Image: Fall colors
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Need a break from reality but don't have two weeks to spend? Perhaps a short road trip to take in some fall colors would help.
By Road trips columnist
updated 10/20/2006 3:19:00 PM ET 2006-10-20T19:19:00

The carefree days of summer have passed, and even Columbus Day has come and gone. Autumn leaves will soon give way to snow. It might seem like there will be no more road trips until spring. But wait! While a two-week odyssey may be beyond your reach, don’t underestimate the pleasures and restorative powers of a 20-hour road trip.

Twenty hours is all it takes to get away. One short jaunt, and you’ll be forever convinced that road trips don’t have to be lengthy or require extensive planning. The only preparations required for a 20-hour journey are the willingness to embark, a full tank of fuel, a good map and a little bit of cash.

Picture this scenario: You get home from work, change your clothes and grab your pillow. (Nothing improves a less-than-optimal motel bed better than a familiar pillow.) Throw a few essentials into an overnight bag. You can even pack a cooler with snacks, so long as it doesn’t take you more than a few minutes. Your goal is to be on the road within a couple of hours of leaving work. In a multi-shift, flextime world, that means departure time could be practically any hour of the day, but whether you hit the road at 6 a.m. or midnight, you’ve got a stretch of time ahead of you long enough to whisk you away from routine and short enough that no one will miss you.

Take a moment right now. Close your eyes and think of a place that you haven’t visited for a long time, or one that you always planned to visit but somehow never did. Choose a destination that’s three or four hours from your home or starting point. Maybe it’s a tiny hamlet you’ve heard about or seen in a magazine. Maybe it’s one of those spots you haven’t visited because it was too close to home and therefore not worthy of a true road-trip vacation.

The beauty of a 20-hour window is that you can drive two or three hours, stay overnight, drive another couple of hours and then head home. What works for me is to leave mid-afternoon, enjoy my 20 “easy rider” hours and get back to the office by 1 p.m. the next day, leaving sufficient time to catch up on whatever needs to be done that day.

Since this type of road trip isn’t really about the destination as much as it is about driving for the sheer fun of being “out there,” I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to have a bad trip. Invariably, I return home rested, recharged and looking forward to getting back to work. The overnight stay is what makes this kind of road trip different from a day trip — and more refreshing. There’s nothing like sleeping in an unfamiliar bed to make you feel as though you’ve really gotten away.

Roadside attractions USA

Here are a few suggestions to get you going. If you call Los Angeles home, consider the entertaining town of Solvang, a Danish hamlet with thatched, copper and tile roofs. It’s 150 miles away, making it an ideal candidate for a 20-hour road trip. Similarly, the German-inspired town of Leavenworth, Washington, is just three hours from Seattle. San Antonio, Texas, also has a nearby community with a northern European flavor: New Braunfels, and it’s holding its annual wurstfest right now. If you’re in Chicago, try a driving tour of Wisconsin’s cranberry bogs just a few hours to the north. Starting in Connecticut? Your state is among the best-endowed in the country when it comes to B&Bs in quaint towns. The fact is, every city has appealing destinations within a short radius of home, yet far from the madding crowd.

So, the next time you say to yourself, “I wish I had time to take a real road trip,” remember that only 20 hours — not even a full day — is enough for a genuine, refreshing, outlook-changing adventure. Think about it. You might have enough time this very week!

Mark Sedenquist is the publisher of RoadTrip America, a Web site providing expert planning, advice and suggested itineraries for road trips. He's spent 30 years and a half-million miles on the road in North America. Email Mark or visit his website.

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