Tackling your bucket list doesn’t require giant leaps

List of life goals doesn't have to have wild, offbeat items on it to have deep meaning

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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Catch your breath and look around. The view is incredible.

That was the finding of one of the more unlikely groups of adventurers to cruise the tree canopy — ladies of a certain age who live at Highgate Senior Living in Hazel Dell. Just before summer turned to autumn, a caravan of vehicles ventured from Highgate out to Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Park, about an hour west of Portland in Gaston, Ore., so they could cross one thrill off a collective bucket list: spending a day zip lining across the sky, just like the young folks do.

“It was the best day of my life!” declared Toni Gerbracht, 89, a native of the Netherlands, after her feet were back on terra firma. “So exciting! It is awesome!” (And zip lining wasn’t on her personal list, she added with a chuckle: “Not for me. I was scared to death.”)

Soaring through the treetops was a blast for these adventurers. But an equal joy was simply being together and getting away on a fresh cool morning, they agreed. Some were happiest during the van ride, marvelling at new vineyards and old forests and sharing memories of traveling, homemaking and loving life in the lush Willamette Valley. Bucketsful of yearning and ambition are fine, but the real key to life is enjoying the present, they said — and proved.

Which got us wondering: What about bucket-list items that aren’t physical thrills and chills? Were there quieter, more personal, more telling wishes that wouldn’t necessarily generate whoops and screams? We asked our readers to peer into their buckets and tell us what they saw.

Big world

Despite some serious mobility challenges, 85-year-old Highgate resident Mary Ellen Hayenga managed the zip-line challenge with special help from Tree to Tree staffers; watching this frail woman fly through the air was the most extraordinary sight this reporter witnessed that day.

But Hayenga’s real wish couldn’t be more grounded: Internet access and instruction. What she truly wants, she said, is a streaming connection to the big world she knows is out there.

“I don’t have a computer,” she said. “Things come up in conversation every day and you wish you knew more about them.”

Like what? Like the news, she said. Like places and people overseas. Like, she said, how far do different birds fly each day during migration season?

“If you want to know something, you just look it up,” she said. “That’s what I want.”

Bears and tunes

George Parsons lived the “Easy Rider” dream in the 1970s, crossing the country by motorcycle, and he wanted to echo the experience before his 65th birthday. His wife urged him to stop talking about it and really do it. Unemployment was another motivator.

“I was looking to reset my confidence that had ebbed from a frustrating job search and wanted to leave a legacy for my sons — that it is never too late to pursue your dreams,” he wrote about what became a 30-day bicycle journey from Bellingham to Skagway, Alaska.

The scenery was breathtaking, the cycling was frigid — sipping from a flask of whiskey helped — and people, sometimes few and far between, were as nice as could be. Parsons received free food, free camping spaces and many other kindnesses — like the highway maintenance workers who pulled over to donate water and even set a “moving screen” with their truck to escort Parsons past a bear.

“Adventure revitalizes you,” Parsons said. “By definition, it’s risk-taking and uncertainty. I relished the uncertainty. Otherwise a bucket list is too tame.”

Leveraging some of the trip’s highlights was Parsons’ three-quarter-size “parlor guitar.” One time he brought the instrument into an empty saloon and started plunking away; before long he was trading songs with the bartender, also a guitarist, and moving over to piano for an impromptu Alaskan jam session.

“So many people had a guitar jones,” he said. “Music really is the universal language.”

Sad story

A woman we’ll call Patricia — it’s not her real name — left a couple of sad messages with us.

“My personal bucket list really does include reconciling with my two children,” she said. Those children believed the “lies” that Patricia’s ex-husband told them, she said, and they cut off all contact with her years ago.

“I have missed out on my adult children’s lives,” Patricia said. “It is a very long, sad story. The gist is that I am a Christian and I have a lot of faith in God. Someday this will be behind me. I love people, no matter who they are and what they’ve done. I would like to give my children that love.”

Bike love

Norma McGraw grew up riding horses and early automobiles. At 17 she decided to try scary new transportation technology called a “bicycle” — and immediately crashed into a bush.

Her romance with the bicycle was over. The breakup lasted for 74 years — until Highgate blocked off its parking lot and held an on-site bike festival. Ninety-one-year-old McGraw was back in the saddle at last; all her friends screamed and cheered and there were no collisions, said McGraw’s pal Willie Mae Harryhill.

“When we’re riding bicycles, we actually become children again,” said Harryhill. “You completely forget your troubles, your problems, you forget where you are. You’re just riding along and everything is fine!”

Going home

At 95, Levina Strain was the Highgate zip-liner with the most years to be proud of. But her eyes really sparked with joy during the van ride over, as she remembered her childhood in White River, S.D. Strain rode a horse named Nellie Gray to school every day, she said. Her father was the one who first organized the classroom and hired a teacher.

“The reason we left was the Dust Bowl years,” she said. Her father started having trouble breathing, she said, and a doctor told him: “If you don’t get out of here, you’ll die.” He’d always wanted to see the Pacific Ocean, and when he learned about an interesting Washington state town called Vancouver, he was sold. Eventually the family farmed 10 acres on 78th Street. But Strain’s mother “cried for six weeks about leaving her home and starting all over again,” she said.

Strain’s bucket list item is simply to go visit White River. Cousins are still there, she said, and so are a thousand happy memories.

Funky feely

Jim Templeton has lived bucket-list dreams all his life, starting when he chose a different path than the “reasonable” one his parents wanted for him.

Electrical engineering? “I followed my love of music,” Templeton said. He taught and played jazz piano all over the world, from Florida to Denmark. Later on, he grew fascinated with healing touch and trained in craniosacral therapy, a form of very light massage that Templeton described as “borderline woo-woo.”

For a guy who was never touchy-feely, Templeton said, “using my hands to help people feel better” has been “one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.”

Another fulfilling dream that Templeton lived out was his jazz nightclub, Ivories, which opened in Portland in 2012 and closed early this year. Ivories had the best acoustics in town, Templeton said, and no shortage of artists eager to play there. But in the end it went the way of many startup nightclubs and restaurants.

“I kept putting money into it, until I realized I had to stop,” he said. “I don’t have the slightest regret. I’d do it again.”

At 72, Templeton’s bucket remains pretty full. He’s got three manuscripts about music to finish; he also wants to start a new combo and get back into the sort of funky fusion jazz that he used to play with his band, Cosmic Dust. “I’m itching to play that style again, creating musical landscapes with depth and stimulating my imagination,” he said.

Twilight Zone

Kathleen Ternberg’s wish is mundane and universal. She wants to get organized. “I’m sure everyone in the world can commiserate with that problem,” she said. “I am determined to get it done.”

Ternberg, 55, has multiple sclerosis. It’s hard to rev up the energy to transform her overstuffed storage room into a tidy arts-and-crafts studio lined by boxes, bins and shelves, she said. She’s snapped motivating photographs of what she calls the Twilight Zone and means to take triumphant updates of the eventual Sunshine Space that emerges from beneath all the stuff she keeps tripping over, she said.

“All of my holiday things are in there,” she said. “The thing is finding the energy. I sure am trying.”