more attention. I’ve come to call these my “luvet list” (love-it), which I am convinced offers a better return on investment than any bucket list.

This index of my favorite things — as the old song from The Sound of Music puts it — is bound tightly to my particular enthusiasms. Walking city streets in the middle of a blizzard may sound like sheer misery to you, compared to a few hours in the garden, 27 holes before lunch or the new noir series debuting on television. Everyone’s luvet list is unique. Here’s mine:

Dancing into the day. Even before checking headlines on the phone, I get my juices flowing with some free-form gyrations, which might at various turns be described as shaking, shimmying, swiveling, stretching, strutting, stomping, prancing, twirling and sashaying. Doing it outdoors in early morning light is even more invigorating.

Singing in the shower. A habit I picked up from my father, who belted out hits from Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Hank Williams and Big Joe Turner upon getting home from work. I favor Motown and Bob Seger songs. “Stop! In the name of love . . .”

Hearing children play. I’m in the vanguard of a growing army of Americans working out of their spare bedrooms, and it can get really lonely. That’s why I keep the windows open as much as possible to let in sounds of neighbor kids racing their scooters, re-enacting World Cup matches and making joyful noise for no apparent reason.

Experiencing the elements. Wind rustling my hair. Sun warming my skin. Grass beneath bare feet. The crack of thunder. Plunging into a lake. The pelt of rain on my face. Dew soaking my shoes. Seeing my breath on a frosty day. Uncomfortable or not, these things vividly remind us we are alive.

Swinging. If no one’s looking, and sometimes even if they are, I love to launch myself skyward on a playground swing set. It’s as close to human-powered flight as you can get. Trampolines come a close second.

Making not-so-small talk. The secret of a gratifying social life extends beyond friends and family to a wider circle of acquaintances you may never invite over for dinner but who nonetheless enrich your life through impromptu conversations on the sidewalk, at the grocery store or anywhere else. Julie and I have found that sitting out at the patio table we lugged from our back yard into the front yard really boosts neighborly connection.

Splurging a bit. Seventy-dollar sunglasses. A decent bottle of champagne. Red Wing boots. A 40 percent tip at a cheap restaurant. Gourmet mustard. Art books. An occasional blues concert. Shelled pistachios. Artisan soap. Renting a convertible for Julie’s birthday — red, if possible.

Stepping out in public. What delivers the most outright joy for me is joining the passing parade of fellow humans wherever they gather: street corners, coffee shops, libraries, bars, record stores, farmers’ markets, beaches, ballgames, art galleries, churches and ice cream stands. I don’t even need to talk to anyone — just being out among people, noticing how they are dressed and what they are doing, makes me feel one with the world.

Going to the dogs. Watching dogs is almost as fascinating as watching people. I love their exuberance as they sniff, bark, tug, frolic, chase, fetch and smile their way through life.

Peeing outdoors. Most guys I know admit this is one of life’s unheralded enjoyments. (For women, I understand, not so much.) When my son was young we spent a week every summer in the woods on Lake Superior, where I shared this manly wisdom. Stopping for a restaurant meal on the way back home, our normally soft-spoken 4-year-old proclaimed to the entire room: “You’re right, Dad, the best thing about vacation is peeing outside!”

Walking after dinner is not only great for digestion and sleep, it throws open opportunities to see usual surroundings in a new light — at golden hour, sunset, dusk or under the stars. 

Marking minor holidays. We can learn something about getting the most out of life from medieval peasants, who celebrated as many as 60 holidays a year. That prodded Julie and me to claim a few extra celebrations of our own — including solstices, equinoxes, Candlemas, May Day, Bastille Day, Day of the Dead and the feast of Santa Lucia. Our festivities can be as simple as playing New Orleans music on Mardi Gras or carting boxes of unneeded clothes to the St. Vincent de Paul store on Martinmas, yet they inject a little specialness into otherwise ordinary weeks.

Smelling Russian olive trees. I used to think I was the only person in the world knocked over by the intoxicating, sweet-peppery scent of these blossoms. But an internet search divulges a tiny band of believers who share my ecstatic reaction: “Wonderful.” “Amazing.” “Sooooooo good.” “The best-smelling flower in the world.”

Wandering aimlessly. Almost equal to the glee that arises whenever I set foot in a new place is the tingle I feel wheeling my bike out of the garage with no clear idea of where I’m headed. Letting instincts chart my course results sometimes in a grand adventure and other times merely an interesting jaunt — but I rarely regret not plotting a route in advance.

Messing around with mindfulness. Despite a mind mired in a perpetual state of motion, I have been playing with the practice of centering prayer — a form of meditation drawing upon Western spiritual traditions that was developed by three priests at a Trappist abbey in Massachusetts. My own version is to take a walk somewhere away from traffic, where I try to tune out all the mental chatter in my head, creating more room to experience sights, sounds and smells. I’m pretty bad at it — thoughts always keep intruding — but even a few seconds of feeling connected to everything around me is uplifting.

Aggregating appetizers. My wife is a sensational cook, so to hold up my end in the kitchen I take charge of laying out snacks before supper — a curated rotation of nuts, olives, cheese, veggies, sausage, dips, pickles or potato chips, with the option of a glass of wine or beer. The whole point is to mark the end of the day with a ritual for unwinding and reconnecting.

Trainspotting. I can think of few things more pleasurable than watching a train come into view.

Reading out loud. Sitting in front of the fireplace or riding in the car or at lunch, Julie and I like to read aloud poems, children’s books, choice passages from novels or — especially the last four years — news about the latest political bombshells.

Lighting candles. During many work trips to the Netherlands — a nation afflicted with more than its fair share of gray skies, chilly temperatures and long winter nights — my spirits were cheered by the presence of candles almost everywhere. Now we light them throughout Minnesota’s darkest months.

Wasting time. Dawdling, lingering, sauntering, browsing, slacking and goofing off are hallmarks of a happy life. As Kurt Vonnegut declared, “We are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

Taking an evening stroll. In Italy, they call it passeggiata. In Latin America, paseo. In Greece, volta. Even cold-climate Swedes indulge in a kvällpromenad. Walking after dinner is not only great for digestion and sleep, it throws open opportunities to see usual surroundings in a new light — at golden hour, sunset, dusk or under the stars.


Where do we go from here?

As it turns out, my luvet list became more important than I could ever have imagined. I was scribbling down ideas about the riches of life within easy reach when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. My love-it selections have offered me consolation and comfort in these tough times.

As I write this months later, I have not once ventured beyond the environs of Minneapolis-St. Paul, but can report — surprisingly — that I am doing OK. Sure, I am grieving the sudden disappearance of travel from my calendar, notably a canceled speaking engagement at Trinity College, Dublin — but not as desperately as I feared back in March.

What’s harder is not hanging out with friends at the pub around the corner or the bakery down the street. And like everyone, I feel a stinging sadness for those suffering from COVID or the accompanying economic nosedive — as well as for George Floyd, whose murder sparked an inevitable torrent of rage which destroyed wide swaths of my city.

I live in a neighborhood next door to where Floyd died at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, and have spent time at the murder scene, which was transformed by neighbors into an unofficial pedestrian plaza and sacred place of healing. It’s a powerful communal experience to share this spot with people of all races and ages — who are forging a movement to eradicate police brutality and racial inequity.

In light of all this, my luvet list could look pretty trivial. But I don’t see it that way. A new commitment to understanding what sustains me day to day has strengthened my resilience in coping with this year’s onslaught of tragedies. And it has engaged me deeper in what’s going on in my own backyard, giving me more vigor to help younger people build a better city and better world in the years I have left.

Jay Walljasper — longtime editor of Utne Reader magazine — writes, speaks and consults about how to create sustainable, equitable and enjoyable communities.