Approach Your Bucket List With An Open Mind; You'll Be Surprised What You Find
Travelers will argue long and hard about the merits and degrees of exploration, but it all comes down to two different approaches:
1. You hear about a place you’ve always wanted to go, end up visiting that place, check it off your bucket list, and say you went there. These could be places that you’ve heard of growing up as a child, and were always fascinated about. For me, the Four Corners Monument was one of these places. I remember when I was young, I had a foldout map of the US—children’s style, with cartoon animations indicating all of the fun places that you could go across the country. Four Corners was a place that always intrigued me, because as many of you trivia rats know, it’s the only spot in the U.S. where four states meet. I’ve always wanted to lay down in the middle of those four corners and be in four states at a single time. It’s a bucket list item. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. When I got there, was it worth it? Would I travel far and wide to do it? Yes, it was worth it...but no, I would hardly go far out of my way for it. I was on my way to the Grand Canyon, and it was just an hour or two out of the way to see the Four Corners Monument, inconveniencing no one but myself.
2. However, you won't know about many worthwhile places to visit until you reach your destination. Sure, do your proper research before you get somewhere—understand the culture, the climate, the geography, and the significance of the different things that a place has to offer. When it comes down to it, that’s what makes us all different…to an extent, we want to know what those differences are before we get to a place, so we can prepare ourselves to tackle the environment that we’re heading into.
Yet there is merit in traveling relatively blind: not knowing exactly what's worth seeing until you get there. That is, after all, the point of exploring. To come across new and different foods, peoples, landscapes and experiment with things you weren't aware existed.
I advocate a hybrid approach to these two styles of traveling. There is a certain veil of ignorance that travelers hide behind, because you really shouldn’t know everything that you want to do and see before you get there, because if you do, what’s the point of visiting? You’re there just to check things off a bucket list; you’re not actually visiting to explore. If you didn’t realize that there was an ancient artifact, a museum, or a cuisine that a place was known for—try it! That’s the whole point of going there, to discover the things that weren’t on your list. It’s not going to be any fun sitting at home saying "here are a hundred things I want to do before I die, and I will leave home on trips to accomplish those one hundred things". Part of the adventure is simply traveling to a new place and seeing what it was to offer.
Back to the Four Corners Monument.
It was cool to see, and it was awesome to go and fulfill the childish ambition of sitting in four states at once. However, what truly piqued my interest once I got to Four Corners is the fact that the land is administered by the Navajo Nation and not by the U.S. Government, something I was unaware of until I visited. I find the administration of land, and the division of government between federal, state, and local governments to be fascinating and worthy of study.
I had never given serious thought to the fact that there is land here in America administered by Native Americans. Having spent a year in Australia, I had always remarked how funny it was that we have essentially the same issues with Native Americans as they do with Aboriginals, i.e. we completely wiped out their culture, took everything that they once loved, and subjugated them through government policy, insidious substance abuse, and pervasive racism. We never saw Native Americans here in the U.S., while you were reminded of Australian history every day. Aborigines walked the streets, just like Aussies.
Apparently, I just never lived in the right place. Exploring the Southwest, Native American culture dominates the landscape. For example, the town of Teec Pees Nos, right outside Four Corners, is clearly a name of native origin. A quick Google search tells me that it means "cottonwoods in a circle", and is a town of 730 people, 96.5% of which identify as Native American.
Sure, I had every intention of checking the Four Corners Monument off my bucket list, but what I really came out of there fascinated about was Native American land administration and how the U.S. built itself on a continent already inhabited by millions of people. As someone from New York, living in Colorado, I wasn't always aware of this fact...but here, in Northern Arizona, it's readily apparent that Native Americans are alive and kicking. In fact, they are the stewards of the very monument I came to see.
Any traveler has bucket list items they're eager to cross off their list, but shouldn't be so misguided as to think that's all there is to see. Traveling with an open mind is something that is very easy to forget in this day and age of selfie culture...knowing that there’s always something else that you can learn can hard to remember as you plan your itinerary off Wikitravel. Take a hybrid approach—plan, and know that there are things that you want to see, but know that once you get there, there are things that you didn’t even know you wanted to see and learn, that you’ll be happy that you now have.