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The list is life

His name's not Earl
By CAITLIN E. CURRAN  |  September 12, 2007

BRETT ROUANSVILLE is riding the rails to his dreams.
There’s a line in John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy,” favored by free spirits and Type-B thinkers: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” It’s also an apt description of the ongoing quest of Brett Rounsaville, a 26-year-old Californian with one big plan — or rather, 50 tiny ones.

In April, Rounsaville compiled a list of 50 things he’s always wanted to do. The list ranged from the daring (“tube down a river”), to the abstract (“learn survival skills”), to the obscure (“make moonshine”), to the Norman Rockwell–style, apple-pie sweet (“catch a firefly”). Three months later, he quit his job as a designer at Disney, purchased an Amtrak rail pass, packed a pair of shorts, two T-shirts, a MacBook Pro, a camcorder, and a handheld GPS unit into a backpack, and set out to accomplish everything on his list. He had no plan as to his exact route, where he’d go, or how long he’d travel. His only rules (self-enforced) were that he wouldn’t pay for lodging, and would document the trip, via a blog with photos and video on his Web site,

So what’s happened while Rounsaville was making other plans over the past two-and-a-half months? Apparently, enough that it takes him a moment to recall why he’s in Chicago, where we reached him by phone. “What am I doing in Chicago?” he repeats to himself twice. Then, an “Aha!” moment — he was vaguely nearby, in Kewanee, Illinois, attending the Hog Days Festival, and crossing off number 30 on his list: “Go to an obscure small-town festival.”

Rounsaville speaks of his journeys with salient enthusiasm. The best (and most surprising) aspect, he says, are all of the good-natured souls he’s encountered. “The things on my list are anchor points, but the stuff that happens in between is what’s interesting.”

Rounsaville remembers the names of nearly everyone he’s met, from a baker in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he milked a cow on an Amish farm (number nine), to a woman he chatted with at a Boston bar who, serendipitously, is the daughter of a Red Sox employee, and was able to get him an up-close seat to a game at Fenway Park (number eight). He’s connected with many of these people through, a Web site that hooks up travelers and hospitable locals with available sofa space.

There have been low points, too, of course — sleeping on cold concrete in San Diego outside of Comic Con, the comic-book convention, for one — and there’s the very real possibility that Rounsaville may soon deplete his funds (he estimates he’ll run out of money in about three weeks). For now, though, John Steinbeck’s TravelswithCharley and those in-between conversations get him by. “All you have to do is talk to people,” he says, “everywhere you go.”

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