There are a lot of things I need to do before I die.
Or at least that’s what my local bookstore is telling me. Every time I visit, I’m faced with a shelf’s worth of guides listing things to accomplish—from 100 Things To See In Your Lifetime to 101 Things To Do Before You’re Old And Boring. I appreciate the idea behind Patricia Schultz’s 1,001 Places To See Before You Die, the inspiration for this genre of books. But its offspring stresses me out.
There are lists of jazz albums I need to listen to, foods I must taste, paintings I have to see, walks I’m required to take—my own father has a book of 1,001 gardens I can’t die without visiting. How am I supposed to conquer 1,001 movies while simultaneously reading 1,001 books and traveling to 1,001 historic sites—not to mention making it to the 500 places I must see before they disappear? By the time I found a copy of 101 Places To Have Sex Before You Die, I was tempted to swear off travel books, grab a selection of the 1,001 beers I have to drink, and head to one of the 1,001 spots where I’m supposed to escape.
I am a person who had a checklist for puberty (armpit hair? breasts? boyfriend?) and occasionally write lists of things I’ve already done, just to make myself feel more accomplished. Like many people, I already spend too much time coming up with arbitrary things I “should” be doing, keeping myself so busy that it’s hard to separate one moment from the next. The last thing I need to read is a book that pits my desire for adventure against the time pressure of mortality—especially in the form of a thousand and one places I’m supposed to play golf.
So I decided to create an antidote—a list of places and experiences that you don’t need to worry about missing out on. I called upon travel-loving friends, family and, in some cases, complete strangers, to tell me about overhyped tourist sites, boring museums, stupid historical attractions and circumstances that can make even worthwhile destinations miserable.
Some entries on the list are unquestionably unappealing, like a field strewn with decomposing bodies, or fan hours at the Las Vegas porn convention. Some depend on context—Pamplona’s a very different city from the perspective of a bull. Some are just good stories, albeit ones that are more fun to read about than to experience firsthand.
As I gathered suggestions, I came across a characteristic common among frequent travelers: a reluctance to define anything as bad. “I have a soft spot for underdog places and a perverse need to find even the worse stuff a source of delight and titillation,” wrote one friend about her inability to hate on Uzbekistan or, for that matter, Detroit. She’s right, of course—the worse something is in the moment, the better the story when you get home. So for those people who look at a warehouse full of rotting human sewage and see an interesting way to spend an afternoon, I also included some places that would be impossible to visit even if you were intent on finding the bright side in everything, like the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, or the bottom of the Kola Superdeep Borehole. It might seem pointless to say that you shouldn’t go to a place like Io, Jupiter’s least hospitable moon—but look at it this way: when someone publishes 1,001 Places In Space To See Before You Die, the pressure will be off.
No matter what type of traveler you are, I invite you to take a break from your other to-do lists and spend a moment being grateful for some of the things you’re not doing. Then, when you’re ready to hit the road, leave behind your list of 1,001 Places You Must Pee,* and give yourself a chance to come up with some experiences of your own.
Travel should be an adventure, not an assignment—and if you spend your vacations armed with too many checklists, you’re missing the point of leaving home.