Justin Zackham and his family are en route to a new world record, aiming to be the first family to visit each of the world’s 195 sovereign nations. It’s a lofty goal, but as Justin explained recently from the Bahamas, it’s made with good intent.
A screenwriter by trade, Justin Zackham might already sound familiar to you. The Greenwich, Connecticut, native is responsible for two big Hollywood hits — “The Bucket List” and, more recently, “Second Act” — and if you’re familiar with either, you know they both center on the importance of taking risks. In “The Bucket List,” two elderly men meet serendipitously in a cancer ward. After learning that they each have under a year to live, the pair embarks on an adventure of a lifetime, pushing their limits and learning that it’s never too late for new experiences. “Second Act,” about a superstore worker who reinvents her life story to earn a competitive position at a consulting firm, illustrates the important lesson that if you’re unhappy in life, you always have the power to change it.
Though these types of narratives may only seem plausible in Hollywood, Justin does his best to embody the sense of adventure that his screenplays are known for.
His love for travel dates back to his time living in the country of Grenada at the age of 19, where he worked on a large sailboat. It was here that Justin was exposed to some of the harsher realities that developing countries face, which seemed to awaken his creative senses. The exposure filled him with inspiration to write for what seemed like the first time in his life, propelling him onto a path of exploration and self-discovery. Ultimately, this experience led him to film school.
After graduating from NYU a few years later, Justin moved out to LA where he spent his days bartending, writing scripts, and working on a few small side projects. He knew he hadn’t yet reached his full potential; he was simply biding his time. After a few years of this, with no real breakthrough to speak of, the frustrations started to get to him. One day — his stomach swirling with self-loathing — a thought came to mind and he wrote it down. It read: “Justin’s List of Things to Do Before He Kicks the Bucket.” He scribbled down exhilarating activities like skydiving and specific places he wanted to travel to, then he pinned it to his bulletin board. The sheet of paper, which he would eventually call “Justin’s Bucket List,” served as a constant reminder of what he needed to do before he died. Each time he looked at it, he thought, What would the list look like if you only had so much time left?
The rest is Hollywood history — a successful movie starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, and a catchy phrase that has since permeated the travel industry.
Fast forward 12 years, add a wife and two kids, and “Justin’s Bucket List” now looks vastly different from the original. Priorities have shifted, and some items are no longer on the page. Not wanting to be known for movies about taking risks while he still had so many adventures of his own to complete, Justin came up with this wild idea for a record-breaking trip.
In the dozen years since their wedding, Justin and his wife, Katherine, have lived in a total of nine houses and three different states, so being on the move is nothing new. But the idea for a greater adventure was planted more recently, while Justin was promoting “Second Act.” During this time, the couple started to chat about their shared love for travel and the possibility of an extended family trip — they wanted to take a risk of their own. They both felt that they had seen enough people online who drop everything to travel the world, so they decided to go for it. They didn’t want be that couple who looked back on their lives and thought, We should have done that.
At time of writing, Justin and his family are enjoying cool breezes and bright sunshine in the Bahamas — the official “starting point” for their trip. After a few more sleeps on the Abacos Islands, the family will travel to Belize, and then continue on through the rest of Central America, easing themselves into an on-the-road-rhythm and — having braved the previous two winters in Vermont — avoiding the snow.
Later in the year, they plan to head to South America, making stops in Columbia, Chile, and more. Then it’ll be onward to the South Pacific to hit Australia, New Zealand, and some smaller Micronesian countries, which is where their off-the-cuff planning will become a little more detailed with the need for visas and vaccines.
As easy and breezy as things are now, the Zackhams are well aware of the inevitable bumps that lie ahead. After all, they’re a family of four — the two boys, Cole and Finn, are aged five and 10, respectively — meaning they’re prepared to improvise, as some countries on their list currently pose potentially dangerous situations.
Though Guinness World Records defines “visiting a country” as landing, dropping a “waypoint” on the GPS, and having two officials sign a witness statement, Justin believes that there’s a difference between simply checking a name off the list and experiencing a country in its entirety. That said, he also understands that to complete such a monumental trip, inevitable sacrifices will have to be made.
The Zackhams plan on traveling for just under four years, which means spending about a week in each country on average. With that timeline, they’re fully aware that certain places won’t receive the attention they deserve, whether due to timing, political upheaval, or work. (Justin plans on sneaking away to a set or two during their trip, which the family will plan around accordingly.)
To prepare for such an extravagant undertaking, the family took what they call a “trial run” last year, jetting off for a month and spending time in Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. Upon their return to the U.S., they also embarked on a road trip through the South, making stops at historical sites such as Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, built around the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Educational experiences like these are an especially important aspect of the family’s current trip, as Justin and Katherine prize learning above all else.
Before heading off, Katherine scanned and digitized traditional textbook lessons their kids would see in classrooms, and with the help of an iPad and an Apple Pencil, they don’t miss a beat. But these lessons are just one piece of the pie. Justin and Katherine want to teach their boys to learn by experiencing and doing, rather than memorizing (and then most likely forgetting). This is also known as worldschooling — an educational model that educates by showing instead of simply telling.
Justin admits that there are challenges to raising and educating children in America’s current political climate, and being abroad affords the couple the opportunity to show their children first-hand that the world isn’t as awful as it may seem on TV. They are able to remind them that people are good, and that the simple act of smiling at a stranger can go a long way. They encourage Finn and Cole to go out and meet and play with local kids because they want to teach them that people are all equal no matter where they live, what color their skin is, or what religion they practice.
This kind of dogma pushes the Zackhams to travel with purpose, and to also give back when they can — a notion originally inspired by Alice Pyne. As a terminally ill teenager, Alice watched “The Bucket List” and decided to create her own wishful itinerary. Her story gained national attention, and Justin followed Alice as she became an icon of selflessness. Deciding to expand her list beyond just personal aspirations, Alice created the charity Alice’s Escapes, which fundraises money to send seriously ill children and their families on holidays they otherwise couldn’t afford — and the legacy continues to live on.
Taking a page from Alice’s book, the Zackhams fully understand that traveling is an immense privilege, which is why they’ll be adding an aspect of service to their trip. While in the Bahamas, the family has already participated in a beachside clean-up with 4ocean, and they plan to engage in other volunteering initiatives wherever and whenever they can.
Even with all of the adventures and experiences that await the Zackhams, it’s the little things like giving back that will leave the biggest imprint — especially on their children. And for Justin and Katherine, that’s what this trip is all about.
Want to follow along with the Zackhams’ adventures? Check out their Instagram, @thisbucketlistlife. Or, if you’re interested in more family-related stories, click here!