Checking items the bucket list

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To eat a Belgian waffle -- in Belgium. Cuddle a koala bear. Meet snack maven Little Debbie. Tug on Carol Burnett's ear. If you're going to dream, you've got to do it big. And some of the biggest dreams are realized within life's simplest moments.

Not that the iconic Carol Burnett isn't bigger than life, but that doesn't keep Sandi McKenna and Rick Griffin from harboring their fantasy.

McKenna and Griffin are the creators of "The Midlife Road Trip," an Internet-based food, travel and adventure series (midliferoadtrip.tv) that debuted in August 2010 and propels the pair -- who are married, but not to each other -- around the world, checking items off their bucket list while encouraging others along the way to do the same.

" 'The Midlife Road Trip' is all about making the most of every moment," says McKenna, 56, a grandmother of two who grew up on Long Island and now lives in Tampa, Fla. "It's 'stepping out of the box' and trying something you never thought you could do. It's ordinary people having extraordinary experiences."

Among the extraordinary: meeting actor Kelsey Grammer backstage during a production of "La Cage Aux Folles." Walking across San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Rock climbing at AZ on the Rocks, a rock-climbing gym in Scottsdale, where an apprehensive McKenna provisioned herself with a sandwich tucked into her bosom; sustenance for the 31-foot climb.

Revelation after being sick

After a life-threatening illness in 2004 led to an epiphany about all his unfinished bucket list business, the then- 43-year-old Griffin sold his chain of child-care centers and got busy pursuing his triple passions: travel, writing and video production. Call it a midlife crisis or a reshuffling of priorities, but Griffin knew there was no time like the present to follow his bliss.

He met McKenna via Twitter conversations about travel -- the geneses of "The Midlife Road Trip." In 2009, the two met in person when Griffin, based in Atlanta, brought his family to Tampa for spring break and met McKenna and her family. The Twitter chums embraced the adventure of making a show about, well, people embracing adventure.

On June 15, they began their latest project -- a road trip from Washington, D.C., to Seattle as one of five teams chosen to compete in the Rand McNally and USA Today "Best of the Road" rally (bestoftheroad.com) to find the "Best Small Towns in America." The teams will cover about 5,000 miles in four weeks. Like the other four teams, McKenna and Griffin will be posting videos and blogging about places and people along the way until they reach Seattle on July 16. Top prize is $10,000, but McKenna says, "We're not in it so much for the money. We're in it for the experience."

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Midliferoadtrip.tv is an unscripted reality show that pulls in thousands of viewers who watch the intrepid twosome mark off their bucket list milestones every month. In the checked column: Sky diving, meeting Mark Burnett (creator of "Survivor" and "The Apprentice"), seeing the world's largest urban bat colony.

Millions follow them on Twitter, tuning in each Tuesday afternoon for the Road Trip's weekly Twitter chat #NUTS (Not-so Usual Therapy Session). Guest therapists, culled from an enthusiastic fan base, ask a new question every six minutes for what McKenna and Griffin describe as the "most productive way to waste your time on the Internet."

"We've made it up as we went, and we work really well together," says McKenna, who confesses that Griffin is the true adventurer of the pair. "Rick and I are exact opposites. He is not afraid of anything, and he talks me off the ledge so many times."

Griffin's philosophy is simple: "I realize as I get older my desire or ability to do some of the things on the list will wane," he explains. "I don't want to remove items from the bucket list because of bad knees or cold feet. I want to check items off the list because they are accomplished."

Midlife adventures have included taking a riverboat tour of Alaska's Chena and Tanana Rivers, where the captain let Griffin pilot the riverboat; a helicopter ride, also in Alaska, over stunning glaciers; and meeting a woman celebrating her 50th birthday by living out her own bucket list dream of walking atop a glacier.

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"I love the people that we meet on these trips," states Griffin on a segment featuring his Alaskan adventure. "One of the best things about 'The Midlife Road Trip' is we meet inspirational people . . . who make it a priority to live their dream."

The Long Island connection

"The cast is wherever we go," says McKenna, who was in the class of '74 at Half Hollow Hills High School in Dix Hills (before it became "East"). She left Long Island when she was 17 and has family here. "I still keep in touch with a lot of people through the Half Hollow Hills Facebook page and have reconnected with friends from Birch Lane Elementary School in Massapequa Park -- all because of Facebook and social media," she says.

The freewheeling co-hosts are never strangers, no matter where they land. Fans of the show routinely contact the two and come out and see them wherever they go. McKenna, who uses her maiden name for bucket list adventures, says most trips are short. "We usually leave Thursday and come back Saturday." Her husband, Ralph Finkenbrink, stays home, mostly.

She's tackled flying a Cessna, driving a NASCAR race car, attending rodeo school and skiing. Although learning to ski was on McKenna's bucket list (and learning in Utah was icing on the cake), she admits many of the adventures horrify her but are pure adrenaline rushes for Griffin. He gravitates toward the items in the "Action" section of the show's ever-evolving bucket list.

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Still, no one could ever call McKenna a "scaredy-cat," as she refers to herself on occasion. Her mettle has been tested on numerous journeys, including taste-testing "critters" while tailgating in Tuscaloosa, Ala., eating alligator on a spit and crab salad atop a live crab.

"You don't have to be extraordinary to live out your bucket list dreams," McKenna says. "I'm afraid of everything, so if I can do it, then anybody can do it."

Regarding Carol Burnett's ear, Griffin feels certain that if the entertainer knew she was an adventure on their bucket list, she would invite them to tug her lobe.

"We are still holding out," McKenna says enthusiastically. "We have been in training for this since 'The Midlife Road Trip' began."

And that is really the premise of the show.

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"Don't put off pursuing your dreams," Griffin says. "None of us knows how much time we have, and none of us, at the end of our lives, wants to say, 'I wish I would have. . . . ' Make out your bucket list, share it with others, and do it -- even if it's just one item on your list."

Act 2 editor Gwen Young contributed to this story.

What's on your

bucket list?

Tell us the one thing you've always wanted to do. If you've done something on your bucket list, share your story for possible publication. Email act2@newsday or write to Act 2 Editor, Newsday Newsroom, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747. Include your name, full address, phone numbers and photos, if you have them.

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