Nettie’s Dream Machine: Before I Die, I want to …

It was early Sunday morning and the only activity at the sleepy crossroads was the Marathon Station: bleary-eyed customers filling their tanks with gasoline and their tummies with caffeine and sugary donuts.

Tiny Bloomfield, Kentucky probably never bustles, but if there’s going to be any action, it’ll be at this intersection. Because on the opposite corner sits Nettie Jarvis Primitives, or as we christened it: Nettie’s Dream Machine.

From the gas pumps the building looked like a normal antique shop, but on closer inspection it had been magically transformed into Nettie’s Dream Machine by the addition of two large, black chalkboards with the simple phrase: Before I Die, I Want To …

The walls and colorful chalk inspired locals and passersby and they weren’t bashful. Before I Die, I want to …

  • Live a simpler life
  • Go skydiving
  • Know what my wife is thinking
  • Fly a P51 Mustang
  • Start a family

With a population of less than 1,000 people, Bloomfield seems an unlikely place for a community outreach program, but surprisingly, it’s one of 4000 chalkboard wall locations of the “Before I Die Project.” A brainchild of artist Candy Chang, the first wall was created on the side of an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood. Since then, the walls have spread to seventy-one countries with postings in thirty-five languages.

The Before I Die Project website explains that: “Each wall is created by local residents who want to make a space in their community to restore perspective and share more with one another. Each wall is a tribute to living an examined life.”

So here’s the question we keep asking ourselves. After all our travel, both in and out of the country, how could we not have known about this wonderful project? And what are the chances of stumbling upon one of these thought-provoking walls at a random gas stop in Bloomfield, Kentucky?

“And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that, in these days of unprecedented political conflict and mean-spirited unpleasantness, it’s a delight to see a wall built for unity instead of division.” –James Vance

It’s a simple but amazingly powerful phrase that can be a catalyst for contemplation, conversation, and change. And this wall in speck-on-the-map Bloomfield, Kentucky is proof that if you look hard enough, every place has an interesting story.

As Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” So here goes – We’ll prime the pump.

James: Before I die, I want to …

  • See the Northern Lights
  • Take a cross-country trip in my self-drive car

Terri: Before I die, I want to …

  • Visit Easter Island
  • Live in a little Lexington fourplex and wave to the neighbors from the front porch

Now it’s your turn to grab the chalk. We’d love to hear your answers to Before I Die, I want to …

Happy Trails,

James & Terri

Photo Credits: 5. Gabriel Christian Brown 6. Trevor Coe 7. Tony Webster 8. Elvert Barnes 9. David R. Tribble 10. Keagan 12. Mike Plante


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

64 thoughts

    1. Fi, I think that it’s probably human nature to feel a desire to re-evaluate priorities after experiencing a catastophic event. And earthquakes and hurricanes certainly fit into this category. ~James

    1. Alison, I love the phrase “anything else is gravy.” I suspect that much of this feeling comes from a life lived full, but it also must certainly be your general attitude about life. It’s a blessing for sure. ~James

  1. What a wonderful concept (one too that I’d never heard of)!!

    In answer to your question, surely it would be travel based for me…

    Visit Antarctica is certainly up there as one of them.

    I’d also love to see the world take strong action in regards climate change!

    I hope that doesn’t make me too gluttonous opting for a couple of options!

    1. Chris, these are a couple of good wishes, but unfortunately, I think a trip to Antarctica is much more likely to happen. I’m not sure what it’s going to take to get everyone on the same page with climate change, but the idea of spreading the pain to solve the problem doesn’t seem to be popular, and sadly, it’s probably going to take a global catastrophe. ~James

    1. Gilda, we’ve taken a few of these extended camping trips here in the US, and we love them. And I’m sure that doing in in Europe would be fabulous, and I hope that you can pull it off – Brexit or not. ~James

    1. Beth, with 4,000 of these scattered around the world, I’m surprised that all of us haven’t seen one somewhere. I wish that Nettie’s shop had been open so we could have heard the backstory. ~James

  2. I saw one of these boards in Seward, Alaska last summer, but I had no idea that it was part of a much larger idea and project! Northern Lights for you…I see a trip to Fairbanks in the winter!
    For me, I hope to live another 25 healthy years before I die.

    1. Marilyn, I’ve been far enough north a few times to be able to see the aurora, but I’ve just been unlucky on my timing. I’m sure that it will happen sooner or later.

      And when it comes to bucket lists, like you, I just hope that I’m healthy until I kick the bucket. 🙂 ~James

  3. What a fantastic initiative. Much better than the “This or that is on my bucket list” conversations. I wonder whether the town erases the boards frequently, as I can’t imagine there being much room left. Interesting to see the amount of “travel” mentioned. My favorite is “Before I die, I want to live.”

    I love both your picks, James and Terri! I’d have to think hard about my choices. So many aspirations, yet so little time. “Before I die, I want to live without regrets.” “Before I die, I want to not worry about money for a period of time.” “Before I die, I want to swim with whales and go on an African safari… among other things.” 🙂

    1. Liesbet, the chalk board was pretty chalky, so I think a regular cleanout is part of the program. It’s funny how simple this phrase is, and if you think about it seriously, how hard it is to answer. And the range of answers is also interesting; some are dead serious, some clever, funny, and philosophical. I also think that it’s very cool that the project website provides a tool kit for folks that want to design their own. ~ James

    1. That’s great Leslie. That must make you feel fulfilled. One thing that Terri and I have learned about ourselves is that if we talk about something long enough, we eventually get around to doing it. ~James

      1. It does fulfill one. There is just so much to see and do and I think we’ve done a heck of a lot in our day. Memories abound….

  4. I have heard of these but haven’t seen one myself. I agree with Alison, I can’t believe I have seen and done what I have so anything else is like a gift. Before I die I would like to see my kids and grandkids happy and productive. There is still a lot more of the world I would like to see of course. I do hope you get to see the Northern Lights. We were lucky to see them when we were kids in Alberta. They are amazing. And I think you better take Teri to Easter Island!

    1. Darlene, we’ve had a South America trip on the list for a couple of years, and the plan is to consider Easter Island when we visit Chile. Of course, it isn’t a place one just drops by, but we’ll see. I’ve been reading Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” which has a whole chapter on Easter Island and why the civilization disappeared, so I’m intrigued as well. As for kids and grandkids, I guess “happy and productive” is every parents wish, and I hope it happens for you as well. ~James

  5. There are so many things I love about this initiative. Not only is it a wonderful read, but it is so thought provoking to give some consideration to what one might add to the list. Like a few have commented before me, I feel so completely grateful for the life I have. There are so many places I would love to and hope to visit over my lifetime but I am also quite content to sit & play with my beautiful granddaughter, snuggled up & drinking in her love & attention. I suppose my statement might read, “Before I die, I hope to learn to live each and every day as if there may not be another one given” Thank you for sharing!

    1. Lynn, for a thinking person who has truly examined their life to say they’re content, that’s about as good as it gets. As I and my friends and family get older, there are constant reminders to live and truly appreciate each day, and to say about each decision: “If not now, when?” This unexpected chalkboard in the middle of nowhere certainly got us to thinking, and if this post inspires a few folks to do the same, it will have been worth the effort. ~James

    1. Thanks Shelley. Gallivance is a travel blog, so we generally try to steer clear of politics. But we think it’s deplorable that unfortunate and desperate immigrants, not to mention US government workers, are being used as political tools in a ridiculous, and unnecessary policy squabble. I try to just remember the Before I die wall instead. ~James

  6. I want to know God as He knows me. To have that pure love that reaches out to soothe the angry, comfort the bereaved, befriend the lonely, give to the needy. At 60, I want to reach the end of my life having more joy than regret.

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. Joy is something that we all hope to achieve in our lives, and we wish you all the best in finding what you’re looking for. ~James

  7. I’ve been trying to feel more positive this year, but I can’t. I’m happy that other people can feel fulfilled in their lives, or that they can try, at least. This wall is a nice idea.

    1. Laura, we’re big fans of the National Parks and visiting every one is a worthy goal. As you know, there are a number of wonderful parks in the western US, and for most people the distances to travel make them inaccessible. But, if there’s anyone set up to achieve this goal it’s you and Steve. Good luck. ~James

  8. I’ve never seen these walls either, but we have a neighbor who has a wishing fence (for lack of a better name) in front of the house. I sometimes stop to read what passersby have written, and many of them make me sad. (“I wish my mom liked me …” and things like that.) Before I Die seems to engender more positive and aspirational thoughts.

    1. Lexie, I don’t remember seeing anything negative on this wall. Which is interesting since this was a little town in the middle of nowhere. I would have expected a sad teenager or two to make a few “I hate my parents” kind of statements. Which confirms what we said: this wall in this place was a real surprise. ~James

  9. I saw one of these blackboards in a small town in Virginia. I loved reading the responses. There was no chalk around which is just as well. I don’tt know what I’d add. Maybe RV through the US and Canada for a couple years.

    1. Juliann, these wall projects are such a great idea for lots of reasons, and one is how easy it would be to set up a new wall. I think it would be a great idea for anyplace where people have to wait in line, restaurants for instance. The website even provides a kit. Pretty neat. BTW, we’re freezing our buns off here in KY, hope you’re staying warm up OH way. 🙂 ~James

  10. You two share such great experiences, and this one is fantastic! Why NOT have as many of these sister ‘Before I die’ ops as possible?

    It’s not often that I see the name, “Nettie” which was my mother’s first name… All the more reason to follow through with this prompt!

    1. Lisa, this whole experience was total happenstance, and such a surprise. I’m sure you remember what these tiny southern towns are like on Sunday morning.

      Nettie it such a charming southern name. I’ve never known a Nettie. Was Nettie your Mom’s nickname or real name? It’s funny how a name can conjure up such pleasant visual images. ~James

      1. My mother’s name was ‘Nettie Helen’ and her mother’s name was ‘Nettie Powell’ – though I never inquired about the original Nettie! Mother sometimes laughed when she told the story of a professor who referred to her as ‘Nellie Hellie’ — (Mother was a very mild-mannered and quiet woman.)

        Yes, the small-town Mayberry life was very special, and it’s always nice to find one still intact and well – with great features that allow a visitor to merge with the locals….

      2. Ahhh the southern tradition of double names. This is a topic I can speak to with some authority since, to my very close family only, I am known by two names: James Harvey. It’s funny because I’m the only kid out of 4 that’s called by two names. And when it’s said it really sounds like one word. No one knows why I picked up two names but it’s stuck all these years. Funny, endearing stuff happens in the south. ~ James

    1. Drew, thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. This was a thought-provoking wall to see and we hope it inspires others to think about their futures as well. ~James

  11. Fun and thought-provoking! Isn’t Terri living one of her B-I-D dreams right now? As for me,I think I’d like to see one of these walls in person. And …may your dreams come true – Susan

    1. Thanks Susan. This type of thing always inspires a good conversation for us, and it was also one of those experiences that happens to us as bloggers when we know something will show up as a post. As for Terri living the a BID dream, she isnt’ yet, but we’re about to pull the trigger on a change that will make it happen in the very near future. ~James

    1. Thanks Pam. This was a lovely surprise in the middle of nowhere. The more I travel, the more I realize that every place, and as you say every person has an interesting story. It’s just a matter keeping an open mind and taking the time to see it. ~James

  12. What a wonderful idea! I hadn’t heard of this project either. I have a lengthy travel list that could be a “before I die” list but I guess instead of that I would say that my goal is to take steps each day, even if they are baby steps, to grow as a person (physically emotionally, spiritually). When I focus on this I find my happiest days.

    1. LuAnn, growing as a person is a worthy goal and certainly something we all should strive for – no matter where we are in our lives. And, I might add, I would expect nothing less from someone like you. But, it’s too easy to get complacent and your point about baby steps is a good one. We all want to stay at the top of our game, no matter where that “top” may be. As Neil Young said: “I’d rather burn out than rust.” ~James

  13. I have heard of these boards but have never seen one in person. I adore the idea of people being inspired to think hopefully in these times of fear and negativity.
    I would like to get to Antarctica. It’s the only place I would really be bummed not to have made it to should my last day on this earth arrive. There are many others but that is the one that sticks for me.

    I also would love to live long enough that my grandchildren would be able to have memories of me. Perhaps to have time to install the want to explore and adventure in this world.

    1. Sue, isn’t this wall a wonderful, simple idea? And given its cross-cultural popularity, it obviously struck a nerve. You know Sue, cold-weather wimp that I am, Antarctica has just never been on my list. I can certainly understand its appeal, but it’s never rung my bells. But for you robust Canadians, it would be like a summer walk in the park. As for your grandchildren and their memories, given your vigorous lifestyle and adventurous spirit I suspect you’ll be that “Rockin’ Ol’ Granny” that will never stop. And long after they’re off your knee, they’ll be looking to you as a role model. ~James

      1. That’s very sweet of you to say James. We certainly hope to be around for a very long time.
        For decades the story of Shackleton has intrigued and inspired me. Between that and the penguins I’m hooked. My biggest issue will be motion sickness. I have all kinds of tricks but even one of the whale watching sessions left me feeding the fish unfortunately even with anti nausea meds. To much information I am sure. At any rate I’d still like to try. It’s a ridiculous amount of money as well. Lots of reasons not to and yet so many positives. We’ll see how it plays out. 🙂

  14. before I die , I want to have no regrets. Its not much to ask but to die with the feelings would be worth dying I suppose 😀
    I am visitng US in few months again. I would definitely visit this place.

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. I suspect that most people share your thoughts on dying with no regrets. And projects like this wall ensure that we think about priorities and pursue our dreams. Enjoy your visit to the US. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment Jewel and for dropping by the blog. The off-the-path location of this project board was a real surprise for us. It’s just another case of never knowing what you’ll find when traveling. It’s all about getting our there and keeping your eyes open. ~James

    1. You’re a brave woman Dee. For some reason, I’ve never wanted to skydive. I’m not really afraid of heights, but somehow, it just never appealed to me. I’d probably have a heart attack on my way out the door and never pull the ripcord. 🙂 You go girl and let me know how it goes. ~James

  15. I looked up your profile and, man! it sounds like ya’ll are living the life I always wanted to. No doubt a lot of work went before the globetrotting lifestyle.

    1. Dee, it did take lots of hard work and planning, but we certainly had our share of good luck as well. And even after all these years of travel, we still don’t take it for granted. We cherish our ability to travel and always will. ~James

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